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Apple TV 4K (2021) review: The most capable TV streamer for iPhone owners

Our Rating 
Price when reviewed 
169
inc VAT

The new Apple TV 4K is just like the old one but with a more fully featured remote control – and it’s still a bit too expensive

Pros 
HDMI ARC and CEC now supported
A little more responsive than before
You can stream from your iPhone at 60fps in HDR
Cons 
Touch clickpad takes some getting used to
Much more expensive than rivals
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The Apple TV 4K stands alone among the TV streaming fraternity, mainly for its price. Where most rivals cost well under £100, Apple’s TV streamer goes for a whopping £169. Objectively, there is – and never really has been – a justification for this, other than the fact that it’s an Apple device and looks a bit nicer than other streamers.

The 2021 update doesn’t change that much, despite some new features and a bump in performance, but it remains the TV streamer to choose if you’re an Apple devotee.

Apple TV 4K (2021) review: What you need to know

Externally, the Apple TV 4K (2021) looks identical to the previous version. It has exactly the same dimensions (98 x 98 x 35mm) and has a similar lineup of physical ports. There’s one HDMI output (upgraded from 2.0 to 2.1 and with support for eARC), one Gigabit Ethernet socket, and a figure-of-eight AC power input. Like the last Apple TV, the new one supports 4K streaming, HDR10 and Dolby Vision, but it still lacks HDR10+ and HLG. 

Inside, though, it has a brand-new processor, with the A12 Bionic replacing the outgoing A10X. This enables the new high-frame-rate HDR feature (more on that later). Anyone who owns an iPhone with Face ID can now use its front-facing camera to automatically adjust the colour balance output by the Apple TV, too.

However, the biggest upgrade for this generation is the new remote control, which dumps the flat touch surface of the old remote and replaces it with a touch-sensitive, five-way clickpad. Apple has added power, back and mute buttons, and moved the Siri activation button to the right-hand edge.

Apple TV 4K (2021) review: Price and competition

The Apple TV 4K costs £169 for the 32GB model and £199 for 64GB. At either price, it sits comfortably at the premium end of the media streamer market and is considerably more expensive than all of its main competitors.

Its closest rival outside the Apple ecosystem is the Amazon Fire TV Cube, which is currently available for just £60. It has a voice remote like the Apple TV but adds to that with IR blaster TV remote control, a built-in speaker and hands-free Alexa voice control.

With the Fire TV Cube, you can use Alexa to turn your TV off and on, control the volume and more without having to pick up a remote control. It’s also possible to add a USB webcam to the Fire TV Cube to turn your TV into a huge video call terminal – a feature the Apple TV lacks.

If you don’t require hands-free Alexa or the built-in speaker features, the regular Amazon Fire Stick 4K costs just £50 and still comes with a compact remote that lets you search for media by voice. Neither of the Amazon Fire TV devices support Dolby Vision, however.

The Chromecast with Google TV (2020) is next on the list and, again, it costs far less than the Apple TV 4K at a mere £60. It covers a similar selection of streaming services as the Apple TV 4K and comes with a voice remote control, supporting Google Assistant. HDR support runs to HDR10, HDR10+ and Dolby Vision, so it goes one better than Apple TV 4K (2021) on this front.

READ NEXT: The best Android TV box you can buy

Apple TV 4K (2021) review: New remote

The new remote control is the big new feature and it’s largely good, albeit with a smattering of frustrations mixed in. On the positive side, it’s beautifully made, all hewn from a single block of recycled aluminium. For a thing you’ll be holding in your hand a lot of the time, that’s quite important. It’s comfortably the nicest remote control I’ve used of late and a lot nicer in the hand than the small, plastic Voice Remote that comes with Amazon’s Fire TV Cube.

The addition of back and mute buttons is a good thing, too, as is the repositioning of the Siri activation button to the side. I’m not generally a big fan of including touch surfaces on remote controls, since I often find myself tapping or swiping the pad by accident as it’s lying on the sofa next to me. It can also be easy to brush your thumb up, down, left or right before clicking, selecting a neighbouring item by accident.

As with all such things, however, you get used to it over time, and to be completely fair it’s miles better than the horrid touch remote issued with the first generation of Sky Q boxes. Once you’ve got the hang of pausing momentarily before swiping your finger around the edge of the touch wheel, navigating long lists becomes second nature.

More useful, however, is the ability to control your TV via HDMI CEC (the remote also has learning infrared capabilities). This doesn’t mean you can retire your TV remote entirely, though, since you’ll still need that for changing settings and so on. However, the ability to turn on the TV at the same time as your Apple TV, tweak the volume and skip forwards and back without having to hunt around for a second remote is invaluable.

Apple TV 4K (2021) review: High-frame-rate 4K HDR

One of the new features unlocked by the move from the A10X to the A12 Bionic processor is the ability to watch HDR source material at 60fps. The previous Apple TV could output 4K HDR at 60Hz, but only with 30fps or 24fps source material.

This is less of a big deal than you might think because there’s barely any high-frame-rate HDR material around at the moment, but as live sports slowly shift to HDR and broadcasters look for the next way to charge fans more for existing content, it may become more important over time.

