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Apple TV and the 4K Dilemma

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.