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Apple TV 4K (2021) review: Come for the power, stay for the remote

The Apple TV 4K (2021) provides a welcome speed boost, but the best part is the new Siri remote

Apple TV 4K (2021) review
(Image: © Tom's Guide)

Our Verdict

The new Apple TV 4K (2021) retains the elegant style of its predecessor, but packs more power thanks to the A12 chip. The new Siri Remote is very welcome and much easier to use than the previous version. Still, it’s a pricey device compared to other 4K streamers.

For

  • New, improved remote
  • High frame rate HDR streaming
  • Multi-user support
  • Apple Fitness and Apple Arcade games

Against

  • Expensive
  • Not noticeably better than first-gen
Apple TV 4K (2021): Specs

Price: $179/$199 for 32GB/64GB
Video: Up to 4K
HDR: Yes, HDR10 and HDR10+ supported
Connectivity: WiFi 6, Thread, Ethernet
Remote: New Siri voice remote
Ecosystem compatibility: Apple
Processor: A12 Bionic

After almost four years, Apple has finally released the new Apple TV 4K (2021). And while it’s not that different from the first gen — that's not necessarily a bad thing: the original was already a great streaming box. As this Apple TV 4K (2021) review shows, the new version is great and performs like a dream — yet still may not be worth the upgrade if you already have the previous model.

On the outside, the Apple TV 4K (2021) looks identical to its predecessor. The upgrades are all on the inside, notably replacing the A10X chip with an A12 Bionic. Performance seems a few hairs better, plus the Apple TV 4K 2nd-gen supports 4K at 60fps with HDR versus 30fps. Not a ton of apps even offer that level of content right now, mostly sports and other fast-paced action, but it will become more prevalent. 

The best thing about the new Apple TV 4K is the redesigned Siri Remote. Many (myself included) hated the old remote and its frustrating touch interface. The new remote retains touch and gestures, but adds actual buttons as well as an intuitive jog wheel that recalls the old iPods of yore.

Overall, the new Apple TV 4K is one of the best streaming devices. Once again, though, the biggest drawback is the price.

Apple TV 4K (2021) review: Price and release date

The Apple TV 4K 2nd-gen costs $179 for the 32GB model and $199 for the 64GB. It was released May 21 and is available for purchase at the Apple Store or major retailers.

The Apple TV 4K (2021) is, by far, the most expensive 4K streaming device on the market. Our top pick among the best streaming devices, the Roku Streaming Stick Plus, retails at just $49.99 (though you can often find it with a discount). It’s also capable of displaying HDR content at 60fps. The same goes for the Fire TV Stick 4K and Chromecast With Google TV, which are the same price. All three of those devices come with decent remotes, too.

So, essentially, the Apple TV 4K 2021 offers similar features to these competitors at over three times  the cost. What you’re really paying for is an Apple device that works seamlessly with other Apple products (like the iPhone and Apple Watch) to create a happy Apple atmosphere, as well as the Apple’s TVs selection of apps and games.

Apple TV 4K 2021 review: Design

The Apple TV 4K 2nd-gen looks the same as the old one. The dimensions of the sleek black box are similar and it weighs 15 ounces.

On the front is a tiny LED light that indicates the box is on. On the back are the power port, upgraded HDMI port (version 2.1) and Ethernet port.

Apple TV 4K (2021) review

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Unlike a dongle such as the Roku Streaming Stick Plus, the Apple TV 4K 2021 doesn’t come with an HDMI cable so you’ll have to supply one yourself. And at 3.9 x 3.9 x 1.4 inches, it's bigger than all of the above dongles, with a taller design than the Roku Ultra (2020).

Apple TV 4K (2021) review

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

And since it’s a box, not a dongle, the Apple TV 4K 2021 needs to sit on a TV stand or be attached to a wall. It’s certainly too heavy to hang off the back of your TV, which something lighter like the Fire TV Stick 4K could do. This is an Apple product, though, so the box is elegant and unobtrusive. It doesn’t look out of place or awkward in my television area setup.

