Bottom line: The Best TV Apple has ever made, but a tough sell for users of the previous generation.
4K HDR 60 FPS
ARC/eARC + WiFi 6
Not a huge leap in performance over the last one
No HDMI cable in the box
Best feature (the remote) is also sold separately
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The new Apple TV 4K is here. Announced at the Spring Loaded April event, Apple promises users that the new 2021 edition makes "the best device for watching shows and movies even better," but does it deliver? With no hardware redesign or breakthrough changes to speak of, on paper, one could understandably dismiss the new Apple TV as a skippable tweak to one of Apple's least sexy products.
But don't be so quick to pass judgment, the new Apple TV does have a lot to offer, and through a series of minor changes that unlock higher-quality viewing content, better smart home integration, faster processing, and more, the Apple TV propels itself to the top of streaming pile. It is absolutely the best Apple TV available, and I think there's enough in the package to give the 2017 model a run for its money.
Certainly, the price is a lot to justify, and users of the current model will have to consider whether the upgrade is worth the money. What they will have to give less thought to is the incredible new Siri Remote, which blows the old one out of the water, and may prove a popular upgrade as a separate purchase. Strap in as we take a look at the new Apple TV 4K (2021) to find out more.
Apple TV 4K (2021): Price and availability
The Apple TV 4K (2021) is very new and is available at a handful of retailers you would expect to carry Apple hardware, Apple itself, Amazon, Target, etc. The 32GB version costs $179 pretty much everywhere, and the larger 64GB version costs $199. Don't expect to see any big discounts on this with a device so fresh. For that, you get the TV, the remote, and the box that holds them both. Oh, and a Lightning cable to charge your Apple TV remote. You can also buy the new Apple remote separately for $59.
Apple TV 4K (2021): Hardware and design
The Apple TV is the same sleek black box it always has been and looks no different from six feet away than it did in 2017.
Under the hood, it has Apple's A12 Bionic processor, which first debuted in the iPhone XS, XS Max, and XR in 2018. The old Apple TV was no slouch, so you might not notice any visible difference in how the TV responds to menu navigation, but you will certainly reap the benefits as you start to open more apps and games through multitasking, and if you pop in a controller and take to Apple Arcade or one of the App Store's games you're bound to notice that the A12 is a welcome improvement in performance. Personally, I've upgraded from the Apple TV HD, so I certainly noticed a big jump in speed and responsiveness. The processor also powers support for the new 4K HDR content in 60 FPS, a big leap we'll talk about in the software section.
Apple's new 4K TV comes with Wi-Fi 6 and HDMI 2.1. The former means even greater connectivity, faster speeds, and more stability. If you live in a home with lots of devices, or you've ever felt like your internet is holding back your home entertainment, then Wi-Fi 6 will help eke out more performance over the previous generation; I've really enjoyed less buffering when it comes to streaming. HDMI 2.1 provides futureproofing for connectivity to the newest TVs on the market. It also could pave the way for 120Hz refresh rate support further down the line. Right now, this is locked to 60Hz, but there's no reason a future software update couldn't bring even more frames at a later date.
Like previous models, the Apple TV comes in 32GB and 64GB options. The Apple TV can offload unused apps automatically, and most content on the platform is actually streamed. Some people just want the peace of mind of having the most storage possible, but for me, the 64GB option seems a bit surplus to requirements in the age of streaming. Save yourself the $20; the Apple TV 4K is expensive enough as it is. Speaking of expensive, the Apple TV 4K doesn't come with an HDMI cable in the box, which seems a bit stingy for $179. If you don't own one already, you'll need to pick one up separately.
The new Apple TV 4K supports Thread, so in the future, it's definitely going to be a more viable option for helping to control your smart home, but the Apple TV is really an entertainment device.
The new Apple TV 4K also has a brand new remote, but it's so good it deserves its own section; stay tuned.
