When Apple's next-generation Apple TV finally arrives at market later this year, it will bring a groaning board of new features to the company's dusty set-top box -- as BuzzFeed News first reported. But it will lack one that some Apple watchers had presumed inevitable: 4K video capability.
Sources in position to know tell BuzzFeed News that the 4th generation Apple TV will not initially support 4K video -- a newer high-definition video resolution that delivers a more detailed, immersive picture. "4K is great, but it's still in its infancy," said one source familiar with Apple's thinking.
Enabling 4K video support in Apple's first major overhaul of Apple TV in three years might seem like a smart bit of future-proofing -- particularly given reports that the A8 chip in the guts of the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus is 4K-capable. But it's arguably an unnecessary one at this point. There simply isn't much to watch in 4K—while Netflix and Amazon both added 4K streaming to their video services last year, their 4K offerings remain limited. Nor are there many households with 4K-capable televisions needed to watch it.
Beyond this is the larger issue of economics: Delivering 4K streaming at scale is expensive. With least four times the pixels as mainstream HD video, 4K video requires a lot of bandwidth and more powerful compression technologies to transmit it expediently. It also requires speedy consumer broadband connections to support its delivery. And right now the number of 4K-capable households is piddling. Akamai's last State of the Internet Report estimated that just 19 percent of US connections to its network were at the speeds of 15 Mbps or above needed to handle 4K streaming. That's connections (IP addresses), not households.
"The additional cost to shoot, store, encode and deliver video in 4K, when compared to HD, is huge," Frost & Sullivan principal analyst Dan Rayburn told BuzzFeed. "No one wants to talk about it, but going from Netflix's average 3Mbps stream to their 4K stream at 16Mbps is very expensive. That's why it's said it will offer "limited" content in 4K for a long time. 4K is many, many years away from being adopted at critical mass."
Avi Greengart, Research Director at Current Analysis, offered a similar take. "Content is a problem," he said. "There is a fair amount of movie content produced in 4K or better resolution already for commercial cinemas, but there is no easy way to get that content to consumers."
Given all this, it's not hard to see why Apple might forgo 4K support in its next generation Apple TV. Right now, it's hardly worth the effort. The market's far too small and far too nascent. Apple has never been a company that rushes into markets in their infancy. And until we reach a critical mass of adoption for 4K -- one that includes not just consumers, but broadband providers and the content guys, as well -- the company's unlikely to enable support for it in Apple TV.
Apple declined to comment "on rumor and speculation."
John Paczkowski is the managing editor for BuzzFeed San Francisco. Formerly deputy managing editor for Re/code and AllThingsD, he's been covering the intersection of technology and culture since 1997.
Contact John Paczkowski at John.Paczkowski@buzzfeed.com.
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