Apple TV 4K 2021: Apple’s expertise applied to TV

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The new Apple TV 4K 2021 (sixth generation) is the successor to the 2017 Apple TV 4K. It keeps the proven design of the latter, but features a more powerful processor as well as a 4K 60Hz UHD compatible HDMI 2.1 output (4K 30Hz on the previous generation). Another major change is the long-awaited Siri Remote, which promises even more intuitive and user-friendly control. Coupled with the latest version of tvOS with its automatic color calibration feature, can this range of new features make the Apple TV 4K 2021 the best TV streamer for enjoying Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Disney+, TV channel replay, music streaming and countless games?

The new Apple TV 4K 2021 now incorporates a 4K 60Hz UHD compatible HDMI 2.1 output and comes with a more intuitive remote control.

Apple TV 4K: packaging & accessories

Like all of the Californian brand’s devices, the Apple TV 4K 2021 comes in packaging with a minimalist design on which a life-size photo of the Apple TV and remote control are embossed. Inside this package, the Apple TV 4K 2021 comes with a quick start guide, the all-important Apple stickers, the new Siri Remote and a USB-A to Lightning cable for charging the remote.

The Apple TV 4K 2021 comes with a quick start guide, a Lightning cable, and a new Siri Remote.

Apple TV 4K: design

In terms of design, the Cupertino firm has taken no risks with this new Apple TV as it has the same design as the 2017 model. It therefore has a relatively discreet monoblock box measuring 98mm on all four sides and is 35mm thick. The matte black upper face is adorned with the Apple TV logo in its center, while the sides of the device feature a lacquered black finish that still attracts fingerprints and dust. Fortunately, once the Apple TV 4K is installed you rarely have to touch the box.

The 2021 Apple TV 4K has the same design as the first 4K-compatible Apple TV, with a relatively understated and compact monoblock box.

Like the previous 4K model, the 2021 Apple TV has an active cooling system underneath, with a large fan in charge of expelling hot air from inside the device. However, the passive cooling system seems to be efficient enough to only use the fan as a last resort. During several weeks of testing, we never heard the fan running, even after several hours of use, whether we were streaming 4K HDR content, listening to music or playing video games. The Apple TV 4K always worked quietly.

The Apple TV 4K 2021’s passive cooling is efficient enough to use the fan only as a last resort, ensuring perfectly silent operation.

Apple TV 4K: new remote control

For this new generation of Apple TV 4K, Apple is finally revising its remote control with Siri Remote microphone. It was completely redesigned and has a more luxurious aluminum finish that is reminiscent of the remote control for Apple TV 2 and 3.

The new Siri Remote (left) has an aluminum design reminiscent of the Apple TV 2 and 3 (right) remote.

The ergonomics, on the other hand, are optimized and more modern. The top of the remote control integrates a circular clickpad inspired by the iPod wheel. The entire pad is touch-sensitive, which makes it very easy to navigate through the various applications. A simple swipe can be used to fast forward or rewind a movie or track. The main strength of this interface is that it also offers real physical controls in addition to tactile controls. Together, they offer much more precision and a more intuitive navigation than with the previous generation Apple TV 4K.

The Siri Remote on the Apple TV 4K 2021 features optimized ergonomics, mixing tactile and physical controls.

There is now also a mute button, while the Siri button has been moved to the side of the remote for quicker access, even in the dark. Thanks to the integration of Siri, it is possible to control the features of the Apple TV streamer vocally: “Play The Crown on Netflix”, “Activate the subtitles”, “What is the temperature outside?”, “Fast forward two minutes” and “Who made this movie?” are all examples of possible requests. The integrated microphone is particularly sensitive and Siri picked up all our requests perfectly. Control became so simple and fast that we quickly got used to using the voice control instead of the manual commands.

You can activate the Siri voice assistant to control the Apple TV 4K by voice using the microphone button on the side of the remote.

