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+.
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. Is there any reason to get one?
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.
What is an Apple TV? (And what does it do?)
An Apple TV is a streaming media that plugs into your TV and allows you to stream apps (such as Netflix, Hulu, HBO Max and Disney Plus) so that you can watch your favorite shows and movies. It effectively turns any dumb TV into a smart TV. If you already have smart TV, it allows you to run Apple's tvOS as opposed to your TV's smart interface.
Apple TV vs your smart TV: What's the difference?
Pretty much all new TVs are smart TVs these days, meaning that they come with one of a variety of operating systems (such as Tizen, Roku or WebOS) that allow you to stream movies and shows from your favorite apps without having a separate dongle. But if you have an iPhone users — or other Apple devices — that are extra advantages of an Apple TV.
If you have an iPhone, an Apple TV allows you to easily cast music or a move/show to your TV. It gives you access to Apple's gaming and fitness services (Apple Arcade and Fitness+). And it allows you to use your HomePod(s) or HomePod mini(s) as TV speakers (more on that below).
Apple TV 4K (2017) vs Apple TV 4K (2021)
Apple just updated the Apple TV 4K (but not the Apple TV HD) so now you might see 2017 and 2021 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 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).
11 Reasons to Buy an Apple TV in 2021
1. The Best HomeKit Experience (Thanks to Thread)
Apple has integrated the new Apple TV 4K with Thread, a low-power mesh networking standard (similar to Zigbee or Z-Wave) that's designed to make smart home devices — such as smart home cameras, smart doorbells, small thermostats and more — work better with each other. It's one of two Apple products that supports Thread, including the HomePod mini, but there a large number of third-party gadgets that support Thread (and Apple is expected to release new gadgets that support Thread in the future, as well). So if you're building a smart home around Apple's HomeKit and you want the best possible experience, it's a good idea to update to the new Apple TV 4K.
Apple takes the protection of your person information very sincerely, which is a big reason to use Apple's streaming hardware over just using its services on a third-party TV or dongle. If you don't have an Apple TV streaming box, then your streaming activity and account information isn't monitored by Apple, but by the hardware companies that are running its software — and they likely don't have the same rigorous standards of protecting your information as Apple.
Getting Apple's TV hardware gives you the extra peace of mind that your information is throughly being protected. (You can read more on this topic via John Gruber's blog, Daring Fireball.)
3. Apple's Dolby Atmos Experience
If you have a HomePod or HomePod mini, an Apple TV lets you use them as speakers for your television, which makes for a sneakily good surround sound system. Two 'Pods — either HomePods or HomePod minis — can be configured in stereo. If you have an Apple TV 4K and a HomePod, this system will support Dolby Atmos audio, but you need the Apple TV 4K; the 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.
4. 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. With tvOS 15, Apple will finally bring support for Spatial Audio to the Apple TV when used with AirPods Pro or AirPods Max. To turn it on, 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).
5. 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.
6. Apple Arcade on the Big Screen
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.
7. 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.
8. 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.
9. The Smart Home Hub
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.
10. A Powerful 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.
11. 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.