New Apple TV 2021: What we want, from 4K 120Hz to 3D audio for headphones

A new Apple TV is said to be imminent for 2021, so here are the improvements we'd like to see Apple make

Apple TV
(Image credit: Apple)

Various leaks have hinted for a while that a new version of the Apple TV 4K is in the works, the latest of which is that it might have 120Hz support. Not to be confused with the Apple TV+ streaming service, Apple TV is a hardware box that Apple makes to add streaming services and other smart features to any TV.

The current Apple TV 4K was released in 2017, and though little about it is really out of date in any meaningful way, there are definitely good reasons to give it an update, some of which require hardware upgrades, and some are more software focused.

On the other hand, the future of the hardware is less certain than it used to be, now that many of the best TVs have the Apple TV app built-in – though certainly not all, and gets less common when you get to TVs under £1000 or TVs under £500.

Hopefully we'll see what Apple is planing soon – perhaps at the June 7th Apple event – but until then, here's what would make for a worth new version of Apple's TV box in our eyes.

New Apple TV 2021: Price

The current Apple TV 4K is not totally an outlier in the world of streaming TV add-ons when it comes to cost, but its £179/$179/AU$249 price is much higher than the biggest-selling competition. That was fine for a while, because it was also the most well-equipped of its competition, bringing Dolby Vision HDR and Dolby Atmos support to its 4K videos before cheaper competition could, while also offering more power for games and apps. It was the comprehensive option for a comprehensive price.

But times have moved on. Most people don't want games and apps from their TV streaming box, and better HDR and audio support is widespread in cheaper devices. So let's have a cheaper, smaller version that basically offers just the features that the current model has, but with a more modern processor that can do it with lower power requirements, so it can be smaller – more like the Amazon Fire TV Stick.

Some of the new features I'm proposing here could be on a version that costs the same as the current version, and has more powers and features, and if Apple want to stick with pushing Apple TV as a gaming device, that model would be its focus. But a cheaper model for those who want the Apple-specific features that the Apple TV offers on more affordable sets would be really welcome.

Apple might not do this, because getting the Apple TV app built into TV sets might its equivalent of offering its platform for cheap, but the hardware goes beyond what that app can do.

Apple TV

(Image credit: Apple)

New Apple TV 2021: Spatial Audio support and HDMI ARC

AirPods Pro and AirPods Max both feature a very cool bit of tech called 'Spatial Audio', which basically means that when you're watching a movie on your iPhone or iPad, you hear the soundtrack as if it were a surround sound system, and the phone/tablet is the TV. Audio comes from around your head, but the orientation of that sound is locked to the position of the screen, not the position of you head (so if you turn your head 90 degrees, a sound that originally was behind you is now to the side of you).

But this isn't available on Apple TV. Apple TV includes easy support for switching to listening on AirPods instead of your TV speakers, but you don't get this amazing 3D audio effect, when TV is the best place for it! I suspect AirPods 3 will support this feature as well, bringing it to more people than Apple's high-end headphones currently reach, so I really hope a new Apple TV is able to support it, because it's incredibly effective… it's just weird to have epic 3D audio when watching on my piddly little phone screen, and not on my epic TV.

Speaking of headphones, wouldn't it be nice if the Apple TV could also take other audio from your TV (live TV, Blu-ray players, etc) over HDMI ARC (the tech used for the best soundbars) and push it to your AirPods, maybe even with that Spatial Audio feature? It may be too much of a technical mess to achieve, but hot damn would it be convenient.

New Apple TV 2021: HDMI 2.1, 120Hz and 8K

We've no doubt that a new Apple TV would support HDMI 2.1, for future-proofing reasons alone. But this opens up a few specific options that might not mean much now, but we'd love to see in the spirit of Apple TV being the most comprehensive streaming box.

