A Theory: Why the New Apple TV Will Ship Without 4K UHD

| Particle Debris

We now know that the new 4th generation Apple TV announced for this fall won't ship with 4K UHD capability. But we don't know why Apple declined to include this feature and opened itself up to opportunistic competition, such as Amazon's Fire TV. I have a theory, and it reflects how my thinking has changed over the past few weeks.

4th gen Apple TV. Image credit: Apple

When Apple first announced its 4th gen Apple TV, it seemed most, including me, were at a loss to explain why Apple wouldn't include support for 4K UHD. After all, the new iPhone 6s family will shoot 4K video and the latest iMacs will display 4K video.

tl;dr. I've been doing some reading lately about the TV industry side of 4K UHD, looking for answers, and I've found increasing support for my theory that 4K as a resolution standard (3840 x 2160p) isn't the only issue here. Rather it's the splintering of the industry around the emerging High Dynamic Range (HDR) technology. And Apple, I believe, is waiting for the dust to settle.

Relevant Articles

Normally, I pick one standout article of the week to highlight. However, 4K UHD HDR is a complicated subject. To explain the situation requires an appeal to several articles. Here are four that will bring us all up to speed, in increasing order of complexity and depth.

  1. 4K primer. "4K changes the whole picture"
  2. An introduction to some technology and 4KTV nomenclature. "What is Samsung's SUHD?"
  3. HDR 101: "What are HDR TVs and why is every manufacturer selling them now?"
  4. HDR Next Level: "HDR Is Here—But Don't Rush Out to Buy a New TV Just Yet."

After you read all four articles, you'll have a pretty good idea what's going on in the 4KTV industry today. However, for the impatient, I'll do my best to explain what's going on and the impact on Apple.

The BIG TV Industry Problem

For a few years now, the talking points for 4KTVs have been 1) Lack of content 2) Home bandwidth to support streaming and 3) The retina effect. The first two problems can be solved by technology, but the third is an unsolvable problem related to the visual acuity of the human eye.

Charts have been constructed that show how close one has to be to a 4KTV of a given (diagonal) size in order to gain the benefit of the higher resolution. Apple customers are well of this in relation to Retina displays. For example, for a 65-inch (165 cm) 4KTV, one has to sit at 8 ft (2.4 m) or closer to obtain a noticeable benefit.

Image credit: Carlton Bale

Knowing that this problem gets written about a lot (in a negative way) and will never be solved, the industry had to come up with a way to make 4KTV's look startlingly better, independent of resolution alone. And they found it. It's called HDR, introduced above. This effect is also well known to Apple customers because it's been a feature of the iPhone camera since 2010. However, including HDR in the source video and then transmitting that video in a streaming environment is much more difficult than still photography. We can surmise that Apple video engineers know all about that.

The Fracturing of the Industry

One would think that an industry beset with customer resistance to another TV technology leap, memories of the ugly Blu-ray/HD-DVD war, new UHD disc standards, and the limits of human physiology would unite into a single HDR standard. Alas, they have not.

Articles #3 and #4 above tell the sorry story of a chaotic 4KTV industry, each manufacturer with its own smartTV OS and each with its own views about how HDR should be implemented. That leads to unique naming of each TV maker's vision. Samsung calls it "Peak Illuminator Ultimate." LG calls it "Ultra Luminance." And so on.

An HDR demo.  Credit: 4K Ultra HD Review

The bad news is that while firmware can always be updated, HDR requires advanced phosphors/LCD crystals. Article #2 contains an explanation of how Quantum Dots (nanocrystals) can provide that wider dynamic range of luminance. If your old 4KTV doesn't have it, with its limited brightness range in candelas/m2 or isn't OLED, it's never going to be able to implement a great version of HDR.

The worse news is that as each maker develops its own HDR implementation, the transmission of streaming video becomes more complex if not universally impossible. Today, certain video sources are best paired with certain brands of 4KTVs. As Jan Ozer in article #4 above explains it on page 2:

As a consumer, we seem to be entering a world where the set you buy is determined by the content you want to watch—Samsung for Amazon, LG and Sony for Netflix, and Vizio for Vudu. Call me overly frugal, but for a $2,000 purchase, that seems unrealistic. At least initially, you’d have to expect that this paradigm, like the Blu-ray vs. HD-DVD controversy, will slow sales until one or two standards emerge.

When, say, just two HDR standards emerge, it's reasonable for the TV makers to configure the electronics to switch between them. But not four or five.

