Many regular readers know that I’m a big user of Apple TV for Zwift. For the most part, unless I’m actively testing something that requires a PC or Mac specifically, I’m using Apple TV as my Zwift machine. I have multiple units at both the DCR Cave and at home, for both Zwift cycling and Zwift running. It’s easy to use, and in my experience generally far more stable than Zwift’s PC or Mac versions.
Back a few weeks ago Apple announced the new Apple TV 4K 2021 edition. The name didn’t change, it was called Apple TV 4K before. Instead, two key things did change: A new remote that theoretically doesn’t suck, and a new processor. Beyond that, there are a bunch of other ancillary things that don’t tend to impact Zwift too much, like newer HDMI & WiFi specs (HDMI 2.1 & WiFi 6), as well as higher HDR frame rates such as 60FPS.
But the question is, for Zwift users, is it worth the upgrade?
The short answer? Nope. At least, not yet.
So, after my newer unit that I bought arrived today, I gave things a quirk whirl to see how they handled.
First up we’ve got the new hardware. Above, the box. And below, the unit itself. As you can see, the box itself doesn’t look much different than the old one. Pretty much identical there externally.
Internally, it’s different – the new Apple TV 4K 2021 edition has a new processor in it, one that Apple boasts is far more powerful. And yes, sure. Kinda. But there’s a super important detail here. On paper the new Apple TV 4K 2021 edition (as opposed to the previous Apple TV 4K (from 2017) has a faster processor, using the newer A12 Bionic processor as opposed to the older A10X processor.
However, this ‘newer’ processor is still…three years old. Yes, for real, it’s the iPad and iPhone processor from 2018. This is not unfortunately one of the newer M1 series processors found in many of their newer product launches over the past 6-8 months. But even if it were, Zwift doesn’t natively support that processor series yet anyway (still).
(Above: Screenshot from Apple TV 4K 2021, connected at 4K/30 SDR)
Instead, the real change is the remote itself. The Apple TV remote has long been derided as the worst product Apple ever made. I’d say that’s close, but debatable. The main (valid) complaint is the touchpad area is finicky, and that’s magnified in Zwift because you’re (hopefully) sweaty. Touch-sensitive things and sweat rarely work well in the electronics realm. It’s also a slippery AF little unit, that can easily slip out of your fingers. I somewhat solved this for all my Apple TV’s by picking up this $9 Apple TV remote case, which works great:
The new 2021 Apple TV remote aims to solve some of that by adding four small directional buttons to it, and the touch-portion is shifted to the interior of those four buttons (the little round part):
These little four directional dots allow quick navigation within the Apple menus, it’s great. Internal to those four dots is the little circle, which still allows the familiar swiping action. That works well enough too (with the same limitations as before of course). Except one problem: The four dots don’t, as of today, work in Zwift. My guess is that’s just a minor developer API thing that they’ll easily be able to solve in a future update.
So, speaking of Zwift, let’s dive over to that.
Now, when it comes to Zwift and Apple TV, there are a few things to note – none of which change in relation to this new version:
– Zwift doesn’t render in more than 1080p on Apple TV (despite the Apple TV 4K output support)
– Zwift has historically been limited by 2 concurrent Bluetooth sensors on Apple TV (an Apple limitation
– Apple TV supports Bluetooth connections, but not ANT+ connections
– Apple TV users can use the Zwift companion app to pair more than 2 sensors using their phone instead
The main reason people want more than two sensors, is that it allows them to connect something like the Sterzo Smart for steering, or, depending on their trainer, allows them to connect a heart rate sensor alongside a trainer that doesn’t broadcast cadence. Also, it allows people to use a heart rate sensor + trainer+ separate power meter.
The biggest question people have had is whether or not the two concurrent connection limitation is still there, and at present, yes, that limitation remains:
However, I wouldn’t necessarily call this particular item final yet. We don’t know from Apple if they support more than two sensors (technically Apple TV has always supported three Bluetooth devices, but one of those is the Apple TV remote itself, thus leaving you two sensors). See, undoubtedly Zwift would have coded their game to max out at 2 sensors on Apple TV, knowing that historically Apple TV maxed out there. And since Zwift wouldn’t likely have had access to this new version yet, they wouldn’t have been able to test and determine if it perhaps supports more than two sensors.
