Hands On: Second Generation Apple TV 4K

The second-generation Apple TV 4K has arrived. Except for a faster processor and new remote, not much has changed and it remains one of the best-performing streaming players available. Still, depending on your current setup, you may not need to upgrade.

Setting up the new Apple TV is the same as its predecessor. Bring an iPhone or iPad near the Apple TV and a screen appears asking if you want to set it up with your device. Setup is quick and easy if you’re using a mobile device and, if you have (or previously used) an Apple TV, the apps download the same as before. Then all you have to do is choose your Wi-Fi network, indicate how you want to use Siri, and select a few other options.

If you aren't a cord-cutter, you can enter the log-in credentials for your TV provider and the Apple player will automatically sign in to apps (STARZ, Showtime, etc.) that are included for free with your cable or satellite TV subscription.

Speed Test
My first-generation Apple TV 4K is set up on another TV so I was able to compare its speed with that of its successor. When I turned on the new Apple TV 4K, I immediately noticed its lightning fast responsiveness. Apps launched quickly and navigation was fast and smooth. When I asked Siri to play The Handmaid's Tale on Hulu, the screen went dark for a nanosecond and the series started to play. Movies on PLEX that are typically slow to load also came up quickly and, when I asked Siri to fast forward an hour into the movie, I was there in the blink of an eye.

The first-gen player takes a couple seconds longer to load movies, though it is equally fast in responding to Siri commands for rewind and fast forward. Siri’s improved responsiveness comes courtesy of a recent update to the player’s iOS 14.5 operating system, which also includes new color balance and audio calibration features designed to ensure the best picture and sound quality from the Apple TV 4K.

When you select Color Balance from the Calibration menu in Settings, a notification appears on your iPhone, prompting you to hold its front-facing (selfie) camera an inch from the TV screen. While the calibration features worked with my new TCL TV — and apply only to content played on the Apple TV — they did not work with my son's older LG 4K TV.

The player’s overall enhanced speed is the result of Apple’s new A12 Bionic chip, also used in the iPhone XS, the 2020 iPad, and the 2019 versions of the iPad Air and iPad Mini. The A12 chip also boosts video quality as it supports playback of HDR10 and Dolby Vision high-dynamic-range (HDR) content at 60 fps (frames per second). A YouTube video with these specs was clear and played easily and a 4K 60fps video I shot on my iPhone 12 Pro Max of my dog running was smooth and sharp when played over Wi-Fi.

My tests uncovered a glitch. If your Apple TV 4K is connected to a wireless speaker and hard-wired to an A/V receiver, you may experience latency problems where the sound goes out of sync. To fix this issue, go to Settings, choose Calibration and then Wireless Audio Sync.

A New Remote
For the many people who hate the previous generation’s touch remote, Apple’s newly redesigned remote is a welcome addition and worth the $59 the company is asking. Still, I’m not as excited about it as some other reviewers.

Apple has modified the size and shape the handset. In addition to a rounded back, the new remote has more depth and weight than its predecessor, which was a tiny flat controller that was easy to lose. Problem is, the new remote has a sharp edge that can make it uncomfortable to hold. Apple is also using the new styling as an excuse for getting rid of the useful "find me" feature (for locating the remote and other Apple devices).

The glassy-surfaced swipe pad has been replaced with a navigation wheel that you click in the direction you want to move. “Swipe” touch functionality is retained in the middle of the click wheel but you have the option of turning it off in Settings. Doing so also turns off the jog wheel's fast forward and rewind scrubbing capabilities.

When I first tried scrubbing through a video, I ran my finger around the wheel in one direction, which produced a squirrelly forward and rewind dance instead of moving the image in the same direction. To properly use the jog wheel, you have to pause the video, put your finger on the wheel and wait until a circle appears on the video's timeline. Once the circle appears, you can move your finger around the wheel in either direction to arrive at the spot where you want to resume playback.

Apple also changed a couple of other buttons on the remote. The Siri microphone button is now on the side and the Menu button is now identified with a back arrow. The remote also now has a power button that will turn your TV on or off when it is set up with HDMI CEC.

Back to the player itself, the HDMI port has been updated to HDMI 2.1 with a throughput of 48 Gbps (gigabits per second), which means you now need a high-speed HDMI (which isn’t included).

Two other hardware updates include Wi-Fi 6 for compatibility with the new generation of routers and the handful of Thread devices currently available. Thread-enabled HomeKit devices include Nanoleaf light bulbs and products made by Eve. I wasn’t able to test the Wi-Fi 6 or Thread capabilities.

When all is said and done, the new Apple TV 4K is one of the best streaming devices you can buy and an obvious choice for iPhone and iPad users who never got around to buying the previous Apple TV 4K. Like its predecessor, the new player delivers excellent picture quality with Dolby Vision HDR and Dolby Atmos sound but ups the ante with increased speed and 60 fps capability. If you already own the previous generation Apple TV 4K and don't care about 60 fps capability (that is, don't watch a lot of sports or movies from your phone), then just buy the new remote for $59.

The new Apple TV 4K is $179 with 32 GB of memory and $199 with 64 GB.