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2021 Apple TV 4K versus 2017 Apple TV 4K - Who should buy the new model, and who should not

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The new Apple TV 4K has a lot going for it, but chiefly depending on who you are and whether you already have a previous one. Here's who the new version benefits, and who it doesn't.

If you want the new Apple TV 4K, and it's in your budget, then you go right ahead and get it. It is a very good device with a huge amount to offer and we're not here to suggest otherwise.

But we are here to point out who specifically gets the most from that huge amount to offer. The short version is that if you've never had an Apple TV before, this is the one to buy. And if you already have the most recent Apple TV 4K, it isn't.

At either $179 or $199, the new Apple TV 4K isn't a casual purchase. And if cost-saving options are key, Apple TV 4K can easily be beaten.

Low-cost alternatives

It's only one part of the Apple TV box, but the Apple TV app is a major element and that is available elsewhere. Exactly the same app can be used on many Roku set top boxes, for instance, and Roku can be ludicrously cheaper.

Just how much cheaper is a little complicated, though. There are Roku devices embedded in TV sets that cost hundreds or thousands, and there are Roku set top boxes that cost $25. Roku covers all points between and the one consistent part is that they're all harder to use than Apple TV 4K.

Apple TV on Roku

Plus it is specifically the Apple TV app that's available on Roku, not anything else that Apple TV 4K offers. So you can't get Apple Fitness+, for instance. And if you already have an iPhone, sending video from that to your TV set is so simple that the family will do it.

So there are alternatives that will get you some Apple TV-style functions, for less money.

If you already have a pre-4K Apple TV

Until the new Apple TV 4K was announced, Apple was obviously selling the previous model — but, less obviously, it was also selling the one before that. You could buy what became known as the Apple TV HD.

It was cheaper, it was fine, but it didn't change from either its price or its technical specifications in the six years it was on sale. Most significantly, it solely output HD video and most TV sets are now 4K.

The 2015 Apple TV HD still isn't going away —  but it is gaining the new Siri Remote
The 2015 Apple TV HD still isn't going away — but it is gaining the new Siri Remote

So if you have an Apple TV HD, check your television set. If that isn't 4K, you might as well stick with what you've got. But if it is 4K, upgrading to the new Apple TV 4K will get you a marked improvement.

Even with it being more expensive than rivals, a new Apple TV 4K is worth it to you. Especially if you use yours as much as AppleInsider does. You've had up to six years of excessive use, get the new one and enjoy the picture quality, the audio quality, and the speed.

If you have an even older Apple TV, run to buy the new one. It is that significantly better.

If you already have a previous Apple TV 4K

There are differences between the latest Apple TV 4K and the previous model, but they are not significant enough to mean you ought to upgrade — yet.

Alongside everything you can enjoy from the new Apple TV 4K now, though, there are reasons to expect more to come. It now includes Thread support, for instance, which is going to be increasingly useful in smart homes.

Plus it supports HDMI 2.1, which at least in theory means Apple could add 120Hz video. And it uses Wi-Fi 6, too.

Your TV set now probably supports 4K and that is a real reason to buy an Apple TV 4K box
Your TV set now probably supports 4K and that is a real reason to buy an Apple TV 4K box

These are all features that are going to be increasingly useful, but for now, today, they aren't ones that will give you much of a visible difference between the last model and this.

If you're looking for a visible difference, though, the new model does have a completely redesigned Siri Remote. But that's also available separately, and it works with the previous Apple TV 4K, and the Apple TV HD.

That old Siri Remote gets unfairly derided, but if you are one of those who hates it, you now have an option. Instead of paying the full price for a new Apple TV 4K, you can pay $59 and get the remote by itself.

What stops the Apple TV 4K being compelling

Truly, the key decision over whether to upgrade or not — assuming you're interested and presuming you have the budget for it — does come down to what you already have. It's what you've got and what the differences are that you'll see in the new one.

However, even beyond that, there is an issue that stops this new Apple TV 4K being a compelling buy. It's the processor.

