Apple TV 4K 2021 review: Apple streams ahead, now everyone else needs to catch up
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TV sales have boomed during the past 12 months. With most of the world having been in lockdown, it’s not hard to see why. A record number of us have splashed out on 4K and 8K televisions and now there’s a new accessory that also might be worth plugging into one of the HDMI ports to bring the ultimate quality to the big screen.
The new Apple TV 4K arrives in stores later this week. According to Apple, it’s designed to make it easy to access a swathe of content, including high-frame-rate HDR shows and sporting fixtures for the first time.
The previous Apple TV 4K supported High Dynamic Range (HDR) shows and movies, but it’s the support for that 60 frames-per-second streaming that promises to improve things further this time around. Other treats include a new remote and faster processor tucked inside its shell.
So, if you already have an older Apple TV under your television, or fancy treating yourself to a new streaming set-top box to add more content to that new telly … is the 2021 Apple TV 4K a good investment? Express.co.uk has been putting the latest box from Apple to the test. Here are our thoughts on this £169 streaming box…
Apple TV 4K 2021 review:
First up, let’s talk about the design. Sadly, Apple hasn’t refreshed the Apple TV set-top box itself, so there are no signs of the fruity-fresh colours that now grace the iPhone 12, iPad Air, and all-new iMac. That’s a bit of a shame.
Instead, you’ll find the same glossy black box that’s looked pretty identical since September 2015. We’re guessing most people tuck these devices away in a media cabinet, so maybe it’s not a huge deal, but given that Apple can fit a screen, quad speakers, studio-quality microphones, a processer capable of powering an iMac and more into the 5.9mm chassis of an iPad Pro… it’s a little baffling as to why the Apple TV 4K needs to be such a chunk. At 35mm, it’s almost the height of six iPad Pros stacked on top of one another. For those hoping for a small USB-sized streaming box, like you’ll get from rivals Roku and Amazon, this is much more substantial and needs its own shelf.
Where things have really changed for the better is the new remote. This channel changer has received a completely new look, which now includes a silver aluminium design. But most importantly, it also changes how you interact with the Apple TV. If you own previous versions of the Apple TV, you’ve probably found the gestures and swipes on the small touchpad a little irritating. The touch area was always a little jittery and made it difficult to precisely swipe to the episode or show you were looking for.
Thankfully, these swipes have now been replaced wholesale by a clickable wheel that is far more precise. It’s a really nice change as it allows you to both physically tap around the outside of the circle – like a directional pad – or use the original swipe gestures in the middle. It’s up to you.
There are also some nice extras including the ability to use the drag your finger around the circle like the original iPod wheel. This works as a jog control and, frankly, is a touch of genius. It brings pinpoint accuracy when rewinding or fast-forwarding content (not to mention, it’s quite fun too).
On the side, you’ll find a dedicated Siri button for easy access to the clever assistant and there’s a power button at the top which now lets you turn off, and on, the Apple TV. And that’s not all as this single button finally controls the power to your actual television as well with one single press. Horray!
We’d love to have seen a Touch ID fingerprint scanner arrive on the remote for a faster way to pay for movies and sign-in to streaming services. Failing that, it would’ve been nice if the Apple TV 4K let you use the Face ID (or Touch ID) scanner on your iPhone – or even an Apple Watch – to authenticate your identity when buying shows or movies. After all, Apple already lets you use these devices to prove your identity when using a MacBook. It would make the process much more seamless.
As it stands, Apple does let you use the keyboard on your iPhone whenever you need to type on the Apple TV which is great. As excellent as the new remote control is …trying to type on a telly via the on-screen buttons is always a headache, so this is a nice little touch. Of course, this isn’t new to the Apple TV 4K, but it’s worth a mention if you’re an iPhone owner weighing up different streaming boxes.
So, that’s the box itself, but what about what’s on your television?
With the new 2021 model, you’ll now enjoy access to full HDR at 60fps and Dolby Atmos audio which makes things look, and sound, pretty incredible.