Apple TV 4K 2021 review: Performance

As an Apple ecosystem user, I found the Apple TV 4K 2021 to be a cinch to set up. I just unplugged my first-gen Apple TV and replaced it with the new model. My iPhone connected to it and transferred all of my info to the box, including my Apple ID and even the home screen app layout. 

Apple TV 4K (2021) review

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

The new Apple TV 4K runs on an A12 Bionic chip, which enables fast and smooth performance. The old Apple TV 4K was already snappier than the Roku Streaming Stick Plus and Fire TV Stick 4K. Now, apps open a bit more quickly than they did on the first-gen box. Based on my non-scientific count, apps took around four to six seconds to open on the old box; on the Apple TV 4K 2nd-gen, it’s two to three seconds. Siri search also seemed to deliver results a little faster. 

The biggest performance upgrade is that the new Apple TV 4K now supports streaming high-frame-rate HDR at 60fps along with Dolby Vision 4K and Dolby Atmos audio. But, at  the moment, there isn’t a lot of content out there that you can stream at 60fps. One partner that Apple has touted is Red Bull TV. So, I downloaded the app on both my old box and the new one (by the way, on the former it downloaded in about three seconds and the latter, in about a second), and watched the Red Bull Soapbox Race. I could see a real difference; the video played more smoothly and crisply on the Apple TV 4K 2021. For what it’s worth, I also fired up the Roku Streaming Stick Plus for comparison. The app took about 10 seconds to download and it too did a great job smoothly streaming the race, as it also supports 60 fps playback. 

Siri search and functionality also seem to work a little faster. I asked Siri to open HBO Max and it did in about a second. Then, I said, “Play Lost,” and it delivered me various results, again within about a second or two. Still, while Siri worked quickly, it didn’t always give me what I wanted. For instance, I’ve been rewatching Lost on Hulu and I thought Siri would be smart enough to realize that, but the first result took me to IMDBtv on Amazon Prime Video.

Apple TV 4K 2021 review: Siri remote

OK, here we go: The best part of the Apple TV 4K 2nd-gen is, without a doubt, the new Siri remote. Count me among the many haters of the old remote. The new one is larger, thicker, heavier and made of aluminum. It feels better in hand and is much more comfortable to use, and charges via a Lightning cable. The new Siri remote sells separately for $59 — and is thankfully compatible with the Apple TV 4K (2017) and Apple TV HD.

Apple TV 4K (2021) review

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

The new remote replaces the overly-sensitive trackpad with an intuitive clickpad and jog wheel. I swear, you could just look at the old trackpad and suddenly your program would pause or rewind randomly. The new clickpad still works with touch gestures, like swiping, but also has actual buttons. Even in my few days of testing, I began to mix and match — I’d start to gesture downward to scroll quickly through Netflix rows, then press buttons to go more slowly and examine the options.

I really like the jog wheel functionality, which reminds me of old-school iPods. Once I paused a program, I could swipe my thumb around the wheel to fast-forward and rewind with more speed and greater precision.

Apple TV 4K (2021) review

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

The Siri remote also has buttons for Power, TV/Home, Back, Play/Pause, Mute and Volume, while the Siri button rests on the side. Back replaces the Menu button on the old remote and is more logical for navigating through apps to return to the home screen. However, the TV/Home button doesn’t return you to the actual home screen; it takes you to the Apple TV app. And sometimes, you’re so deep within an app you have to click the back button a dozen times. Instead, I found the easiest way to get back to the home screen, with all the apps, was to use the Siri button. 

The one knock against the remote is that it doesn’t work with Apple's Find My technology found in its iPhones and AirTag trackers. So, while the slightly larger form-factor makes it easier to locate among the couch cushions, there’s no way to ping it when it goes missing (and it will go missing).

Apple TV 4K 2021 review: Video and audio quality

The 2nd-gen Apple TV 4K supports 4K HDR10+ and Dolby Vision video. The new box upgraded to HDMI 2.1, which supports the new high frame rate playback. In comparison, both the Chromecast and the Fire TV Stick 4K support HDR10+ and Dolby Vision, while the Roku Streaming Stick Plus lacks Dolby Vision (only the top-tier Roku Ultra has it). All three competitors play at 60fps. 

