Apple is throwing its weight behind a more modern video standard, and it may pave the way for significant upgrades to the next Apple TV box.
At its annual developer conference this week, WWDC, Apple announced widespread support for High Efficiency Video Coding. It’s coming to the next versions of iOS and macOS, too, but its implementation on tvOS seems to lay the foundation for an Apple TV that supports 4K video streaming — one of the major areas where Apple’s current media streamer lags behind high-end, less expensive streamers from Roku, Amazon, and Google.
HEVC, as it’s called, is a relatively new video compression standard that was designed with sharper, more pixel-dense 4K video in mind (among other advanced forms of video). Anyone who uses it has to pay a royalty fee, but various streaming companies — including Netflix, Amazon, and Roku — have already lent their support.
The idea is that, because 4K video eats up much more data and bandwidth than traditional HD, it needs a way to keeps file sizes manageable — or compress those files — without destroying the quality of the video itself.
HEVC is one of those solutions. You can read this excellent CNET explainer for a look at how the whole thing works, but in short, using HEVC allows a video to keep similar picture quality as it’d have with the last major compression standard (H.264) in files that are roughly twice as efficient about how much data they consume.
All of this can vary based on your internet connection, but ideally, this means you could stream a 4K video without it taking up unreasonably more space than a lower-resolution video.
Alternatively, you could stream one of those lower-resolution (but more common) 1080p videos, and have it take up nearly half the space as it would otherwise.
None of this will allow the most recent Apple TV, released in late 2015, to stream in 4K, though. That box can take advantage of the reduced file sizes for traditional HD videos, but it still uses an older HDMI 1.4 port, which isn’t fully up to the task of pushing more pixels.
Still, given that HEVC is really built for those 4K (and higher) resolutions, it would make a whole lot of sense for Apple to introduce an Apple TV that takes full advantage of the spec. Earlier this year, Bloomberg reported that the company was testing a new model that would do exactly that.
In any case, any 4K device still has to deal with the relatively low amount of actual 4K content that’s available to stream in the first place, and the fact that 4K doesn’t provide much benefit unless you have a larger TV.
The content side of things is improving, however. And with the Apple TV lagging behind its competitors in terms of sales, 4K (or HDR) support would allow the company to reach a level of feature parity that could better justify the price premium it has compared to Amazon, Roku, and Google.
Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment.