Review of the Apple TV 4K (2021)

Apple TV 4K 6th Generation Contents

In today’s modern world there are infinite ways of spending free time. You can go for a walk, bike ride, take a hike, or play a sport. If you are more inclined towards a more laid back experience idea you can spend your time chatting via social media using sites like Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat, Clubhouse, and Twitter. Alternatively, you can play games on your iPhone, iPad, or a dedicated gaming console like the Xbox, Playstation, or Nintendo Switch. 

Each of the activities listed above is one that typically requires active participation. In today’s “go go go” world, there is the need to take a more passive approach. For these times, you sit down watch a movie or tv show. 

There are a number of different methods of doing just that. While you could use an iPhone or iPad, and many people do, yet there are those times when you want to minimize digital distractions and just focus on the show or movie. 

Almost every television sold today is a Smart TV and in this case “smart” means that it is capable of running applications. For most people, this is an adequate solution. However, there may be those who want a bit more of a nice experience. For those individuals, there are dedicated devices. These can include a Roku Box, an Amazon Fire Stick, or a Google Chromecast stick. Apple has its own solution for this called the Apple TV.

History of Apple TV

Original Apple TV, 1st generation

Back in September of 2006, at its iPod event Apple provided a preview of a brand new product code-named iTV. This product was a modified Mac mini that ran an Intel processor and had an HDMI output as well as component cables. This Mac mini ran a modified version of macOS, at the time named Mac OS X. Having had one of these it did do what it was intended do. When it was introduced, in February of 2007, it was officially named the Apple TV.

The fact that the original Apple TV was introduced at the iPod event was quite appropriate. The original Apple TV was effectively a large iPod. The device had a 4200 RPM hard drive that came in 40GB or 160GB options. Given that the Apple TV was effectively a giant iPod, it was handled just like an iPod. You would connect it to iTunes on your Mac, or PC, and you could then watch your movies and TV shows.

No streaming box is complete without a way of controlling the device. The original Apple TV included a white infrared remote, the same one that was included with the Macs. This remote included a volume up, volume down, fast forward, rewind, a play/pause, in a d-pad configuration, and a menu button directly below that. The remote layout was very reminiscent of the iPod click wheel, although there was no touch surface on it. 

The original Apple TV was not a one and done product, it has definitely had some successors.

2nd Generation Apple TV

2nd Generation Apple TV

It was approximately three years after the release of the original Apple TV when Apple released a new and improved Apple TV, the 2nd Generation Apple TV. This would be a compete rethinking of not only the hardware, but the software. 

The biggest change was that you no longer synchronize media. Instead all media would be streamed. This could be streamed from a computer, or using one of the apps. The operating system also changed from running a version of macOS to running a custom operating system, called Apple TV Software.

The 2nd generation Apple TV switched from the Intel Pentium M processor to a custom Apple processor, the same one that was in the original iPad, the A4. This processor changed a few other things. The size of the Apple TV box shrank from 7.7 inches square, and 1.1 inches high, to 3.9 inches square and 0.9 inches tall. The physical size change required a change from a standard hard drive to a solid state drive.

The second generation Apple TV was a vast improvement over the first generation and set the stage for future Apple TVs. The remote that came with the 2nd Generation Apple TV also changed. It was very similar to the white remote, but it was made of aluminum. It was a bit taller, yet still very functional. 

3rd Generation Apple TV

The 3rd Generation Apple TV was released in 2012, approximately two years after the release of the 2nd generation. The 3rd generation Apple TV was a slight improvement over the previous model. Hardware wise, the processor was swapped to a single-core A5 and twice as much RAM at 512MB. The other change for the hardware was that it supported 1080p, whereas the previous models supported 720p.The physical size of the box remained the same, at 3.9 inches square by 0.9 inches high. The aluminum remote was included with the 3rd generation Apple TV.

4th Generation Apple TV

Apple TV 4K, 5th Generation

In 2015, Apple unveiled the 4th Generation Apple TV was a major shift in not only hardware, but also in software. Let us start with the hardware. 

The first change is the physical size. The Apple TV remained 3.9 inches square, but it was a bit taller, half an inch to be exact, to 1.4 inches high. The internals also changed to use an Apple A8 processor. The A8 process provided a significant improvement over the A5. 

