It's 2021 and there are fewer reasons to buy an Apple TV streaming box. That’s because Apple has partnered with many of the biggest TV manufacturers, such as LG, Sony, Vizio and Samsung, and integrated most of the Apple TV's best features – HomeKit, AirPlay 2 and even iTunes – into their TVs. The reason is simple: Apple wants as many people to have access to Apple TV+, its streaming service with original films and original shows (aka a competitor to Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime Video).
To watch Apple TV+ you need to have access to Apple’s TV app, which had previously only been available on Apple hardware: iPhone, iPad or Apple TV (it's now available on Macs). But now it's available on pretty much every smart TV and operating system. This has left Apple's streaming box in a tricky position. Do people really need it?
The answer is: yes. There are still a number of reasons to buy one of Apple's streaming boxes – either an Apple TV 4K ($179+) or an Apple TV HD ($149) — because there are a number of things that Apple’s TV streaming box can do those new smart TVs with Apple TV-esque features can’t. Let’s explain.
Apple TV 4K (2017) vs Apple TV 4K (2021)
First things first. Apple just updated the Apple TV 4K (but not the Apple TV HD) so now you might see 2017 and 2021 models (although, Apple stopped selling the 2017 models). So, what's the difference? And if you have a 2017 model, is it worth upgrading to a 2021 model?
The Apple TV 4K (2021) is very similar to the older version. In fact, they look identical and have most of the same capabilities, including access to Apple Arcade and Fitness+, and support for immersive video and audio technologies, such as 4K HDR, Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos.
The difference is that Apple TV 4K (2021) has a lot better internals. Apple decked it out with a faster processor (A12 Bionic), as well support for HDMI 2.1 and Wi-Fi 6. This also allows the Apple TV 4K (2021) to support 4K TVs with higher frame rates : 4K at up to 60fps. Basically, if you've bought a new 4K TV within the last year or two, the Apple TV 4K (2021) will likely be able to get the most out of it.
Maybe the most obvious difference is that the Apple TV 4K (2021) comes with redesigned Siri Remote. It scrapes the old touchpad in favor of a more traditional D-pad controller, and it has dedicated buttons for power and Siri. Also, it's a little thicker, more ergonomic and not as symmetrical (so it should be easier to navigate in the dark).
If you have an older Apple TV 4K or Apple TV HD, you can purchase the new Siri Remote for $59. If you buy any new Apple TV (4K or HD) from Apple, you'll get the new Siri Remote (not the old one).
The Reasons to Still Buy an Apple TV
Apple's Dolby Atmos Experience
You need to have an Apple TV if you want to use either a HomePod or HomePod mini as a TV speaker. We recommend buying two — either two HomePods or two HomePod minis — that way you configure them in a stereo setup. If you have an Apple TV 4K and a HomePod, it supports Dolby Atmos audio; for Apple's best Dolby Atmos system, we recommend getting two HomePods. Please note that the Apple TV HD doesn't support Dolby Atmos and neither does the HomePod mini.
As of March 2021, Apple has rolled out a tvOS update that brings support for HDMI ARC and eARC to your Apple TV 4K, meaning you can now use a HomePod (or HomePod mini) as a TV speaker when watching any input — not just the one that the Apple TV is on. So if you frequently watch cable or play a game console, you can get the HomePod to work with those as well. (To make this work, you have to set your HomePods as the default speakers for your Apple TV — here's how.)
A Private Listening Experience with AirPods
If you have an Apple TV, it's really easy to connect your AirPods, AirPods Pro or AirPods Max for private listening — press and hold the Play button on your Apple TV remote and a drop-down menu should allow you to connect them. And with the upcoming software update, tvOS 15, Apple will finally bring support for Spatial Audio to the Apple TV when used with AirPods Pro or AirPods Max.
Spatial Audio is an 360-degree technology that tracks your head movement (thanks to the built-in accelerometers and gyroscopes in the AirPods Pro and AirPods Max) and adjusts the sound of the movie or show you're watching so that it sounds more immersive. To turn it on, you open the Control Center on your Apple TV, touch and hold the volume button on your Siri Remote, and the turn on Spatial Audio. Right now, the AirPods Pro and AirPods Max are the only two wireless headphones that support spatial audio.
