More than three years after launching its first Apple TV 4K, Apple has launched a refreshed second-generation box. Still named Apple TV 4K, it features an A12 system chip, a redesigned remote control, at least one HDMI 2.1 feature, support for 4K HDR at up to 60fps, WiFi 6 and Thread, and tons of other recent features that have also been made available to previous boxes through software updates.
Here is FlatpanelsHD's in-depth review of Apple TV 4K (2nd gen).
Price and retailers:
Apple TV 4K (2021) - specifications
4K Ultra HD resolution, up to 60fps HDR: HDR10 & Dolby Vision
The new Apple TV 4K looks identical to the old one down to exact dimensions and weight. Inside the small enclosure is the 'A12 Bionic' system chip (up from A10X in the previous one), developed by Apple, and an active fan that is mostly quiet but still triggers a "burp" sound from time to time as it spins up. The box runs cool and you can easily tuck it away in a closed space without concerns. It comes with 32GB or 64GB storage – we have both.
The box is equipped with an HDMI port, which for the first time doubles as HDMI eARC / ARC, or (enhanced) Audio Return Channel. It enables Apple TV 4K to pull audio from the TV screen including its inputs such as Blu-ray players, game consoles etc. Apple refers to it as an HDMI 2.1 port and we will examine it in more detail later.
Also read: Apple TV 4K (2021) vs. Apple TV 4K (2017) vs. Apple TV HD
It is also equipped with an Ethernet port (gigabit) and built-in WiFi 6 (802.11ax), Thread, and Bluetooth 5.0.
Three generations of Apple TVs:
The most visible update is the new Siri Remote, which has a unibody silver aluminum enclosure that is thicker, longer and slightly narrower, as well as more buttons. The touchpad from the old remote has been replaced with a combined click/touchpad. The Siri voice buttons has been moved to the side and the play button has taken over its space. There is also a new Mute button. Finally, Apple has added a discreet power on/off button on top.
The remote still relies on a combination of Bluetooth and Infrared to control Apple TV and your TV screen, and it can still be charged with a Lightning cable.
Since the remote no longer uses glass, it should be more durable. As you can see, our old remote has a broken touchpad. It is still fully functional but it did not take much to break it – a short fall from a living room table – and a remote should be able to stand the test of time.
We are not going to complain to lengths about the old remote. It was certainly not perfect but in our opinion it was the best remote control for the new TV ecosystem; an operating system designed for streaming video and apps. Unlike most TV remotes, Apple had fully embraced the new paradigm and designed a combination of a TV operating system and a remote control so simple that only 7 buttons were needed. It was only possible due to the advanced systems that lived under the surface. The old remote felt amazing and it had impressive battery time for its small size. Its flat back meant that it dropped elegantly to the table without much sound – the same definitely cannot be said for the new remote control that falls to the table like a rock. The new remote is, in our opinion, too thick and should have had more rounded edges.
Now we have a new remote control with the same functionality and 13 buttons; a redundant Mute button (holding volume down will achieve the same in almost the same amount of time) and a power on/off button (that still relies solely on HDMI CEC to power on/off your TV, so no change in compatibility with TVs, AVRs etc.). The Siri remote is in a slightly awkward position too.
The new combined click/touchpad on the other hand is very elegant and a great technical achievement. The way Apple has combined two separate elements to feel like a unified touchpad is impressive – it just works. If you want to use only the clickpad, that is possible (check the settings). It is the best of both worlds and we think it will make people in both camps (click vs. touch) happy. There is new 'scrubbing' functionality for fast-forward / rewind – we will get back to that.
Setup and operation
Setting up Apple TV 4K is easy if you own an iPhone. You just place the iPhone near to it, confirm with Face / Touch ID, and all settings including WiFi and Apple logins get transferred to it. If you enable 'One Home Screen' it will also automatically install all apps and games that were installed on your old box, and synchronise the homescreen between the two if you keep the old box around.
Setting up Apple TV without an iPhone takes a little longer, with more steps, but it is not difficult. Apple TV will not force you to install time-consuming updates during set-up. New tvOS versions will automatically install later (often overnight), if you have automatic updates enabled.
The inconvenient part starts after setup when you have to log in to each individual app; Amazon, Netflix, Disney+ etc. Apple's own apps (TV+, Arcade, iCloud etc.) are ready to use as they are tied to your Apple ID, but the setup process does not transfer login credentials to partner apps. Again, it is easier if you use an iPhone (with iCloud keychain enabled) because you can transfer details to the text fields on Apple TV from an iPhone, but a new Apple TV should be able to transfer login credentials to apps from an old Apple TV too. The company should streamline the set-up process further with improved iCloud integration.
The most elegant part of the set-up process is how Apple TV automatically detects your TV brand/model and then transfers HDMI CEC and Infrared codes to the remote control. Without further ado, you can turn on/off the TV, control audio volume, and mute. Most TV remotes will also be able to control the Apple TV user interface (up/down/left/right and back) although it is not as responsive as the Siri Remote.
However, there is one strange quirk. The new on/off button on the Siri Remote still relies solely on HDMI CEC – the control scheme in the HDMI cable – and does not (yet?) fall back on Infrared. HDMI CEC has been refined over the years but is still not 100% reliable; sometimes commands get lost in the chain or trigger unintended things in larger set-ups with a receiver. It means that using the 'power on/off' button is no different than pressing the Home button on the remote to power on the TV. And powering off with the new button is no different than holding down the Home button and selecting 'Sleep now'.
