The best streaming box you can buy just got even better, mostly thanks to getting a remote control that you won't want to lose.
- 🍏 Hardware and software that will last for years without getting laggy.
- 🍏 A much-improved remote control.
- 🍏 All the services and content you could hope for.
- 🍏 All the Apple special sauce.
- 🍎 The price makes it hard to compete in a world of $40 4K streaming sticks.
It says a lot when the most important new feature of the 2021 Apple TV 4K is the remote control. And that's even more crazy to think about given that we haven't seen a new Apple TV since 2017. Four years is an eternity in tech time, especially given that there's almost none with more reliable a cadence than Apple.
But that's precisely where we are. We've got a new Apple TV 4K. We've got a new remote control. And we've got the same old price — it starts at $179, but you really should just spring the extra $20 for double the storage — that's several times more expensive than devices from Roku and Amazon and Google, all of which can also get you all the streaming apps in 4K resolution.
So why Apple TV 4K? What makes it so good, and what keeps it atop our list of the best streaming hardware you can buy? (And what is it about the new remote control that makes it worthy of so many words?)
Apple. That's what.
Apple TV 4K has been the best streaming device you can buy since 2017, and that streak continues with the mostly unchanged 2021 model. It's got an updated processor and a few new bells and whistles — plus a badly needed new remote control. And it'll stream anything and everything you could possibly want.VIEW DEAL ON Apple TV 4K 2021
Apple TV 4K 2021 review: The boring stuff
There's really not much going on here that Apple TV 4K hasn't done for the past four years. The hardware looks exactly the same from the outside, because it is basically exactly the same from the outside. (If something's different, I don't want to know about it. Because it really doesn't matter.) The internals have been updated a bit, with Apple's A12 Bionic processor. (That's up from the A10X Fusion processor of the previous model. That also isn't anything that you'll ever have to think about again, however.)
Apple TV 4K still supports 4K resolution, of course. (Otherwise that name would be pretty silly.) It still supports Dolby Vision and HDR10 for high dynamic range (so long as your TV supports the standard), and it still supports Dolby Atmos for audio (if your speaker setup supports it). HDMI has been updated to the 2.1 standard, which also is something you'll never think about again.
That last bit is important for a couple reasons. First is that it's newer, and newer is almost always better. Second is that it allows content to play in HDR (again, high dynamic range) at 60 frames per second. That's not something you're going to see very often, at least not yet. But it's better to be able to do it than not — even though it makes a movie look like a video game.
Lastly, and perhaps most important, the box has been updated to Wifi 6. That's table stakes — had it shipped with Wifi 5, we'd have been throwing rocks at it. But it's still important to mention because if you're the sort who doesn't use ethernet for your high-bandwidth video players (and you should, if at all possible), you'l very likely get better Wifi performance out of the gate.
Otherwise, there's a pretty good chance I could plop you down in front of my 2017-era Apple TV 4K and stream all the things — and you'll never be the wiser. The experience is exactly the same. Same on-screen app icons, for better or worse. It's still a really simple scheme — you find the app you want, launch it, and do whatever it is that app does.
That's it. That's the new Apple TV. Buy it. Enjoy it.
Apple TV 4K 2021 review: Why it's still better
So how in the world is a device that's mostly unchanged after all this time still the best option for those who want the best option? Speed and simplicity.
Roku, which is the No. 1 streaming platform in the United States and No. 2 on the rest of the world, has the simplicity. What it lacks is the speed, particularly if you're not working with the $100 Roku Ultra, its top-shelf option. Everything else — including Roku TV — tends to be a little underpowered. That's especially true for the sub-$50 Roku players. And that a $200 device from Apple — which controls the entire hardware stack — performs night-and-day better than a mostly off-the-shelf $50 piece of electronics should surprise exactly no one.
Then there's also the fact the Roku these days essentially is an advertising service that also sells inexpensive hardware. Not that Apple doesn't have its own sort of analytics, but it's far different than what Roku's doing. And Apple's tvOS doesn't serve up display ads on the home screen. So there's that.
And there's also this whole Roku/YouTube TV flap, which has seriously soured things for me. No such problems with Apple TV, though that's not to say that they couldn't one day arise.
All of that mostly is true for Amazon Fire TV, too. Its recently updated user interface certainly is more sleek, but the inexpensive hardware just can't keep up with what Apple does. Same goes for the $50 Google TV dongle. It's a fine piece of kit, and does a lot for that price. But like the others, it's prone to stutters and hang-ups and just isn't as smooth an overall experience.
To get close to Apple TV, you have to get to the likes of the NVIDIA Shield and Shield Pro. They're sort of mirror-image products — extremely well engineered to do what they do, and more than powerful enough to do it. If you want the best on the Android side, you do NVIDIA Shield. I've always tended to give Apple TV 4K the edge, though, simply because the user experience is more simple, but without dumbing things down too much.
Apple TV 4K 2021 review: The remote control
Ask anyone who's ever used an Apple TV with the original Siri Remote, going back to 2015, and they'll tell you the remote control was awful. I've said precisely as much, and set out to find options. Some inexpensive, and some not.
But for as much as I've loved my Logitech Harmony Companion, I'm going to have to let it go at some point. Logitech is winding down its universal remote control business, and one day, eventually, it'll simply cease to work.
That makes the new Siri remote even more important.
The verdict? It perhaps depends on how much you love Apple, and how much you want to love the new remote control.
The 2021 Siri remote is indeed better. A lot better. It's maybe twice as thick, and that makes a world of difference. Sure, it's still likely to get lost in the couch cushions. But you're also less likely to break it in said couch cushions. And while that extra thickness makes it a little easier to hang onto, it's still mostly a flat slab, and lacking any sort of ergonomics.
The back button also is as problematic as ever, as back buttons have tended to be for, well, ever. (I'm a longtime Android user. I know this pain.) And a dedicated button that takes you straight to the Apple TV app remains an exercise in hubris, unless you're one of the Apple-lites who demands to have every service possible aggregated into the Apple TV app. (Pro tip: You can change it to go to the home screen instead.)
Gone is the wonky AF trackpad of old, replaced by a directional pad that also is a trackpad. It is really the best of both worlds. You can swipe and click in best-of-both-worlds scheme, or just change the function so that it's only clicky. Both work well.
And a couple other small but welcome additions are a proper power button that puts everything to sleep when you're done, and a mute button. The Siri trigger button is now on the side, since it's big enough to house a button.
All in all? The remote is the biggest change in the 2021 Apple TV 4K. And it's a good one.
Apple TV 4K 2021 review: The bottom line
In a world that includes $50 streaming hardware that does 4K resolution, all the Dolby things and has access to (usually) all the streaming apps, how can I justify spending four times as much on Apple TV 4K? I consider the cost over the device's lifetime.
This is something you're probably going to use every single day. (And I'll argue that if you're going to pay $200 for it, you should definitely be using it every day. Otherwise go with a less-expensive alternative.) And when I use things multiple times a day nearly 365 days a year, I want them to work very well. It's easy to excuse sluggish apps and launching hiccups on something cheap, and it's easy to excuse them the first few days you're using a product. But on day 365 — or on Day 1,460, that's not something I'm willing to put up with. I'm willing (and, yes, able) to spend more to get a better experience. And that's what always has been the key for Apple and Apple products.
Do other devices do the same thing in mostly the same manner for far less money? Yes. But they don't do it anywhere near as well. The closest, again, is NVIDIA Shield, which is roughly the same price, just with a different ecosystem.
So, for now, anyway, Apple TV 4K is still king. Long may it reign.
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