Apple TV 4K (2021) review: An uncompromising streaming box

When considering the Apple TV 4K, you have to admire Apple’s tenacity.

Despite overwhelming evidence that most people prefer sub-$50 streaming dongles—or whatever software is built into their smart TVs—Apple is still sticking it out with a $179 streaming box. The company deigns not to sully its living-room experience with anything less than the fastest processors, the finest build materials, and the most bells and whistles—including the ability to operate as a HomeKit smart home hub and as a Thread border router. This review, however, will focus on the device’s media-streaming prowess.

The result is admittedly exquisite. The new Apple TV 4K is a cut above other streaming players in speed, polish, app support and privacy, and the 2021 Siri remote addresses the biggest complaints about the previous version. The device is also loaded with little tricks that make picking something to watch seem more pleasant.

None of that makes the price much easier to stomach. Devices like Amazon’s Fire TV Stick 4K and the Chromecast with Google TV are equally capable at playing 4K HDR video at less than a third of the price, and they have a few unique features of their own. While the Apple TV 4K is worth the money if you’re willing to spend it, it’s not essential if you aren’t.

This review is part of TechHive’s coverage of the best media streamers, where you’ll find reviews of the competition’s offerings, plus a buyer’s guide to the features you should consider when shopping for this type of product.

What’s in the (streaming) box

The 2021 Apple TV 4K has the same black puck design as earlier models, with a matte finish on top and a glossy finish along its rounded sides. The power supply is built into the box, so the power cord doesn’t need its own bulky adapter. In addition to the power connector around back, there’s an HDMI 2.1 input and a gigabit ethernet port.

Inside, Apple TV 4K has an A12 processor—up from an A10 on the 2017 model—but I could not discern any difference in speed between the two. They both facilitate smooth scrolling, snappy animations, and the ability to switch between recent apps by double-tapping the home button. They also both occasionally display some light choppiness while scrolling through menus on a 4K television.

appletv2021rear Jared Newman / IDG

Unlike budget streaming players, the Apple TV 4K has a gigabit ethernet port, though it doesn’t support USB accessories.

In lieu of any noticeable performance improvements, the A12 chip seems to mainly facilitate Dolby Vision HDR at 60 frames per second, versus a maximum 30 frames per second for Dolby Vision content previously. The benefits of this feature are mostly theoretical, since nearly all films and TV shows play at 30 frames per second anyway, and nearly all sporting events are limited to 1080p. Still, if you have an iPhone 12 Pro, the new Apple TV provides a big-screen outlet for your homemade Dolby Vision footage.

The specs are otherwise the same as before, with support for Dolby Vision, HDR10+, and Dolby Atmos audio. The Apple TV 4K also supports Bluetooth for connecting external headphones and AirPlay 2 for sending media from other devices around the house or mirroring the content on your iPhone on your TV.

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