Is Apple TV Getting a 4K Upgrade?

A recently discovered capability of the processor that is used in the iPhone 6 and the iPhone 6 Plus may point to a future upgrade in the company’s TV set-top digital media player. Researchers at Softorino, developer of media file conversion app WALTR, found that the A8 chip found in Apple’s latest iPhone models is capable of 4K video playback, reports TUAW. As seen in the demonstration video provided by Softorino above, the researchers were able to play 3840-by-2160 resolution videos at 50 Mbps and 100 Mbps. It should be noted that although 3840-by-2160 is technically less than 4,000 pixels of horizontal resolution, that is the level of resolution commonly referred to as 4K and is the same resolution used for ultra-high-definition televisions (UHDTV).

While the A8 chip is able to play 4K video, this technical capability has little practical use for iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus owners since the displays for each device only have resolutions of 1334-by-750-pixels and 1920-by-1080-pixels, respectively. As noted by TUAW, 4K video files are also quite large, which means that the amount of 4K video that could be stored on Apple’s mobile devices would be quite limited. According to VideoMaker, each minute of 4K video content requires approximately 2GB of storage space. The largest storage capacity for Apple’s iPhone models is 128GB, just enough room to hold a little over one hour of 4K video content.

However, while the A8 chip’s 4K video playback capability may not do much for this generation of iPhone models, it could find its way into a future iteration of the Apple TV. The latest Apple TV model uses an A5 chip, which is the same chip used in the iPhone 4S. As noted by Apple, the A5 chip allows the Apple TV to play 1080p or 720p video content.

Several rumors about a major overhaul to Apple’s set-top media device have circulated over the past year. In March 2014, the Wall Street Journal reported that Apple was in negotiations with Comcast over the possibility of allowing Apple TV travel on a separate, less-congested part of the network. Another report from The Information in July suggested that Apple had plans to create a unified, Internet-based television service that would offer both live and on-demand programming. While neither of these reports mentioned 4K video, it would make sense for Apple to boost the next-generation Apple TV’s video playing capabilities to the latest standard, especially considering the increasing availability of 4K content. Netflix began providing some 4K content earlier this year, although it now costs a little extra than lower-resolution video formats, reports Variety.  Meanwhile, Apple has already demonstrated its interest in creating products with higher resolutions when it introduced a new 27-inch iMac with Retina 5K display (5,120-by-2,880 pixels) at its media event in October.

There are even some industry watchers who believe that Apple is planning on introducing a 4K television set, including activist investor Carl Icahn. In an open letter published on his website earlier this year, Icahn predicted that Apple would debut an “UltraHD TV set” in fiscal year 2016. It should be noted that rumors of an Apple television set have persisted ever since former CEO Steve Jobs discussed the idea of an “integrated television set” with his biographer, reports the Washington Post. Obviously, it is still not clear exactly what Apple’s plans are for the overall television market. However, the hidden capabilities of the A8 chip suggest that 4K video will likely be a part of those plans.

Follow Nathanael on Twitter @ArnoldEtan_WSCS

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