The new Apple TV 4K uses the A12 Bionic processor, and the way Apple tells it, that's incredibly faster than the previous models. It's technically true that the A12 is faster than the A10X, but what the company significantly does not mention, though, is that the A12 Bionic is three years old.

So you're getting a three-year-old processor instead of either a four- or a six-year-old one. It's not as if Apple has stood still since 2018, either, so the processor in your 2020 iPhone 12 is considerably faster than the one in your 2021 Apple TV 4K.

It will still shine when you're moving between apps or selecting from menus. The real test will come with the 4K streaming.

For it's the A12 Bionic that will do the heavy lifting of decoding the 4K stream and displaying it. No question, you would want a more recent processor like the A14 in 2020's iPhone 12 range. Or even M1, though that might possibly be overkill.

There are definite, noticeable improvements between how even 2019's A13 Bionic handles Apple's Metal graphics acceleration, compared to the A12 Bionic.

Yet Apple says that the new box can handle 4K HDR content at 60 frames per second. And the only real problem is that there isn't much 60fps HDR video streaming footage to watch yet.

Plus it's likely that an A12 Bionic, dedicated to displaying Apple TV output, is going to be better than the processor in a smart TV.

Apple Arcade now has over 180 titles
Apple Arcade now has over 180 titles

Apple Arcade

So the A12 Bionic could be enough processor for now. Since you will probably be keeping the Apple TV for a long time, though, it's possible the processor will start to become long in the tooth. And, since that processor is already a few years old, that day may come sooner that you may like.

That may not just be the case for watching television, either. Another potentially key part of Apple TV is Apple Arcade. Apple says that gameplay is more realistic because of the A12 Bionic, and that it provides greater responsiveness with smoother motion.

Whether that makes Apple Arcade games full console quality depends on whether you've played using any consoles. But it will be (some) better than in the previous Apple TV 4K. How much better remains to be seen, and will vary by title.

We'll be talking about this more in the coming weeks.

Reasons Apple TV is compelling

It seems that the new Apple TV 4K is all about looks — how the TV appears, and how the box is identical to the last model — but that's not the full picture. Apple TV 4K also supports unquestionably excellent audio.

Pop a pair of HomePods next to your Apple TV and you get Dolby Atmos.

Then there are all the little touches that you don't appreciate until you use the Apple TV app built in to other manufacturers' smart TVs. Only with an actual Apple TV box do you get multiple users, for instance.

And only with an actual Apple TV 4K set top box do you get the ability to control HomeKit devices, or have the doorbell camera show up on screen during a movie. You might not want that, but you can't get it anywhere else.

Apple TV 4K won't make you work out faster, fortunately
Apple TV 4K won't make you work out faster, fortunately

The final choice

If the new Apple TV 4K didn't have a processor from 2018, there wouldn't be anything to hesitate about. There still isn't if you have anything older than the previous Apple TV 4K.

Plus, even though preorders start on April 30, there's no requirement to buy immediately. Apple TV 4K is not going to sell out in an hour, and from past experience Apple is going to keep this exact model on sale for many years.

What it might do is upgrade the software, and what might happen is that 60fps video will become more common. So you could wait and buy then.

Or if you don't care about 4K, HDR, or 60fps, Apple is going to go right on selling the old Apple TV HD. The previous 4K model is gone, but the Apple TV HD from 2015 will still be on sale and will still be exactly the same as it always was.

Except it gets the new remote. If you were to buy an Apple TV HD today, for the new price of $149, you would get the revised Siri Remote.

Apple finally got rid of that 2015-era Siri Remote, even as it stubbornly hangs on to the 2015-era Apple TV set top box.

Stay on top of all Apple news right from your HomePod. Say, "Hey, Siri, play AppleInsider," and you'll get latest AppleInsider Podcast. Or ask your HomePod mini for "AppleInsider Daily" instead and you'll hear a fast update direct from our news team. And, if you're interested in Apple-centric home automation, say "Hey, Siri, play HomeKit Insider," and you'll be listening to our newest specialized podcast in moments.