Sometimes it is easier to let benchmarks provide the data. The data is from Geekbench 3:

  A5 A8
Single Core 218 1623
Multi-Core 415 2910
AES Single Core 14,800 Mbps 993,000 mbps
Overall 784 1678

The processor, as well as the solid state storage, was needed to be able to run the software for the device. It was not the standard Apple TV software, it was a new operating system that Apple calls tvOS.

tvOS

tvOS Interface

Previous versions of the Apple TV software was somewhat limited. Not necessarily in its capabilities, but in the fact that the entire experience was controlled by Apple. New apps could not be installed by end users and instead were pushed by Apple. This approach made it a bit easier to add new services as they became available, because it could be pushed form Apple’s servers. The downside to this though, is that there was no control by end users, nor any way for third-parties to add new services.

tvOS changed all of this. Built with the knowledge Apple gained over the years of building iOS, Apple was able to take this knowledge and put all of it into an operating system designed for the largest screen in most homes. 

tvOS is capable of running applications, just like on iOS and watchOS, but these apps are designed to provide games, video service, or other application. The first version of tVOS, tvOS 9, provided an opportunity for third-party application developers to provide their own applications. 

Apps are not the only function that the Apple TV with tvOS is capable of doing.

Home Hub

With so much power in the Apple TV, there may be some extra power available for other tasks. One of these is that the Apple TV can do is be a Home Hub. A Home Hub is a home-based device that can control your HomeKit-enabled devices. The Apple TV is able to function a a central spot for controlling all of your HomeKit devices. The purpose of a HomeKit hub is to make controlling your Smart devices faster.

In order to control the Apple TV you need some sort of way to control the Apple TV. Apple did not include the standard remote with the Apple TV, at least in most markets.  Instead, this new Apple TV required a new remote. Apple called this new remote the Siri Remote.

Siri Remote

The Siri Remote is a remote that is more than just a standard remote. The top third of the Siri Remote is a touch pad, below this are the buttons. There are six, the Menu button, a TV button, a microphone button, a play/pause button, volume up, and volume down. 

The Microphone button is a dedicated button for Siri. Given that tvOS is built on iOS, that means that tvOS has access to Siri. This means that you can ask Siri questions, to find movies or tv shows, and even to control aspects of the Apple TV, like jumping ahead or backwards, or even control your HomeKit-enabled devices. 

The 4th Generation Apple TV was not the last Apple TV model.

Apple TV 4K (5th Generation)

Apple TV 4K, 5th Generation

The 4th Generation Apple TV is a decent set of hardware. However, there was one feature that many users would really like, and that was the ability to watch 4K movies and 4K TV shows. The 5th Generation Apple TV did just this, and Apple named the product the Apple TV 4K. 

The Apple TV 4K was released in September of 2017, just a couple of years after the release of the 4th generation Apple TV. In order to be able to display 4K properly, the processor was upgraded to the A10 Fusion processor. While this did not provide as much of an improvement as from the 3rd generation to the 4th generation, it was still an improvement. 

When the Apple TV 4K was released, the 4th Generation Apple TV remained on sale. This model was retroactively renamed to be the Apple TV HD. This was done in order to more easily differentiate the two models.

Users of the Apple TV HD did have some issues with the Siri Remote. One of the bigger complaints was that the remote was not able to be easily recognize the orientation. In order to help users easily identify the orientation, Apple added a white ring around the Menu button. While this would help, in some respects, it did not appease all users.

At the April 2021 “Spring Loaded” Apple unveiled a new Apple TV 4K, let us look at that now.

Apple TV 4K (6th Generation)

Apple TV 4K 6th Generation Box

The 6th Generation Apple TV 4K improves upon the 5th generation Apple TV. The 6th Generation Apple TV is a minor update, compared to the previous upgrade. The Apple TV 4K keeps the same physical size of 3.7 inches square, by 1.4 inches high. 

What has changed is the internals. The Apple TV 4K now has an A12 Bionic processor.  While it may seem as though a jump of two processor generations, the improvement is quite a bit. For starters the A12 has a total of six cores, two performance cores and four high efficiency cores. This is an increase of two efficiency cores over the A10 Fusion.

While the processor is a significant improvement, that is not the only aspect that has seen improvement. There has also been an improvement to the wireless chipset. Specifically, the new Apple TV 4K supports W-Fi 6, also known as 802.11AX. Wi-Fi 6 can provide even faster connectivity for devices, provided your network is compatible. Even if you do not have a Wi-Fi 6 network, the Apple TV 4K will still be able to connect to other 802.11 networks.

HomeKit Hub

One of the functions of the Apple TV is to act as a HomeKit Hub. As with any new technology, there come competing standards. Some of these are Zigbee and Z-Wave.  These two standards each have their own positives and negatives. One of the requirements of Zigbee and Z-wave is that require a hub in order to communicate with devices. These hubs are needed to connect between a network and the devices. Typically, this is done with a hard-wired ethernet connection.

There is a newer smart device standard that is implemented in the Apple TV 4K, called “Thread”.

Thread 

Thread is a mesh-based protocol that allows for direct connections between the Thread Hub, in this case the Apple TV 4K, to the end devices. This eliminates the need for a second hub, like those you would see with the Hue lights. This will not only free up spots in a power strip, but it will also allow a wider range of devices. With Thread, no longer will you need to worry about which protocol a device uses. 

