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

Technical Challenges and Limited Content Mean it's Not Yet Time for Apple TV 4K

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

 Even though millions of homes already own 4K Ultra HD TV’s, the Apple TV 4 doesn’t support the standard, and that’s OK. That’s because technological, standardization, logistical and content limitations mean even if Apple were to provide 4K support in Apple TV 4, it would not currently be able to deliver the kind of consistent experience its customers expect, as we explain here.

What is 4K?

The 4K standard (also known as ultra HD) will eventually replace HD TV, but this is going to take some time yet.

Most US consumers only replace their TVs every seven years at most, so the replacement cycle will take time.

These ultra-high-definition 4K TVs have screens that are at least 3,840 pixels wide and 2,160 pixels high. This means viewers can get a picture that’s about four times better than you get from standard HD.

People who use 4K praise it for its vivid, crisp pictures and outstandingly sharp picture quality. It has been available for a number of years and provides picture quality that’s about four times better than you get from standard HD. 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.

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.

You see, until additional industry standards were agreed at CES 2016, 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. The side effect of these decisions was that balkanization took place, meaning some streaming boxes worked better with some TVs than they did with others.

This may have been one of the reasons 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 consistent 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 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 sport 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 affordably bundled content (“Skinny Bundles”). In other words, the way things are shaping up it seems more likely Apple TV users will be access more skinny bundles of content before the 4K transition truly takes off.