So why is it there? Surely, it should fall back on infrared commands – like the volume control buttons – in setups where HDMI CEC is unreliably or not enabled at all. Perhaps it was always the intention to implement such backwards compatibility in the system, but there are no signs of Infrared support for power on/off yet as of tvOS 15 beta.
I would also like to point out that the concept of powering on/off belongs to the old paradigm. Smart TVs are still designed the old way as devices that power down most systems when in standby, but Apple TV is not. When a TV operating system is always-on, like it is in Apple TV, the screen becomes a passive device. The screen should just follow the operating system's state; idle, active etc. Like an iPhone, Apple TV has a low-power state but is always ready. You click the home button to wake an iPhone and that is what Apple got right with its previous TV remote too. To improve a user experience, you peel away layers of complexity. The new remote is not, in my opinion, a move in that direction.
The new remote has 'scrubbing', which is a new rewind and fast-forward function. Once you get the grip of it, it works quite well. You need to pause video, hold your finger on the outer ring on the touchpad for a second or so, and then 'scrub' by moving your finger in clockwise or counter-clockwise direction. It is supported in apps that use Apple's standard tvOS video player, including Netflix. It does not work in apps like Disney+ as Apple has yet to make the API available to developers.
With a tvOS update some time ago, Apple also changed what buttons on the remote can power on your TV, seemingly to free up the play and volume buttons for tasks that can be used in Apple TV's standby mode, i.e. to control volume and playback on HomePod or AirPlay speakers without powering on the TV screen. We will examine wireless TV audio in much more detail in a moment.
You can also control Apple TV from an iPhone through the built-in remote app in the control center. Whenever there is a text field on Apple TV, you get a notification on your iPhone that lets you enter text, which is very convenient.
Color Balance calibration
Apple brought a new 'Color Balance' calibration feature to Apple TV with tvOS 14.5. It uses an iPhone with Face ID to measure the TV screen and adjust video output on Apple TV accordingly for more accurate colors, according to Apple.
To test the feature, we went into our testing room with a full Calman calibration setup. We used AirPlay to get our calibration patterns shown on Apple TV 4K.
It is easy and straight-forward. You click the 'Color Balance' function on Apple TV, put your iPhone on the screen, and click start. You just need to hold the iPhone steady or otherwise it will start over again and again. Upon completion, it will show you before and after results. It works with SDR and HDR10, but not Dolby Vision, which we believe is a demand from Dolby.
So how good is Apple's Color Balance calibration? Well, it is very elegant and user-friendly but calibration is limited to the color balance within the TV's pre-defined conditions. What it means is that it cannot fix any major issues in the TV's picture mode. It tweaks color temperature, grey scale, and secondary colors, but only to some extend. It does not adjust the color gamut and it does not improve color accuracy as much as we had hoped.
Below you see before and after results as measured in Calman on a Samsung QN95A. Note how it changes the color temperature (white dot in the center of the graph) to make the picture appear less bluish, although not in line with the D65 (6503 Kelvin) reference. It also performs small adjustments to grey tone (still not very accurate) and secondary colors, i.e. magenta, yellow and cyan (still not within their targets). As a result you get a warmer picture with somewhat better accuracy but it is still not accurate.
We were not able to check the Color Balance feature in HDR10 because iPhone 12 Pro Max does not support HDR on a system level for HDR patterns over AirPlay.
You are much better served by switching to your TV to 'Movie', 'Filmmaker Mode' or something similar, and in fact when we did Apple TV told us that calibration was no longer required as the TV was already accurate enough.
If Apple wanted to take it a step further it would need to control the TV's picture settings on a hardware level (which is possible on some newer TVs) or design an actual Apple TV screen, which would give it full end-to-end control.
In our "measurements" section we include all measurements and our suggested calibration settings. If you want to learn more about our test methodology click here.
Apple TV 4K (2nd gen) energy consumption
Apple TV as a media player
Apple's tvOS, which is powering three generations of Apple TV boxes, is a full-fledged TV operating system with access to video apps, games, advanced functionality, and much more. Combined with the hardware in Apple TV 4K, tvOS offers the best TV user experience today. Allow us to explain why we think that.
You have access to a relatively open app store, which offers the vast majority of the popular apps including competing video streaming services like Amazon Prime Video, Netflix and Disney+. You get continuous app updates and new features. You also have access to apps like Infuse, Plex, VLC, and MrMC (Kodi port but without the plugins) that offer strong support for local media playback from network-attached storage (NAS) over the home network. They support most common video formats including 4K HDR and for unsupported formats Apple TV 4K is powerful enough to transcode on-the-fly.
Apps on Apple TV 4K (2021)
Apple TV app
HDR10, up to 60fps
Match frame rate
Note: Unlike the old Apple TV 4K, YouTube supports 4K60 HDR on the new box. However, the YouTube app does not support dynamic range matching meaning that to enjoy it your Apple TV 4K must be set up to HDR output as default, which is not something we recommend. To fix the issue, Google must update the YouTube app to support dynamic range matching.
