Apple TV 4K (2021) vs Apple TV 4K (2017): is the upgrade worth it?

Apple TV 4K (2021) vs Apple TV 4K (2017)
(Image credit: Future)

There's a new Apple TV 4K in town after a revamped streaming box was announced by Apple for 2021. The new Apple TV 4K (2021) offers some small tweaks and improvements over the 2017 iteration, though you may be wondering whether it's really worth the upgrade.

Apple's foray into home streaming has always felt a bit... hesitant. It's telling that, while the likes of Amazon Fire TV and Roku streaming devices are seeing new models every year, it took Apple four years to upgrade its premium 4K resolution streamer.

The main difference is in the Siri remote, really – a point of contention with the 2017 model that we're glad to see addressed. But for owners of the Apple TV 4K (2017), or those wondering whether to opt for the older or newer model, read on for our full comparison below.

Pricing: same difference

We have confirmed pricing for Apple TV 4K (2021) too, with a $179 / £169 / AU$249 price tag for the 32GB version and $199 / £189 / AU$279 price tag for the 64GB version.

The previous Apple TV 4K model that launched in 2017 has approximately the same pricing at $179 / £179 / AU$249 for the 32GB version and $199 / £199 / AU$279 for the 64GB – so it looks like UK shoppers are getting a very slight £10 discount this time around. The difference is small enough, though, that you can consider both models to be on par when it comes to pricing.

Apple TV specs: what's changed?

The main difference with the Apple TV 4K 2021 is the processor powering the new streamer. Apple TV 4K 2021 uses an A12 Bionic chipset – the one used in the iPad (2020) and iPhone XS – over the A10 used in the 2017 model.

The A12 has been around a few years now, but will certainly offer an upgrade to processing speeds, meaning everything from 4K upscaling to motion control is improved – helped by the addition of high-frame-rate HDR, explicitly for improving sports and action movies, which can also be streamed from your iPhone via AirPlay.

However, the change shouldn't be seismic either, and if your older model is still in working order, we probably wouldn't advise upgrading for the sake of it.

Apple TV 4K (2021) vs Apple TV 4K (2017)

Apple TV 4K (2017, with remote)

High-frame-rate (HFR) support will also only apply to very limited pool of compatible content, making the majority of TV you're likely to watch entirely unaffected by this change.

You'll get Dolby Atmos and Dolby Vision HDR in both models. Other key iOS features like Apple AirPlay (for casting from other iOS devices), Apple HomeKit (for smart home connectivity), and the Siri voice assistant all naturally return here too – as does Audio Sharing for connecting two sets of AirPods.

One major change is the ability to "automatically tailor color balance" of your smart TV using your iPhone. If you have a compatible iPhone (we expect this will be limited to more recent models) you'll be able to use it to measure the color output on your TV screen and then calibrate the video output of the Apple TV 4K. 

Apple's website says that the 2021 Apple TV 4K "now works with your iPhone to automatically calibrate what you watch. Just point your iPhone at your TV screen once, then sit back and see how amazing your shows and movies are supposed to look." We're yet to see this in action, though some help calibrating TV picture settings is certainly welcome for the everyday viewer who doesn't have the cash or will to get a professional calibration.

Siri remote: what's new?

Apple TV 4K (2021) vs Apple TV 4K (2017)

Apple TV 4K (2021, with remote) (Image credit: Apple)

We got a good look at the new Siri remote that will accompany the 2021 Apple TV 4K. It's a sleek little thing, with a "one piece aluminium design", and the Siri button moved onto the side. There's also a "five-way directional button" that can also rewind or fast-forward when used in a scrolling motion.

This new remote also, though, comes with TV controls, meaning you can use it to turn on your smart TV too.

It's quite a difference from the remote that shipped with the Apple TV 4K (2017), which used a contentious touch interface many found fiddly to operate. The new remote certainly fixes this issue, and is visually a lot clearer about the function and utilisation of its inputs.

Whether you think the remote is a big issue may depend on whether you already own the 2017 model – and it's worth noting that you can buy the new Siri remote as a standalone accessory, upgrading your current streamer's interactivity without splashing out on entirely new hardware. We're told that the new Siri Remote will be available separately for $59 / AU$79 (likely £59) and that'll it'll be compatible with the 2017 Apple TV 4K and lower-spec Apple TV HD too.

So, is it worth buying the new Apple TV 4K?

Apple TV 4K (2021) vs Apple TV 4K (2017)

Apple TV 4K remote (2017)

To set it out in simple terms, the Apple TV 4K (2021) is higher-specified than than the Apple TV 4K (2017). It's also basically the same price, bar a small discount on the newer model in the UK, and comes with a far improved (by the looks of it, at least) Siri remote. So why wouldn't you buy it?

Given how small the changes are over the previous, four-year-old model, we are surprised not to see more of a hardware overhaul. There's not really anything here to make the 2021 model a must-buy compared to its 2017 predecessor, and if you have the older model, there's little incentive to upgrade beyond an uptick in processing speeds.

Add to that the option to buy the improved remote separately, and it's clear that the smartest move for Apple TV 4K (2017) owners is probably just to buy the new accessory.

For the best value streaming device, though, you won't want to go with Apple at all. The Roku Premiere and Fire TV Stick 4K both offer 4K HDR streaming in a compact form factor and at a fraction of the price, while the Nvidia Shield Pro will be the go-to option for those after more functionality and power from their home streamer. The new Chromecast with Google TV dongle is also just $49 / £59 / AU$99 and offers a decent mid-range streaming experience.

The advantages of the Apple TV models are their integration with other Apple technologies like HomeKit and AirPlay. If your whole household already uses Apple products, this might justify the price premium of the streaming boxes over the competition. 

Henry St Leger

Henry is a freelance technology journalist, and former News & Features Editor for TechRadar, where he specialized in home entertainment gadgets such as TVs, projectors, soundbars, and smart speakers. Other bylines include Edge, T3, iMore, GamesRadar, NBC News, Healthline, and The Times.