First up is 120Hz support, which Apple already looks to be adding based on leaks. This would make the interface look extra smooth and slick, but it would be interesting in the context of high-framerate movies and videos. Could Apple TV be the only place you can watch Ang Lee's original vision for Gemini Man

It'd be fascinating if the iPhone 13 could take 4K HDR 120fps video, which would look stunningly lifelike on compatible TVs – an amazing way to share experiences with people across the world. Some games would really benefit from it, too.

8K is in a similar position. There's barely anything around right now, save for some cool technical demonstrations. Plus, barely anyone's bought the best 8K TVs yet. But who knows when a tipping point for 6K or 8K videos might be – and Apple should be ready with support.

Apple TV

(Image credit: Apple)

New Apple TV 2021: HDR10+

Look, this is no dealbreaker, but to be the complete AV package, the Apple TV really needs HDR10+, since that's the advanced HDR format used by Amazon Prime Video. This is a competitor to Dolby Vision, and it's an open standard, though largely led by Samsung (which is the only big TV brand to reject Dolby Vision completely, a decision that continues to be inexplicable in any meaningful sense). Lots of big TV brands support both HDR formats in their TVs, so it'd be good to see the Apple TV offer full support itself.

New Apple TV 2021: A new remote

Well, here it is. I dislike the Apple TV remote much less than some people, but there's no denying that it can be frustratingly imprecise, and as my half-shattered one proves, might be better if it weren't made of glass on top.

There are all kinds of ways to tweak it – maybe keep the touchpad but have haptic feedback so you can actually feel how you're moving across icons, maybe switch to more of a button-based approach – but it's definitely not the best it could possible be.

And while we're at it, please add UWB tracking to it, so you can use recent iPhones (including the iPhone 11 and iPhone 12) to pinpoint locate it without being able to see it.

New Apple TV 2021: Sort out game streaming

The rules for the tvOS App Store are pretty much the same as the iOS App Store, which means that Apple currently bans cloud game streaming services (in a practical sense). You could stream a game from a PC you own, but Microsoft xCloud, PlayStation Now, Amazon's upcoming Luna service, and Google's technically-not-dead-yet Stadia are all no-gos for it.

Cloud gaming is a big growing area, though, and the Apple TV should be perfect for it. The hardware supports PlayStation and Xbox controllers, even! I really hope Apple gets over this bizarre and limiting ban, because this alone would propel the Apple TV forward as a gaming machine. And speaking of gaming…

Apple TV

(Image credit: Apple)

New Apple TV 2021: If you're gonna do games, get serious

The Apple TV has had a side hustle as a games console since its launch, but it's always been hilariously half-hearted. Widespread controller support took years to arrive, and the rule for years was that every game had to be playable just on the tiny remote, which is… quite limiting.

Now we have Apple Arcade and more flexibility to shore it up as a gaming option, but I still just can't imagine people putting the time in to play on it. Not when the Xbox Series S offers the full power of Microsoft's gaming ambitions for effectively the same price (once you factor in the cost of a controller, which the Xbox includes and Apple TV doesn't).

If Apple were to put one of its most powerful chips into the latest Apple TV, its potential power could be close to Microsoft's console on a computation basis alone, but you'd still need it to be worth developers investing the vast sums that big-name games require. As long as it's lighter or more casual games only, I struggle to see people not just sticking to playing on their phone, and putting something else on the TV.

But look at the games running on the Nintendo Switch's relatively lightweight processor and you'll see that the Apple TV certainly could clearly run any number of top-tier games. Apple has deep enough pockets to make it happen, but does it have serious enough commitment?

Matthew Bolton

Matt is T3's former AV and Smart Home Editor (UK), master of all things audiovisual, overseeing our TV, speakers and headphones coverage. He also covered smart home products and large appliances, as well as our toys and games articles. He's can explain both what Dolby Vision IQ is and why the Lego you're building doesn't fit together the way the instructions say, so is truly invaluable. Matt has worked for tech publications for over 10 years, in print and online, including running T3's print magazine and launching its most recent redesign. He's also contributed to a huge number of tech and gaming titles over the years. Say hello if you see him roaming the halls at CES, IFA or Toy Fair. Matt now works for our sister title TechRadar.