Sometimes, it can be challenging to review a product, especially if it’s the first generation. Other times, like with the new Apple TV 4K, reviewing an iterative device simple. Everything about it is usually a little bit better or faster. This is the case with the latest Apple TV 4K introduced last month. Apple’s new set-top box is faster, and more powerful, and adds a new radio for an improved smart home experience.
Before getting into my thoughts after using the Apple TV 4K, let me touch upon that last point. Because the Matter standard, and devices that support it, are just rolling out, I haven’t been able to test Matter. I’ll likely follow up in the near future on this aspect. Additionally, there are two Apple 4K TV models and you need to know the difference from a smart home perspective.
The $129 model comes with 64 GB of storage and has both Bluetooth 5.0 and Wi-Fi 6 radios. The $149 version doubles the storage and adds two additional hardware features. One is a speedy Gigabit ethernet port and the other is a Thread radio. I mention this because only the latter model can act as a Thread border router. So if you’re planning ahead for Matter in your smart home, you’ll want to spend the extra $20 for the higher-end model.
The only caveat here is for folks that already have one, or even two, Thread border routers in their home. In that case, it’s worth asking yourself if you need another one, or if you plan to hardwire your Apple TV 4K to your home network.
Aside from those differences, everything else about the two Apple TV 4K models is the same. You can’t tell them apart unless you’re looking for that ethernet port. Both include the same wireless Siri remote, now with USB-C charging but still no UWB radio for “Find My” support. Both play Dolby Vision content as well as the HDR10+ format for 4K video at a smooth 60 frames per second.
Adding the latter standard is a new feature that I particularly welcome since one of my televisions only supports HDR10/10+. Additionally, Amazon Prime Video uses this format, for example.
The new Apple TV 4K is also a smidge shorter and smaller than the last edition. I appreciate that Apple continues to squeeze more performance in less space because I don’t want my set-top box to be the center of attention in the living room.
Streamed or downloaded video content looks excellent, and the high dynamic range of colors really makes the content pop. I wouldn’t say the colors are better than what my smart TV apps provide natively, but they’re good. Overall, however, I prefer watching content on the Apple TV 4K over my TV’s native apps because of the general responsiveness and excellent picture quality.
That responsiveness is likely due to the upgraded processor inside both models. This year, Apple boosted the silicon from the A12 Bionic in the previous model to an A15 Bionic. That’s the same Apple silicon used last year’s iPhone 13 lineup and it’s a potent performer. Everything from the interface to opening apps and playing games feels and looks noticeably snappier. In fact, the game experience is on par with that of my first-generation iPad Pro. Whatever the title, games on the Apple TV 4K just fly. Instead of on a small phone or tablet screen though, you get a more immersive experience on the big screen.
My family definitely sees the difference in overall speed and they’re not 4K or TV “snobs” like I am. So clearly, most people will notice and appreciate the inclusion of the Bionic A15 chip. I also noticed that viewing my two HomeKit Secure Video cameras is a better experience.
I thought the response time to see video from my connected devices was good with Apple’s previous set-top box. And it is. With the new Apple TV 4K, it’s great. Obviously network traffic and connectivity can affect this but in my home, using Eero 6 Pro routers, it’s really fast.
Apple has also tweaked some of the user interface controls for the better. Siri is less obtrusive, for example, and it’s easier to switch accounts or view smart home devices. However, these are software upgrades available to the prior model as well. You don’t need to buy a new Apple TV 4K to get them.
And that gets to the heart of the question “Should you buy the latest Apple TV 4K?”
If you own the prior model, you paid $199 or more. Even the latest high-end version this year costs less so you might want to save your money. I’d say keep what you have unless you desperately want or need a Thread border router, more storage for downloaded games and content, or want that added HDR10+ support. HomeKit support is available on all models, so it’s really Thread that’s the smart home star here.
Others may consider alternatives such as a Roku box, Google Chromecast, or Amazon FireTV unit. You’ll surely pay less in those cases. However, the price difference this year between an Apple TV 4K and those options is even slimmer thanks to a rare Apple price cut for a new product. I’d say give the Apple TV a close look, particularly if the price was holding you back in the past. There’s a lot to offer here, and if you’re an iOS or HomeKit household already, you’ll appreciate getting more for less.