A classic case of “don’t fix it if it ain’t broken”, Apple has continued to chip away (pun intended) the rougher edges of its hobby box, and made it an indispensable tool for anyone with a serious home-theatre or those invested heavily into the Apple ecosystem. More than ever, it now even makes a strong case for non-Apple users to jump on the bandwagon with incoming Spatial audio support for AirPods, which is quite frankly, a much bigger deal than most of us realise.
But, speaking of the ‘same-old’ first, yes, it looks identical to the previous generation Apple TV box, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing since it was always decor agnostic. It manages to slip under your TV, inside a cabinet or even behind a stack of equipment, the Bluetooth 5.0 remote ensures that no line of sight is required for operation. Connectivity remains similar too, but the HDMI port now gets a spec bump to HDMI 2.1 status and that opens up more bandwidth and thus, higher frame rates.
Why Apple TV?
The most pertinent question in these times of ‘smart’ everything is, “do I even need an external streamer” when your TV already has all the apps you need. The Apple TV makes several arguments in its favour, especially if you’re an iPhone user already.
Firstly, and probably the most important new feature of the 2021 Apple TV 4K box is its HFR capability. While content on the ground is thin at the moment, any personal videos shot on iPhones from the recent past will be able to AirPlay a video shot at 4K/60fps through this new Apple TV 4K, and that’s something no smart TV can boast of at the moment. Convenience aside, the smoothness and richness of colour in these videos is staggering and will urge you to start shooting in landscape mode more often, only so you can play it back on the big, family screen once back home. There’s Red Bull TV as an app available on the Apple TvOS platform which claims to have Enhanced 4K HDR videos but they’re hard to locate and don’t do justice to the hype.
Thankfully, with the bump in processor to A12 spec, the same used in iPhone XS/XR series, it’s only a matter of time until Apple TV 4K makes a serious dash for 120fps gaming glory. At least for the Nintendo-level players. The ability to use gaming controllers is already an option, including the new PS5 DualSense controller with support for haptic triggers more likely than not. Even with the bundled Siri remote, Apple Arcade is a brilliant platform for game developers to show their quieter, more sensitive sides with emphasis on engrossing gameplay and rich visualisation instead of sheer horsepower. I kept reverting to Arcade just to refresh myself with a quick game or two every few hours instead of endlessly surfing on streaming apps searching for new content to watch. Again, not something you can do with your TV.
In terms of HDR support, the Apple TV gets Dolby Vision, HLG and HDR10, which should be adequate unless you have that elite library that uses HDR10+ encoding. Sonically, there are no major improvements besides the already strong suite of Dolby Atmos, FLAC, WAV, AAC and MP3 support but for anyone who uses Apple Music through a hi-fi system, the Apple TV 4K will be good for outputting lossless music up to 24-bit/48kHz. If you want to access the full-scale, hi-res lossless tier, an external DAC with a spare iPhone/iPad is still a better option. Again, if you have the Apple TV connected to a full-blown home-cinema system, the HDMI 2.1 port is capable of ARC and e-ARC too now, allowing you to route audio in various ways from a soundbar or a Dolby Atmos multi-speaker setup.
As before, you can also connect a pair of HomePods wirelessly to the Apple TV, and support for HomePod Mini is coming soon. What surprised me more than any other feature personally though, was how often I found myself using the AirPods Max with the Apple TV 4K for late-night viewing. You can in fact connect up to two AirPods (of any kind) to the Apple TV 4K and once we get Spatial Audio in a few months, it is sure to elevate the experience to another level. These might sound like small increments, but collectively, they all add up to give Apple TV 4K a huge advantage over just a smart TV with built-in apps.
Since the aesthetics haven’t changed at all, the only tangible newness to the 2021 Apple TV 4K comes from the all-new Siri remote. Now much better built with aluminium casing instead of the plastic used before, it feels heftier and is also thicker and taller in design, allowing your thumb to rest perfectly on the volume controls. Ergonomically, it’s a big step up from the older remote unit, with the addition of a mute and power on/off buttons too.
