In this hands-on, I'm going to tell you if the freshly updated Apple TV 4K is for you. If the increase in processing power, the escalation in audio and video quality, the complete redesign of the remote, are a box-office bomb or a total blockbuster.
You want to give your TV some better streaming smarts because the built-in TizenDroidNixWhateverOS it came with just isn't private, secure, or polished enough, or because you're just already all-in on TV+, Fitness+, Arcade, Music — maybe even Apple One.
Which is pretty much my story. I've been living my best Apple TV life for the whole entire lockdown now. All day, every day. Along with my television and stereo-paired HomePod Biggies, it's my most-used device of this last, lost year. My window into the world, such as it's been. All that to say, I'm more invested in Apple TV right now than Elon is Doge meme trolls.
So, if you, like me, already have the 2017 Apple TV 4K, but you're thinking about the update, the 2021 version will give you 4K HDR content in up to 60 frames per second — twice what the previous box was capable of. That's thanks to Apple's custom A12 Bionic chipset, the same chipset that was in the iPhone XS.
The previous Apple TV had an A10X-as-in-extra cores, the 2017 iPad Pro chip, and even with that, it could only just handle 4K HDR 30, please no compositing.
A12 but not A12X
The A12 is two generations more evolved when it comes to the cores it has, but also all the additional accelerator blocks Apple uses for things like video decode.
Why not an A12X or A12Z to keep the core count up? It would make an already expensive box that much more expensive, and there's nothing yet running on the Apple TV 4K that would benefit from it.
What about hardcore games? Apple still hasn't shown any public interest in that, and if and when they do, they'll need to field a box with way more than an A12X or A12Z. Probably way more than an A14 or M1, if they want to even come close to the PS5 or Xbox Series X graphical firepower. Whether or not that comes in the near or distant future, this absolutely isn't it now.
This just had to deliver 4K HDR 60, and well — and it does. So, if you loved the Hobbit in theaters, you'll love that same look on your Apple TV at home. And if you didn't, if you find it less hyper-realistic and more hyper-uncanny valley, you can dive deep into the additional video modes in Settings and restore 4K HDR 30.
Give it a week, though. Brains are jerks, and sometimes we prefer what we're used to just because we're used to it. If you still hate it after a week, you can easily drop back down to 30fps.
Streamers vs. hoarders
The Apple TV 3K still comes with 32GB for $179 or 64GB for $199, which is best to think of like a giant cache.
Apple TV self-manages storage, trashing old, seldom accessed content for hot new content on the regular, re-downloading if and when it needs to. So if you have a lower data speed or cap, you can get more storage and keep more content live, minimizing any delays from re-downloads.
You also get HDMI 2.1 to support that higher frame rate, likewise Wi-Fi 6, for that faster, more robust streaming.
And Thread, an ultra-low-power mesh networking technology so you can live a better, more secure, more direct-as-in-hub free HomeKit life.
And… that's pretty much it. If you have the previous Apple TV 4K, you really have to decide if 4K HDR 60 and the updated connection standards are worth it to you, either as a replacement or an addition for your current setup. You know, put the new box on the best television and push down the old box to the bedroom or basement.
If you have the previous previous future-of-TV-is-Apps-le TV from 2015, add 4K and Dolby Vision and Atmos to the list of upgrade benefits, which, I'm not going to lie, if you have the Home Theater gear to support it, is transformative.
The Apple TV gap
All of this makes me once again wish Apple would work some of that iPhone SE or iPad nothing magic and push down Apple TV tech to a less expensive box. Something not quite as old as the 1080p version they've kept in the lineup, something that finally breaks that $99 sweet spot. An Apple TV express dongle or something that could bring Apple's focus on security, privacy, and accessibility to the current gap between the premium boxes and… just the now ubiquitous TV app.
Clever Color Balance
Now, Apple hasn't just updated the box. They've updated the tvOS software that runs on it as well, including a new Color Balance feature. Because Apple craves full color management domination and, unlike almost every other device they make, there's just no display on-box to calibrate at the factory.
So, clever Apple, they're using your iPhone to read the output of your television and pass that on to your Apple TV, so the Apple TV can alter what it pushes out to compensate and correct for… your incorrect TV. Pump up the contrast, adjust the color balance, fix just everything gross every television maker sets to compete on the floor of every big box retailer everywhere.
The new remote
Lead totally buried: Apple's also completely redesigned the Siri Remote…. or Apple Remote for anyone outside Siri's current deployment. Which I know everyone international really, truly wishes would be rolling out much, much further and faster.
The new remote comes bundled with the new Apple TV 4K and the held-over Apple TV HD, but you can also buy it separately and use it with the previous generation Apple TV 4K box as well. And, honestly, depending on your frustration level with the old remote, that by itself might be one hell of an upgrade.
It looks like the second-generation Apple TV remote, the 2010 aluminum stick that replaced the original white plastic. But it merges the functionality of the d-pad on that controller with the touch pad on the last-gen, black remote.
Because, while the trackpad might have cracked the TV interface, it also showed the cracks of the tvOS ecosystem. Namely, the big video companies that couldn't even be bothered to make and maintain a basic template Apple TV app, so just ported over their cross-platform GL apps, which never, not ever, worked right. Like zoom across three tabs instead of step through one not worked right. Now you can click to step precisely, and no bad code in the verse can stop you. You can even pause and circle your finger, old-school click wheel style, to quickly scrub forward or back along the timeline. It's wonky in some of those wonky apps still, of course, but once they update, this will just solve for all that.
What it won't solve for is the Menu button. Apple's renamed it Back, but like the Android back button of old, it's more like a random action button. If you're watching a video in the TV app, and you press it, you get an option bar on the bottom of the screen. Then you have to press it again to exit. But if you press it in, say Netflix or Disney+, you're insta-dumped out of the video. On YouTube, back will dismiss the overlay. In Prime Video, it'll insta-dump you.
When you can't predict something, you get frustrated. That's why consistency is a massive user benefit and why I hope Apple wields the power of the HIG to force some basic standardization on this most basic of controls.
Other than that, the new remote is awesome. There's a mute button, which I use all the time for apps where the ads always play louder than the videos because that's the oldest of TV industry jerk moves. And a new power button, which looks kinda bitsy, even un-Apple-like, but comes in super handy — universal even — in our current, multi-component, multi-home theater age.
It does take about a day to get over the old muscle memory, so you're not muting instead of pausing or pausing instead of Siri-I-ing? But only about a day. Then you're flying.
And yes, it's a total 100% bummer that there's no U1 or beeper or Find My built-in, not unless you tape an AirTag to it like an animal, but the new asymmetry, the new shape, the new heft, the new side Siri button placement, the new clickiness of all the buttons, the new… everything else is just such a terrific improvement.
If you have a smart TV and you're fine with the built-in apps, or all you want is a cheap stick or cast, that's fine, that's great. Or, if you're waiting on a less expensive or higher-end Apple TV or VR kit, check out the playlist above.
But if you're all in on the Apple ecosystem, need that on your television, and want it in all its 4K HDR 60 frames per second, then the refreshed Apple TV 4K will give you no more but not less than exactly that.