Final Thoughts

Of course none of this is meant to suggest that one cannot go out today and buy a Sony smart 4KTV (with an Android OS) or an LG 4KTV (with webOS) and watch what limited 4KTV content there is while upscaling the rest.. (BTW, here's a full list of the OS each different smart TV has.) Apple, however, is in a position of wanting everything to just work for the average consumer.

One can imagine that, given the turbulence in the industry with HDR and the still rather sparse content, Apple felt that the best course for this new 4th gen Apple TV would be to go with what customers know and understand—HDTV and Apple's own strengths with iOS and app development. I haven't seen a better theory.

1080p HDTV is ironclad and pervasive. It's the best user experience here in the fall of 2015. Comparison charts will be constructed by competitors showing that their product proudly has the 4K box checked, but now you know that nothing is as simple as it seems.

Next page: the tech news debris for the week of September 14. Making the Apple Pencil work.

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Gary Dauphin

I’m not convinced HDR is the only reason… that could be resolved with a software patch once a standard is defined.  Meanwhile, the industry just announced its first 8K tv today, Amazon announces 4K support, and Apple is sticking to its guns on 1K.


Non issue. Obviously GoPro/iPhone/Galaxy; web streams and downloads on and on are already creating content. 4k is already broadcast via satellite in Japan; the writing is on the wall - when in doubt “immediately do nothing” (apologies to Derek & Clive) is not necessarily prudent, but in this case it might be.
We all know that we aren’t “owning” our technology - not since the idea of updating a device every year took hold, rather we LEASE technology at “x” price for “x” duration. In that context there is no reason Apple has to entertain UHD or 4p or 4k or any of that at this time with the price-point v. quality of the ATV. So, next year or the year after the market is more focused and Apple decides to do what they do best - another upgrade for the Apple Sheeple except this time I don’t think it’s any big deal.


I think the most logical theory is that the Apple TV was developed a year and a half ago when 4K wasn’t even a feature worth exploring but delays prevented it from being released. But they waited so long they just dumped it on us and a new model will have all the modern features.

John Martellaro

KittyKatta: I thought about that too. It’s a great theory since the A8 was developed in the spring/summer of 2014 and released with the iPhone 6 in the fall. Negotiations for content in a subscription program have dragged on for a very long time, perhaps even since then.

CudaBoy: You also have a great point about how we continuously upgrade our equipment, basically deciding how much we’ll pay per month before the next upgrade.


There’s only a limited number of upscaled movies available that are highly compressed and not true 4K.  Sports won’t be available in 4K for years and by that time, all these manufactures will probably move to 8K.
Understand one thing, cable companies can’t even convert all stations to HD due to lack of bandwidth so how are they going to push out 4K or even 8K until there are massive upgrades inside and outside the home and better compression technologies which both are years away.  Apple is not Samsung that just throws every new piece of junk in their hardware to market it.


To me, TV resolution is a red herring.  My grandmother had one of those cabinet TVs while I was growing up the thing was the size of a clothes dresser,  and she sat on the other side of the room with two side tables a simple couch between,  a good 12 feet between her and the tv. At 12 feet she wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between 1080p and 720p on a 60 inch TV, much less a 32 inch TV. She’d need to have a 100 inch tv to see any minor benefit and 150 inch for a noticeable difference.

Average viewing distance is 8 feet, it’s what people are comfortable with.  Keep in mind 3 feet is arms length. Who wants a 60 inch screen on their desk?  30 is already view encompassing.

Chris Quacon

This post really over complicates the situation. 

1. Low user base.  People who own 4K TVs are pretty niche at this moment in time.  No need to support 4k now when the hardware will be refreshed in two years.  At that point enough of an installed 4k TV base would justify the capability.

2. Performance price point.  Developing apps that operate reliably (especially games) at 4k resolution just wouldn’t happen with the A8.  Were talking 8.3 million pixels here.  The iPhone 6 Plus lags behind the iPhone 6 in performance and it’s rendering 2.7 million pixels compared to a 4k TVs 8.3 million pixels. It would require something better than an A8 and a heck of a lot more than 2 gb of RAM.


Who’s to say that the new Apple TV hardware won’t support 4K content? Maybe there is a software update lurking in the future that will release the beast - when Apple deems the time is ripe.

Josh Woods

I also think that The Apple TV can output 4K, as I expect them to use HDMI 2.0 in the hardware, and when Apple is ready to support 4K, it will be via a software update.

Chet Meyerson

Being the 4K market is fairly small, Apple is going for the masses. Once the 1080P market has been captured, then the Apple TV5 will be released with 4K. It’s all about marketing, not technology!

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