If you want an Apple TV streaming box that badly, just spend the extra $30 for the 4K version.
Apple currently sells two Apple TV streaming devices, but only one of them makes sense. That would be the Apple TV 4K, which got a recent update that added a redesigned and much improved Siri Remote as well as a more modern A12 Bionic processor. The other is the Apple TV HD, which I'm reviewing here. It got the new remote, but that's about it.
Both boxes still retail for the same high prices as before -- $149 for the 32GB Apple TV HD, $179 for the 32GB Apple TV 4K (or $199 for the 64GB 4K version) -- and run the same software, apps and services. In an era when Roku, Amazon Fire TV and Google Chromecast support nearly all the same streaming services and offer 4K HDR for $50 or less, the question can be asked why Apple needs such a pricey 4K box in 2021. That question is only amplified with the almost-as-pricey, HD-only Apple TV HD.
Put simply, the Apple TV HD does a fine job streaming all the major apps and services you might want. In taking a fresh look at it, even with the new remote no one should buy this device in 2021.
With the exception of that remote, the Apple TV HD you buy in 2021 has seemingly the exact same hardware as the model from its original launch in 2015. The puck-like black box looks the same, with the same collection of ports around the back: HDMI, power, Ethernet and an odd USB-C that Apple says is for "service and support."
The latter port is the only notable external distinction between the Apple TV 4K and Apple TV HD. That said, you will likely never use it and the fact that Apple continues to put it on the HD after having removed it from the 4K box for years is a bit odd. When asked, Apple declined to comment.
Under the hood, the same A8 processor runs the show, and it does a pretty good job with opening apps and playing back movies or shows. Video playback looked good on my 2019 TCL 6 Series 4K TV, with the picture often rivaling the 4K Dolby Vision images I'd get out of the Apple TV 4K. Of course, the same could be said about any streaming device.
As it's an Apple box running TVOS 14, all the major apps and services you'd expect are available. Netflix, Disney Plus, HBO Max, Amazon Prime Video, Huluand similar streaming services are all here. You also can tap into Apple services such as Apple TV Plus, Apple Music and Fitness Plus and Apple Arcade.
The new Siri Remote is nice and responsive and works just as you'd hope, with Apple's Siri voice assistant useful and effective for opening apps, shows and movies, controlling smart home devices as well as answering basic questions like a sports score or the weather. It's worth noting that if you already have an Apple TV HD or 4K you can buy just the remote for $59, with no need to splurge for a new box.
Where the Apple TV HD struggles, however, is in doing anything beyond the basics. For perspective, the A8 processor is the same type of chip that first appeared in the iPhone 6 line back in 2014. Playing NBA 2K21 Apple Arcade Edition, one of the most visually impressive games available on Apple's Arcade video game service, was borderline laughable on this box. While you could get the basics of the game to play, it clearly was overwhelming for the system. Graphically it was a step down for the players on the court, with the game also incapable of rendering much beyond the basics.
As opposed to the packed arena I saw when playing on the Apple TV 4K, there were no players on the benches, no fans in the stands (though you still could hear them in the audio) and hardly anyone else around the court except for what appeared two random stadium attendants with mops, one under each hoop. It was as if the games were taking place in a pandemic-like bubble.
This is not a box for doing much beyond streaming.
That is the $149 question, and it's one I can't answer even after spending hours with this box. For a fraction of the price, you can get an equally capable and 4K-supported streaming device, such as the $40 Roku Express 4K Plus or $50 Chromecast with Google TV. If you're committed to Apple's world and don't mind spending well over $100, the Apple TV 4K is a no-brainer upgrade for just $30 more at $179.
The Apple TV 4K not only has a much better processor, but it also has more modern Wi-Fi support (including Wi-Fi 6), faster gigabit Ethernet, and 4K HDR with Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos for playback on compatible TVs and sound systems. It just seems like the logical choice if you want an Apple box.
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Even if you don't own a 4K HDR TV today, the next TV you buy will be 4K at least, which makes spending the extra $30 for the Apple TV 4K even more compelling.
In reviewing the 2021 Apple TV 4K I noted how there were no apps or services that really took advantage of the faster processor. After spending time with the Apple TV HD, I wonder if this device is at least partly to blame. Apple's television efforts have always been complicated, with the company describing the category as a "hobby" for years. Unlike iPhones or iPads, hardware updates for Apple TV aren't annual and even software changes are spaced out. There was hardly a mention of TVOS during this year's WWDC keynote.
Nearly 15 years after Steve Jobs unveiled the first Apple TV (then called iTV), Apple's TV hardware ambitions are still far from clear.
To its credit, Apple will support its devices for years, and with the Apple TV HD still on sale that means that developers -- both at Apple and at third parties -- have to keep accounting for it when working on new apps. But that's not always a good thing: As we've seen with Arcade games like NBA 2K21, it can mean devoting resources towards getting the game to play in some form on this aging box, even if the experience is far from the game that the player might expect. In that respect, the Apple TV HD could actually be holding back the whole Apple TV and TVOS platform.
In my opinion, it's long past time for Apple to either cut the price on the Apple TV HD or cut it out of the lineup entirely. If you could buy it for $50, even with 2015 specs, it would be a lot more interesting, but since Apple sells the remote on it for $59 I don't think that will happen any time soon.
That it's still being sold (and for $149, no less) quite simply boggles my mind. While it can do all those basic streaming tasks just fine, I can't think of a reason why anyone should buy this box in 2021.