Apple TV 4K: 4K HDR UHD

Inside this small box, the previous model’s Apple A10X Fusion chip has been replaced by the 6-core Apple A12 Bionic processor that also powers the iPhone XS, iPhone XS Max and iPad Mini 5. This makes the new Apple TV 4K more powerful than ever, with support for 4K HDR UHD streams at up to 60 fps, compared to the previous 30 to 25Hz for HDR10 and Dolby Vision programs. However, one regrets the absence of 4K at 120 fps, which would have been largely feasible given the power of the processor and the HDMI 2.1 output. Despite this, we still enjoy a smoother and more comfortable display than with the old version. The new chip also offers an even more convincing upscaling of Full HD content to 4K UHD. In addition, the Apple TV 4K is compatible with HDR10 and  Dolby Vision programs with extended dynamic range to allow you to enjoy maximum detail in the light and dark areas of the images.

With support for 4K HDR UHD content at 60 fps, the Apple TV 4K 2021 offers a smoother, more comfortable viewing experience.

Apple TV 4K: audio formats

As far as audio decoders are concerned, the Apple TV 2021 once again gives Dolby exclusivity, with support for the many variants of Dolby Digital, including Dolby Atmos. As for DTS streams, they are still not supported after six generations of Apple TV. This is not a problem when watching VOD services, be it Netflix, Prime Video, Disney+ or even myCanal, as these platforms generally use Dolby Digital and can adapt to the source. However, to enjoy movies shared over the local network from Plex or VLC, the DTS stream is converted into a PCM signal of lower quality. The Apple TV 4K is therefore primarily intended for playing VOD services rather than your own content. This is confirmed by the absence of a USB port on the box to play movies on a USB flash drive or an external hard drive.

Like its predecessors, the Apple TV 2021 is versatile and is designed to play both videos and music. To do this, it is possible to install applications for most online music services, including Deezer, Spotify, Amazon Music, Tidal and, of course, Apple Music, from the App Store. For the latter two services, Dolby Atmos tracks are supported when the Apple TV is connected to a compatible A/V receiver, TV or soundbar. However, music is limited to a maximum resolution of 24-bit/48kHz, which is unfortunate because the Cupertino brand now offers 24-bit/192kHz streaming on Apple Music. The presence of an optical output like those on the first Apple TV models would also have been appreciated to connect this box to a hi-fi amplifier or an external DAC. The connectivity of this Apple TV 2021 reflects the minimalist design of the manufacturer, as it consists of a single HDMI output and an Ethernet port. As a result, it can only be connected to a TV, a soundbar or an A/V receiver.

The Apple TV 4K’s connectors are limited to a single HDMI output and an Ethernet port.

To pair with a device other than with an HDMI connection, the 2021 Apple TV 4K relies on wireless transmission and specifically AirPlay 2. Using this protocol, it’s possible to stream audio from the Apple TV to any AirPlay 2 compatible device or speaker. Transmission can be to a single device or to several receivers, making it possible to create a multi-room system. The Apple TV is also capable of wirelessly streaming the sound of the programs being viewed on the associated television thanks to its eARC-compatible HDMI 2.1 port. This is convenient for listening to the sound of all sources associated with the TV on your connected speaker or WiFi amplifier. Note that AirPlay 2 transmission works in both directions and can also be used to stream music, videos or duplicate the screen of an iPhone, iPod, iPad or Mac. Finally, a bi-directional Bluetooth connection is also available for listening to music through headphones, connecting a wireless keyboard and mouse or a gamepad.

Apple TV 4K: interface and controls

The success of previous Apple TV models has always been based in part on the intuitive and user-friendly interface of the tvOS operating system. The new Apple TV 2021 does not deviate from this philosophy, with an identical tried and tested layout in which the home page includes all applications. At the top of this mosaic is a dock in which you can place your most used applications.

The Apple TV 4K 2021 has the same intuitive, user-friendly interface as its predecessors.

