It’s easy to look at the Apple TV 4K and wonder if the company is lagging behind the competition. Google, Amazon, and Roku both offer their TV operating systems to third-party manufacturers, and build small, lightweight, inexpensive streaming devices for everyone else. But while Apple has been a little more open with things like HomeKit and AirPlay, for the Apple-y-est experience, you still need an Apple TV.
New for 2021, Apple has given the Apple TV 4K a redesign remote, and slightly faster internals. Those may seem like tiny additions — and they are. But if you’re already an Apple TV user, you’ll know they can make a huge difference. But is the new Apple TV 4K doomed to fail next to the much cheaper competition, especially when you can now get HomeKit, AirPlay, and the Apple TV+ app on a $30 Roku Express?
In a word, no. If you’re an Apple user, the Apple TV 4K isn’t just a good option — it’s the best option.
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Apple TV 4K (2021) design
The actual Apple TV box remains unchanged compared to the previous-generation Apple TV 4K. That’s not a bad thing — the device looks good, and will fit right at home on any TV stand or entertainment center.
The device is a 3.9-inch square, with a 1.4-inch thickness, and it’s built out of black plastic. On the top of the device, you’ll find the Apple TV logo, while the back is where all the ports can be found, though there aren’t many. There’s a power input, a gigabit Ethernet port, and a HDMI port, which supports the new HDMI 2.1 standard.
Of course the headline design change here has nothing to do with the actual box. Easily the biggest advantage to the 2021 Apple TV 4K over the original is the redesigned remote. And yes, it makes a huge difference. The new remote is chunkier for sure, but here that’s an advantage to that. It means that you’re less likely to lose it in between your couch cushions. The remote is still relatively thin, and it’s still possible to misplace or lose, but less so. It would have been nice if the remote had Find My support, but alas it does not.
Apart from the bigger footprint, the new remote also has a few button changes. Gone is the big touch pad at the top of the remote, in favor of a new directional pad with actual buttons. Those buttons, however, are touch-sensitive, so you can still zoom around the interface with a swipe if you want to. It works well. The scroll wheel shape also means that it’s easy to fast forward or rewind by scrolling in a circular motion. It’s a neat touch.
Other changes are welcome here too. The Siri button has been moved to the side to be more in line with how you use it on an iPhone, and there’s an actual power button to turn on and off your setup. There’s even a new mute button, which is super handy considering the fact that plenty of streaming services still rely on ads.
Overall, the new remote is a huge win. I really have no complaints about it, except for that I would have liked Find My support.
Apple TV 4K (2021) features and specs
The Apple TV 4K doesn’t just get a new remote — it gets some great new features too.
Under the hood, the new Apple TV 4K has Apple’s A12 Bionic chip, which is an upgrade over the previous-generation device, with its A10X Fusion processor. As someone who used the last-generation model every day, the processing bump probably won’t make much of a difference. But, it does give Apple a little extra headroom for whatever features and services it has planned down the line. It may help with games on Apple Arcade too, if you’re an Arcade user.
The 2021 Apple TV 4K plays a larger role in your smart home as well. For starters, the new device supports Thread, which basically means that it can be a part of the smart home mesh network that may eventually play an important role in the smart home. There aren’t all that many third-party devices that support Thread, but Apple has built it into the HomePod mini. It’s clear that the company sees it as an important part of the future of the smart home. And, the device also supports Wi-Fi 6, so you’ll get the faster internet speeds with a compatible router and fast internet plan.
As mentioned, the Apple TV 4K also has a HDMI 2.1 port. That means it can technically support HDR at up to 120 frames per second. Unfortunately, it seems as though the software isn’t yet ready for that kind of upgrade — and as a result it’s still limited to 60 fps. Hopefully, as Apple’s gaming services continue to grow, the company will bring 120Hz support to the Apple TV.
Apple TV 4K (2021) software
The Apple TV 4K runs Apple’s tvOS, and it works great. Frankly, tvOS is still my favorite TV operating system, thanks to its stunning and simple design, and excellent integration with the rest of my Apple devices.
The home screen of the Apple TV is basically just a grid of apps, like on iOS. You can rearrange those apps to how you see fit, and install apps for your favorite streaming services. It works easily. Recently, however, Apple has been emphasizing the Apple TV app more. The app not only shows Apple’s first-party content, like Ted Lasso, but also integrates with many third-party services. That means that you can see content from Hulu, Disney+, and more, all together within the Apple TV app.
This works extremely well, but it would work better if every app integrated with it. The big missing service is Netflix. We would love to see Netflix add support for this feature, though at this point that seems a little unlikely.
Apple announced a few extra features for tvOS with the 2021 Apple TV 4K. For example, there’s a new calibration tool that uses your iPhone’s camera to detect the color tuning of your TV’s display, and then tweak the output of the Apple TV accordingly. It works well, but the issue is that it doesn’t actually change your TV’s calibration — just the output of the Apple TV itself. That means that if you switch to another input, like a gaming console, you can’t take advantage of the feature. But still, it’s a nice touch, especially for those that don’t like diving into their TV’s settings.
When tvOS rolls out later this year, it will support features like the new SharePlay, which lets users sync movies and TV shows with their friends and family over FaceTime. It’s a neat feature, though not one that we tested during this review. It will also finally support Spatial Audio with the AirPods Pro and AirPods Max, which simulates surround sound. It’s really cool.
Other features are no longer unique to the Apple TV 4K, but are still helpful in an Apple-based home. You’ll get AirPlay 2, which lets you stream content from your other Apple devices, and the Apple Fitness+ app, which syncs with your Apple Watch to show fitness metrics on the display as you work out. It’s pretty neat for those who like working out at home. I’m more of a get-outside-and-play-tennis kind of guy, but Fitness+ still undeniably works really well.
The 2021 Apple TV 4K is a real hit for Apple, but not because it’s a massive upgrade over the last-generation model. Instead, the new Apple TV 4K is a meaningful improvement that takes an already great product, and makes it better.
The kicker here is that the real improvement comes in the form of the new remote, and the remote is actually available separately. If you already have a previous-generation Apple TV 4K, then we recommend just buying the new remote, and pairing it with the device, or waiting until Apple potentially adds things like support for 120Hz.
There’s plenty of competition to the 2021 Apple TV 4K, if you want a high-end streaming device. For example, you could go with the NVIDIA Shield TV Pro, with Android TV, or the Roku Ultra. If you’re in Apple’s ecosystem, forget about the Shield TV — it’s a great product, but not for you considering its integration with Google’s ecosystem. You could potentially get the Roku Ultra though, as it now supports features like AirPlay 2 and Apple’s HomeKit.
Of course, if you just want AirPlay and HomeKit support, then it’s worth checking that your TV doesn’t already support those things. If it’s a relatively recent Roku TV, chances are that it does.
If you want a true Apple TV experience, however, the Apple TV 4K is still the way to go.
Should I buy the Apple TV 4K (2021)?
Yes. If you want an Apple-centric home theater, the 2021 Apple TV 4K is the way to go. That said, it’s worth considering just buying the remote if you already have an Apple TV 4K. Or, check that your TV doesn’t have the features you want.
Christian de Looper is based in Santa Cruz, California. He has been expertly reviewing tech products for more than 10 years, and brings experience in deep technical analysis of consumer electronics devices to BGR's reviews channel.