With the launch of the new Apple TV 4K less than a week ago, the time has come to read a positive review of the new hardware, written by a member of that mysterious niche audience constantly referred to over the past year. A year locked indoors left to ponder on the future of Apple TV and if there was to be one at all.
As listeners to our podcast will know, the unveiling of new hardware at last month's Spring Loaded event was a welcome surprise and something of a relief. Not only was I developing a website for a product that many speculated to be dead in the water, but the past year had seen me fall once again for Apple TV's charm. A charm that combined a confident and reassuring tvOS with the often slapstick sensibilities of the Siri Remote. Apple TV had become my window to the outside world during a time where premieres at home replaced nights out to the cinema and - with the help of some internet wizardry - attending film festivals from across the globe (albeit virtually) was a thing you could finally do. Despite the terrible circumstance that caused things to go the way they did, my inner movie-nerd recluse was secretly living his best life.
I hadn't felt this warm and fuzzy since Apple TV 4K first launched in 2017. Not only was it the first entertainment box to include both Dolby Vision and HDR10 - paving the way for the 4K revolution - it was a hardware release married to Apple's competitive pricing stance on 4K content, offering free upgrades on iTunes HD purchases as and when masters became available. A move akin to a cineastes wildest of dreams and one that my ever-growing iTunes movie library greatly benefits from to this day.
The new Apple TV 4K may not be the marvel of engineering like we've come to see in recent months from the teams in charge of the M1 transitions for Mac and iPad Pro. Instead, it's a modest upgrade packed to the brim with the latest video standards, and a release that will keep its niche audience happy whilst opening up possibilities that could compel those who previously couldn't see the value proposition to take another look. Most important of all, the introduction of new hardware has removed the most significant derailment in any Apple TV conversation; the original Siri Remote to which we say cheerio.
If there was one particular pain barrier to daily use of Apple TV and tvOS - including family members with less-than-nimble thumbs - it was the original Siri Remote. Whilst I was a fan of the previous remote thanks to its simple minimal top layout and a large trackpad that mimicked the experience on Mac, admittedly it failed at basic tasks like scrubbing through shows with the accuracy required.
That aforementioned has been replaced with a new heftier rendition made of cold-to-the-touch anodised aluminium and centres around a new circular physical touch button d-pad with the addition of a mute button and dedicated power button for devices compatible with CEC. The menu button makes way for a back button, with the repositioning of the dedicated Siri button to the right mimicing those found on the iPhone and iPad - to which a few left-handed folk have voiced their frustrations to me via email.
The eight-way outer ring of the new circular touch surface is clickable but can also be swiped for familiar navigation for a familiar feeling from the last half-decade of traversing tvOS. The new navigation method offers a far more assured means of getting from point A to B, keeping multi-touch intact and allowing for two-finger scrolling when using a remote desktop client.
Intrigueingly, the precise scrubbing via the jog-wheel isn't as intuitive the first time you try it. To activate the jog-wheel you must first pause the content and hold your finger on the outer ring. It's something that takes a moment to learn but once you have mastered the action for the first time, it's plain-sailing from there on out. This new action is in addition to the less precise scrubbing of old, which as many will have predicted is the way you will have to scrub content on third party apps for a little while yet.
Lastly its worth noting a new tvOS option is available for a grid style keyboard (Settings > General > Keyboard and Dictation) which I find much easier than the previous linear option as the decrease in touch area on the new remote makes it far more cumbersome using the linear option - also the transition animation between search and results using the grid is something to behold.
• < Button
A superb little detail on the new remote is the slight concave on the back button. Now even in a pitch-black room, you will be able to identify it instantly, saving you from the embarrassment of pressing the wrong button and exiting out from a show or movie mid-play.
The new dedicated power button is convenient. A one-step process to powering everything down compared to the two-step process from before, but essentially the function is the same as both ways power down through CEC. Consumer Electronics Control sadly was never fixed to a univeral specification so flakey implementations do exist. If you don't have a CEC capable TV or find it to be unreliable it is still possible to toggle your TV power by teaching your remote (Settings > Remotes and Devices) and re-mapping your TV power on/off to the mute button. It may not be ideal if you plan on using the mute button but for the most part you could choose to pause your content instead.