To facilitate the playback of video content, Apple still relies on the TV application, which even has its own button on the Siri Remote. Naturally, the Apple TV+ service is highlighted in this application, but it also includes content from other video-on-demand services. This makes it easier to explore all available movies, series or documentaries, without having to search each application individually. However, it is regrettable that Netflix still does not wish to be integrated into this application.

The TV app groups together the content available on all the VOD services installed on the Apple TV 4K, except for Netflix.

The presence of the App Store means that countless applications can be installed on this Apple TV 2021, from music platforms such as Tidal, Spotify and Deezer, to VOD services like YouTube, Netflix, Prime Video and Disney+.

Since the previous Apple TV model, you can also enjoy countless games thanks to the Apple Arcade service. Without claiming to replace home consoles, this service offers enough varied content for users to discover many games and to keep them busy for a few minutes or even hours. The graphics of some games are particularly impressive for a streamer as compact as the Apple TV, which is mainly due to the power of the new A12 chip. However, although the Siri Remote is extremely effective in all the apps, it reaches its limits with games. A wireless controller with real joysticks is therefore preferable for better control. To do this, the Apple TV is compatible with the majority of Bluetooth and MFI controllers on the market, but also with those of a Playstation or an Xbox, including Next Gen models.

Thanks to the Apple Arcade service, the Apple TV 4K offers access to a comprehensive catalog of games.

Apple TV 4K: setup

Configuration

For our review, we connected the Apple TV 4K 2021 to an LG OLED65CX television using an Audioquest Carbon 48 cable. The TV was connected to a marantz A/V receiver via HDMI eARC. Like all Apple products, the latest Apple TV 4K is extremely easy and intuitive to set up, particularly for iPhone users as the configuration is carried out automatically. To do this, simply place the iPhone next to the Apple TV and a configuration message will appear on the smartphone. After entering the pairing code indicated by the Apple TV, the configuration is done automatically by transferring the iCloud account used on the associated iPhone, as well as the password of the WiFi network used. Some credentials are also entered directly into the Apple TV. Finally, some last parameters have to be added directly on the Apple TV, including the name of the room in which it is located.

The Apple TV 4K is automatically detected and configured from an iPhone.

Color calibration

The Apple TV is then directly usable, with the possibility of installing the apps of your choice to access all your services. Via tvOS, it is possible to further extend the configuration by performing a colorimetric calibration in order to enjoy more accurate colors if the TV is badly configured. To do this, the only prerequisite is to have an iPhone with Face ID, which will then act as a colorimetric scanner. Then, you have to go to the Video and audio settings, then to “color balance” and click on the notification that appears on the iPhone.

Once the calibration is launched on the Apple TV, simply hold your iPhone near the TV to start the process.

The next step is to place the front of the iPhone on a predefined area of the screen on which the Apple TV displays a series of color patches. Once the calibration is done, the new color balance can be compared to the factory settings of the Apple TV 4K thanks to a mini-video. In our case, this had the effect of enhancing the reds which warmed up the images slightly, with a result that was a little more similar to a cinema mode. That said, the factory calibration of the TV was already very good, so the changes were minimal compared to a poorly calibrated or an older TV, whose settings or hardware do not allow accurate colors.

The Apple TV 4K can use the power of Face ID in compatible iPhones to perform color calibration.

Apple TV 4K: our impressions

Video test

The Apple TV 4K 2021 is even more efficient and enjoyable to use than the previous model thanks to the new Siri Remote. The A12 Bionic processor and 60 fps 4K rendering provide a more comfortable viewing experience, with a smoother and more stable image with movies, TV shows and video games. With the mini-series Life in Colour streamed in 4K Dolby Vision UHD from Netflix, the result was excellent, with bright, nicely contrasted images and accurate colors.

The Apple TV 4K 2021 provides a spectacular image, with fine details and natural colors.

HDR rendering was even more effective, with a significant improvement in the bright and clear areas of the images, which benefited from better sharpness and additional details compared to the 2017 Apple TV. The level of detail was very high, especially on close-ups of insects where the contours of each anatomical feature seemed to be rendered with surgical precision. This plethora of detail coupled with rich, high-contrast colors left us awestruck at the grandeur of the scenes.

