In a way, this review is less about the Apple TV 4K (2021) and more about the 2nd-gen, entirely revamped Siri Remote.
Though there are several worthwhile changes to Apple’s streaming device, including the more powerful A12 Bionic chip, HDMI 2.1 and high frame rate HDR, the most significant addition to the set-top box is the redesigned remote.
It, thankfully, answers all of my complaints about the old Siri Remote, including featuring touch controls that actually work reliably and shockingly, easy to press physical buttons.
However, the actual Apple TV 4K box itself remains identical to its predecessor, and in that same vein, many of its features are also available on the last-gen Apple TV 4K.
The streaming device ecosystem has changed significantly since the first-gen Apple TV 4K launched back in 2017. For instance, 4K HDR video streaming in Dolby Vision and HDR10, is now far more common on platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime. Apple has also launched its own 4K HDR-compatible streaming service, Apple TV+. With that in mind, a lot of Canadian streaming platforms still lag behind their American counterparts, with Bell-owned Crave only recently hitting 1080p on most platforms. This makes some of the new Apple TV 4K’s more forward-thinking features a little less relevant to the Canadian market.
The Apple TV 4K also remains one of the more pricey streaming boxes out there, with the Chromecast with Google TV and various devices from Roku and Amazon undercutting it by a significant margin.
Still, Apple’s new streaming device has a lot to offer and will be a worthwhile update for some users.
A fingerprint and scratch magnet
While the Apple TV 4K’s relatively non-descript black box with curved edges looks sleek when it’s sitting under a television, it remains a fingerprint and dust magnet.
This isn’t really an issue since you likely won’t be picking it up and moving it around often, but it’s still worth keeping in mind. For example, the Apple TV 4K (2021) Apple sent me is already covered in subtle scratches, especially at the rear near the HDMI port, and I’ve only picked it up once or twice since recieving it.
On the back, the Apple TV 4K now features an HDMI 2.1 port (more on this later), coupled with the returning power port with a built-in supply and gigabit ethernet.
Overall, the entire design of the streaming box is identical to its predecessor. It would have been great to see Apple change up the Apple TV 4K (2021)’s look at least slightly, if only to differentiate from its 2017 version.
While the box looks the same, there are a few subtle hardware changes under the hood. For example, the new Apple TV 4K supports Wi-Fi 6, the latest generation of Wi-Fi technology. Though you probably don’t own a Wi-Fi 6 capable router, this is great future-proofing on Apple’s part.
There’s also the jump from the A10X Fusion chip to the far newer A12 Bionic processor. To put this in context, the A12 Bionic first appeared in the iPhone XS, XS Max and XR back in 2018 and was also featured in the 2019 version of the iPad Air and iPad mini. It would have been nice to see Apple drop an A13 processor in the second-gen Apple TV 4K, but in my experience over the past week, the A12 Bionic is more than powerful enough and removes some of the lag I started to occasionally experience when streaming 4K Dolby Vision video with certain apps on the 2017 Apple TV 4K.
“One of the big additions to the new Apple TV is 60fps Dolby Vision HDR playback.”
There’s also built-in Thread support, similar to the HomePod mini. Though not a lot of smart home devices support the mesh-based smart home system, this is a welcome addition from Apple.
It’s also worth noting that while the Apple TV 4K (2021) features Bluetooth 5.0 just like its predecessor, the new Siri Remote has made the jump from Bluetooth 4.0 to Bluetooth 5.0, which should, at the very least, make it a little more reliable.
Dolby Vision 60fps has sort of arrived?
One of the big additions to the new Apple TV is 60fps (60Hz) Dolby Vision HDR playback. The previous version of the set-top box was only capable of 30fps Dolby Vision HDR.
Though this might seem like a big deal, it doesn’t matter much in the context of the Canadian streaming app landscape. For instance, since 60fps video tends to add a soap opera effect to content, streaming services don’t support it. It’s more designed for watching sports, where the additional fluidity can make action look much clearer.
In the U.S., streaming apps like Fox Sports, NBCUniversal, Paramount Plus, Red Bull TV and Canal Plus will all support 60fps HDR content. In Canada, on the other hand, the only streaming service getting this feature as of right now is Red Bull TV, which only features extreme sports content.
You could make the argument this is once again Apple future-proofing the new Apple TV 4K. After all, when the first-gen Apple TV 4K launched, UHD content was still relatively new and HDR was really only available through Netflix. It’s possible sports streaming apps available in Canada like Sportsnet, NHL and DAZN could eventually get 60fps Dolby Vision support, but even if it does happen, it’s likely years away.
Further, we could see eARC (enhanced Audio Return Channel), which supports sending higher bandwidth audio like Dolby Atmos to receivers and soundbars, arrive at some point in the future.
It’s also interesting that Apple hasn’t mentioned anything about 120Hz gaming on the Apple TV despite the device featuring HDMI 2.1 and higher refresh rates being a big talking point with the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5. Again, this is something we could see in the future and would make sense in the context of Apple Arcade, but it isn’t something Apple has revealed anything about yet.
The sleeper hit gaming box
Back in 2016, I wrote an editorial dedicated to why I felt the Apple TV could eventually evolve into a quality gaming platform. Though that didn’t happen back then with the 4th-gen Apple TV, I think that coupled with Apple Arcade, the new Apple TV 4K (2021) is a surprisingly capable gaming device.