You have access to the largest library of movies in 4K HDR and/or Dolby Atmos with the Apple TV app or iTunes. We are maintaining a list of iTunes 4K movies. It counts almost 1800 titles at the time of writing: 1000+ in HDR10 or Dolby Vision, 480+ in Dolby Atmos.
Also read: Guide: Apple TV app vs. Apple TV box
tvOS powers Apple TV HD (2015), Apple TV 4K (2017) and Apple TV 4K (2021), all of which receive the latest tvOS updates. That is 6 years of updates for Apple TV HD and it will most likely continue to receive updates for some time because Apple is still selling it. tvOS updates include major new features, security fixes, and much more. The fact that you can buy a product and still receive new features 6 years later is great. The closest match is Nvidia Shield, which was also launched in 2015 and continues to receive updates, although it has been stuck on Android 9 (from 2018) for some time now. TV platforms like Tizen and webOS in Smart TVs do not receive any major software updates after purchase. Remember to take this into account when you consider the price.
To give you an idea, tvOS updates have introduced major new features like: AirPlay 2, Match frame rate, Match dynamic range, Dolby Atmos support, Apple Arcade gaming service, Apple TV+ streaming service, Apple Fitness+, HomeKit expansions and scenes, home control via third-party platforms, a refreshed homescreen with a control center, multi-user functionality, Xbox and PlayStation game controller support, Picture-in-Picture support, Home Theater mode with HomePod, AirPods audio sharing, Color Balance calibration, and support for integer and fractional frame rates (i.e. 24.000 and 23.976).
The company's commitment to updating its operating systems is exemplary.
Apple has added Fitness+ through a tvOS update. It connects to an Apple Watch for heart rate measurements
So while the old Apple TV 4K and the new Apple TV 4K have a lot in common, many improvements have been introduced since our last review in 2017. The user interface is still very iOS-like and should feel familiar and approachable even to non-iPhone users. The biggest change since 2017 in terms of the user interface is probably the control center. From here you can select HomeKit scenes, user profile, and audio output device (TV, HomePod, AirPods or AirPlay 2 speakers).
Multi-user support in tvOS lets family members switch to their user in supported apps; mainly Apple's own apps. If your wife switches to her account, she will see her watchlist and recommendations in TV+, her library of iTunes movies, her iCloud as well as her progress and Game Center achievements in most Apple Arcade games (developers need to support iCloud game saves). It works reasonably well but only few third-party apps support it. Disney+ and Netflix, for example, still require you to switch user profile in the app. The tvOS homescreen and settings are not tied to individual users either. There are several low-hanging fruits here that Apple could address in the future.
The remote control and tvOS were designed in tandem so it is very easy to scroll and navigate. Apple TV is very responsive due to the powerful A12 chip and well-functioning software. We have compared the two Apple TV 4Ks side-by-side and A12 does overall provide a smoother and more responsive tvOS experience than A10X in the old box, but the difference is not dramatic. A more dramatic improvement would be a user interface running at 120fps. In addition, A12 has enabled a couple of new video features that we examine below.
If you are experiencing sluggishness or delay in menus, it is most likely caused by your TV's motion interpolation system like TruMotion (LG), MotionFlow (Sony), Motion Plus (Samsung) etc. Turn it off (for SDR, HDR, and Dolby Vision).
In supported regions and languages, you can use Siri to search for movies and shows. In unsupported regions, you can set the menu language to English and enable dictation (English), which lets you press the Siri button for voice queries whenever there is a text field on-screen. It is something we have found useful as we are in a region where Siri is not supported on Apple TV. It is also possible to turn on/off your TV (connected to Apple TV) and adjust audio volume via Siri voice commands on other devices (HomePod, iPhone etc).
Video support and HDMI 2.1
The new Apple TV 4K is powered by A12 and for the first time it supports decoding of 4K HDR video at 50fps and 60fps – what the company refers to as 'high frame rate HDR'. This enables it to deliver YouTube in 4K60 HDR and Apple said that it is working with partners like FOX Sports, NBCUniversal, Paramount+, Red Bull TV, and Canal+ to deliver content. The old A10X-powered Apple TV 4K from 2017 is limited to 4K60 SDR or 4K30 HDR10/DV.
Strangely, Apple has not updated its own screensavers to run in 4K60. They are beautiful and wonderful but still limited to 4K30, which explains the stutter. The company says that AirPlay 2 has been updated to support 60fps Dolby Vision on the new box but in our testing 4K60 DV videos shot on an iPhone 12 Pro Max still refuse to play in Dolby Vision on Apple TV 4K.
Support for high frame rate HDR is great but it is not a reason to buy the new Apple TV 4K right now. Some people in the industry will also argue that HFR (High Frame Rate) starts from 100fps.
Apple TV 4K is specified as HDMI 2.1 compatible but in our testing we have found no evidence to suggest that it is capable of HDMI 2.1 bandwidth. As you may know, HDMI 2.1 switches from TMDS (Transition-minimized differential signaling) to FRL (Fixed Rate Link) signaling, which expands bandwidth from 18 Gb/s in HDMI 2.0 up to a maximum of 48 Gb/s in HDMI 2.1. However, Apple TV 4K is still using TMDS (HDMI 2.0) to deliver 4K60 HDR.
