∞ The "iTV," the Apple TV, and understanding HDTV

Engadget set off a firestorm this week when it posted an article (which I will not link to here) speculating on the next generation of Apple’s TV convergence hardware. The story has picked up steam as it’s been regurgitated across the Apple blogosphere – and unfortunately, like a sticky ball of lint, it’s retained the same basic errors in understanding how the Apple TV works.

Joshua Topolsky quotes a mysterious “trusted source” as saying Apple will unveil a new $99 device designed around the same microprocessor hardware that drives its iPad and iPhone. The device allegedly introduces a new iTunes streaming service that Apple will unveil, and Topolsky underscores one glaring issue: that the new device, to be rechristened “iTV,” “won’t be capable of handling (or enabled to handle) 1080i and 1080p video.” How appalling.

There’s only one problem.

The Apple TV never had support for 1080i or 1080p video.

I know that many of you will do a double-take, and will immediately fire up your flatscreen TV to check. And you’ll find that your Apple TV says it knows you’re on a 1080i device. I know that’s one of the first things I changed when I set up my Apple TV.

But check the specs on Apple’s own Web site to confirm. The Apple TV simply does not output 1080p or 1080i video. It never has.

Sure, Apple says the Apple TV is compatible with a widescreen TV capable of outputting 1080i/1080p video, but if you actually check the “video formats supported” section of the Apple TV’s tech specs page, you’ll see that it says “maximum resolution: 1280 x 720 pixels at 24 fps.”

We measure the resolution of a video signal horizontally vertically. 1080i and 1080p corresponds to a video resolution of 1920 x 1080. Guess what? Your Apple TV can’t handle that now.

Part of the problem lies with Engadget’s headline. It reads, in part, “Upcoming Apple TV loses 1080p playback.” This implies it was ever there to begin with. It simply wasn’t, not in the current generation of the Apple TV. And if it ever was present in this hypothetical new device, it’s irrelevant, since its specifications are entirely imaginary and the device has never been announced.

Alas, this is what passes for analysis in the tech press today, so what we’ve largely seen rebounding around the Mac blogosphere, exacerbated by the nattering of the Twittersphere, is the erroneous assumption that Apple has taken something away.

The only thing I hate worse than rumor-mongering is lousy (or completely absent) fact checking. This article, and the frenzied reportage that surrounds it, hits both criteria, sadly.

Don’t believe the hype, folks, and wait for Apple to make an announcement, if such a product even exists.

  • Steve Hammond

    Good point Peter. Maybe they referring to their previous May rumor that the iTV would have 1080p. Since then it lost it. Crappy analysis to add and remove features from a rumor and make it fact.

    Anyway, no provider really provide 1080p broadcast or stream video, and who really care. I mean I would not like to use my full Internet BW for something I won’t see on my 42″.

    That behind said, I really hope this device will come to life. I love my Apple TV, but I know it could be so much better!

    • Peter Cohen

      Completely agree, Steve. The idea of an Apple TV that is somehow tied in to the App store ecosystem is very exciting. I like the current implementation, but it’s limited.

      • I also like the current Apple TV, but like you said, limited…

        But still, it is the most used device in my main room. 90% of the time, I’m using the Apple TV. The other time, I turn on my Wii, and sometimes my PVR setupbox. Oh, and yes, I also have a DVD player, almost forgot about it… 🙂

    • Mark

      Isn’t this the attitude apple thrives on? “I love my apple TV, but I know it could be so much better”

      They know that by leaving certain features out and basically limiting their products, their ultra-consumer customers will buy the next limited, out-featured model hoping that those features will be added – which they will be, but also leaving out other features that are seen as “standard” in competitive devices.

  • Scott

    I wonder, though, that it outputs still photographs at 1920×1080 resolution? I thought it did.

  • Mark

    Peter, you can’t generate visitors if you don’t hype a headline, then you would have to rely on quality content and that is much harder. Now I am not saying the Engadget does not have some good content but just as often they seem to rely on garbage to fill their pages.

  • Steve Hammond

    Scott, I think it does use the TV resolution for pictures. Mine is 720p LCD, do 1280×720 pixels (i think). But pictures do not refer to 1080p at all. 1080p or 720p or others refer to video only.

  • Q

    It won’t be long until Engadget is as bad as Gizmodo.

  • Michael Adams

    Thanks for fact checking which the original “author” should have done first.

  • Eric

    Well, regardless of the typical nonsense that comes from the tech blogosphere, I’m not buying an TV until it does output 1080p and plays Blu-ray discs.