For now, however, the most valuable aspect of the new high-frame-rate HDR is the ability to show off how good your iPhone’s 4K 60fps Dolby Vision footage is.

READ NEXT: M1 Apple iMac 24in review - the update we were all waiting for

Apple TV 4K (2021) review: Colour balance

For me, as a bit of a display nerd, the most interesting new feature is the ability to improve the image quality on TVs that may not be so modern. Dubbed Colour Balance, this is found in the Settings section and it uses the front-facing camera sensor on your iPhone (all iPhones with FaceID are supported) to act as a colour calibrator.

Note that this doesn’t work with Dolby Vision and it won’t work with projectors either, since it requires you to place your phone right up near the screen. You also don’t, strictly speaking, have to buy the new Apple TV 4K (2021) to use the feature, either. It’s now available on Apple TV HD boxes and old 4K Apple TVs as well.

Having said all that, it’s a worthwhile feature to have and I feel it’s worth touching on in this review as it was released at the same time. It’s certainly very easy to use and takes very little time to complete.

The calibration part involves placing the phone with the screen facing the TV screen at very close quarters (around a couple of centimetres away), within a phone-shaped graphic on the TV, waiting for a few seconds while it displays a few colour patches and then a second or so more for the calibration to take place. You’re then shown a side-by-side image where you can see the difference the calibration has made and you’re given the choice to either go with the new settings or stick with your TV’s existing colours.

In my case, the difference was very subtle to the eye and I found it difficult to tell whether it was better or not. So I took before and after measurements using a colour calibrator to see what exactly was changing.

The results look pretty good. I found Delta E improved on the greyscale tracking test by 1 and in the ColorChecker test by 0.7 Delta E (Delta E is a measure of colour difference) for standard definition content. That’s pretty good but, once again, it isn’t what you’d call a night and day difference.

If the colour temperature is set wrong – for instance, if the default mode is too “cool” or blue-ish – it can’t do much about that. The picture will still look too blue, even after calibrating.

Apple TV 4K (2021) review: Content and other good things

Before I move onto the verdict, it’s worth spending some time discussing the breadth of content available on the Apple TV platform because it’s pretty darned good. It’s been a long time coming, but it finally seems that the big firms have stopped being petty towards each other’s streaming services, and you can now watch most things on one device, including the 2021 Apple TV 4K.

That means Amazon Prime, Netflix, YouTube and Disney+ are all available as native apps and searchable by voice. The same goes for all the UK-based services you’d expect, including BBC iPlayer, My5, All4 and the newly renamed NOW (formerly Now TV). Annoyingly, there’s no native app for Google Play Movies & TV, but you can get that app on your iPhone and stream from there to the Apple TV via AirPlay.

On the audio front, Apple pushes its Music streaming service front and centre and this, naturally, works beautifully when used in conjunction with an iPhone. However, it’s also possible to stream music from Tidal, Spotify, Amazon Music, YouTube Music and Deezer. Of the major streaming services, only Qobuz seems to be missing but, again, you can always stream from your phone via AirPlay to the Apple TV.

Before you get too excited about using this streamer as your main hi-res music-streaming source, however, bear in mind that audio output is capped at 48kHz, even when connected to an external receiver. That’s frustrating, but it’s not really a dealbreaker.

While the Apple TV is never going to be able to replace your games console, its ability to support Xbox and PlayStation games controllers also means it’s quite fun to game on.

Finally, a special mention for a couple of other things the Apple TV does really well. First up is Siri integration, which continues to be a revelation on Apple’s streaming box. Although much derided for its inferiority to Google Assistant as a phone-based or smart-speaker-based voice assistant, Siri comes into its own on Apple TV, allowing you to control playback and volume, enable and disable subtitles and quickly repeat sections by asking “what did he/she say?”. It’s even possible to enter passwords and usernames by spelling them out, which saved me a lot of time when installing all the apps I needed for this review.

And I like that you can connect a pair of AirPods, AirPods and AirPods Max to TV 4K for listening late at night, too, while the new eARC facility means that owners of the now-retired Apple HomePod smart speaker can stream audio to it via the Apple streamer from their TV. On a related note, I find it slightly mad that the TV 4K doesn’t support Apple’s new Spatial Surround sound via the new AirPod Max headphones.

Apple TV 4K (2021) review: Verdict

There is certainly much to like about the Apple TV 4K (2021). Its UI is excellent, integration with iPads and iPhones is second to none and there’s a broad selection of streaming services supported, as well as Dolby Vision and HDR10. The new remote, despite my initial misgivings about the touch-sensitive clickpad, is a big upgrade in general. 

But then, the previous model did all this almost as well and, when it comes down to it, there isn’t that much new here beyond the slight bump in performance. The Colour Balance feature is coming to previous Apple TV models anyway and the ability to stream 4K HDR at 60fps just isn’t all that compelling yet.

Even the new remote control can be purchased separately for £55 so you don’t need to buy a 2021 Apple 4K TV at all to get a taste of the new product.

So the verdict is in and our position is largely the same as it has ever been. The Apple TV 4K (2021) remains a great TV streamer and the most capable on the market, especially for iPhone and iPad owners; however, it’s a touch too expensive to justify for anyone else.

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