Instead HDMI 2.1 support more likely refers to the new HDMI eARC feature (more in that in a moment), but Apple has not made things clear, which is unfortunate since "you can only use version numbers when clearly associating the version number with a feature or function as defined in that version of the HDMI Specification", according to the HDMI organization. References to 120fps support, which would require HDMI 2.1 bandwidth at 4K resolution, have been discovered in the tvOS source code, but it is no guarantee of anything and it could be 120fps at 1080p, which is possible over HDMI 2.0. Apple could unlock further HDMI 2.1 features or higher bandwidth in future tvOS updates, but all of this amounts to speculation.
As for Dolby Vision raised blacks, it is a strange situation really. In the past, we saw raised blacks only when connected to some TV models. Apple TV 4K (2021) seems to have mitigated the raised black issue; reduced it to an absolute minimum. Dolby Vision is sometimes described as a "black box", which is an apt description.
Some have suggested that the new box is capable of playing HLG HDR, in addition to HDR10 and Dolby Vision, but we have found no way to play/stream HLG on it. HLG seems to have been supported in tvOS since version 11.2 so we are not sure what is going on.
We did not find any evidence to suggest that the new Apple TV 4K supports hardware decoding of the new AV1 format, which is disappointing considering that Apple is a member of the consortium behind AV1. It could be unlocked later in some form, like VP9 on the old Apple TV 4K, but that remains to be seen.
Apple TV will automatically adjust its video settings to match your TV's capabilities as well as your region, but enthusiasts may still want to change things or enable optional features, especially the match functions to ensure best possible picture quality and video playback. We wrote a guide on how to set-up Apple TV 4K, which is also included below.
Match features in Apple TV 4K now support both fractional and integer frame rates
'Match frame rate': Apple TV 4K will respect the source by matching its output to the frame rate of the video content at any given time. This prevents stuttering, i.e. by changing Apple TV's output to 24.000Hz or 23.976Hz when a movie/series in 24fps or 23.976fps is streamed, to 50Hz out when you are watching 25/50fps content (from Europe etc.) and 60Hz output when you are watching 30/60fps content (from the US etc.).
'Match dynamic range': Apple TV 4K will respect the source by matching its output to the dynamic range of the video content at any given time. This will ensure accurate picture quality by having Apple TV change between SDR, HDR10 and Dolby Vision output. Without match enabled, it will put everything inside a Dolby Vision container, which is not optimal, especially not on low-end and most mid-range LED LCD TVs. On these TVs we recommend not using HDR / Dolby Vision (including match) from Apple TV at all.
With tvOS 14.5, which comes pre-installed on Apple TV 4K, the company expanded frame rate matching to include both integer and fractional frame rates, i.e. both 24.000fps and 23.976fps. It requires some background information but it is the holy grail of frame rate matching. It is also available on the previous Apple TV 4K, and tvOS now offers the most complete video matching functionality on the market.
The only down-side to using the match system is that you get a black screen whenever it switches. The black screen usually takes 1-5 seconds depending on your device or chain of devices. It is a limitation in the HDMI standard. HDMI 2.1 provides a solution (for frame rate switching) with QMS (Quick Media Switching) but at the time of writing QMS remains unsupported in all HDMI 2.1-compatible TVs as well as Apple TV 4K.
Set Apple TV 4K's default output to 4K SDR at 50Hz (if you are watching mainly European content) or 60Hz (if you are watching mainly American content), and then enable both match functions. This setup will produce fewer matches (black screens) and ensure that you get your preferred 50Hz or 60Hz output for apps that use custom video players without support for the frame rate matching API (frame rate and dynamic range matching is supported on the system level in tvOS so it will work for apps that use the tvOS video player, but developers who use a custom built video player must take advantage of the API).
Apple TV 4K recommended settings
4K SDR 60 Hz (USA) 4K SDR 50 Hz (Europe)
YCbCr (use RGB only if you know how to set up your TV)
Match Dynamic Range
On (OLED & high-end LED LCD TVs) Off (all other LED LCD TVs)
Match Frame Rate
Reduce Loud Sounds
Audio support (Dolby Atmos, Spatial Audio)
The new Apple TV 4K supports the same audio formats as the previous box. This includes Dolby Atmos but only compressed in Dolby Digital Plus. There is still no option for bitstream output of Atmos in Dolby TrueHD. There is no official support for DTS either but premium apps – like Infuse – can unlock DTS and Dolby TrueHD (without Atmos) for local media as part of your subscription plan that covers royalties.
You get audio in up to Dolby Atmos for video and music (Apple Music, Tidal). With tvOS 14.5, both Apple TV 4K boxes have gained support for lossless music quality (in Apple Music, must be activated manually: Apps -> Apple Music) and with tvOS 15 both boxes will gain support for 'Spatial Audio' for video. The company has not said if tvOS will gain support for Hi-Res lossless.
Dolby Atmos for video has been supported for years and is now available through Apple TV+, iTunes movies, Disney+, Netflix, and other sources. Dolby Atmos works over HDMI to a receiver/soundbar and wirelessly to HomePods (Home Theater mode). It works as intended but audio quality does not match Blu-ray discs that offer Atmos in lossless Dolby TrueHD.
