Why Apple TV’s Color Calibration Is a Big Deal

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Key Takeaways

  • Users can calibrate their AppleTV’s color balance using their iPhone camera.
  • This quick fix isn’t true color calibration, but it makes your TV look better.
  • Display tech is one of Apple’s biggest focuses right now.
4K Apple TV and Remote next to a television screen displaying Apple TV apps and a screen from "Palmer."

Apple

Apple TV users can now calibrate the color balance of their TV using their iPhones, and it’s pretty great. It even works with a projector.

Color calibration is common in high-end design, movie, and photography workflows. It’s not just about making the images look good on screen. It’s about making them accurate.

Print designers need to know that what they see on the screen precisely matches what they will see on the printed page, for instance. And now, with iOS 14.5, Apple is bringing it to your home TV

"Most of us don’t consider the color tonality of our TVs while watching, but this tool will help you see where your viewing experience can improve," technology writer Heinrich Long told Lifewire via email.

Not Calibrated

The Apple TV’s color-balancing is similar to display calibration. When you calibrate a display, you use a colorimeter to compare the color output of the screen to available colors. This process creates a color profile, which the computer uses to tweak its output to match the target colors. 

The Apple TV version uses your iPhone’s front-facing True-Depth camera in place of a colorimeter. The iPhone’s cameras are, it seems, accurate enough for this kind of task.

To perform color-balancing, you place the iPhone onto a rectangle shown on the TV screen. The Apple TV sends a rectangle that cycles through several colors, and the iPhone measures the results. The Apple TV then tweaks its output, so the TV shows a more neutral color balance. 

Actual monitor calibration is more complex, running through tests at many different light levels, for example, to map the color response over the screen’s brightness range. If you ever ran a color profile on your computer, you’ll know it takes longer than the Apple TV version.

It’s important to note that your television is not part of this calibration. The Apple TV adjusts its own output instead of instructing the TV to change its behavior. Still, the results in Apple’s press materials look good, and you can try this out on your old Apple TV when your iPhone is updated to iOS 14.5—this is not limited to the newly announced 4K AppleTV.

All In on Displays

Apple is all-in on its displays and seems intent on bringing ultra-high-end tech to everyday computers. The Pro Display XDR might cost $5,000 without a stand, but that’s cheap compared to the displays that Hollywood productions use.

This doesn’t just save money. It makes it possible to put production-quality monitors on set where they can be used during production, rather than keeping them back in the post-production studio. 

Apple iPad Pro liquidXDR display showing a photo of someone inside a pickup truck with neon lights reflecting off the metal and glass.

Apple

Then there’s the new 2021 M1 iPad Pro, which has an arguably more impressive screen than the Pro Display XDR. Older displays use an LED panel that stays lit the whole time. Dark areas are achieved by blocking this backlight with LCD pixels. 

The iPad’s Liquid Retina XDR display instead uses over 10,000 tiny LEDs to illuminate the display from the back. This miniLED display lets you control the brightness at any point, giving you much richer blacks, for example. By contrast, the 32-inch Pro Display XDR has only 576 LEDs.

Looking Good

Then, add in TrueTone, which uses sensors to adjust iPhone, iPad, and Mac displays to match the color of the light in a room (so colors look more natural under artificial light), and its 120Hz ProMotion display technology, and you can see that screens are a big priority for Apple.

And that makes sense. With the iPhone and iPad, the device is pretty much just a screen, with some supporting hardware. The rumors say that the next MacBook Pro will sport this new iPad screen or something very similar.

A screenshot of how Apple TV is color calibrated.

Apple

It’s interesting, then, that the lowest-tech of all these products is the one likely to affect most people. The iPad, Mac, and iPhone already look amazing. The screens are fantastic, and few people really need the innovations coming to Apple’s pro devices.

But TVs don’t generally look so good. High-end televisions are often calibrated at the factory, but if you’ve got a regular old television up there on the wall, then Apple TV will soon make it look better. 

This has one significant side effect for Apple, at least. Because its color-balancing trick only works with the Apple TV, all television sets, other apps, and input sources will end up looking worse. That may prompt you to prefer the Apple TV’s built-in apps over the ones on your TV, but it might also encourage your guests to go out and buy Apple TVs for their own homes.

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