    I’ve never rented a video from iTunes and likely never will, because Apple is under the mistaken notion that we users don’t care if our video is limited to 720p.

    Since when did Apple choose to shoot for mid-level quality? This is quite disturbing. 😉

    • Yeah, I can understand drawing a line in the sand where you feel comfortable, in terms of specs. I’d streamed video to my Xbox 360 and my PS3 for a good long time using a few different software apps on my Mac, but finally got the Apple TV because I wanted something that was silent and easier to integrate into my Mac entertainment experience. I was willing to accept the limitations.

    • If you want a Blue Ray player, why don’t you just buy one from Sony?

      I do not think Apple draw the line at mid-level. They are simply smart enough to see that 1080p video downloads on streaming will cost too much in BW from them, and for their consumer. Not every one can afford a 50 Mbps Internet line for streaming video only!

      Honestly, I found lot of good content in the video and audio podcast section of iTunes and I and happy that my Apple TV makes it possible to listen to it in my living room, instead of the computer room.

      And I’ve rented and bought a few movies from iTunes, they are quite OK for me.

  • An AppleTV with a Broadcom CrystalHD video decoder accelerator card in place of the internal wifi card can easily playback 1080p content including raw decrypted bluray rips.

    • RIPS? Apple do not encourage ripping DVD or blueray!

    • Sigivald

      So? While that’s absolutely true, it’s irrelevant to the ATV as a product sold and marketed by Apple.

      “If you take an AppleTV, replace an important piece of hardware with a completely different piece of hardware [removing a feature that’s critical to the target market, wireless access], and then install non-Apple software [with an unstable build], it can do this thing!”

      Yeah, and if you have two bucks that’ll get you a cup of coffee.

      Since the ATV can’t do it without additional hardware that replaces the wireless card, it’s a novelty, not relevant to Apple’s target market.

      Adding the $50 cost of a Crystal HD to a notional $99 device (plus the cost of an additional Mini-PCIE slot, since wireless is not optional in the real world market for the ATV, plus the cost of re-engineering) to get 1080p video?

      I can’t imagine why Apple hasn’t already done it.

      Other than 720p actually being just fine for almost everyone; many HD broadcasts are still quite happily 720p, as are many games on the HD consoles.

      The cost/benefit ratio isn’t there yet.

  • I think Engadget meant to say that Apple originally planned to use 1080p for video (as they originally reported back in May) but due to the A4 limitations the decided not to go for it.

    “loses” was referring to their own story not AppleTV’s specs

    • Peter Cohen

      Thanks, Harris, and I really do understand the distinction. That’s why I wrote, “And if it ever was present in this hypothetical new device, it’s irrelevant, since its specifications are entirely imaginary and the device has never been announced.”

      As I’ve said directly to Joshua Topolsky via Twitter, I liken this to arguing over the anatomy of a unicorn. Until and unless Apple announces it, its specs are pure fiction.

  • jamiesim

    is this a blog posting about a blog posting?????

    I have atv installed on my apple tv and I think that pushes out 1080???

    • “Is this a blog posting about a blog posting?”

      Partly. It’s a blog posting about a phenomenon that happens in the tech media – an echo chamber, if you will, where a little mistake, omission or just sloppy reporting gets amplified.

      It’s like the old “prison grapevine” scene from the movie Johnny Dangerously – the message at the end isn’t anything like the message at the beginning.

    • Maybe ATV does it, but it is not supported by Apple no matter what.

  • Josh was referring to the fact that Apple had planned to have HD output in the next version of Apple TV. Who can rationally argue they wouldn’t? Instead, they are going with the iPad spec and lowering the cost, adding Apps instead of sticking to a better viewing experience. Now they can release an HD version later.

    Keep up with the story so far: http://www.engadget.com/tag/AppleTV/ As Harris notes, HD was a reported spec in May. Now it isn’t. Engadget is quite particular about reporting and checking with sources before posting. That’s why Engadget != Gizmodo.

    • Who at Apple said that the new AppleTV would have 1080?

      • Exactly. Does not matter what they said in May, it is fiction at this point.

        I think some people would like to ear CNN announced that “They heard Obama would resign next January.” and 3 months later, “No, finally that will be most likely at the end of his mandate”. What kind of journalism would that be? crap, so Engadget too.

        • My point, though, is who is ‘they’. If Apple, somewhere said 1080, then yes, the report is correct.

          But I seriously doubt anyone other than a ‘trusted’ source said anything about it.

          My trusted source said that it’ll have unicorns and rainbows, too. I wonder if that will be in the shipping release?