As for music in Dolby Atmos: If you are unfamiliar, Atmos is object-based audio where each sound can be encoded as an object; bass track, voices, instruments, effects etc. As opposed to channel-based audio that gets pre-mixed to fixed channels: stereo, 5.1 etc. Object-based audio can be more encompassing, detailed, immersive – but also more gimmicky. It is also scalable and flexible. A Dolby decoder in your receiver or speaker system determines how the audio objects are divided between your speakers.
Dolby Atmos music on Apple TV 4K
On a pair of HomePods connected to Apple TV 4K, Atmos tracks generally sound wider and more detailed. HomePods effectively manage to place sounds lower or higher (not ceiling level, though) relative to the listener perspective as well as wide left, wide right, and center. Especially the virtual center channel sounds eerily real. This tight integration with HomePod is great but weird considering that Apple has discontinued it. HomePod mini can soon (starting with tvOS 15) be used as default speakers for Apple TV 4K but they are far less capable and do not support Dolby Atmos either. HomePod will gain support for lossless music quality later this year.
You can also output Dolby Atmos music over HDMI and we confirmed that it works with Sonos Arc as well as Atmos compatible TVs. The experience will obviously depend on your speakers, room, and setup. At this time, there is no support for Dolby Atmos music over AirPlay 2 to speakers from B&O, Sonos, Bluesound etc.
Depending on the track, we sometimes noticed sounds or details that we had never heard before; whispers from behind (try Stargirl Interlude), birds chirping, new instruments. Some tracks have been mixed quite differently for Atmos. The Weeknd's tracks use Atmos to add to the dark atmosphere and in subtle ways to draw the listener in further. In Kanye West's Black Skinhead or Lady Gaga's Born this Way, Atmos is used to bring out a lot of surround effects, which can be too gimmicky.
With AirPods Pro, the Atmos effect is even better than on HomePod and most soundbars. Music sounds more immersive due to better audio positioning, and you can hear more details – you feel a higher level of presence. Most of it is simulated but the effect is better and more accurate than on a pair of HomePods.
We have the tvOS 15 beta installed on one of our new Apple TV 4K boxes so we have also had a chance to try the new 'Spatial Audio' feature for video. It works with AirPods Pro and AirPods Max. In tvOS 15, you also get a notification when AirPods are near Apple TV 4K. Just click the Home button to connect – very seamless.
New AirPods / Spatial Audio menu on Apple TV 4K
On Apple TV 4K, Spatial Audio is designed to work from stereo up to Dolby Atmos. The control center has a new AirPods menu with Spatial Audio controls and a source audio indicator. With stereo content, tvOS 15 can "spatialize stereo" and add dynamic head tracking. With surround / Atmos content, it can create immersive surround sound in your AirPods.
Dynamic head tracking works as intended. If you turn your head, you will immediately hear TV audio shift to the left or right, depending on where your TV is relative to you. Since there is no UWB (Ultra Wide-Band) chip in Apple TV 4K, AirPods determine the position of your TV screen by assuming that you are looking at the TV when you press play. If you do not, left/right directionality will be messed up. If you get up, head tracking will reset and try to recalculate. A better approach would have been to just include a UWB chip in Apple TV 4K.
Spatial Audio on Apple TV 4K
"Spatialized stereo" sounds like a wider stereo perspective with head tracking. Dolby Atmos sources on the other hand sound really good in AirPods Pro. You get an immersive listening experience with lots of details coming from many directions. Apart from subwoofer bass, the experience surpasses most Dolby Atmos soundbars.
Spatial Audio on Apple TV 4K
Wireless audio output and HDMI eARC
Since Apple TV3 (without tvOS), it has been possible to wirelessly output audio to external speakers via AirPlay. In the beginning it was limited to audio from video, i.e. packaged media where lipsync can be corrected. Apple implemented support for 5.1, 7.1 and Dolby Atmos as well as audio output from games with tvOS 14.2, but these extensions are limited Apple TV 4K + HomePod pairing as part of the 'Home Theater' feature – the full package is not available on AirPlay 2-capable speakers from B&O, Sonos etc.
Normally, you would associate wireless audio with delay and dropouts but after having used the 'Home Theater' feature on Apple TV 4K with a pair of HomePods since October 2020 we can say with confidence that it works really well.
The coolest new feature in Apple TV 4K (2nd gen) is one that the company did not promote in any way during its presentation or even on its website. It is HDMI 2.1's eARC (and HDMI 2.0's ARC), which lets the Apple TV 4K box pull audio from your TV screen, including its tuners and HDMI ports, and send wirelessly to HomePod. Apple TV becomes a sort of receiver. It is supported only on Apple TV 4K 2021.
An example: You have a PlayStation 5 or Xbox Series X console connected to your 4K TV over HDMI. You can now set your TV to output its audio through HDMI eARC to Apple TV 4K, which then transmits audio wirelessly to HomePod without delay. You get PS5 and Xbox game audio on your HomePods even when the Apple TV box is in standby – without any manual action required after the first setup. Very cool.
HDMI ARC/eARC support in the 2nd generation Apple TV 4K
The feature is labeled beta, most likely because it still has a few compatibility quirks and because it is limited to the discontinued HomePod (HomePod mini will work from tvOS 15) – AirPlay 2 enabled speakers from other brands are not compatible at this time. To get it working you must set the HomePods to the same room as Apple TV from the 'Home' app and then pair them to Apple TV through 'Home Theater'. To enable the separate HDMI ARC / eARC feature (as seen in the picture) your Apple TV must be connected to your TV's HDMI ARC/eARC port.