On the audio side, the Apple TV 4k 2021 supports Dolby Atmos and adds eARC, which means your TV or game console sound can play through HomePod speakers. Of the Apple TV’s competitors, only the Chromecast features Dolby Atmos, while the Roku and Fire TV sticks support pass-through audio.

I streamed multiple shows and movies from Netflix, Hulu, HBO Max and Apple TV Plus. Everything looked great, though not any better than on the first-gen box, including Zack Snyder’s action-packed Army of the Dead, the colorful costumes and landscapes of Shadow and Bone and the bright green pitch and muted tones of Ted Lasso.

Apple TV 4K 2021 review: Features and tvOS

The Apple TV 4K 2021 features a few new features that are great to have, though many are still on the previous version of the streaming box. Screen calibration, which came with tvOS 14.5, lets you use an iPhone to adjust the color balance, brightness and contrast of your TV display.

Here’s how it works. You go into the Apple TV settings, then video and audio, then calibration. Then, you can hold up your iPhone’s front-facing camera and it will make adjustments for. However, I went through the process and it just told me that my TV didn’t need to be calibrated — the same will go for anyone using Dolby Vision, which has a custom video profile.

Apple TV 4K (2021) review

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

The new model also offers audio sharing, which basically acts like a headphone splitter. Now, you can pair two AirPods to the box for dual private listening. 

And the most recent tvOS finally introduced multi-user support. If there are several adults with their own Apple IDs living in the household, they can access their personalized apps, music and videos.

Everything else you expect from an Apple product is all there. I don’t game nor have an Apple Watch, but you can pair a controller to play Apple Arcade or a watch to work out with Apple Fitness. Airplay from my iPhone worked seamlessly, as did screen mirroring from my MacBook Air. And you could use the Apple TV 4K as a HomeKit hub, since it supports Thread.

Apple TV 4K (2021) review

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Where the Apple TV has always stood out from its streaming competitors is the tvOS and its graceful, refined look. The home screen is whatever apps you choose and whichever order you want. The Roku OS is similar in its simplicity. While tvOS comes preloaded with Apple’s own apps, like Arcade and Fitness, it doesn’t blare out their existence like Fire TV’s OS trumpets Amazon content. Chromecast’s Google TV interface is very clean, but tvOS is just so slick and gorgeous that it’s just a pleasure to look at.

Apple TV 4K (2021) review: Verdict

A friend recently asked me if they should buy the new Apple TV. She has the first-gen Apple TV 4K, and has a gift card to use up. My honest answer was, “No. Just buy the new remote.” 

As this Apple TV 4K (2021) review has shown, this is a lightning fast, powerful streaming device that would be a great purchase for someone looking to upgrade to 4K from an older player. But the first-gen Apple TV 4K is still very good and the new model doesn’t provide a huge upgrade. The A12 chip does seem to perform faster, but not by a huge amount.

Apple TV 4K (2021) review

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

The best upgrade comes in the new Siri remote, which you can buy separately for much cheaper. The lack of any other big change — and its hefty price — are the biggest dings against the Apple TV (2021). You could buy multiple 4K streaming devices for the same price from Roku, Fire TV and Google. You’re paying for the brand name and the ease of integration into an already-existing Apple ecosystem, as Apple Arcade, Fitness and other features aren't on those more-affordable devices

And that’s not nothing; I personally already owned the first Apple TV 4K for that deep integration. But that model still functions at such a high level that I don’t feel an urgent need to lay down almost $200 to upgrade. Not when I can get the best feature, the new Siri remote, for so much less. But if you’re considering an Apple TV or you’re finally making the jump to 4K, the new Apple TV is worth the splurge.

Kelly Woo

Kelly covers streaming media for Tom’s Guide, so basically, she watches TV for a living. Previously, she was a freelance entertainment writer for Yahoo, Vulture, TV Guide and other outlets. When she’s not watching TV and movies for work, she’s watching them for fun, seeing live music, writing songs, knitting and gardening.

  • Elderblaze
    No HDR10+ on Apple TV. Pretty big mistake as some people might actually purchase this device expecting it to support HDR10+ with their Samsung TV's.
    Reply