It could be my mind playing tricks on me but Siri seems to understand me a lot better on the new remote. Whilst the previous remote deciphers commands via almost inaudible recordings; my hope going forward is that recordings are good enough to be broadcast to someone on the other end of a HomeKit video doorbell or in order to send an intercom to another part of the house.
One omission from the new Siri Remote is a way to find it quickly should it get lost. Given the technology within the U1 chip and AirTag it would have been nice to have seen some kind of FindMy integration. Whilst Apple have stated that there's no need, after losing the remote a few times down the side of the sofa already I beg to differ.
I solved this conundrum with the previous generation remote - whilst also understanding its orientation in the dark - by attaching the now discontinued Siri Remote Loop, which was overpriced at $20 but saved me more than 20 minutes looking for it. Sadly the grip of the old Siri Remote Loop doesn't stay attached to the new remote's lighting charging port. I can only hope the gap in the market for a loop with FindMy integration is filled soon by Apple or one of their partners. The other omission is the lack of an accelerometer or gyroscope making it incompatible with older motion-led games, which should indicate exactly what the 2021 Apple TV 4K is and what it isn't.
A12 Bionic and performance
When rumours began to circulate that somewhere in Apple Park engineers were toying with the idea of a future generation Apple TV acting as a gaming behemoth (by Apple standards), justifiably so - for a moment at least - we all got a little bit excited. Not since the heady days of the PiPPIN had Apple toyed with the idea of stepping into that arena and with Apple Arcade still in its infancy there's a chance that Apple tells that story in the near future - especially considering how Sony and Microsoft have openly stated that they will struggle to supply their current console generation roll-outs deep into 2023.
That isn't a story Apple is telling today with the current Apple TV 4K. Time will tell whether or not gaming does see an increased boost in performance once developers have optimised games for the box. I think many of us imagine that Apple Arcade's global community of developers are shipped container units full of new products but through conversations I have had with members of that community, that is far from the case. Whilst we'd love to know everything now - I included- we may need to exercise a little bit of patience.
What we have in today's Apple TV 4K is the A12 Bionic. First introduced in the iPhone Xs and Xs Max in 2018 and one that remains in the 10.2 inch iPad released last September, is by all accounts a tried and tested chip with minimal performance improvements over the A10X Fusion and potentially worse graphical performance. What's important to note is that the analysis on both chips comes from geek bench comparisons between battery-powered devices with a limited thermal envelope. In contrast the device we're focused on powers by mains power and its internals actively cooled by a fan. Using those scores to judge the increase/decrease in performance on Apple TV between generations would be as nonsensical as it would be to compare a HomePod mini to an AirTag to an Apple Watch because they all include the U1. With no geek bench tools to definitively analyse the difference in performance what I can say of my personal experience thus far is positive. That experience has seen me fly through content tiles with ease whilst smiling gleefully thanks to the increased zippiness throughout tvOS. Most important of all for anyone with a substantial iTunes Video Library is that the caching of artwork has been vastly improved.
Audio return channel passthrough
The story of Home Theatre Mode has been short but eventful. A surprise inclusion in tvOS 14.2 last November, the feature allowed for the HomePod (2018) to act as the default audio output bringing support for virtual 7.1 Dolby Digital and Dolby Atmos soundtracks. Shortly afterwards in early March, the spectacular sounding AirPlay 2 speaker was officially discontinued. It was a decision that had me mystified and had many others questioning the Apple Home strategy going forward.
Given that nasty shock, the inclusion of ARC Passthrough is not only a pleasant surprise but a glimpse into future aspirations. This magical new feature - free of any lag - allows for the 2021 Apple TV 4K connected to full-sized HomePods to passthrough audio of any internal smart TV apps or devices connected to the TV via HDMI. In essence it turns the Apple TV 4K into a receiver. The only downside to this otherwise well executed inclusion is the lack of a volume indicator when using other sources.
