1-underscored apple tv 4k 2021 review
CNN  — 

Like the refresh of the iPad Pros, the updates to the Apple TV 4K are all internal, namely new hardware that leads to an overall speedier experience. And it keeps the luxury price tag: $179 for 32GB and $199 for 64GB.

It’s the remote, though, that steals the spotlight. The all-new Siri Remote keeps the name of a pretty divisive piece of tech (we didn’t hate it) but refreshes it in a way that breathes new life into a TV remote. It’s also available on its own for $59 and, for many, that might be the upgrade to make here.

We’ve spent a week jamming out to music and bingeing more than 70 hours of content all in the name of testing the new Apple TV 4K and Siri Remote, comparing it to the previous Apple TV 4K and the original Apple TV.

The who, what and how

Who this is for: If you currently have an Apple TV 4K, we’d buy the remote. Unless you care about high-frame-rate content (and have content to watch that supports it), the speed increase from the newer processor won’t make much of a difference. If you’re still using an Apple TV HD, it’s a pretty clear night and day difference. Setup is much faster along with navigating tvOS, but your content starts streaming faster as well.

What you need to know: The Apple TV 4K is a high-end streaming box designed from the ground up for the Apple user. It puts all of the core services on the big screen and it’s controlled through an intuitive user interface that doesn’t hide content or apps behind many layers. The new Siri Remote is a delight and the best remote we’ve tested.

How it compares: The new Apple TV 4K is faster than competitors like the Roku Ultra, Streambar and Google Chromecast. At $50 for Chromecast or Roku Express 4K, you get similar features and support for core visual standards at a more affordable price, though we do prefer the aluminum and intuitive Siri Remote over plastic remotes bundled with Rokus. Apple TV 4K runs tvOS and you have access to the App Store for thousands of streaming services, which historically have come to Apple TV before other platforms. Lastly, the Apple TV 4K makes sense as a player for those in the Apple ecosystem, as photos, music and what you’re watching will sync across all your devices.

The new Siri Remote is practically perfect

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Now, we didn’t hate the original Siri Remote, which might put us in the minority. The controversial touchpad interface at the top let us effortlessly glide from app icon to icon for easy navigation, but it did make scrolling to time stamps and precise movements a bit difficult. And for whatever reason, it could control TV volume but not power.

We believe the updated Siri Remote will be a lot less divisive. It takes what worked on the original and mixes it into a fresh look with impressive functionality for a remote. For starters, it’s silver aluminum all around and is thankfully thicker than the previous version. It’s a pretty hefty remote at 2.2 ounces and weighs about the same as two of the old remotes stacked together. The remote is substantial in hand, but not to the point where it’s uncomfortable to hold.

It has a slight curve on the back, which is more ergonomic than the previous model and stayed comfortable throughout. You’ll still charge the Siri Remote with a Lightning cable — Apple even includes one in the box.

The significant change comes in the form of a click wheel, which brings back heavy waves of iPod nostalgia. The outer ring features four-way directional buttons earmarked as white dots on the black surface. This entire clickable surface is a touchpad, which means you can still swipe across in any direction to navigate tvOS.

It’s the best of both worlds, as you can use touch when you want, but you can also physically click to navigate the interface. And it’s just a lot easier to use than Roku or Chromecast, which require you to constantly click or hold to move throughout the interface.

Just like using the click wheel on the iPod to speed ahead or zoom past songs, well, you can do so with this remote. For apps that use Apple’s video player, you can now pause the video and move clockwise (to go forward) or counterclockwise (to go backward) on the click wheel. After you found the spot, just click and it will resume playback there. It’s pretty addictive, but even for apps that don’t support the functionality of the click wheel it makes scrubbing a lot faster and precise.

The other change is a built-in power button. You’ll tap it once to turn on your TV and Apple TV. It’s straightforward and reminded us just how shocking it was that the previous remote didn’t have a dedicated power button. Volume controls are still here, so the new Siri Remote can be the one remote to rule them all. Mute, play/pause and a dedicated TV button (which opens the Apple TV app) are all here as well.