Apple TV 4K (2021): Software and performance
The new Apple TV 4K runs the same tvOS operating system as the previous one, so if you've used an Apple TV before, there'll be no surprises. If you've never bought an Apple TV before, tvOS will be a welcome breath of fresh air to whatever default pre-installed pile of poo your TV came with. tvOS, of course, enjoys the regular updates and support that all of Apple's software does, but there are a few extra bits that make the new Apple TV 4K a more viable upgrade option.
The first is 4K HDR 60 FPS support, powered by the new chip. If you like frames, you're going to love the new Apple TV. The old one supported 30 FPS, and doubling the frame rate is a serious boost to the content quality on display. I've found myself sat for hours just watching random 4K 60 FPS HDR video walkthroughs of cities like Tokyo and New York. Whilst not everyone likes 60 FPS content (yes, such people exist), I've found the increased frames to be an absolutely tremendous upgrade on the previous viewing. 60 FPS support is one of the new Apple TV 4K's best features.
There's also a nifty new color balance feature that lets you use the front camera of your iPhone to calibrate your TV to get the best picture. While some reports have resulted in worse viewing, I found the system very intuitive and easy to use (and beneficial). What's more, the feature gives you a comparison of old and new so you can see the changes it has made before deciding if you want the change or if you want to stick with how it was. Personally, I find the prospect of manually calibrating a TV through its settings to be a real pain, and I look forward to the day that this sort of tech is more mainstream.
Another awesome new software feature is ARC (or eARC) audio. The new Apple TV 4K supports HDMI and eARC, meaning you can send audio from another TV source (if compatible) through your Apple TV and into your HomePod speakers. That includes something like a Blu-Ray player or video game console (although hardcore gamers might notice some audio lag). This isn't available for HomePod mini and only currently works on the now-discontinued larger model, but it is a fantastic way for home theatre users to streamline their setup, allowing them to push audio through to their HomePod regardless of where it comes from. If you've invested in HomePods for home theater, this is definitely a feature you should be considering upgrading for.
Like previous Apple TV models, the new Apple TV 4K rocks awesome controller support for the best game controllers for Apple TV like the Steelseries Nimbus+, but also more mainstream third-party options, including the most recent Xbox controller and the PS5's DualSense. This third-party support really unlocks the Apple TV as a viable casual gaming platform. However, make no mistake: the Apple TV is an arcade machine or the perfect virtual tabletop simulator, not a console substitute.
Apple TV 4K (2021): The Remote
The best upgrade of the Apple TV 4K is the remote. The new remote looks better, it's bigger, easier to hold, and harder to lose. It has more buttons; heck, it has some buttons where the almost universally hated trackpad thing on the last model used to live. The new remote is an absolute dream; the brushed aluminum is a joy to hold, and having clickable arrows and a center 'select' button really makes you wonder what Apple was thinking in the first place when it changed the remote a few years back.
The remote isn't perfect, there's no Home button anymore, but there is a back button that does different things depending on where you happen to be in the flow of tvOS, which some folks might find frustrating. There's also the Apple TV app button, emphasizing that the app is meant to be the focal destination of the user experience. I really like the remote, but I'm not sold on the content tracking. Apple has left the swipe and touch gestures in so you can still use the remote kind of like a touchpad; it just happens to be a bit clumsy when you're trying to skip through content. This could well be muscle memory on my part and something I'm sure I'll get used to (or switch off) in due course.
Unfortunately for the Apple TV 4K (2021), the remote is something of a double-edged sword. It's one of the biggest reasons to buy a new Apple TV, but it's also sold separately. If you own a previous-gen TV that you're happy with but like the look of the new remote, then you can buy one separately. No doubt, this is consumer-friendly on Apple's part, and props should be given, but it does make it harder to recommend the TV as an upgrade on the previous model.
Apple TV 4K (2021): Competition
Because of its fairly steep price tag and a slew of features, the Apple TV 4K (2021) is sort of in a class of its own when it comes to streaming hardware. A much cheaper, more portable option would be the Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K, which you can take with you anywhere, features Alexa and Amazon Echo control, access to over half a million movies and TV shows, and HDR10, HDR10+, and Dolby Vision support. Another option is the Roku Ultra 2020, a more fixed option with a remote, Dolby Vision, Apple TV+ and AirPlay 2 support.