The Apple TV 4K 2021 handles HDR scenes very well and maximizes detail in both dark and bright areas of the image.

Audio test

With the arrival of Dolby Atmos tracks on Apple Music, the Apple TV 4K becomes the essential element to enjoy this format with an Atmos-compatible A/V receiver or soundbar. It offers quick access to all playlists and music in Dolby Atmos from the Apple Music application. This format is decoded very well by the Apple TV and provides a whole new way to listen to music. With a Dolby Atmos 5.1.2 system, we enthusiastically rediscovered iconic tracks. On Bohemian Rhapsody, the choirs flowed freely between the front and back of the stage, while Freddie Mercury’s voice was embodied at the center with stunning height. Every detail stood out with precision. The percussion instruments were clear, transparent and had a rare intensity. The electric guitar soared, giving the song a particularly enveloping and immersive feel. It was very enjoyable!

The Apple TV 4K is a must-have for enjoying Dolby Atmos music from Apple Music.

Gaming test

As we mentioned earlier, the Apple TV 4K does not claim to replace home video game consoles, but is still a solid solution for enjoying a more than convincing gaming experience. The Apple Arcade catalog is constantly expanding and has many exclusive titles that are worth checking out. However, most licenses are not designed to be played for hours on the TV, but rather to occupy a few minutes before your TV program starts, for example. In these conditions, the new processor provides increased responsiveness and a smoother display. Even though the graphics are similar to those of mobile games, they still offer a slightly higher definition compared to the same games on iPhone or iPad.

The new processor in the Apple TV 4K 2021 makes games smoother and more responsive.

Apple TV 4K: compared to…

Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K: sold for less than €60, this Amazon network media player is an ultra-compact model that looks like a USB stick. Like the latest generation Apple TV, it supports HDR10 and Dolby Vision for displaying programs with extended dynamic range. It is also Dolby Atmos compatible, but only for movies and series. Listening to Apple Music in Dolby Atmos is therefore impossible with the Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K. Moreover, the interface of this box is less smooth and intuitive than the one offered by tvOS. The applications are also more limited and aren’t as well developed. 

Apple TV 4K: who is it for?

The 2021 Apple TV 4K is for anyone who wants to enjoy VOD services and a variety of apps on a non-connected TV or a TV with a dated interface. Thanks to its intuitive and well-thought-out operating system, the type that only Apple knows how to create, the Apple TV 4K is easy to use, even for a beginner. The new Siri Remote makes the experience even more enjoyable and easy. If you don’t have a set-top box, the Apple TV is by far the best solution for video and audio streaming, but also for casual gamers. However, if you already have the 2017 Apple TV 4K, the change is more subjective. If your TV supports 4K HDR at 60 fps, you’ll be able to enjoy a more comfortable and advanced display. If not, the contribution of the latest generation of Apple TV will be less noticeable, unless you take into account the new Siri Remote, which completely revolutionizes the way this little box is controlled.

Apple TV 4K: conclusion 

While it doesn’t break new ground, the 2021 Apple TV 4K has some very exciting new features, starting with support for 4K UHD HDR at up to 60 fps for a smoother, more comfortable viewing experience. The new Siri Remote addresses all the shortcomings of previous models and provides even more intuitive and user-friendly management, whether you use the tactile, physical or Siri voice commands. The interface is still as polished as ever, and the access to the App Store greatly broadens the possibilities of this little streamer, with new applications being added regularly. However, we regret the absence of a more extensive range of connectors, including an optical output and a USB port for connecting an external hard drive. Despite these few shortcomings, the Apple TV 4K is definitely a reliable choice to boost the possibilities of your TV.

We liked:

  • The new Siri Remote control
  • The smooth and user-friendly interface
  • The addition of 60 fps 4K HDR
  • The reliability of Siri

We would have liked:

  • An optical output
  • A USB input for a hard drive or a USB flash drive
  • DTS compatibility


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