Apple TV and the 4K Dilemma

October 8th, 2015

As most of you have noticed if you check the ads for consumer electronics, the price for 4K sets is going down. Way down. When I did a casual check of Walmart’s site, I found some below $400. But they were for sets with relatively small displays; the cheapest was rated at 42 inches.

To be realistic, the promise of “stunning lifelike detail” is rarely realized, particularly on smaller 4K sets. Indeed, when I visit a TV department in a store, many of these 4K or Ultra HD sets are showing still pictures, not movies or sports. The main reason is that the enhanced resolution, roughly four times higher than a 1080p set, is not always visible with moving pictures.

If you watch a 65-inch 4K TV from eight feet away, you’ll approach the minimum size/distance ratio to deliver a discernible improvement. But just barely. So unless you’re accustomed to sitting up close, which may be useful for gaming, the value of 4K is essentially non-existent for smaller sets. So you’re better off paying less and getting 1080p if the only improvement is display resolution.

There is more to 4K, but not all sets offer the feature, and these are the elements that will improve picture quality noticeably even on smaller sets. That is, if they offer a wider color gamut and HDR, short for high-dynamic range. The result is brighter and more detailed pictures, such as extremely inky blacks and brilliant whites. If a set offers HDR, that’s one half of excellence. The other half? Well, source material that contains HDR content.

Here’s the rub: HDR is largely the province of more expensive gear. Cheaper 4K sets offer 4K — period! Take VIZIO, for example, one of the major manufacturers of lower-cost 4K sets. The new M-series has garnered very good reviews, excellent for prices that, for some models, are less than $1,000. But there’s no support for HDR.

The only VIZIO that supports HDR, so far as I can determine, is the high-end Reference Series, which is now available to order. There are two models. The cheapest, 65-inches, lists for $5,999.99. Ouch! The other model has a 120-inch display and it sells for — take a deep breath — $129.999.99. Are you saving your nickels yet?

Not only does a Reference Series 4K TV cost a few arms and a few legs, it supports HDR and reportedly includes a pretty decent surround sound audio system. But at that price? All right there are cheaper sets with HDR, but not the cheapest.

Into the mix comes the 2015 Apple TV, which is expected to hit the stores later this month. As you may know, the new Amazon Fire TV and the Roku 4 support 4K. But not the new Apple TV.

But neither the Fire TV nor the Roku 4 support HDR, and it may well be that streaming 4K fare won’t even be available in HDR because it will obviously consume more data and thus use a higher bit rate. Indeed, for most people, 4K streaming video is little more than a boast, not something that will offer a genuine improvement to the picture quality of your set, even if you’ve invested six figures in that VIZIO Reference Series.

Indeed, 4K is in flux, as standards for HDR and higher color gamuts stabilize. It will take time for these extras to filter down to the more affordable sets. It will also take time for content providers to get with the program.

Just as important, Apple is not always known to add technologies until they are tested and proven. If standards are in flux, that’s a huge argument to leave well enough alone for now. Don’t forget that iPhones with support for 4G and LTE arrived a year or two after the competition, when the chips were reliable and power efficient. Don’t forget how the early LTE implementations on Android gear would sap battery power quickly.

So the answer may well be that Apple wants the Ultra HD/4K situation to stabilize more before adding the feature to an Apple TV. Indeed, it may well be that the new model already contains the hardware to support those technologies, and merely needs a firmware update to turn them on.

But that’s just a guess, and not an educated one. It’s not something Apple is apt to reveal, although there have been published reports that the A8 chips are perfectly capable of supporting 4K.

So ideally, Apple will turn on that feature, and maybe even add support for more advanced HDMI technologies, in a future update. I hope that’s true, which is not the same as having any inside knowledge of the situation. But it would be unfortunate not to future proof the Apple TV so early in the game. Customers spending up to $199 for one would be very upset if, some months from now, they discover that Apple is adding 4K support. But not to existing hardware.

The arrival of new 4K streamers from Amazon and Roku puts the pressure on Apple to compete. Let’s see how it plays out. Remember that, other than developer samples, no Apple TV has shipped yet. Things could change between now and then, especially if a software update is all that’s needed.

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9 Responses to “Apple TV and the 4K Dilemma”

  1. David B says:

    I think this is a pretty serious miss-step for apple if this comes out without 4K. They really need to ignore the fact that the commercial content is not there yet. Simple fact is they shipped a phone that shoots 4K, iMovie that edits 4K, and an AppleTV that cannot view it? Serious mistake! I’d like to view my photos on AppleTV at 4K too. I simply can’t wrap my mind around this if they don’t fix it now.

  2. DWalla says:

    I own a 9000 sq ft motion graphics/animation/compositing studio with a dozen animators, motionographers, cinematographers, and producers. I can tell you from a professional view that 4K for the consumer, as it is today, is purely hype. Even in 2015 a good portion of major films are still being shot on 2K. And there is currently no real 4K content available to the consumer. Ultimately 4K will be a great idea but not necessarily for the resolution, but for two primary reasons. Color space and potentially great 3D TV. For me, the thing that excites me about 4K is the Rec. 2020 color space. As of now there aren’t any consumer panels that can display the wide gamut Rec. 2020 color space. The first TV’s should be rolling out sometime next year. And like all new tech, expect it to be pricey for a couple years before it stabilizes. I should add that until there is 4K content that delivers Rec. 2020 color space, there won’t be any benefit. Larger color space = larger streams of data. Personally I have never been a fan of streamed content. Compression causes loss in both sharpness and color depth/detail. Even under 1080p I much prefer Blu-ray content over streamed content. The video and audio is considerably better. Anyway…. that’s my two cents on the matter.

