Apple TV 4K (2nd Gen) Review: A Much Better Remote, But What Else?

  • Reading time:12 mins read

After many, many months of rumors, Apple’s newest streaming device is finally here. The company’s calling it the second-generation Apple TV 4K and it’s bringing some impressive horsepower under its familiar enclosure. But it’s also packing a new and (potentially) improved Siri Remote, so we’ve got a lot to discuss.

If you’ve been curious about whether or not a $179 (32GB) to $199 (64GB) streaming device makes any sense at all, we’re here to help.

(Editor’s Note: This review is based on our full video review, which you can check out at the embedded link below.)

Hardware and Features

By the way, Apple did not provide us with this Apple TV 4K. We actually bought this one ourselves, but as with all of our reviews, all of our opinions remain 100% our own. So with that all said, let’s dive in.

Front and center is an updated processor. We’ve moved from an A10X Fusion in the first-generation 4K to a more modern A12 Bionic processor. That’s not exactly a brand-new chip anymore. Apple introduced the A12 Bionic in the iPhone XS and XR line back in 2018 and it’s also popped up in the 2019-era iPad Air and iPad mini as well as the 2020 iPad.

Farther down the spec list, you can see what else this second-gen Apple TV 4K is capable of, including 4K HDR output with support for HDR10, HLG, and Dolby Vision. This new Apple TV also gets Thread support, which is a newer smart home protocol supported by Apple, Google, and other companies. There’s also Dolby Atmos support as well as an HDMI 2.1 port on the back.

That’s the newest version of the popular HDMI standard and it allows for a lot more bandwidth that can enable some fancy new abilities if your TV also supports 2.1. However, so far, we haven’t seen much in the new Apple TV 4K’s feature set that truly takes advantage of the new standard.

Apple does mention 4K HDR at 60 frames per second, but HDMI 2.1 allows for 120 frames per second at that 4K, so it’s possible more advanced features are locked away for now.

We’re also just a few days away from Apple’s annual Worldwide Developer Conference. And it’s possible the company could unveil updates to its tvOS software that allow for higher-end features like 120Hz refresh rates. Stay tuned!

For now though, HDMI 2.1 is backward compatible. So you’ll be just fine using the Apple TV 4K as a regular streaming device, connecting it to displays that support older HDMI versions.

But this Apple TV update isn’t just about updated specs. In fact, perhaps the biggest buzz around Apple’s new streaming hardware updates centers on the included input device, a revamped Siri Remote.

It’s safe to say the previous Siri Remote had more than a few critics. There was the high cost, the glasstop surface, the difficulty in telling which way was up without looking, and other complaints.

So as much as fans were waiting for a new Apple TV, many were likely also hoping for a big improvement on the remote side.

And so we have the new Siri Remote. It’s easy to see the differences between this new option and the remote it replaces. There’s the aluminum enclosure wrapping around the entire device. There’s also a circular directional pad up top that doubles as a trackpad, which makes it much easier to know how you’re holding it without looking.

One criticism Apple hasn’t really addressed, however, is the high cost to replace a remote, as this new Siri Remote is sold separately for $59.

Setup and Performance

Once you open the Apple TV 4K box, you’ll be treated to the usual Apple unboxing experience. You’ll immediately come face-to-face with the new Apple TV 4K, which retains its compact, rounded square aesthetic. Elsewhere in the box is the new Siri Remote, some documentation, a power cord, a Lightning cable for charging the remote, and some Apple logo stickers if you’re interested.

By the way, there’s no HDMI cable included, so make sure you have one available.

Around back, you can see the second-gen Apple TV 4K continues its strong resemblance to the model it replaces. There’s the Gigabit Ethernet port, the HDMI 2.1 connection, and a spot to connect the power cord.

Unlike some other high-end streaming devices, like the Roku Ultra or the Nvidia Shield TV Pro, there’s no USB port for expandable storage here. So just keep that in mind when you’re considering the 32GB or 64GB models.

As for setup, you have a few options. If you have an iPhone or iPad, you can bring them close to the Apple TV to share your WiFi and Apple ID credentials. That can make for an easy, straightforward setup process. But if you’d rather go the manual route, you can do that as well. You’ll need to plug in your WiFi password and sign in to Apple ID — or sign up for one if you haven’t done so already.

Either way, it shouldn’t take too long before you’re greeted by the tvOS Home screen. It’s a familiar, approachable look, especially if you’re used to using Apple devices. There are large, widescreen-shaped icons arranged in a grid, with the top row dedicated to a customizable list of favorites.

The overall app selection is clearly one of Apple TV’s strong suits. Nearly every streaming and entertainment app you’ve heard of and several more are likely available through the onboard App Store.

We ran our Apple TV 4K through 1080p and 4K OLED displays and every time we changed TVs, it quickly and automatically added TV controls to the Siri Remote. Some TV-specific controls, like volume up and down, might require you to point the remote at the display, but controlling the Apple TV itself can be done with the Siri Remote in any orientation.

And it might be unsurprising, but the second-gen Apple TV 4K easily handled all the streaming content we could throw at it. And that included movies and shows in 4K and with Dolby Vision HDR mode enabled.

Like some other recent devices, there’s an option to display HDR output by default. But you can also set the Apple TV 4K to SDR as standard, with HDR firing up only when called upon.