The dedicated Siri button has been moved to the top right-hand side. It’s in line with how you engaged Siri on an iPhone, and we’re pretty happy with the relocation. She’s still quickly accessible and great at pulling up what you ask for in an instant.

The new Apple TV 4K is basically the same — and that’s not all bad

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There are two main questions left to answer here — should you upgrade to the new Apple TV 4K if you currently have one, and should this be your first Apple streaming box? If you have an Apple TV HD, it’s a really good time to upgrade with the faster processor inside the refreshed TV 4K. Those with the previous Apple TV 4K won’t see drastic performance improvements, even with gaming. Unless support for high-frame-rate content or the addition of smart home connectivity interests you, or your current Apple TV feels slow, you can wait this one out.

The new Apple TV 4K delivers a similar experience to the previous Apple TV 4K model. It also looks identical — a simple black box with a single white LED indicator on the front and a TV logo on the top.

In terms of ports, the two requirements are power and an HDMI cable from the Apple TV to your TV. There’s also an Ethernet port on the back if you prefer a hardwired internet connection. The new TV 4K is updated with Wi-Fi 6 802.11ax, which supports 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz networks. You should have no compatibility issues with your current router, and when you get a Wi-Fi 6 eligible one, this will be ready to support it. The other big new form of connectivity is Thread, a smart home standard that Apple is getting behind. Eligible home accessories, such as Nanoleaf Essential Bulbs, will be able to use the Apple TV 4K as a border router to get connected. With Thread inside, the Apple TV 4K can act as a hub to get these smart home devices online and save you the cost of buying a third-party hub. It also makes for easy setup within Apple’s HomeKit platform.

These are both nice additions, and from a smart home perspective, it’s more value in the box. The other fundamental hardware change is the A12 Bionic chip. It’s Apple-made silicon and was previously used to power the iPhone and iPad and, well, tvOS just glides. We didn’t experience a single hiccup in over a week of testing through a variety of apps, including Disney+ and HBO Max to cable providers like Sling TV or AT&T TV, with games in between.

The Apple TV 4K can handle it all, but the previous-gen Apple TV 4K could do much of the same. Yes, apps open quicker and games can run a bit smoother — but it’s not a night and day difference. If you’re still using an Apple TV HD, you will see a significant boost in how quickly apps open and how long it takes to get streaming. Not to mention the upgrade from HD to 4K allows you to stream content and visuals at a sharper 4K resolution. If you don’t have a 4K TV right now, it will still work just fine and offers a form of future-proofing.

Apple’s main benefit by adding the A12 Bionic is support for high frame rates. And similar to a high-refresh rate on a phone or a TV, this is content designed to be broadcast with a higher refresh rate enabled. Things like action sports or racing can take advantage of this to make the content more immersive or lifelike. It’s a future-proofing move, and many major sports channels plan to start broadcasting or streaming with it. Right now you’ll need a TV that can handle it along with this Apple TV 4K — oh, and yes, content that supports it. We were able to try out RedBull TV during our testing window for some intense action sports, and the broadcast was really smooth — though it won’t be evident to the untrained eye. The new Apple TV 4K still packs support for major standards like HDR, Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos to make any content shine.

The new Apple TV 4K can color balance your TV with an iPhone, which is really neat and drastically improves hue levels on several TVs we tested. It’s not exclusive to the new Apple TV 4K, though, and works on the previous model.

Essentially, you hold your iPhone with Face ID up to the TV to enter a calibration mode. You’ll see the TV cycle through an array of colors at varying brightness levels, and the iPhone will use its sensor to measure it. The Apple TV 4K analyzes the data and computes a way to get your picture closest to the golden standard. This means your TV will be set to the best possible brightness and color levels to give you the best viewing experience.