  3. Warren Shaw says:

    A few thoughts. First, I own a 110″ projection screen in my home theater with a 4K projector. At 13 feet, I can definitely see the difference between 4K and 1080P on 4K sources. But the image also appears sharper on 1080P material which has been upscaled. Second, there is an enormous difference between 4K and 5K (iMac) displays and 1080P resolution at desktop viewing distances. Third, I would not even think about buying the new Apple TV unless I know whether it will be capable of 4K output. It is far too expensive to not have that ability. The tech specs including the hdmi port suggest it should be capable, but why take the chance? Finally, Apple pushes the envelop on a number of technologies, including introducing a 5K computer, which obsolete that which comes before seemingly prematurely! It just makes no sense to me to have 4K capability in the new iPhones, to have 4K TV’s in our home and on our desktop, to have 4K adjustment capability in iMovie, but not have it in the new Apple TV. How are we supposed to watch that glorious 4K output from the iPhone?

  4. dfs says:

    Everything Gene says may be true. Nevertheless, the fact remains that 4k sets seem to be selling reasonably well, and peripheral gear such as 4k cameras are readily available. The result is that, whatever the benefits of 4k may or may not be, popular demand for 4k content is going to rise and distributors are going to find themselves under ever-increasing pressure to provide it. Irrational as this may arguably be, that’s the way the market works. Apple had a chance to get ahead of the pack on this one, and it blew it.

  5. DK Jones says:

    There’s one or two things I’ve yet to see mentioned specifically in any review or Op/Ed piece about there being no 4K on the new AppleTV and it is this.

    Apple having to “warehouse” larger files for 4K video and the streaming of those via iTunes. It’s only been about 3-4 years (?) where one could start watching a movie rented or purchased from iTunes, before it finished the download to a computer or Apple TV. Apple’s mantra of “simple, easy to use, better user experience” could be seriously impacted, for its users with a lesser ISP that can’t handle the load of sending 4K video or users that have a plan that would make receiving 4K video like waiting for a large file to download over dial-up in the 90’s. I think Apple would rather give users a lesser, but still adequate stream to enjoy content, than alienate and anger some who want something that can’t be delivered, because of something Apple can’t control–ISPs or a user’s slow, nearly unusable data service plan.

    I have AT&T’s highest tier of service (with no TV) and for several years, I’ve been happily enjoying watching content from the iTunes Store–I needed an upgrade, bought a 2009 MacBook used, about $200–connected to my 42″ 1080 TV & my 5.1 audio system and depending on the title, I sometimes rent the SD version of a movie. My budget won’t allow buying a new 4K TV and it’s that way for many people I know. My living room is small and I neither want, nor need 2 more speakers. You can’t please all the people, all the time. So while Apple may be looking at the tech and waiting for some standards to be resolved around 4K, they still want and need the majority of their users to be able to enjoy streaming and watching a movie or a show, via the iTunes Store. Just my thoughts on why no 4K.

  6. Tom says:

    4K at this point is mostly hype. There is very little to no 4K content out there and for the content that is, most consumers will not be able discern the difference. Demand for 4K content? I doubt it. Just like with HD, most consumers didn’t care and still don’t. Go into any average American home and most of the time, they are completely unaware that there are HD versions of channels on their cable channel line up. Most of them stretch the standard def picture to fill the screen. In fact I bet a majority of them couldn’t tell the difference between an anamorphized picture and the real thing.

    I’d wait awhile for the delivery technology to catch up.

    And I wouldn’t worry about Apple.

  7. dfs says:

    If 4k is mostly hype, and if most consumers will not be able to discern the difference, then I can’t help wondering why Apple took the trouble to include 4k capability on the iPhone 6s. Purely as a market gimmick? Well, if Apple shared your perception that most consumers don’t care, why would they have bothered to so even just for that reason? No, I think that, despite the absence of 4k from the Apple TV, the iPhone 6s is evidence that Apple does take 4k seriously.

  8. DWalla says:

    We shoot on 4K (and even 6K) via REDcam, Canon C500’s and Sony FS7’s on a regular basis. We shoot for the higher resolution for the purposes of pristine compositing. I can only think of one or two projects where the final output was 4K. There really is very little demand for it, and an even smaller means to distribute it. I don’t see that changing any time in the near future.

  9. Dr. Venkman says:

    Consider this, we know that the electronic entertainment industry must constantly reinvent themselves to keep their revenue streams intact. Look at the rebirth of LP vinyl recordings as an example. There are indications that the technology for 8K displays is doeable now and may eclipse 4k in the near future. Point being that no one or no single company can stand in the way of progress when a profit may be realized along the way. I anxiously await the 4K Blu-ray players and discs when they arrive in 2016, by all reports the experience should be fabulous regardless of the display you currently have. Spinning discs is dead you say? Bandwidth is and will remain the limiting reactant for a decent video entertainment experience forever, because the better it gets the more subscribed it becomes, which reduces your share of the bandwidth. Wash and repeat. Bring on all the HD connected boxes you want, only a very small number of users will ever be happy with the experience.

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