Apple TV 4K (6th Gen) Review

Posted on 27th July, 2021

Apple TV 4K (6th Gen) Review

John Archer tunes in to the latest version of this iconic TV streaming box…

Apple TV 4K (6th Generation)

AUD $249 (32Gb), AUD $279 (64Gb)

Apple TV 4K 6th Generation

It’s easy to underestimate Apple’s TV streaming boxes for all kinds of reasons. For starters, the company doesn’t refresh its TV hardware nearly as often as it does pretty much every other part of its product portfolio. This can make it look as if it doesn’t care about its streaming boxes that much – as well as meaning that Apple TVs can feel a bit out of date by the time a belated successor heaves into sight.

Apple TV boxes are also expensive versus the vast majority of their rivals and their design, while not unattractive, feels rather basic and static – in that it hasn’t changed significantly for years – by Apple standards. They also lost a huge part of their exclusive appeal a couple of years back, when Apple TV apps were made available to smart TVs and even rival streaming devices. 

Then there’s the way the Apple TV eco-system has been plagued by accusations that it places too much emphasis on pushing Apple’s own services at the expense of others, while its support for some key third-party apps has been affected at times by various technical and political spats with other streaming services. As if this wasn’t enough, the Cupertino company famously dropped the ball when it launched its previous Apple TV 4K box back in 2017 with a number of bad technical decisions that it had to scramble to fix, amid a backlash from reviewers and AV fans alike. 

All this has done absolutely nothing to prepare you – or me, honestly – for what I’m about to say. The new, sixth-generation Apple TV 4K is really rather good. It’s available in a 32GB version for AUD $249 and a 64GB version for AUD $279 – both of which are serious bits of kit.

FEATURES

Given that the new Apple TV 4K is a refresh of a long-running product line, the best place to kick off this section is to focus on where it differs from what’s gone before. 

The most obvious and arguably most welcome change finds the new Apple TV 4K shipping with a completely new remote control design. While the past couple of generations have gone for an ultra-slim handset with a minimal button count, a fancy little rectangular touchpad at their top, and a distinct air of classic Apple cool, the new Apple TV 4K ships with a relatively conventional design. 

It is thicker and thus easier to hold and less easy to lose between sofa cushions. The previous flat touchpad has been replaced by a sensitive circle of up/down/left/right buttons wrapped around a small, gently concave touch/select button that proves handy for scrolling through long song and movie lists. You can also slide your finger clockwise or anticlockwise around the circular ring around the central touchpad circle to fast forward or rewind what you’re watching. Siri is activated by an easily findable dedicated button now tucked into the remote’s right side. There are large rewind, home screen, play/pause, mute and volume up/down buttons ranging below the main navigation circle. 

Apple TV 4K 6th Generation Remote

So the new remote makes the latest Apple TV far easier to use than its predecessor. There’s none of the infuriating fiddliness associated with the previous model, and the new remote’s fast forward/rewind approach is far more intuitive. Its Bluetooth is better too – now at version 5.0, it should work more effectively over greater distances. The new remote can still be used to play the many Apple TV games now available in the Apple store. However, I am much more interested in Apple’s concerted effort this year to allow you to game on your new Apple TV 4K using a wider range of third-party controllers – particularly the latest wireless PS5 and Xbox joysticks. 

Turning from the remote to the new Apple TV’s casing, and outside it’s pretty much identical to its predecessors. Another small, glossy black square with an Apple logo etched into it, and HDMI, Ethernet and power supply connectors on its rear. Inside though, beats a new heart built around an A12 Bionic processor. This steps up from an A10X processor in the previous Apple TV 4K and its extra power is used to drive handy new features. Starting with support for 4K HDR at ‘high frame rates’, where high frame rates essentially means 60Hz. This will instantly sound exciting to anyone familiar with the joys of gaming at 60Hz in 4K HDR, or who’s been blown away by the picture quality of Ang Lee’s two 4K/60Hz 4K Blu-ray film releases, Billy Lynn’s Long Half-Time Walk, and Gemini Man

Right now, though, aside from some 4K/60Hz YouTube content, the Apple TV 4K HDR 60Hz streaming support feels more of a nod to the future than an instant attraction. The vast majority of films and TV shows are made in 24 or 30Hz right now, after all. Apple declared while announcing the 60Hz support that a range of big-name broadcasters, including FOX Sports, NBC Universal and Paramount+, are working on creating content in high frame rates for delivery on Apple’s new box of streaming tricks, but there’s no date yet on when any of this 4K 60Hz content might show up in the wild.

The new 4K 60Hz support made possible by the Apple TV’s A12 Bionic processor has the potential to join forces with support for the premium Dolby Vision HDR format - first introduced on the previous Apple TV to provide an easy way (via Airplay 2) for owners of iPhone 12 Pros to play their 4K Dolby Vision 60Hz home videos onto their TV. Right now, though, Dolby Vision still doesn’t appear to be supported via the AirPlay connection.