For those who don’t know, 4K resolution combined with HDR brings a picture packed with far greater detail and seriously rich colours, especially in the darkest and lightest parts of the screen. If you watch a lot of documentaries or blockbusters, you’ll immediately see the difference. That’s because there’s no loss in detail when scenes take place in places with a stark contrast between light and dark.
And now, that faster frame rate makes the image look smooth and completely stutter-free. It’s about as good as it gets …if you can find anything that’s shot in this format.
We’re sure that over time more shows, movies and sporting events will get this high-frame-rate makeover, but it can be pretty tricky finding anything to watch in this ultimate quality right now.
For example, the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 rarely broadcast anything in 4K resolution, let alone 4K HDR – and forget trying to add high-frame-rate into the mix! Sky is expanding its library pretty fast and already has lots of impressive sporting coverage in 4K HDR via its Sky Q service, but none of it is currently available via the firm’s NOW streaming service on Apple TV.
Football, rugby, and F1 would look incredible at 60fps, but it feels like Apple is way ahead of the game and the broadcasters need some time to catch up. Given that Apple launched its first 4K-compatible Apple TV back in September 2017 …and traditional terrestrial broadcasters still haven’t made the switch, it could be a long time before you’re watching your favourite BBC, ITV or Channel 4 shows in this new format.
It’s not all bad news though. Apple is constantly adding more 4K HDR movies to its own library via Apple TV+ and newer streaming services, like Netflix, Disney+ and Amazon Prime Video, all have plenty of things to watch in 4K HDR (although high-frame-rate is still largely absent). It’s also worth noting that Netflix does charge extra for access to this format.
Although not all content gets that 4K HDR makeover, there is a nice added feature that will boost anything and everything you decide to view. As long as you have an iPhone in your pocket you can use the new Color Balance calibration mode to change the look of your TV.
Apple TV uses the light sensor in your iPhone to compare your TV’s colour balance to the industry-standard specifications used by cinematographers worldwide. Using this data, Apple TV will then automatically tailor its video output to compensate for any inaccuracies in your TV’s picture settings.
It’s really clever and means you don’t have to start digging into the settings to change the visuals on the screen.
Another nice boost comes to the performance of the new TV with its A12 Bionic processor which speeds things up. This extra power certainly helps when playing some of the latest apps and games, especially as these titles continue to get console-style graphics. Apple has also upgrade things so you can now use your new PS5 or Xbox One controller for a more immersive experience.
Of course, you’ll find all the usual Apple extras such as Apple TV+, Apple Fitness, Apple Music, and Apple Arcade along with third-party providers like Netflix, YouTube, BBC, NOW, ITV and more.
One slight annoyance is that not everyone has signed up for Apple’s TV app, which is designed to be the main way to jump back into shows you’re watching, suggest new similar content, and more. This streaming one-stop-shop brings all of your favourite shows into one place making them easier to find via recommendations.
It will be an amazing way to bring together shows from all of your favourite streaming and catch-up service… as long as they sign-up to Apple’s terms and conditions. As it stands, there are still some pretty big hold-outs, including Netflix. So, you’ll have to constantly bounce around the menus to jump between streaming apps, rather than having everything in a single feed, which is synced across your Apple TV 4K, iPad, Mac, and more.
Apple TV 4K 2021 review: Final Verdict
PROS • 4K HDR 60fps looks stunning – Great new remote – Simple set-up – TV colour calibration is a neat trick
CONS • No redesign for the TV box – Finding HDR shows can be tricky – Expensive compared to rivals
The Apple TV 4K offers a pretty solid way to watch and stream shows and movies, play games, and enjoy at-home fitness classes on the biggest screen in your house. The extra power, future-proofed support for HDR 60fps and all-new remote are all welcome additions, and ensure Apple’s telly box remains a great way to tune into your favourite services.
At £169, this model is pretty expensive and it’s a shame Apple hasn’t refreshed the look of the box itself. There’s also still that issue of finding the best content to watch on this powerful new device as it still feels like the hardware is well ahead of those broadcasting the actual content.
All in all, Apple TV is a brilliant choice for those who are heavily invested in Apple products or Apple subscription services such as TV+ and let’s hope, as providers catch up, more of us will be able to enjoy the delights of high refresh rate 4K HDR content in the future.
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