So let’s make it clear: If you have an Apple TV HD (yes, the one from 2014), now is a perfect time to upgrade. You’ll see tvOS in a much more dynamic way, lock in support for 4K streaming and get improved internal hardware and a great new remote. If you have the Apple TV 4K, we’d recommend looking at the new Siri Remote first. However, if you’re itching for more speed or the internal storage is filling up, the new Apple TV 4K deserves a look.

tvOS works better than ever — especially for Apple users

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Like an iPhone or iPad, the Apple TV’s tvOS software gives you rows of apps, which you have the freedom to move around and even group into folders. We think it’s intuitive and gives you easy access to all the content you could want. Unlike Roku or Google TV, nothing is hidden behind multiple menus or screens to swipe between. It’s all on one home screen that’s tied to your Apple ID.

The App Store is where you’ll pull streaming services, games and other apps to download onto the Apple TV. Apple offers the new TV 4K in 32GB or 64GB sizes, and for most people, the smaller size should be just fine. It’s a lot of room for apps of all types. And unlike Roku or Fire TV players, most streaming services are available here on launch day since it’s one app that can roll out across Apple ecosystems. For instance, HBO Max and Peacock were available on day one for Apple TV users, despite being missing on Roku and Fire TV players. It’s something to consider, and you’d be hard-pressed not to find an app or service available in the App Store.

The other aspect of the Apple TV is its place in the Apple ecosystem — we’ll dive into this a bit here, but we were also one of the first to chat with Tim Twerdahl, Apple’s vice president of product marketing for home and audio, to talk over the new hardware and the software it runs. If you’re already using Apple devices like an iPhone, iPad or Mac, the Apple TV brings all of your services and connected accounts to the big screen.

Your subscription to Apple TV+ and the Apple TV app that syncs all of the content you’re watching will be right at home. The Apple TV app is best thought of as command central, connecting with other services like Hulu or Disney+ to serve up recommendations and one long list of content to resume watching. The Photos app will serve up memories from content housed in your iCloud Photo Library. If you use Apple Music, your account syncs across to the big screen. It’s also clutch for karaoke nights and dance parties since it will show lyrics in real time.

Apple Arcade ($4.99 per month) gives you access to a plethora of games, primarily family-friendly, on the big screen. You can even connect a PS5 or Xbox controller to the big screen. Since both of these feature Bluetooth, it’s as simple as placing them in pairing mode and connecting via Bluetooth in Settings. The big area of question is which titles support the use of a controller — NBA 2K21 and Mini Metro were quite fun with this setup. We do miss the days of the old Siri Remote, which had an accelerometer built in. With the new Apple TV 4K rolling out, we imagine developers will take advantage of the controller compatibility and update titles.

And lastly, Fitness+ lets you work out and track it on your Apple Watch. You can even AirPlay content from your iPhone, iPad or Mac to the TV. It’s just all of Apple’s services customized to you on the big screen. And yes, you can still use your iPhone as a remote — but you should use the new Siri Remote.

Bottom line

5-underscored apple tv 4k 2021 review

No surprise here, but the latest Apple TV 4K is the best Apple TV yet. History tends to repeat itself, and given the performance of the original Apple TV HD and the previous TV 4K, we have no doubts that this new model will perform well for multiple years. And for now, tvOS runs plenty smoothly on it while also giving you access to a ton of services.

The Siri Remote is the star here, and it’s the best remote we’ve ever tested. It’s simple, minimalistic and, most importantly, intuitive to use. It’s a serious upgrade over the original, and if you’re currently happy with your previous-gen Apple TV 4K, we’d pay $59 and get the new remote. If you have an aging Apple TV HD, now is a terrific time to upgrade and future-proof yourself for several years. Of course, you’ll also get the new Siri Remote.

That’s the Apple TV 4K, and it’s not cheap at $179 to start. Chromecast with Google TV is just $50 and Roku’s Ultra player is $99.99. But what it lacks in a low price point it makes up for in value — especially if you’re in the Apple ecosystem.