The new processor might make tvOS games run more smoothly and slickly. There was the usual feverish speculation in the media before the new Apple TV launched about it potentially being powerful enough to make the Apple TV a serious games console, maybe enough even to rival the Nintendo Switch. However, while there are now a few serious titles available via Apple Arcade, such as Beyond A Steel Sky and The Pathless, this is still not for me a serious gaming contender. Neither the 64GB nor, especially, the 32GB versions offer enough storage. It would be nice if Apple doubled internal storage for its next Apple TV generation if it really wants to get into gaming properly.

Apple TV 4K 6th Generation Gaming Screenshot

The new processor has the potential to make Apple’s onscreen menus run more slickly. In reality though, Apple TV menus have always run so fluidly and responsively that I didn’t feel aware of any change in this respect.

Arguably the most eye-catching new feature for serious AV fans is a colour calibration tool. Provided you’ve got the new Apple TV networked to an iPhone equipped with Face ID, you can use the phone to measure the output of your TV screen and have the Apple TV tweak its output accordingly to give you the best/most accurate picture your TV is capable of. 

If you’ve used the previous Apple TV 4K for most of your streaming for any amount of time, you may have noticed that some services – most notably Netflix – can occasionally seem to stutter slightly during playback. Once you’ve noticed this happening, it’s hard to unsee - so it’s great that Apple has taken the opportunity of the launch of a new Apple TV to introduce support for so-called fractional frame rates (such as the 23.975fps used by Netflix) that should fix the stuttering issue. 

After a few bumps along the road over the years, Apple TV now delivers a comprehensive collection of apps. It seems to be keeping up well with the sudden explosion in/fracturing of streaming services we’ve started to see recently, too. All the ‘big hitters’ are present and correct. The Apple TV supports premium Dolby Vision HDR video and Dolby Atmos sound very consistently, where a streaming service carries these experience-enhancing AV goodies.

Apple continues not to support either the HDR10+ premium HDR format (which, like Dolby Vision, adds extra scene by scene picture data to the video stream) nor, more mystifyingly, the HLG HDR format often used for HDR streams of live sports events. As a result, HDR shows on the HDR10+-supporting Amazon Prime Video service are restricted to the more basic HDR10 format. And the lack of HLG support has been particularly poignant for this writer during the Euro 2020 tournament since it’s meant I haven’t been able to enjoy the live HLG 4K HDR streams of the BBC’s Euro 2020 matches via the new Apple TV. 

Apple TV 4K Screen Calibration Example

HLG is supported now by almost all TVs, and app developers have previously come across mentions of HLG in Apple TV code, so its ongoing absence from the new Apple TV 4K is hard to explain. Here’s hoping it can be added via a firmware update at some point. Also missing from the list of supported codecs is the AV1 compression format. This isn’t a great problem at the time of writing, given that little content is exclusively available in AV1. Still, given how popular its VP9 predecessor ultimately became, it could become an issue in the not too distant future. Hopefully, Apple might be able to roll out an AV1 update at some point, as it did in previous years for VP9.

The latest Apple TV 4K mercifully continues with the various content matching features it eventually brought to the previous Apple TV 4K, in response to the outcry over that box’s initial approach of converting all sources to the frame rates and even HDR formats that it deemed best suited to your TV’s capabilities. For example, the Apple TV 4K now outputs SDR sources as SDR, rather than ‘upgrading’ everything to HDR; doesn’t mess with native source frame rates; and doesn’t output everything in a Dolby Vision container to Dolby Vision-capable TVs. While some may miss the polished interface experience you get from converting everything to a single output format, for most people, the lengths Apple TV now goes to in order to stay true to source content will seem much more admirable. 

One last new feature of the latest Apple TV that the company itself has given bizarrely little publicity to is the ability to take sound from your TV using ARC HDMI technology and have it play through Apple Homepod speakers. This can even work with Dolby Atmos soundtracks or multi-channel PCM, provided your TV is recent enough to support the latest high-bandwidth ‘eARC’ formulation of ARC. Older sets that only support the original ARC configuration will be limited to stereo PCM Homepod playback. 

PERFORMANCE

While it might not have enjoyed any obvious improvements thanks to the new A12 processor, the tvOS interface still, for my money, delivers the best all-around user experience in the streaming box/smart TV world. There are perhaps slightly more straightforward approaches; Roku TV, for instance, plays nicely with smart TV beginners. The latest generation Apple TV is tough to beat for an all-around combination of ergonomics, graphical appeal, searchability, customisability, depth and general sophistication. 

This is especially true if you’re already conversant with/invested in the Apple OS universe. While there’s still a bias in the default interface towards Apple services, I’m not as put off by this as I used to be. Chiefly because as Apple has developed tvOS over the years, the brand’s unapologetic attempt to make the Apple TV a ‘truer’ part of the Apple product universe has started to yield genuine end-user benefits. You certainly don’t have to be an Apple fanboy or girl to get a lot out of the Apple TV. It’s customisable enough and good enough as a ‘smart’ box to be useful to all. You will get the most benefit from it though if you are already steeped in Apple life – or starting to embrace it.