The public beta for tvOS 15 is available now. The full software update is expected to roll out later this year (likely in September).
The Multi-User Experience
Similar to how services like Netflix allow you to switch between different profiles, offering individualized experiences split between different members of the household, so too does the Apple TV. For example, if you watch a lot of action movies, and your wife watches dramas, and your son or daughter watches cartoons – all those movie and TV show suggestions don't get muddled together. The Apple TV app that's built into other smart TVs does not offer this multi-user experience.
You Want to Play Apple Arcade on Your TV, Right?
Apple Arcade is the company’s new subscription gaming service which lets subscribers play original games and they will be playable across iPhone, iPad, Mac and Apple TV. If you have a smart TV that supports the Apple TV app, however, it will not support Apple Arcade. If you’re somebody who plans to subscribe to Apple’s new gaming service and you want to play games on your big-screen TV, you’re going to need an Apple TV streaming box.
Apple announced Apple Arcade, its gaming subscription service, at its March 2019 keynote.
The Apple TV Remote and a Superior Siri for Search
The Apple TV's Siri Remote only comes and works with Apple TV streaming boxes, and it’s actually a very powerful navigation tool. Not only does it offer a super-easy way to scroll between thousands of Apple TV apps, as well as quickly get back to the Apple TV’s home screen, but it’s integrated with Siri so you can use your voice to quickly find content. Since the Apple TV streaming box is a completely “Apple experience,” Siri is actually a way more powerful tool.
The Epic Screen Savers
A relatively minor feature of the Apple TV that has ardent fans is its screen savers. When your Apple TV is idle for a certain number of minutes, its display switches to a screen saver, typically featuring beautiful videos. To date, Aerial screen savers have been super popular; these Aerials have been shot from places all over the world and from space. If you like these screen savers enough, you can also tap “Menu” button on Apple TV remote while in the main screen and initiate these screensavers whenever you like. Apple constantly rolls new screensavers, such as underwater, aerial and satellite shots. These Apple-specific screen savers are only available on Apple TV streaming boxes.
The Smart Home Advantage
The Apple TV streaming box, HomePod smart speaker, and any iPad can be designated as smart home hubs for an Apple smart home. The advantage of this is it allows you to control your HomeKit smart devices remotely. For example, if you want to use your iPhone to issue a HomeKit command, either through the Home app or using Siri on your iPhone (like “shut the garage door” or “I’m close to home, get the AC running”), the Apple TV or the HomePod is the thing that receives the command and executes it within the house. Since the Apple TV and HomePod are both always on, it also allows you to run smart home automations; a good example is that through HomeKit, you can have your smart lights turn on at sunset. It’s true that there is now HomeKit on non-Apple smart TVs, but they are essentially acting as HomeKit accessories – not as a Home hub. It’s not always on and they won’t let you issue a command remotely; you can’t say “turn on my lights” when you’re at work, for example.
A Superior Processor Means No Lag
The truth is that even though more smart TVs will have more Apple TV-esque features, there’s a good chance that they won’t run like one. All Apple TV streaming boxes have dedicated processors that are designed to make things run as smoothly as possible. Smart TVs that are running Apple’s software have a lot more going on and, the reality is there might be more lag if you don’t have an Apple TV streaming box. It’s still worth trying the built-in option if your TV supports it, but you can always spend the $179 if you aren’t happy.
It’s the Best Portable TV Streamer
Yes, they are expensive, but the Apple TV streaming box (HD or 4K) are still arguably the best portable streamers that you can buy. Most people don’t think of them or use them as portable devices – it’s true – but the Apple TV is actually a great gadget to take on vacation or a work trip. It has 32GB or more or storage, which is room enough to store a great number of apps or games. Or you can easily connect the Apple TV to Wi-Fi and stream any of your favorite shows or movies, across various apps.