This is Why Apple TV 4 Doesn't Play 4K

Technical challenges and limited content mean 4K still isn't mainstream

The fourth-generation Apple TV doesn't support 4K Ultra HD TVs. That limitation was fine when the device launched in 2015, but the situation continued to evolve. Why did Apple delay the introduction of 4K support, what is 4K, and what has stopped the company from including it?

The fifth-generation Apple TV, which released in 2017, supports 4K TVs.

apple tv
Apple TV 4. Apple Inc

What Is 4K?

The 4K standard (also known as ultra HD) will eventually replace HD TV. Most US consumers only get new TVs every seven years at most, so the replacement cycle is taking more time than past iterations.

People using these ultra-high-definition 4K TVs have screens that are at least 3,840 pixels wide and 2,160 pixels high. They can provide picture quality that’s several times better than you get from standard HD (1080 x 720), so long as the content supports that resolution.

4K has a long way to go before it's the standard. Were Apple to have introduced 4K support in the Apple TV 4, it would have appealed to only a small minority of TV watchers.

It was a safe move on Apple's part. 4K compatibility may have had the negative impact of making the product seem less attractive to potential customers who didn't have a setup that supports the standard. People are less likely to adopt hardware if they can't use its flagship feature.

Lack of Standards Influenced Apple's Decision

Amazon, Roku, and Nvidia all provide streaming solutions that compete with Apple TV and do support 4K TV. The advanced feature comes with a little compromise because the 4K standard wasn't fully evolved when these devices launched.

When it comes to 4K, final industry standards were not agreed until CES 2016, months after the launch of Apple TV 4. Until then, different manufacturers shipped television sets equipped with slightly different implementations of essential supporting technology for 4K TV, HDR (High Dynamic Range). HDR helps you enjoy a better picture from further away.

This delay had an unpleasant side effect on user experiences. It meant some streaming boxes worked better with some TVs than they did with others.

Not All 4K TVs Are the Same

One limitation some TV viewers are unlikely to be aware of sits in the HDMI standard. HDMI carries both high-definition picture and sound between your television and a set-top box, games console, or cable box.

To enjoy 4K content, your TV and your box must both support the HDMI 2.0 standard. The fourth-generation Apple TV has an HDMI 1.4 port, so even if the box received 4K, it couldn’t drive it to the TV.

One solution that can get 4K quality from non-4K sources is upscaling the image. Some TVs use this technology to upscale content to higher resolutions. In use, even while the Apple TV is streaming 1080p video, what you see on the screen appears much sharper.

4K Presents Challenges for Streaming

Apple is expanding its CDN (Content Delivery Network) infrastructure with new data centers worldwide. However, the challenge isn’t just the cost of running content servers, but the additional cost of ensuring consistently high-quality content delivery and quality of service in content delivery through multiple service providers.

Broadband networks are another challenge. Not all internet service providers implement usage caps, but those that do tend to do so rigorously. Movie fans wanting to stream in 4K must stay aware of how close they are getting to their bandwidth limits.

Even after the 4K streams have been optimized at the source, they’ll still require at least two to three times the bandwidth of a 1080p HD feed. Things are set to change as broadband speeds increase.

4K Content Is Not the Standard (Yet)

Perhaps the biggest justification for Apple TV’s lack of 4K support is the lack of 4K content to support.

You can find 4K content on Netflix, Amazon, and Sony, and key broadcasters such as the BBC, but right now nearly all the movies you watch are distributed in 1080p HD far more often than 4K.

Once broadcasters begin to provide 4K content in more volume the situation is likely to develop fast, as this will motivate content producers to create 4K material. More broadcasters are adopting the standard. For example, Sky in the UK launched an Ultra HD movie, TV, and sports package. To use the service, customers need a 4K TV set and a Sky Q Silver set-top box capable of handling 4K content.

Apple Has Now Adopted 4K

Apple released the fifth-generation Apple TV, which it calls Apple TV 4K, in September 2017. This hardware is available alongside the fourth-generation box, but it contains full support for 4K content.

Apple TV owners now have a choice depending on their home setup. Apple's addressing the growing 4K market while still making the standard-HD option available for people who haven't upgraded their TVs yet.