Despite lacking HDR10+ and HLG support, the Apple TV delivers a typically excellent quality streaming experience - especially from the brand’s own iTunes movie store and Apple TV+ services. Every homegrown show on Apple TV+ looks stellar, with ultra-crisp 4K resolutions and often relatively aggressive use of HDR versus some rival streaming services. You’ll need a decent broadband speed to unlock the very best quality on offer; from my own experiments, I’d suggest around a minimum of 25Mbps, rather than the 15Mbps or so you can get by with when watching Netflix or Amazon Prime Video. If you have the infrastructure to do it justice, the Apple TV+ AV experience is so good that you can’t help but wish Apple would come up with more ‘appointment viewing’ series to populate it with!

Apple A12 Processor Promo Photo

The iTunes store now boasts more than 1,000 films that offer 4K resolution and high dynamic range video, plus nearly 500 that carry Dolby Atmos sound. This level of high-quality AV support is extremely impressive by streaming platform standards - and while there will always be mastering quality differences between different titles, iTunes via Apple TV consistently serves up truly outstanding picture and sound by streaming box standards. 

So much so that I have plenty of anecdotal evidence from friends and colleagues to suggest that their experience with Apple TV iTunes is what finally persuaded them to move on from physical media to an all digital life. Especially given Apple’s famous policy of only charging the same for 4K films that it does for HD ones.

Personally, I’m still a physical media-loving dinosaur. There’s always the (small, in iTunes case) possibility of titles you buy digitally on iTunes eventually being taken off the service, and 4K Blu-rays, where bitrates can get up to 100Mbps, still deliver slightly superior picture quality. Also, as with all streaming devices, the new Apple TV’s Dolby Atmos sound uses a compressed ‘DD+’ delivery format while 4K and HD Blu-ray disc Atmos soundtracks are completely uncompressed.

Spending quality time with the new Apple TV 4K makes it abundantly clear, though, why it seems to be so successful at persuading people to ditch the disc. The quality from other apps is typically strong too. Especially now that the Apple TV has the ability to adapt to fractional frame rates. Though obviously, the final quality of each app experience depends to some extent on the video formats each service supports, and their own compression/distribution capabilities, and some app developers certainly make better use of the Apple TV’s capabilities than others.

The shift to an A12 Bionic processor hasn’t made a big difference to the new Apple TV’s gaming capabilities. Some of the most advanced titles that clearly pushed the previous Apple TV to its limit run a little smoother, but there’s nothing game-changing (pun intended) going on. This is partly down to app developers seemingly not yet having had the chance to optimise new releases/existing titles for the new Apple TV’s processor.

It is telling about where Apple sees the focus of the new Apple TV though, that the brand hasn’t gone all out to ensure that a number of games were available at launch that really showed off what the new Apple TV’s processor might do. The lack of a really substantial gaming leap arguably also reflects the fact that while the A12 Bionic processor is certainly an improvement over the previous A10X chip, it actually appeared in Apple’s portfolio as far back as 2018. So it’s far from cutting edge by Apple standards. 

Finally, we turn our attention to the much-vaunted Color Calibration system; it’s impressively easy to use. Despite being limited (to colour temperature, greyscale and secondary colours) in the areas it can adjust, it can slightly improve pictures on budget TVs. Its results certainly do not compare with a full professional calibration, but that’s fair enough considering it’s free versus the significant cost required to employ a qualified calibrator. More problematic for the feature is that I struggled to see any positive difference between the post-calibration picture from the Apple TV and the simple Movie/Cinema/Filmmaker Modes built into today’s premium TVs. In fact, I’d even say I actually preferred the look of relatively accurate premium TV presets to the Apple TV Color Calibration results. 

Apple TV 4K 6th Generation Screen Shot

THE VERDICT

First, the bad news, starting with the fact that the new Apple TV 4K isn’t as powerful an upgrade as we might have hoped for, given how long it’s taken to arrive. Its gaming capabilities remain broadly unchanged (at least until developers start to optimise their titles more), and where new features are concerned, it’s hard to imagine many people buying a new Apple TV just for the new Colour Calibration tool or even, for now anyway, its new 4K HDR 60Hz support.

The colour calibration system and the welcome new fractional frame rate matching have also now been made available for the previous Apple TV 4K. So if you have that predecessor, reasons to upgrade to the new one feel even more limited. The curious lack of HLG HDR support is frustrating, and inevitably the new Apple TV 4K is relatively expensive compared with most rival streaming devices. You can get a 4K Amazon Fire TV Stick for around a sixth of even the cheapest Apple TV 4K price. 

The good news is that both the Apple TV user experience and the AV quality of the streams it offers – especially from Apple’s own services – continue to be second to none. Apple is also still ahead of its rivals when it comes to releasing substantial and useful software updates to its Apple TV boxes. So if you haven’t got the previous Apple TV 4K but you’re ready, willing and able to jump aboard the streaming train – especially an iTunes-focused one – then for all its foibles, the new Apple TV 4K currently delivers the finest all-round premium streaming experience that money can buy.

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    John Archer

    I’ve spent the past 25 years writing about the world of home entertainment technology. In that time I’m fairly confident that I’ve reviewed more TVs and projectors than any other individual on the planet, as well as experiencing first-hand the rise and fall of all manner of great and not so great home entertainment technologies.

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    Tags: apple  apple tv 4k 


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