The Apple TV set-top box hardware is expected to be updated this summer after 3 years since the last real refresh and a recent price drop from $99 to $69. While the last Apple TV upgrade boosted video output from 720p to 1080p, the rumored Apple TV 4 is not believed to support ultra high definition 4K video output featured on newer TV sets. Here’s why that’s no surprise and what I think it could mean for an actual Apple TV set:
Apple doesn’t do specs for the sake of specs. The iPhone has maintained an 8MP camera between several generations. The 8MP iSight camera debuted in 2011 with the iPhone 4S and remains on the newest iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus. Our photos today are noticeably better than our shots from four years ago, however, as Apple has improved in other areas like low light image capture and faster focusing. It’s no surprise that Apple will maintain 1080p video output from its set-top box for at least another cycle.
Speaking of iPhones, the best iPhone camera (found on the iPhone 6 Plus) only supports 1080p video recording. Apple added 1080p video recording to the iPhone 4S in October 2011 before the Apple TV 3 added 1080p video output in March 2012. Nothing mandates that the iPhone must first support a video capture resolution before the Apple TV supports it, but it’s clear Apple sees 1080p video as good enough for most consumers for now. Samsung’s Galaxy S5, as a comparison, shipped UHD video capture last year. When the iPhone adds 4K video recording, I would then expect the Apple TV to add 4K playback. 4K UHDTVs haven’t taken over the living room yet, though, so I’m not holding my breath for either.
More important than at what resolution the iPhone can capture video is what resolution iTunes delivers movies and TV shows. Apple timed the release of the Apple TV 3 with 1080p video output with the upgrade to iTunes from distributing only 720p media to selling 1080p content. At the time it was widely considered as one of those finally updates as 1080p HDTVs were very common and relatively affordable. The next Apple TV launching with 4K video output would be nice in terms of future proofing the hardware and best presenting the UHD content that is available, but Apple hasn’t jumped on the 4K train just yet.
Aside from iTunes, there’s also the rumored $30-$40 Web TV subscription service to consider. Even if Apple did begin offering a limited number of 4K movies and TV shows on iTunes, the rumored Web TV service would contrast as less premium. It might sit okay with consumers that content you buy is better quality resolution than content you access through a subscription, but the messaging would be muddled if the Web TV service is not 4K but is marketed next to a 4K set-top box.
If the next Apple TV did support 4K video output, what content could you actually watch? Netflix offers a limited collection of 4K media and it’s not hard to find excellent 4K footage on YouTube. Even if 4K content was more widely available and everyone had a UHDTV in the living room, the Apple TV’s support for 4K would be surprising without iTunes being a player.
Apple gave away upgrades from 720p to 1080p when iTunes started selling Full HD movies and TV shows. Will Apple do the same when 4K becomes available through iTunes? Even if so, Apple will want to position 4K content on iTunes as a premium media option. Giving 4K content away for free first through YouTube, a Google-owned service, would not make that pitch.
Finally, there’s the obvious reason cited in the report that the Apple TV 4 won’t be the Apple TV 4K: not enough people have UHDTVs for hardware that supports 4K video output to be warranted. Apple was late to the 1080p party, it won’t be early to the 4K affair.
Running with this idea, it’s not hard to imagine that Apple could be saving 4K adoption for its own UHDTV, not the set-top box (which is not a completely new idea). Ignoring whether or not Apple should enter the actual TV set business, Apple could use the transition from 1080p to 4K as a compelling upgrade reason. The upgrade from 720p to 1080p for most people was not dramatic and 3D was a flop.
4K could be a reason to actually update your TV set to an actual Apple TV, not just add a new Apple TV set-top box. Saving 4K support for the TV set (maybe even with some Retina marketing similar to iPhones, iPads, Macs, and the Apple Watch) would be fitting.
Looking at the Apple TV’s past update path and the current ecosystem of iOS devices and services, it’s no surprise that the next Apple TV won’t support 4K. Still, 4K adoption will remain an opportunity for future versions of the Apple TV and Apple’s iTunes Store. Could 4K be justification for Apple selling the whole TV set rather than just the box you connect in the future?