The biggest feature though is the new control dial that blends a clickable D-pad along with the entire surface also being touch-sensitive. You can swipe over the entire outer ring/inner thumbpad for a seamless scrolling action or just graze the top of the ring to scrub through content. Whether you like casual control or a definitive click, it works well in both scenarios. Again, a big improvement over the flat surface of the earlier controller.
The Siri hot key has been relegated to the side now (like on the iPhones), and it’s for the better that it is out of the way. India unfortunately doesn’t get system-wide Siri support so no matter what you ask of her, search results only include content from the Apple TV+ app. Android and Google TV based smart TVs do have an edge when it comes to voice search, but Apple’s counter is the remote app on the iPhone, that pops up on your phone screen automatically every time you hit search on the Apple TV box. It’s seamless and makes use of Apple’s tight integration of its ecosystem, just like the automatic AirPods detection and switching coming soon too.
For any serious videophile, Apple TV boxes have always been second best only to a dedicated Blu-ray player and this generation is no different. The way it handles motion, colours and depth in contrast is better than any smart TV app. And now with the added option of setting optimum colour balance just by placing your iPhone in front of your TV screen, Apple TV fixes you up with a calibrated picture that will make your viewing experience that much more cinematic.
The colour balance feature won’t work on Dolby Vision enabled TVs but for those that aren’t, it does make the colour palette more natural looking and slightly warmer. You get to see the difference between the original picture and the colour balanced picture at the end of the process, so you can make an informed decision yourself. What is obvious is that it makes the colour temperature warmer than original and if that’s not your thing, you can continue with the native settings. It’s a big upgrade over smart TV OTT apps that sometimes may or may not support features like Dolby Vision, Dolby Atmos or even HDR10, depending on brand of TV and kind of app. With Apple TV 4K, every app and every show that did support these formats, played back perfectly without a glitch.
Sonically, it’s as strong a performer as ever, belting out Dolby Atmos content from all supported apps without a glitch unlike on smart TV platforms where Dolby Atmos/Vision is not supported on certain apps. Apple TV+ has some great demo material too, Ted Lasso making for a perfect picture test with its palette of bright blue and red football player jerseys contrasting against the green of the field. Physical, another new show on Apple TV+ allows your multi-channel speaker system to show off with a killer 80’s soundtrack mixed in Dolby Atmos that urges you to change into your leggings and bandana for a sweat sesh.
With the next big update, Apple has also promised to add SharePlay, which will allow you to simply watch and share a show on your Apple TV from FaceTime while chatting with your friends. Then you have switchable user accounts, HomeKit security cam access, automatic photo syncing over iCloud and also the possibility to have family singalongs with the Apple Music app showing full-screen lyrics. So, if you want to see the use-case scenarios over a television with some apps, there are plenty.
You might be hard pressed to tell the difference between the earlier gen and the 2021 model in terms of pure speed, the A10 SoC did a great job earlier. The only slight perceptible difference was during navigating the Home Screen and faster game loading times, but it’s not reason enough to upgrade to the 2021 model if you already own the 2019 Apple TV 4K.
Whichever version you get, 32GB or 64GB, you’ll have enough spare space on your Apple TV 4K for future upgrades. Mind you, the gorgeous 4K screensavers also take considerable space so if you find yourself struggling to free up space, that’s the first area you should address. But they also make for fantastic backgrounds during a party, WFH or just taking a break and staring indoors, if that’s your thing!
With its performance advantage, clean and simple home-screen layout and the abundance of apps and games, the Apple TV 4K+ is anything but a frivolous add-on. Until you actually add it to your system, you’ll always be a sceptic. But having said that, most of the improvements are linked to the TvOS and new Siri remote, both of which can be availed even by existing Apple TV 4K (1st gen) owners.
Ponying up for an all-new device might not be needed in most cases except the extreme home-theatres and just the ₹5,800 upgrade to the Siri remote will get the job done. As always though, the real dividends start showing if you’re invested in the Apple hardware and services ecosystem.