So the fourth-generation Apple TV arrived last fall with a fair amount of publicity from Apple. With a touchscreen and Siri support, not to mention an App Store, it seemed to answer many of the complaints of the previous model.
But whether it will overhaul your TV watching experience is another question, and it’s hard to say. If all you want to do is watch iTunes content, Netflix and some other streaming services, probably not. If you want to play casual games, perhaps, although the Apple TV is no substitute for a true gaming console, such as a Microsoft Xbox. If you want to try some other apps, such as some that enable online shopping, perhaps.
Unfortunately, it was two steps forward, one step back as Apple left out some important features in the initial tvOS release. So you couldn’t use a Bluetooth keyboard to manage passwords and other things, which made the setup process on some services supremely awkward. But no longer, though it may not matter if you don’t need sign up for any new services.
Curiously, Apple opted not to support the higher resolution 4K models with the new Apple Store, even though millions of those sets are now reaching customers, and the big push is expected by the holidays. You can buy 4K sets for less than $500, and they are pretty decent. They may lack the advanced color features of the more expensive sets, which is to be expected, but they will provide a good picture nonetheless.
The latest streamers from Amazon and Roku support 4K, and Netflix and other services are rolling out a small amount of Ultra HD content. But you’re left at the rear of the pack if you stick with an Apple TV. In fact, the picture you see from today’s model should be about the same as the third generation, which is one of many reasons why I haven’t bothered to consider buying one.
Yes, I appreciate the improved user interface, the possible value of Siri when it works, and all the rest. But my specific needs are fairly simple. There are several TV shows I will watch from Netflix, including “House of Cards,” “Daredevil,” “Jessica Jones,” “Sense8,” and a few others. When they are available for binge viewing, I’m there. When they’re not, I usually get enough from network fare and an occasional iTunes movie rental.
As I said modest, so I may not be the target customer for the latest Apple TV.
On the other hand, if I purchased a 4K TV set, I might feel disappointed that Apple has yet to recognize its value. But there ought to be a reality check.
You see, the most advanced features of 4K, which include HDR, provide superior color rendering. Different TV makers are choosing between two improved color rendering schemes, HDR10 or Dolby Vision, or sometimes both. This can only breed confusion. The 4K Blu-ray players, which are just entering the market, support HDR10. Sets without support will simply display pictures with the normal level of color rendering.
Some companies are providing both. Two of VIZIO’s newest models, the P-Series and the M-Series, come with Dolby Vision along with the promise that HDR10 will be available in a downloadable software update. Eventually.
These features are new for 2016, however. Neither the Amazon or Roku streamers have them, and I’m not aware whether the existing streaming services that offer 4K have them either.
Now you might not regard superior color as so much of a deal. But to actually see any advantage with a 4K set, you have to sit real close, or have a really large screen, often more than 55 inches, if you watch TV at a normal viewing distance. Otherwise it doesn’t look much different compared to regular HD. Either way, enhanced color will provide a visible improvement.
So how does that have anything to do with Apple? Well, Apple isn’t a company that always embraces new standards on Day One. Sometimes they wait for the standards to stabilize, and for the bugs to be ironed out. So it may well be there’s a 2016 Apple TV in the works for this fall that will offer 4K and all the enhanced color features out of the box.
I suppose it’s possible the fourth-generation Apple TV can be upgraded via firmware, but I doubt it. It’s also very likely that the differences won’t be that visible when streaming highly compressed video to your TV, though it’s likely Apple will tout the advancements if you buy or rent from iTunes.
However, even if there’s full 4K support for a fifth-generation Apple TV, it doesn’t mean you should throw out the one you have. There’s no great rush, and it will depend on the sources of your programming, and what they offer. Besides, if you don’t have a 4K set — and it’s not on your shopping list — there’s nothing to worry about. No doubt all or most other new features will appear in future versions of tvOS.
Perhaps there will be more developments about where tvOS is heading at the WWDC the week of June 13. Maybe I’ll have reason to consider a new Apple TV when the next model comes out, but it’s not a huge priority right now.