Personally, I think the biggest decision for potential buyers is choosing between the new Apple TV 4K, the older 2017 4K model, and Apple's HD TV. These are the only options that will give you the same comprehensive options as the new one, as well as the best compatibility with your other Apple products and previous purchases. You can find both in our best Apple TV deals roundup. Apple no longer sells the 2017 4K model, but this is an excellent alternative to the new option (minus the new remote). Apple still sells the HD version, which now ships with the new-and-improved remote if 4K isn't important to you.
Apple TV 4K (2021): Should you buy it?
You should buy this if ...
This is your first Apple TV
With 4K HDR at 60 FPS, HDMI 2.1, Wi-Fi 6, and the new remote, this is the only Apple TV worth buying in 2021.
You have to have the latest and greatest in home theater
If your home theater experience is important to you, you likely won't want to miss out on some of the new Apple TV's tweaks; 60 FPS and ARC audio are very impressive.
You're heavily invested in the ecosystem
The Apple TV, more than most Apple products, requires investment in the Apple ecosystem to enjoy to the fullest.
You have the Apple TV HD (or earlier)
If you have an older Apple TV and like the prospect of having one at the heart of your home entertainment system, then this is worth the upgrade.
You should not buy this if ...
You just want to watch Netflix
If you just want a device to help you stream Netflix or cast the occasional TikTok from the couch, this is way more hardware than you could possibly need.
You're on a budget
The new Apple TV is brutally expensive; if you want a budget streaming option, this is not it.
You have the Apple TV 4K (2017)
Only you can make this choice, but the new Apple TV 4K is a tough sell for owners of the current 4K version, as there is very little to separate them.
You just really don't like the Apple TV remote you've got
Simple, buy the remote separately.
The new Apple TV 4K (2021) is undoubtedly the best streaming box that Apple has ever made. However, many owners of the previous generation will struggle to justify the jump to the new model, given the price tag. If you've never had an Apple TV before, or you're on an older version, this is absolutely a worthwhile purchase and investment. But remember, this device is really a hub of home entertainment, not just a streaming machine. There are much cheaper options if that's all you need.
Stephen Warwick has written about Apple for five years at iMore and previously elsewhere. He covers all of iMore's latest breaking news regarding all of Apple's products and services, both hardware and software. Stephen has interviewed industry experts in a range of fields including finance, litigation, security, and more. He also specializes in curating and reviewing audio hardware and has experience beyond journalism in sound engineering, production, and design.
Before becoming a writer Stephen studied Ancient History at University and also worked at Apple for more than two years. Stephen is also a host on the iMore show, a weekly podcast recorded live that discusses the latest in breaking Apple news, as well as featuring fun trivia about all things Apple. Follow him on Twitter @stephenwarwick9
I upgraded to the 2021 Apple TV 4K from the 2017 model because it is so much better. I set the units up side by side and switched them in and out of our home theater setup, which processes signals through a good Onkyo receiver and nine speakers and displays with a new laser projector. The improvements are worth all the trouble (like the tedious reestablishment of each signal supply service). The projected image has cinema true colors, no longer the NASCAR friendly extreme vivid over saturated colors which scream to sell the latest big box bargain TV, but clean and friendly real world colors enhanced as if a lighting technician sat 24/7 in my assistant's chair. Simply said, the video quality is much purer. Sound is at another level better. Dragging Dolby Atmos sound and thunder out of the earlier Apple TV works fine, better than Apple ever understood, but now it is a feature and many times more precise and lifelike. Producers will have to me more careful with background sound, screaming birds, breaking glasss, passing trains.
If your usual audience doesn't hear and see such things, then fine, watch TV on your iPad with built in speakers. If you tend to be fussy and alert, if the ambient sounds in movie theater distract you, then you will love having even better video and audio at home via Apple's newest product (and a decent amplifier, speakers, receiver, screen and projector).
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