In our testing with 2x HomePods it worked very well but you will need to also set up audio settings on your TV and any HDMI-connected source devices. Apple recommends the 'passthrough' option for HDMI eARC in your TV, and we also found this to be the best solution. Ideally what you want is to have uncompressed (PCM) audio from the source, regardless of whether the source is the TV itself or a connected game console or player. PCM ensures lowest possible audio delay in the audio chain. HDMI 2.1's eARC has much higher bandwidth and supports PCM at 5.1 and 7.1 as well as Dolby Atmos over PCM (so-called Dolby MAT 2.0), and Apple TV 4K will be happy to receive this multi-channel PCM if you connect it to a 4K TV with HDMI eARC support. DTS:X is not supported. After tweaking audio setting on PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X as well as in the TV (for HDMI eARC passthrough), we did not experience any audio delay.
Getting PlayStation 5 or Xbox Series X game sound wirelessly to HomePod via the TV and Apple TV is a small wonder to behold. It is a quite advanced setup with several devices in the chain but it feels so seamless. With 2x HomePods sound is crisp, detailed and wider than stereo (with a surround source). With the many speaker units inside HomePod you get a wide stereo perspective, a simulated center speaker that actually sounds like audio is coming from the center, plus some side effects. At times, two HomePods manage to produce effects that almost sound like rear effects, but most of the time you will long for discreet rear units.
HomePods also support Dolby Atmos. The multiple speakers and microphones allow HomePods to utilize the object-based Atmos audio in a way that sounds superior to conventional channel-based surround. Do not expect overhead effects from two HomePods, though. The HomePod's hardware was clearly not designed to serve as a Dolby Atmos TV speaker.
However, in some situations a source or app will fail to identify Apple TV's HDMI eARC as Dolby Atmos compatible, i.e. the Disney+ app on Xbox. Setting the LG TV, which we used for testing, to 'Auto' instead of 'passthrough' improved Dolby Atmos detection in some instances but audio would then be out of sync. This is not a big issue as you can just use the apps in the Apple TV box instead. After initial testing, we updated Apple TV 4K to the tvOS 15 beta and we note that the company already seems to have tweaked eARC compatibility with other sources so it would be too early to conclude anything. If you have a pair of HomePods, try it out. If you do not, you are out of luck because HomePod has been discontinued.
What complicates things are bandwidth limitations in the conventional HDMI ARC system. If your TV is limited to HDMI ARC – if it is older than 2-3 years, it will most likely be – you will only get PCM in 2.0 stereo. Alternatively, you can enable bitstream on the source device to get surround or Dolby Atmos. Some source devices (for example Xbox or a Blu-ray player) will let you "passthrough" the bitstream, which usually results in acceptable or no discernible audio delay but if the source device repackages its sound output to bitstream (also Xbox, without the new "passthrough" option enabled) you will get quite considerable audio delay in movies and especially games. In some situations, the devices can compensate for the bitstream's audio delay, but that will of course only work for packaged media like movies. It will not work for real-time content such as a console game. Think of bitstream as the transport format for compressed audio. Audio needs to be compressed for distribution via streaming, channels or whatever, but you generally do not want the bitstream to propagate further in the HDMI link. However, due to limitations in the HDMI chain or your devices you can be forced to (for multi-channel audio). Whenever possible, use PCM and HDMI eARC.
If you are still experiencing lipsync issues on HomePod double-check if your TV's motion interpolation system is deactivated. Then run 'Wireless Audio Sync' on Apple TV (requires an iPhone) for each relevant combination of Hz/resolution/range, i.e. 4K60 SDR, 4K60 HDR, 4K24 SDR etc. This is also to ensure that video/game audio from Apple TV will remain in sync.
Wireless Audio Sync checks your TV's video processing time to avoid lipsync issues
There are also some functional limitations, though. There is no volume indicator on-screen when using eARC in Apple TV and there is no user-facing option to check if the source is transmitting stereo, surround or Dolby Atmos via HDMI eARC to HomePods. On the other hand you can control audio volume from an iPhone or through Siri voice commands to HomePod, i.e. turn on your PlayStation 5, jump into a game, and ask Siri to pump up the volume.
In summary, 'Home Theater' mode allows Apple TV to output its video, menu and game audio wirelessly to HomePods, while HDMI eARC lets Apple TV pull audio from your TV screen and its HDMI ports. In combination, the features turn Apple TV into a central hub for TV audio. It is actually quite a technical achievement that has been years in the making, as evidenced by the tvOS betas. While some competitors like Roku have WiFi-based wireless audio systems, none of them match the technical capabilities (eARC, gaming audio, Dolby Atmos etc), features, and seamless integration of Apple's.
We also think we know why the company has not promoted the feature. Why do we say that? Well, imagine all of this in a speaker from Apple designed specifically for TV audio.
- "I’m not going to comment about the future too much, but I will say we’re excited about HDMI 2.1 for some other reasons. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but we’ve got a beta out for eARC and the ability to have other sources connected to your TV use Apple TV to output to HomePods, and we’re committed to making great audio products for the home. We’re excited about that aspect of HDMI 2.1," Apple's VP of product marketing for home and audio, Tim Twerdahl, told MobileSyrup last month (emphasis ours).