Meanwhile, using the Siri button on the included remote resulted in some impressively fast search results. We were typically served with relevant content options within seconds of speaking — a strong performance indeed.

As a streaming device, then, the new Apple TV 4K is impressively capable.

Of course, Apple’s been pitching the Apple TV 4K as more than just a streaming device, and you definitely stand a better chance of squeezing more from your $180 to $200 if you’re signed up for other Apple services, including newer options like Apple Fitness+ and Apple Arcade.

Now it certainly can’t compete with the PlayStation 5 or Xbox Series X, but there are some fun gaming options to enjoy thanks to the App Store’s gaming selections, as well as the Apple Arcade subscription service. The mobile version of NBA 2K21, for example, plays well on a big screen, even if it’s visually a big step back from dedicated console versions. It also ditches the play-by-play commentary, which likely helps cut down on its install size.

You won’t mistake it for the PS5 or Xbox Series X version, but the Apple TV 4K can serve up a fun game of NBA 2k21.

Speaking of gaming, we were able to connect a PlayStation 5 DualSense controller in a few seconds and it helped make several games more enjoyable. And it was easy enough to control the Home screen and other apps too.

If you plan to do some gaming, though, you’ll need to keep install sizes in mind when choosing which Apple TV 4K to buy. NBA 2K21, for example, weighs in at just under 4GB. And while other, less advanced games require much less space, it’s something to consider if you plan to download a ton of games.

You might also might find more value here if you’re a frequent user of other Apple services, like Apple Music or iTunes for buying and renting video content. You’ll also be able to enjoy your iTunes music library through your TV as well, which could be a handy way to enjoy your playlists through your living room setup.

In short, the more embedded you are in Apple’s various ecosystems, the more opportunities you’ll have to wring value out of your purchase here.

Overall, the new Siri Remote is quite usable — pleasant even at times. The all-aluminum body is comfortable to hold and isn’t quite as slippery as it might look. The new circular clickpad features an outer ring that can be used for directional inputs, so you can press up, down, left, or right. And the large center section can be used as a button as well.

The clickpad’s entire surface acts as a trackpad, letting you quickly scroll through items and, ideally, make navigation more efficient and enjoyable. And when it works, it’s fun to use, and that includes some amusing games like What The Golf?.

It does take some getting used to, however. Especially early on, we had trouble accidentally scrolling when we meant to press a direction or click on the center button. That sometimes led to scrolling past the item we wanted to select, which made some text entry tricky at times.

We eventually got better at it, but if you find it too much of a hassle, you can fine-tune the sensitivity or turn the touchpad feature off completely.

Speaking of changing things up, the TV/Display button on the Siri Remote opens up Apple TV by default, and we understand why Apple would do that — it does have a streaming service to push after all. But if you want to change that behavior, it’s easy enough to switch it so pressing that button brings you to the Home screen instead.

And that Siri button on the side is easy to find without looking and conveniently placed for quick voice searches.

Overall, then the Siri Remote marks a significant improvement when it comes to comfort, design, and overall usability. It does take some getting used to, though, and you do have the option to disable some of its more advanced features, like the touchpad or accessing Siri.

Performance Benchmarks

But what about the second-gen Apple TV 4K itself? Does it have the performance to help justify that price tag?

Well, we ran it through our standard cross-platform app suite. That’s where we load up a series of apps in succession and time how quickly a device can load them. The test starts and ends with Netflix, in part to see if the device is able to load the app faster the second time through.

For these benchmarks, we also included recent numbers from other streaming devices that have fared well in our testing. That includes the 2020 Roku Ultra, which set the record in our suite with an average time of 75.74 seconds for the 10-app test.

And really, any device with a score below, roughly, 100 seconds can be considered plenty fast, but it’s interesting to see how these devices compare. And how does the new, second-gen Apple TV 4K stack up? Well, see for yourself.

So yeah.

The new Apple TV 4K absolutely ran away this test, scoring a total time of 37.16 seconds. That makes it our new record holder for this test, with a time that’s more than twice as fast as the Roku Ultra’s.

And while that is undeniably impressive, I’d caution that incredible app-loading speeds probably shouldn’t be your one and only consideration when looking for a streaming device to buy, especially when we’re talking about options approaching $200.

But if smooth operation and consistently swift app-loading times are important to you, the second-gen Apple TV 4K is in a class all its own.

Wrapping It All Up…

If you’re impressed by the Apple TV 4K’s record-breaking performance and if you’re ready to leverage its ties to other Apple services and platforms, you’ll find plenty to like here.

Yes, a starting price of $179 for 32GB is a lot when compared to other perfectly capable streaming devices out there. So it’ll be up to you to decide whether you think you’ll get your money’s worth from the device.

If you’re a first-gen Apple TV 4K user, I’d stick with that machine for now as it remains a supremely capable machine. Besides, one of the most significant upgrades in this second-gen model is its bundled remote control, which is a problem you can solve for $59.

If all you really want is a solid streaming device, options like the Nvidia Shield TV Pro, the Roku Ultra, and more might offer more bang for the buck, even for existing Apple users. But if you want to enjoy that traditional Apple user experience in streaming device form, and maybe take advantage of its other capabilities, the second-gen Apple TV 4K is an impressive and capable package.

If you’re interested in trying out the new devices for yourself, you can find them here:

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