In many ways, it’s always been a quirky Apple TV limitation – especially since countless devices support more than two concurrent sensors. And virtually all chipsets do as well. But of course when the original Apple TV (with app support) came out, there wasn’t much of a need for more than that. These days, things have changed. Point being, I expect it’ll take a few days till 3rd party developers can confirm whether there’s expanded Bluetooth connectivity or not. It wouldn’t surprise me to see that kind of confirmation come from folks like FulGaz or Rouvy faster than Zwift, since those apps tend to dig into new hardware (of all types) far faster than Zwift does.
The next piece to know then is whether or not Zwift supports the new remote. Yes, apparently, you have to actually support that remote differently. How do I know this? Because, the new remote joystick doesn’t work in Zwift. It works great outside of Zwift. Super fast and responsive. But in Zwift? Nothing-burger. Literally, it doesn’t respond as noted above, and as shown in the video.
However, the usual/previous/older bottom touchpad on the new Apple TV remote works as before (in all its semi-sucky glory) – so you can still navigate the Zwift menus and such that way, it’s just not the new more better remote navigation.
So, with those fundamentals out of the way – the final big question is are the graphics any different?
To understand that, you need to look at how Zwift ‘does’ graphics. And essentially, they bucketize devices into graphic “profiles” – these include things like Basic, Medium, High, and Ultra. That’s technically in addition to the actual output resolution (or frame rate) – which is fixed on Apple TV (whereas on a desktop computer you can specify it). These settings control how much eye candy you get on the screen. For example, will you see the shadows? And if so – which exact shadows will you get? Bikes/riders, or trees too? And there are endless little tweaks between each level.
In the case of the original Apple TV 4K (from 2017), it automatically gets the Basic profile with 1080p. Which means it’ll have less detail than a fancy computer with an expensive (and near impossible to find these days) graphics card. So has that changed?
Yes. But not for the better.
In fact, it’s worse at present. You’ll notice there’s no building shadows or tree shadows, or object shadows. There does appear to be minor rider shadows directly below the bike however (that slightly darkened spot).
Here’s captures side by side from an Apple TV 4K 2017 vs 2021 model, recorded from the same exact split-second on two Apple TV’s from the same exact everything (and you can watch this within the video above). Notice here the lack of building shadows in the roadway. Also, there appears to be slightly less texture in the 2021 edition here and there.
And here’s another, notice the lack of railing shadow on the 2021 edition, as well as the lack of board textures on the bridge, specifically below the riders.
And another, you’ll see the lack of shadow from the rock ledge on the 2021 edition:
And finally, one more for good measure, where you really notice the lack of shadows from the bamboo trees, and also what appears to be a bit less random grass chunks on the left edge of the trail.
Right now, Zwift undoubtedly hasn’t had the opportunity yet to decide if they’ll recategorize the newer Apple TV to a higher graphics profile (or not). Though, there’s some speculation that technically speaking from a GPU standpoint the A12 is actually a little bit less capable than the original A10X. But that’s a bit of an internet rabbit hole on different capabilities of the chipsets in the box. Ultimately, we’ll have to see once Zwift can assign a proper profile to it.
Now for some people here, they’ll groan that it’s missing the textures and such of higher-end computers. And yup, that’s true. Though, I’d argue (and the Zwift forums more than easily prove), that what it lacks in graphical prowess it makes up in stability. One need only look at the bugs list fixed in each release to see this: Zwift on Apple TV simply has far fewer bugs. That’s of course partially due to the fact that there’s just fewer variables on Apple TV for app developers like Zwift to deal with. And generally, fewer OS versions too. Whereas on PC & Mac it’s the wild west of trying to solve for every possible variant.
In any case – the long and the short of it is that if you’ve already got Zwift on an existing Apple TV box, there’s zero reason today to upgrade to the newer Apple TV 2021 edition. That could change. It might change next week or next month. Undoubtedly Zwift will move quickly to tweak the joystick so it works in-game. I don’t expect that to take long. Whether or not they can get better graphical performance out of it? We’ll have to see.
But for now, I’m not rushing out to replace the rest of my Apple TV installations with this newer version. However, give me an M1 based Apple TV with lots of graphical goodness atop it? Then we’re talking!
With that – thanks for reading!
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