Beyond this, Thread also has an additional benefit, it uses a mesh network for connecting all of the devices. This allows the devices to connect to each other, meaning that if one device cannot be found, other devices can pick up the slack and take over and relay communications, if necessary.

Having Thread embedded right in the Apple TV should make connecting smart home devices even easier than before. Yet, this is not the last of the hardware changes within the new Apple TV 4K.

The Apple TV 4K also includes support for HDMI 2.1. In most cases, this will not have much of an impact. However, HDMI 2.1 is needed for a new feature called High Frame Rate High Dynamic Range.

High Frame Rate High Dynamic Range

High Frame Rate High Dynamic Range, or High Frame Rate HDR, is a technology that will allow playback of video at 60 frames per second, for video that includes High Dynamic Range. There are not many videos that shot in 60 frames per second with High Dynamic Range. If you have a capable iPhone you can watch any of your 60 frame per second videos with high dynamic range.

High Dynamic Range HDR should make any video that you watch even better. Beyond fast-moving video, this should also help with things like gaming. 

Gaming on the Apple TV

Lego Battles on Apple TV

On the topic of gaming, the Apple TV 4K also supports game controllers, like the Playstation 5 controller as well as the Xbox Series X|S controller. For those who want to play games with a controller, this is great addition.

Since the release of the 4th generation Apple TV in 2015, Apple has positioned the Apple TV hardware as a viable gaming box. When the Apple TV was first released, Apple had a requirement that all games support the Siri Remote, but could also support a gaming controller. 

It did not take long before Apple changed this requirement. The reason this was changed is because not all games can be played effectively with only the Siri Remote. 

However, controllers are not the only way to control items on the new Apple TV 4K. There is another way, and the one that is primarily used, the Siri Remote. With the 6th Generation Apple TV this has received a huge change, a complete redesign.

Siri Remote (2nd Generation)

Each of the remotes included with each Apple TV oldest on the left and newest on the right.

As mentioned above, each Apple TV included a remote. The original had the white Apple remote, while the second and third generation Apple TVs included the aluminum remote. The fourth generation had the original Siri Remote, and the fifth generation Apple TV included the Siri Remote with the white ring around the menu button.

When the Siri Remote first got into people’s hands, it quickly became divisive. Some people, like myself, do not have any problem with the Siri Remote. Yes, it did take some time to get accustom to, but eventually got used to using the remote and navigating the tvOS interface with the touch sensitive remote.

Even though some had no problem with the remote, there is a contingent of users who do not think the Siri Remote is a good remote and that the remote was a mistake. Many expected Apple to change up the Siri Remote with the Apple TV 4K, but they only did a minor upgrade. With the 6th Generation Apple TV 4K, there is a new Siri Remote.

The 2nd Generation Siri Remote is a complete redesign of the Siri Remote. The remote harkens back to 2nd generation Apple TV remote in that it is aluminum. The 2nd Generation Siri Remote is a different size than the first Siri Remote. 

However, the differences are only slight. The height of the Siri Remote is 5.44 inches, or 136mm, the width is 1.4 inches, or 35mm. The first generation Siri Remote was 4.88 inches, or 124mm, in height and 1.5 inches, or 38mm, wide. These are slight differences, but noticeable. 

Button Layout

The biggest change to the Siri remote, besides the build materials, is the button layout. There are seven buttons and a five way touch surface. There are still a volume up and volume down button, as well as the TV button and the play/pause button. 

There are a couple of new buttons though. The “Menu” button has been placed by a left arrow button. This button still behaves the same as the Menu button, but better represents its overall function. The Back button functions the exact same way as the Menu button did. The back button is concave, which should help you orient the remote when you pick it up.. This covers the existing buttons. However, this is only five buttons, which means that there are two new buttons. 

The two new buttons are ones that will make many users very happy. These are a dedicated mute/unmute button and a dedicated power button.

The mute/unmute button is a great addition because there are those times when you want to be able to mute the audio but not necessarily pause what is playing; which was the behavior with the first generation Siri remote, but no longer.

Power Button

There is a similar thing when it comes to powering off the Apple TV. With the 1st generation Siri Remote the way that you would power off the Apple TV would be to hold down the TV button to bring up the Sidebar, and then scroll down to the Sleep button to put the Apple TV into sleep mode.

With the 2nd Generation Siri Remote you now hold down the power button to turn off the Apple TV, as well as your TV, provided your TV supports HDMI Consumer Electronics Control, or HDMI-CEC. Now, with the dedicated power button you are able to turn off both your television as well as the Apple TV all with one button. This is a huge improvement and a much welcome one. 

Five-Way Directional Pad

The last change is that the top of the Siri remote it is that the top of the Siri remote has changed. With the previous Siri Remote, the entire top portion was a touch surface. This is no longer the case. In place of the touch surface is five-way directional pad that has a touch surface.

