Apple TV — A Question Not Asked

October 30th, 2015

The usual tech blogs and mainstream papers have delivered their verdicts on Apple TV. For the most part, the early buzz is very positive. Some hope that Siri could be more flexible, but a major lapse appears to be the lack of 4K (Ultra HD) support. More and more lower cost TVs sport enhanced resolution, and the latest Amazon Fire TV and the Roku 4 include it as well. But Apple, so far at least, isn’t answering that need.

Unfortunately, it’s not as if Apple executives have been forthcoming about this missing feature in recent interviews. They focus on the positives, but for some reason I’m not seeing the lack of 4K being raised by journalists. Maybe I’m missing something, or maybe the responses ended up on the cutting room floor, but it seems to be a perfectly reasonable question.

It’s not that Apple would necessarily respond in the way you want. They might state that they do not comment on future products, a typical non-answer. But that would only be an admission that 4K has to wait for a future Apple TV refresh. Or Apple could have no comment whatever, which would be even more discouraging. There could also be the suggestion that Apple was looking at possible new features, or just explain why 4K might not be ready.

Not ready?

Well, yes, essentially all the major TV makers are offering 4K, with some models listing for less than $500. It seems a great incentive to jump in if you’re ready to buy a new set, but it’s not that simple. Yes, 4K offers four times the resolution as standard 1080p HD. But seeing the differences may not be so easy. It harkens back to the original Retina display argument, that it’s so sharp at a normal viewing distance that you can’t see the individual pixels. With 4K TV, consider the fact that you’d have to watch a 65-inch TV from a distance of no more than eight feet to see the Ultra HD advantage.

So unless you watch smaller TVs from a fairly close distance, 4K will do absolutely nothing for you. In the Steinberg household, Barbara and I usually watch our 55-inch 1080p TV in the master bedroom, lying on our bed. That puts us maybe eight or nine feet from the set. It’s not a large bedroom. If that set had 4K capability, it would be wasted.

The other 4K advantage is an enhanced color palette, with more and richer colors. That would provide a visible improvement. But the standards aren’t set in stone, and most of the cheaper sets don’t even offer HDR or any other color enhancements. Different TV makers that do, unfortunately, do it differently. This is clearly a disincentive for Apple to offer 4K, at least until things settle down.

As a practical matter, a 4K Apple TV, with support for the latest HDMI connection standards, would only offer a visible improvement to a small minority of potential customers. There’s very little 4K content to be had. Such services as Amazon Instant Video and Netflix don’t have much 4K fare available, and the high compression required to stream that content at a decent bit rate, compromises the experience even further.

Still, Amazon and Roku will provide a spec advantage over the Apple TV. It also raises questions why Apple hasn’t future proofed their new set-top box. Do they expect you to buy a new one next year — or the year after — when 4K support is inevitably added?

Maybe not. I’ve read several reports claiming that the A8 chip, which is being used for the new Apple TV, has 4K support baked in already. Apple would merely have to issue a firmware update to unlock that capability. But what about the current HDMI standards for connectivity to TVs and other gear? Can that be adjusted via a firmware update too?

I presume someone knowledgeable about such things would be in a position to speculate knowledgeably about the possibilities. If that’s true, maybe Apple will add 4K capability to the new Apple TV at a later time via a downloadable update, when the enhanced color standards are more consistent, or when they are prepared to offer 4K content in iTunes. I’m really shooting from the hip here, and I do not know for certain if this is something Apple considered when developing the fourth generation Apple TV.

But I would be surprised if Apple didn’t expect to keep this product around for a few years. Remember that the last Apple TV survived three years before the new model arrived. It wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense for Apple to release a major upgrade one year without a key feature, add it the following year, and expect you to replace the unit. I would like to think there is an end game here, and that we will eventually learn about it when Apple’s marketing people believe the time is right.

Or maybe not.

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6 Responses to “Apple TV — A Question Not Asked”

  1. Tom says:

    I was thinking that the major oversight was not including a FaceTime camera via the USB-C port… FaceTime via the TV would have been awesome… but it’s not getting any love these days.

  2. dfs says:

    I have a Retina iMac with an external monitor. When I have a screen saver its background is black, dead black. By comparsion, the external’s background is no more than dark grey, even when I’m standing much more than eight feet away. To me, that’s the whole story. 4k color wins hands down.

  3. AdamC says:

    I wonder how many tv shows are in 4K?

  4. dfs says:

    Gene exaggerates a bit (unless he has an abnormal number of fingers) See But even the upscaling of standard content 4k sets give you provide you pay off in handsome benefits in terms of color saturation and sharpness. Even if have little access to 4k content (and this will change in due time), the price of 4k sets has come down to point that they are very worthwhile investments.

    And you can make your own 4k content if you have an iPhone 6s.

  5. dfs says:

    Let me add a postscript to my last remark. Doesn’t it seem a bit strange that Apple added 4k video capability to the iPhone 6 (and isn’t shy to mention this feature in its advertising) and yet bypassed it in the Apple Television? Possibly there are good technical reasons for this that an Apple engineer could explain (if Apple were more forthcoming about its internal decisionmaking than it is), but on the surface it seems to betoken a kind of corporate schizophrenia about the entire subject of 4k. Could it be that there is a serious division of opinion within the company?

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