First off, Apple Arcade is relatively affordable at $5.99 per month and features dozens of critically acclaimed games, including Skate City, Sayonara Wild Hearts, Super Impossible Road, Alba: A Wildlife Adventure, Oceanhorn 2 and Fantasian, just to name a few. You can also use nearly every major video game controller out there with the Apple TV, including the Xbox Series X’s and the PlayStation 5’s gamepads.
“I can’t understate how great the new remote feels when you’re holding it in your hand.”
To be very clear, I’m not saying that Apple’s box will replace your Xbox Series X, PlayStation 5 or RGB-filled gaming PC anytime soon, but the gaming situation on the platform has vastly improved over the past few years. I see it as what the Wii was back in the mid-to-late 2000s or what the Switch is for some people today; you still own a primary gaming platform like an Xbox or a PC, but you also play more casual games on the Apple TV 4K (2021).
It’s also worth noting the new Siri Remote entirely ditches the last-gen device’s motion controls because it doesn’t feature an accelerometer or gyroscope. Few games supported this feature and it’s really not that big of a loss, especially since the streaming device now works with several more traditional gamepads.
It’s all about the Siri Remote
Speaking of the new Siri Remote, as someone who uses the Apple TV 4K as their main streaming device on a daily basis, the new version of the remote answers all of my complaints about its sometimes frustrating predecessor and actually surpasses my admittedly lofty expectations.
I can’t understate how great the new remote feels when you’re holding it in your hand. In fact, I often find myself absentmindedly flipping it around while watching TV. It’s almost like Apple cut the corner off of a MacBook Pro and then added a few physical buttons to it — yes, you read that correctly, the Siri Remote finally features physical navigation buttons.
The ‘Mute,’ ‘Play/Pause,’ ‘Back’ ‘Volume’ and ‘TV/Control Centre’ are joined by a ‘Power’ and, most importantly, an iPod like ‘Clickpad’ that features a touch surface. There’s also a cleverly placed Siri activation button on the remote’s right side.
Though I don’t find myself using Siri to find content on the Apple TV very often, the new side button is far more accessible. The five-way touch controller that replaces the first-gen Siri Remote’s often maligned swipe pad is stellar. I didn’t expect this and assumed I’d gravitate more to physical buttons since I’ve been complaining about the original Siri Remote’s gesture controls for over five years now, but I’m actually swiping more than I expected.
Through a combination of the circular Clickpad and because Apple has vastly improved the remote’s touch controls to ensure they’re more intuitive and accurate, I find myself rarely actually using the physical buttons. There are other cool new features too, including the ability to pause video and then fast-forward or rewind by swiping your finger subtly around the wheel. This feature works pretty well, but I did encounter instances where it felt inaccurate or became a little finicky. The new remote also now features a power button, allowing you to manually shift the Apple TV 4K (2021) to sleep mode and turn your television on and off more easily (you can also adjust your TV or sound system’s volume with the remote).
The new Siri Remote still charges via Lightning like its predecessor rather than USB-C. It also doesn’t work with the original remote’s wrist strap. I tried popping it into the Lightning port and it just doesn’t stay in place. This is likely due to the new Siri Remote’s lack of motion controls and the fact that you don’t really need it anymore.
With all of this in mind, a lot of people might be better off sticking with a current Apple TV 4K and purchasing the 2nd-gen Siri Remote for $69. For example, even features like the useful new tvOS ‘Colour Balance’ that leverages the iPhone’s sensors to adjust the video output of the Apple TV, works on the previous-gen Apple TV 4K and the Apple TV HD. Unfortunately, you can’t use the Colour Balance feature with Dolby Vision turned on because Dolby retains tight control over its format’s colour.
Before you scroll down to the comments section and write something along the lines of, “that remote is the same price as the Chromecast with Android TV,” or, “the Roku and the Amazon Fire TV Stick are way cheaper,” hear me out.
Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time with other streaming devices, but always find myself coming back to the Apple TV because it’s the most reliable platform I’ve encountered, it often gets app updates first and new streaming platforms frequently arrive on Apple’s set-top box earlier than other devices, particularly in Canada. This was the case with Bell-owned Crave as well as several other apps.
Don’t get me wrong, it would be great to see a price cut to the streaming box and its new Siri Remote, but in a sense, you really do get what you pay for with the Apple TV 4K (2021).
Pricey, but still one of the best streaming devices out there
If you haven't invested in Apple's streaming ecosystem, the 2nd-gen Apple TV 4K offers a great opportunity to dive in. On the other hand, if you already own an Apple TV 4K, the most significant upgrade here is the impressive Siri Remote.
Seriously, it really is the best television or stream set-top box remote I've ever used.
If you fall into that camp, you're likely better off buying a Siri remote separately and sticking with the current Apple TV 4K for a few more years if you have one, at least until more apps and games start to take advantage of the ample power offered by the A12 Bionic chip.
The Apple TV 4K (2021) is available to order now starting at $229
"If you haven't invested in Apple's streaming ecosystem, the 2nd-gen Apple TV 4K offers a great opportunity to dive in"