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

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

Watching 4K TV with Apple TV 4? Not Yet.
Why You Can't Watch 4K TV on Apple TV 4. Getty Images

Apple TV 4 doesn't support 4K Ultra HD TVs. That was fine when the device launched in 2015, but the situation continues to evolve. Why has Apple delayed introduction of 4K support, what is 4K, what has been in the way and what can we expect? 

Millions of homes already own 4K Ultra HD TV’s, but Apple TV 4 doesn’t support the standard. That’s OK, when the model was introduced there were technological, standardization, logistical and content challenges that meant even if Apple were to provide 4K support, it would have been unable to deliver customers a great user experience.

What is 4K?

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

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 about four times better than you get from standard HD, so long as the content supports that resolution (on which, more below).

Those who use 4K praise it for its vivid, crisp pictures and outstandingly sharp picture quality. However, the latest Juniper Research findings claim just 15 percent of 116.4 million US households will own a 4K TV by the end of 2016.

“It will take several years before the majority of TV households will be 4K UHD ready,” said Ovum analyst, Oleksiy Danilin.

4K UHD penetration will reach just 25.5% of global TV households by 2020 he predicts.

Strategy Analytics agrees with this assessment.

The truth seems to be that were Apple to have introduced 4K support in the Apple TV 4, it would have appealed to only a small minority of TV watchers.

This may have had the negative impact of making the product seem less attractive to potential customers who did not have a 4K setup, as they wouldn't be able to exploit its flagship feature,

But Other Devices Stream 4K?

Amazon, Roku, and Nvidia all provide streaming solutions that compete with Apple TV and do support 4K TV, but not without a little compromise -- because the 4K standard wasn't yet fully evolved.

Think of it like VHS versus Betamax, or Blu-ray versus HD DVD.

It may surprise you to learn that when it comes to 4K, final industry standards were not agreed until CES 2016 -- months after launch of Apple TV 4.

Until then, different manufacturers shipped television sets equipped with slightly different implementations of an essential supporting technology for 4K TV, HDR (High Dynamic Range). HDR helps you enjoy a better picture from further away.

This had an unpleasant side effect on user experiences.  It meant balkanization took place, meaning some streaming boxes worked better with some TVs than they did with others.

It may also have been part of why Japan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications in 2016 warned consumers that 4K TV sets that have been sold there for years would need “special receivers” to pick up broadcast 4K signals when they launch in 2018.

When is a 4K TV Not a 4K TV?

One big limitation most TV viewers are unlikely to be aware of sits in the HDMI standard – the fitting used to connect your television to a set top box, games console or cable box.

To enjoy 4K content your TV and your box must both support the new(ish) HDMI 2.0 standard – many of the televisions sold as 4K TVs don’t actually boast an HDMI 2.0 port. Apple TV possesses an HDMI 1.4 port, so even if the box received 4K it couldn’t drive it to the TV.

One solution that’s being used to derive something like 4K quality from non-4K sources is upscaling of the image. Some recent 4K TVs use this technology to upscale content to higher resolutions. In use, this means that even while the Apple TV is streaming 1,080p video what you see on screen appears much sharper.

Streaming 4K Challenges

4K streaming services stream in the H.265 format.

The problem with that format is that it isn’t yet as mature as the H.264 it replaces, so picture quality can be inconsistent. Apple’s not going to want this.

It is also important to think that if Apple TV supported 4K it would have to become a 4K content supplier through iTunes – doing so would put a great deal of strain on its content delivery network.

We know Apple is expanding its CDN (Content Delivery Network) infrastructure with new data centers worldwide, but 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.

The broadband networks are another challenge. Not all broadband service providers implement usage caps, but those that do tend to do so rigorously. This means movie fans wanting to stream in 4K must stay aware of how close they are getting to their bandwidth limits. Not only this, but 4K streaming demands at least 20Mbps speeds, which many Internet users just don’t have.

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

Where is The Content?

Perhaps the biggest justification for Apple TV’s lack of 4K support is the lack of 4K content to support – there’s a good list here

You can find a little 4K content on Netflix, Amazon, and Sony, and key broadcasters such as the BBC have run some limited experiments, but right now nearly all the movies you watch are distributed in 1,080p HD, not 4K.

You could argue that by putting a 4K support inside Macs, iPhones, and iPads, Apple is working to fill the content gap – it even offers Final Cut X to edit these clips for broadcast. Hit films such as The Revenant are being filmed in 4K, but until more consumers invest in 4K-compatible TVs motivation to create content in the standard will stay limited.

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. Broadcasters are beginning to ramp up for the standard: Sky in the UK recently launched its Ultra HD movies, entertainment, 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. There are hopes other UK broadcasters will launch their own 4K services to match Sky – Virgin Media recently began discussing its plans to do so.

The market is also changing. ESPN parent company, Walt Disney, recently reported a 7 million decline in subscribers between Q4 2013 and Q4 2015, reaching 92 million. This shedding of customers is expected to see another five million leave its service by the end of the year, which might motivate Walt Disney to offer more affordable bundled content (“Skinny Bundles”).

In other words, the way things are shaping up it seems more likely Apple TV users will be accessing more skinny bundles of content before the 4K transition truly takes off.

What Happens Next?

You can't ever dismiss Apple. It listens to its customers and the company is highly aware that there is a growing demand for 4K support in its TV product. It also knows that Apple TV looks "bad" in comparison to competing devices that do promise 4K support, even if that support is a little inconsistent (see above). 

Apple is also thought to be preparing to widen its push into original content provision and to provide a range of "skinny bundles" of content. This focus on content means the company may soon be in position to leverage 4K support, subject to industry support, standards support, and -- crucially -- broadband speed.

We can't be certain when Apple will leap to support 4K in Apple TV. Bloomberg speculated the standard may see support introduced in a new Apple TV model, but those big problems need to be resolved before this truly makes a difference to customers. However, it is arguable that once Apple does deliver on 4K it may drive an explosion in demand for 4K content and compatible 4K television receivers.