Apple TV as a game console
The new Apple TV 4K is powered by the A12 SoC as opposed to A10X in the old box. It is a newer SoC, built on a 7nm process technology (like PS5 and Xbox Series X) versus 10nm in A10X, but is far from the company's most advanced SoC. A12 was launched with iPhone XS in late 2018. It is not even the company's most powerful chip from 2018; A12X has much faster graphics.
So what are we looking at here? Apple claims that A12 delivers a "50% increase in graphics performance" over A10X, but we are not sure how it is defined. Internally, FlatpanelsHD has for years maintained a list of GFlops performance specifications for various devices including consoles, and based on Apple's occasional comments on GFlops performance A10X delivers approximately 500 GFlops while A12 delivers approximately 730 GFlops. That would line up with Apple's claims of 50% increase.
Game consoles: Graphical performance
Apple TV HD
Nintendo Switch (in dock)
Apple TV 4K
Nvidia Shield (2019)
Apple TV 4K (2nd gen)
Xbox One S
There are no benchmark apps available for Apple TV so we can only compare A10X vs. A12 benchmarks from iPhone/iPad that are constrained by battery and lack of active cooling. In relative terms, A12 delivers approximately 33% better single-core CPU performance and 25% better multi-core CPU performance (based on Geekbench). With Apple TV's less compact enclosure and its active cooling solution, it could be clocked higher – or go higher occasionally – but we do not know the exact details. FlatpanelsHD has also confirmed that A12 in Apple TV 4K has 3GB of RAM, just like the previous Apple TV 4K (although with higher memory bandwidth in A12).
With approximately 30%+ for CPU and 50%+ for GPU, the new Apple TV 4K is more like a speed bump than a leap. If the company had wanted to, it could have equipped Apple TV with a much, much faster SoC. Apple's M1, for example, delivers 2.6 TFlops, which would mean that Apple TV could surpass PS4 and Xbox One. Apple has decided not to and you should adjust your expectations accordingly; the new Apple TV 4K is not designed to compete head-to-head with game consoles.
Still, since the launch of the first generation Apple TV 4K in 2017, tvOS updates have added support for Sony's DualShock 4 (PS4) and DualSense (PS5) controllers as well as Microsoft's Xbox One and Xbox Series X controllers. Apple TV has also gained the Apple Arcade game subscription service, which includes a handful of console-quality games like The Pathless, Beyond a Steel Sky and Sayonara Wild Hearts, plus lots of mobile-class games. In a game like The Pathless, which was a PS5 launch title, you even get rumble / haptic feedback in DualSense and Xbox controllers, although DualSense's adaptive shoulder buttons are not enabled. If only the frame rate was higher, it would feel almost like playing The Pathless on PS5.
As you may know if you have read our PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X reviews, we are gamers at heart. We competed competitively in online PC games (Counter-Strike, Warcraft 3) before the term 'esport' was even coined, but today we take a more casual approach to gaming on the living room screen. So what else could we do other than dedicate many hours of work time to play games on Apple TV 4K?
Apple TV is now compatible with PS5 and Xbox Series X/S game controllers
Added support for Xbox and PlayStation controllers is a great move. Many of us own a console and it is super easy to pair the controller to Apple TV. Just set it to pairing mode and go into Bluetooth settings on Apple TV. The Xbox controller even lets you seamlessly switch pairing between the Xbox and Apple TV, with the push of a button. Many Apple Arcade games support – or even require – a game controller. In addition, you will find a handful of great games, such as Inside, available for purchase separately in the app store. An Apple Arcade subscription plan is, however, a better solution if you are planning to play games on Apple TV on a regular basis.
We hooked up both Apple TV 4K (1st gen) and Apple TV 4K (2nd gen) to compare performance across games like The Pathless, Little Orpheus, and Beyond a Steel Sky; games that made the old box struggle with overall low frame rate and dropped frames.
What we found can best be summarized as small improvements. Since the frame rate is locked in many games and since game developers have generally not optimized performance specifically for the new A12-powered Apple TV 4K, low frame rates issues persist. For more demanding games, it would appear that they often render in the 25-30fps range. However, we did see a significant reduction in load times (The Pathless, Rayman Mini, Warp Drive, and other Arcade games), which we ascribe to the faster memory, and we also noticed fewer dropped frames across the board, which we ascribe to the somewhat faster GPU. Performance in a game like Beyond a Steel Sky is still not great but at least it is playable now.
Also read: Apple TV: Best games on Apple Arcade & App Store
We are sure that things could be improved further through optimization but it will require developers to put in more hours. The developers who publish games on Apple Arcade seem happy to continue development but mainly add new levels and features – a way to keep gamers engaged. There are many great Arcade games available on Apple TV and we think it is a great little 'console' for casual gaming in a family's living room but Apple TV 4K is clearly not Apple's big push in TV gaming. The company already has the hardware to turn Apple TV into a robust gaming device, so the question remains: Do they want to?
It is also worth noting how much more efficient Apple's ARM-based hardware is compared to x86-based hardware in game consoles like PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X. The Pathless running on the new Apple TV 4K? Less than 9W. The Pathless running on PS5? Typically over 150W.