Some outlets are currently misreporting the feature as being specific to eARC (enhanced Audio Return Channel) yet it is also possible with TVs using the older lower bandwidth Audio Return Channel standard, but with some caveats. Whilst eARC supports the bandwidth for full Dolby Atmos Surround and multichannel LPCM (Linear Pulse Code Modulation), the older ARC standard is limited by the signals that can be sent causing compatibility issues for some devices. PlayStation consoles are an excellent example of devices that allow you to change the audio output manually to Dolby Digital 5.1, whilst the Nintendo Switch is limited to outputting LPCM.
ARC passthrough is the early feature of this new hardware with the biggest wow factor and a great indication of what I predict will be more announcements from a team of engineers that continue to amaze me. With the introduction of Dolby Atmos and high bitrate Lossless streaming coming to Apple Music next month I can only imagine that we will hear more about how we'll be able to take our sound to the maximum in just a couple of weeks time.
Some additional notes: Currently the Disney+ app does not recognise eARC as an Atmos capable device, but a representative told me that this was being worked on by their software engineering team. Some devices such as my Xbox Series S are also currently unable to identify my stereo HomePod pair as Atmos capable. Do keep in mind that ARC Passthrough is listed as a Beta feature so early compatibility issues are to be expected.
Now that we've talked about my favourite wow-factor feature for the new hardware this review takes a shift in tone because the most significant and most crucial part of the Apple TV 4K story for 2021 is video. Sadly, video standards - as fascinating as they are to me personally - are mystifying at best, mainly due to the endless list of similar acronyms given by an industry that seems to be incapable of pinching a single member of staff from Apple's marketing division. However, to fully understand what is supported at this moment in time and the potential for this device going forward, there's no avoiding it. Before we dig into HDMI specifications, let me answer two questions I have received in recent days regarding Hybrid Log-Gamma and Raised Blacks - questions that have remained on many an AV forum for years.
• Hybrid-Log Gamma
Hybrid Log-Gamma, a backwards-compatible high dynamic range standard jointly developed by the BBC and NHK, introduces the ability to encode a wide dynamic range while still being compatible with the existing transmission standards in the standard dynamic range region. The origin for the compatibility confusion began as with tvOS 11.2 which supported the format but the original Apple TV 4K HDMI 2.0a port was just shy of the HDMI 2.0b spec needed to display HLG on a hardware level. To add to further confusion, apps including Infuse (a personal favourite of mine) have had the capability of playing back HLG on Apple TV but had converted those files to SDR. In my tests HLG content now plays back in HDR.
• Raised blacks
The other question I had received concerned raised blacks which I have to be perfectly honest isn't something that had bothered me until I looked for it (so be forewarned). Elevated Black levels impact the technical reproduction and content quality of a dark scene. There is now almost perfect black uniformity on my LG OLED compared to the input of the previous model. The easiest way of testing this at home would be to turn on your favourite dark scenes from Servant or to check the black bars in a movie finished in a 16:9 aspect ratio with pillar-boxing.
Despite the modesty of the .1 at the end of its name, HDMI 2.1 specification allows for a maximum of 48gbps data throughput, almost increasing the data of the previous HDMI 2.0 spec by a throughput of 3x. This is important because the more data that can be sent per second from the device to your compatible display, the better the quality in picture, audio, chroma and the higher the dynamic range, resolution and frame rate.
This new specification allows for 4K HDR at 120fps whereas the bandwidth on HDMI 2.0 restricted us previously to a stable 4K HDR at 60fps at 18gbps. Support for this higher frame rate is not only great for sports and gaming content, but it also allows high frame rate recordings from today's iPhones to be displayed correctly. What is also a key differentiator between the standards is how signals are processed. HDMI 2.0 relied upon three TMDS (Transition-Minimised Differential Signalling) channels to carry audio and video data capable of 6gbps per channel whilst pairing those channels with a TMDS channel for clocking pixels and keeping all the audio and video data in sync.
HDMI 2.1 employs that additional clock channel to be repurposed for data. In the new specification these data channels have been renamed as lanes and replace the TMDS process with a fresh approach called FRL (Fixed Rate Link) featuring four lanes of 12gbps and supporting playback across a spectrum of SD up to 10K whilst maintaining a transmission of up-to 48gbps. Whilst 8K and 10K may be theoretically possible on Apple TV 4K it is important to note the name of the product being marketed.