The directional pad has four directional buttons, up, left, down, and right. The directional pad is circular and with the entire directional pad supporting touch means that you can use the outside ring as a jog wheel. 

With the outside circle you can quickly scrub through video, or to move between items on the screen. Additionally, you can use the button clicks to quickly move jump forward and backward. 

Siri

In order for the Siri Remote to live up to its name, it needs to be able to access Siri. On the 2nd Generation Siri Remote there is a dedicated button, like on the previous version. However, the placement of the button has moved. Instead of being on the face of the remote, it is now on the side. You can bring up Siri just like you would on an iPhone. You can simply hold down the Siri button and it will appear on the Apple TV as you would expect. 

Now that we have covered all of the new buttons, let us see which devices the 2nd Generation Siri Remote is compatible with.

Compatibility

Typically, when you have a new accessory it is only compatible with the device that it comes with, or new devices. However, that is not the case with the 2nd Generation Siri Remote. In fact, it is actually compatible with both the 4th Generation Apple TV as well as the 5th Generation Apple TV. This means that you can create a consistent experience between all of your Apple TVs. 

Weight and Feel

Every generation of a device is likely to have different characteristics from the generation before. The Siri Remote is no exception. The 2nd generation Siri Remote is actually heavier than the 1st generation. In some respects this makes sense, given that the entire 2nd generation remote is made of aluminum. 

Even though the Siri remote is heavier, it still has a good feel to it. When you are holding the remote, it has a natural fit in your hand. The slightly rounded back feels a bit more natural than the straight back of the previous generation of Siri Remote.

Missing Features and Issues

It should be noted that the Siri Remote does not have a U1 chip. The U1 chip is used to  help you locate the exact position of a device. It seems a bit strange that the 2nd Generation Siri remote does not have at least some method of being able to locate the remote. While it is possible that some do not lose their remotes, there are probably more than a few who will lose one from time to time. There are various reasons why a Siri remote may go missing, but the remote being misplaced by someone, including kids, is quite possible. 

I would hope that there might eventually be a revision of the Siri Remote to include at least a speaker that can be used to have the remote make noise so it can be found. However, if there is going to be a revision, a U1 chip, as well as a speaker, similar to an  AirTag. This would allow a user to use an iPhone to locate the Siri Remote.

I did run into an issue while using the Siri Remote. This is not an issue with the remote itself, per se. The issue I ran into was the fact that I kept hitting the mute button instead of the play/pause button. This is because the mute button is in the same place as the previous play/pause button. I am sure it will take some time to retrain my brain, and muscle memory, but eventually I should stop hitting the mute button instead of play/pause, but even a week on, it is still a problem.

I have a 5th generation Apple TV 4K, and I have not had any issues going between the two Siri Remotes. I know there are some that have opted to replace all of their Apple TV remote with the 2nd generation Siri Remote. I have not ruled out doing this in the future, but I have not ordered any additional Siri Remotes yet.

Apple TV and Siri Remote Pricing

The 6th Generation Apple TV is available in two different storage sizes, 32GB and 64GB. The 32GB model is $179, and the 64GB model is $199. Both of these are available to order today, and ship within a week or so.

The Siri Remote is available on its own for $59. It is available to order today. This also has the same shipping time frame of a week or so for shipping, at least as of this writing.

Closing Thoughts

The 6th Generation Apple TV 4K is not a huge change, externally, there are no changes at all. Instead, all of the changes have been made on the internals. There is a new processor, the A12, which is the same processor that is in the iPhone XS. This is a two generation jump from the previous A10. The A12 processor provides the ability to display High Frame Rate video. High Frame Rate Video is 60 frame per second video that has High Dynamic Range.

The biggest change with the new Apple TV 4K is the 2nd Generation Siri Remote. The new Siri Remote is a complete redesign of the remote. The new remote is aluminum and the top portion is no longer a full touchpad. Instead, there is a circular touch pad, with directional buttons. The directional pad allows you to navigate up, down, left, or right. The ring around the touch pad will allow you to navigate as well as scrub video, or navigate through the interface. 

The 2nd Generation Siri Remote is a big heavier than the 1st generation model, but I suspect that many people will prefer the newer remote over the older one. Even if you do not purchase a new Apple TV 4K, you can use the Siri Remote with the 5th Generation Apple TV, as well as the 4th Generation Apple TV. it may take some adjustment given the difference in the button layouts as compared to the previous Siri Remote, but the second generation is a significant improvement.

Both the new Apple TV 4K and the Siri Remote are both available today. The Apple TV 4K is available in two sizes, 32GB and 64GB. These cost $179 and $199 respectively. The Siri Remote is available for $59. 

If you have a 4K TV and you want a standalone box from Apple, you cannot go wrong with the Apple TV 4K.