The Pathless looks better on PS5, no doubt about that, but 16 times better? We will let you decide that. It runs at higher and more consistent frame rate on PS5 with better picture details, but be careful not to lose sight of the bigger picture here: You can play some PlayStation, Xbox and Switch games on Apple TV already. In terms of hardware, Apple TV 4K most closely matches Nintendo Switch. As for the game library, and game developer support in general, Apple still has a long way to go before it can match the console makers.
On the other hand Apple TV lacks 'next-gen' capabilities. There is no support for 120Hz output, no HDR support in games, and no Dolby Atmos support in games. It would need faster hardware.
We have both the 32GB and 64GB versions, and in our experience even the 64GB is too meagre if you want to play games on a regular basis. You will often have to delete games to install new ones. tvOS has dynamic storage control meaning that it automatically deletes old levels that you have completed or not yet reached. It also deletes things like screensavers if it needs to free up space. The best solution is probably to activate 'Offload Unused Apps' under 'Apps', which deletes unused games but keeps the icon on the homescreen. In that way you will not forget about the game but it will not take up precious storage space when you are not using it. Reinstalling it does not take too long on an always-connected box in the home and game progress is synced automatically to iCloud or retained on the box.
A nifty gaming feature for families or shared living spaces is multi-user support. It allows each user to use a separate Apple ID and Game Center account, meaning that game progress can follow each user account on Apple TV. You can switch between users seamlessly from the control center. Most Apple Arcade games support multi-user iCloud syncing for individual game progress but not all of them. It is still a quite recent development but for Apple Arcade it provides a streamlined experience where games can be enjoyed across Apple TV, Mac, iPad and iPhone. You can pick up a game and continue wherever you are. It is not hard to imagine the future potential in cross-device gaming when all of Apple's devices run M1-class hardware and up.
If you want to play more GPU intensive games on Apple TV you can try apps like SteamLink that allow you to play PC games on Apple TV over home network streaming. Cloud game streaming services like Google Stadia and Microsoft xCloud (in Xbox Game Pass) are still not available on tvOS due mostly to politics.
A note here: Since Apple's new Siri Remote is no longer equipped with accelerometer and gyroscope some games may no longer be compatible. One game on Apple Arcade that "requires Siri Remote (1st generation)" is The Enchanted World but at least all initial levels still worked fine with the new remote despite the warning label. Other games such as Stela continue to crash on the new Apple TV 4K whenever a game controller is connected, even on tvOS 14.7.
Lastly, we want to point out that as of tvOS 14.2 'Home Theater' mode supports wireless game audio, meaning that game audio gets transmitted to HomePod wirelessly without delay. At this time, it works only with HomePod and not other AirPlay 2 enabled speakers (although some standard AirPlay speakers appear to work).
After video and music, the next step is to bring Spatial Audio and Dolby Atmos support to gaming on Apple TV 4K. At this time, neither seem to be supported even if game developers want to take advantage. The 'Spatial Audio' menu is greyed out in games. With an HDMI diagnostics tool we checked the audio signal for a number of games and found it to always be 2.0 stereo PCM.
Many had probably expected a big hardware upgrade after more than three years, but A12 in the new Apple TV 4K is only a marginal upgrade over A10X in the old box. The biggest hardware change is HDMI eARC; one that Apple has not even promoted. However, Apple TV 4K in the year 2021 is still a big improvement over Apple TV 4K in the year 2017 mainly due to continuous tvOS updates. There is also a redesigned remote control.
Apple's tvOS is the best TV operating system, in our opinion, with access to a rich catalog of apps and a growing number of quality games (mainly on Arcade) that you can play with Xbox and PlayStation controllers. Apple TV 4K offers the best system for frame rate and dynamic range matching, now with support for both integer and fractional frame rates. It has the best wireless audio system, now with Dolby Atmos support, game audio and eARC, although limited to HomePod. With tvOS 15 later this year, you get new functionality such as Spatial Audio – and who knows what will come next.
Aside from the seemingly missing support for AV1 video decoding and a maximum of 64GB storage, the biggest disappointment is probably knowing that it could have been so much more. A12 is a SoC from 2018 so why on earth did Apple wait until 2021 to put it in Apple TV 4K? This is not Apple's next push into TV gaming. It is not the next big step in video. It is not the ultimate living room solution. And we suspect that something else is being worked on.
So what is Apple TV 4K (2nd gen)? Exactly that. The second generation of an existing product. If you already own Apple TV 4K, there is little reason to buy the new one unless you really want the new remote control (also sold separately) and HDMI eARC functionality. On the other hand it is still the best streaming media player on the market and one that fully deserves our Highly Recommended Award.
Apps is an evaluation of the app catalogue and the quality / user friendliness of the apps Features is an evaluation of the built-in functionality and how useful it is, as well as build quality User experience is an evaluation of user friendliness and the general use of the box, including the remote control Total score weighted as: 40% Apps, 30% Features, 30% User experience. All scores are calculated based on a moving maximum target, defined by what we currently consider the best on market. It is then presented as a percentage. This means that a score will fall over time as new and better media boxes set new standards. This allows you to compare scores across years. A score of 100% in a given category means that it is consider the best available media box in this category to date