One other nicety from the new specification is that it can switch content type without ever losing sync, otherwise known as VRR (Variable Refresh Rate). Video games often incorporate dramatic scene changes from explosion effects to dramatic colour changes. In the past that has led to screen-tearing - a visual artefact in video display where a display device shows information from multiple frames in a single screen draw. VRR compensates for those changes by seamlessly matching the refresh rate to the frame rate of the game.
My frustration with all of the different names and standards that the audio-video industry employs is that all of the acronyms and branding under the sun fail to equate to a better knowledge of what a product is capable of. HDMI products have a specification that is defined by common signal types such as 4K 60 (18 Gbps), 4K 30 (9 Gbps) and 1080p 60 (4.5bps) yet HDMI specifications can be misleading. Whilst certain standards need to be adopted to receive certain accreditations from the likes of Dolby that doesn't equate to knowing whether a device can perform to the high levels set by a more premium device and that's why I have often argued that comparing the previous Apple TV 4K to a Firestick is either uninformed, or worse still, disingenuous.
For example some 4K 60 devices can run the resolution and frame rate but will struggle with full chroma information like 4:4:4 which would be a full 18gbps signal. Instead, some competing devices can only display 4K 60 at 2.0.0 at 14gbps and thats where the difference is. I'm not saying I sit down to watch a film with the developer hud on my TV and tvOS but I do want the very best experience I can get and my previous experience has lead me to believe that is best obtained via my Apple TV 4K.
Please keep in mind as exciting as 48gbps is everything in the signal chain has to be able to support that bandwidth, and that's where the new Apple TV 4K brings us some puzzling information to ponder on. During my early tests running tvOS 14.6 I noticed that when running at 4K HDR 60 the newly released Apple TV 4K was using the TMDS signalling method instead of FRL and thus it dropped the chroma subsample from 4:4:4 to 4:2:2. This means that whilst there may physically be a HDMI 2.1 port in the new Apple TV 4K it is currently limited to the bandwidth of the TMDS signalling method described earlier. It is unknown if and when the full capabilities of the HDMI 2.1 FRL specification will be unlocked or if the system on chip is capable of driving those high numbers. Judging on the lifespan of the previous generation of Apple TV 4K I would be shocked if Apple didn't unlock the capability during the course of its lifecycle or as soon as tvOS 15.
A story to be told
The previous Apple TV 4K has demonstrated that launch day is only the beginning of a compelling story. With this new generation of Apple TV 4K we are hooked right from its first act with ARC Passthrough - a nod of approval and a cheeky wink in the direction of its home cinephile audience. As anyone interested in audio-video equipment will attest, the industry is niche yet incredibly competitive. The Apple TV 4K carries the torch handed over by its older sibling in what will always be a competitive race where the latest streaming box will race ahead of the pack only for that lead to decrease for a dramatic finish soon before the starting gun is fired just again. That is how this industry has survived, and it's nice to see Apple back leading the pack.
Even with the value of WiFi 6 and Thread support and its HomeKit hub credentials adding extra value to an impressive package, there will still be calls for a cheaper alternative to Apple TV 4K than the dated Apple TV HD (2015) at $149. That product - I believe - is quietly on its final run before discontinuation. However with AirPlay now a standard on most smart televisions sold today and core services including Apple's TV and Music apps also taking residence on many smart TV store-fronts would Apple be wise to water-down their strong messaging with the Apple TV 4K just to have a sub-par mass-market product in the lineup? Whilst I am not convinced - given the privacy-first nature of its business compared to other vendors - I would love to see Apple rise to that challenge.
Now roll on WWDC.
Personal note: Congratulations to Glenn and Mihaela on the birth of Elvira Leah Allen on May 21st 2021. I am so incredibly happy for you both and I am counting down the days until I get to meet my beautiful goddaughter.
Sigmund is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of ScreenTimes where he began his Apple TV coverage in 2016. With an unwavering passion for Apple, storytelling and storytellers alike, he writes about Apple TV with a focus on the arts, development, tvOS, home theatre and accessibility. Sigmund also co-host’s Magic Rays of Light, a weekly podcast exploring the world of Apple TV and the many talents bringing our screens to life.