    • Kevin

      “to the fact that Apple had planned to have HD output in the next version of Apple TV”

      So can you point to the press release where Apple announced they would have 1080i/p support in the next version? No, that was a fucking rumor and writing a report where you post a new rummor that goes counter to previous rumor is not a backtrack or feature loss. It means you don’t know what the fuck is going on — not then not now, all you’ve got is rumor.

      Also, 720p is HD, which Apple does support, so if there is a release saying Apple will support HD, they aren’t lying — they already do.

  • Bob

    I think you’re overreacting quite a bit. It’s pretty clear that Engadget has a source or sources in which it has pretty strong faith. Those sources offered clear information back in May that the “upcoming Apple TV” would have 1080p support. Now it appears that it doesn’t.

    You seem confused by Engadget’s article. Many others weren’t. To call Engadget’s previous rumors “irrelevant” is a bit of a stretch. Rumors aren’t necessarily fiction…in many cases they have a basis in reality. Based on the strength of Engadget’s earlier report, people had an expectation of 1080p in the next-generation Apple TV. In that sense, it very much has been “lost”.

    If everbody just sat around and shut up until the day Apple released a product, the Apple web would be a lot more boring and a heck of a lot smaller than the thriving community it is today.

    • “If everbody just sat around and shut up until the day Apple released a product, the Apple web would be a lot more boring and a heck of a lot smaller than the thriving community it is today.”

      You say that like it would be a bad thing. 😉

  • Jim H

    If the video is 720p, it upscales to 1080i for your TV. If it is 1080p, it changes that to 1080i for your TV. In other words, you CAN spot upscaled 720p, but it takes some effort, and unless you’ve got a projection-room sized setup, most people are not going to notice. In the days when they were setting standards, a lot of people, ABC for one, were arguing that the standard should be 720i for broadcast.

    Jargon over experience. I, for one, think the standard of HD movies from the iTunes store is pretty good.

  • concerned reader

    The Apple TV can play 1080p content using Boxee. Apple just chooses to support only up to 720p.


  • Yeah, it’s sort of weird how gadget blogs start to think of their rumors as real news. Have you noticed that when Apple announces new products, their liveblog coverage is always about whether or not the announcement conforms to a previous rumor they’ve reported on, rather than, you know, the actual product and whether or not they like it.

  • Dean Lewis

    On a slightly different note, I hope it doesn’t have BluRay. That ups the cost for no real gain, to me at least. I already have a BluRay player: it’s called a PS3, it’s made by Sony, and it plays games as well. In fact, this drive to put BluRay players into everything, like they did with DVD players, makes it more difficult for me to buy what I need. I want a surround sound system, but getting one of the economical packages means buying another BluRay player since that’s integrated as well. So, I have to buy the components which, while probably sounding a bit better, costs me often twice as much. I don’t need a BluRay player in my computer since I’m going to watch those movies on my 48″ plasma screen in the living room — a computer screen’s usual sizes just aren’t going to show me much difference. The list goes on and on… At one point I had three different DVD players hooked up to my TV because each had some other integrated feature, but I am simplifying and own’t do that anymore.

    iTV/Apple TV should be a net appliance like the Boxee box promises. I’ve used the Boxee software, and I think Apple could make accessing web-based content much easier, provide the functions the current iTV has, and be a great little device, especially at $99.

    • You can easily argue for or against Blu-Ray.

      Me personally, I wish they would include an optical drive because I’m not interested in ripping all my DVDs. And if they do include something, it may as well be Blu-Ray (we are talking about the company that killed the floppy, after all, so they are forward looking).

      Consumer grade Blu-Ray drives (not recorders) are in the reasonable price range these days. I don’t think adding the functionality would increase the iTV price unreasonably, compared against $200 Sony players, for example.

  • addicted

    @Victor – Josh was referring to the story that they made up that Apple planned on having 1080p. Until they provide some evidence, it is fiction, at best.

    Haven’t you learned anything from the Iraq War, or Swift Boat, or Apple Tablet rumors, or xMac rumors, or even Verizon iPhone rumors (it will probably happen, but the rumors had it happening since the beginning of last year).

    Or are you saying we are supposed to hold Apple up to the standards that are set by their initial design meetings?

  • Alphonse

    “…is the erroneous assumption that Apple has taken something away.”

    I hate stupid rumors as much as anybody (and I don’t have an AppleTV, nor do I ever plan to get one), but I think the interesting thing is that this rumor is entirely believable.

    I’ve been an Apple user since the 1980’s, and Apple is notorious for taking things away. For example, iTunes added library sharing, then 4.0.1 restricted it to your subnet, then 7.0 restricted it to only iTunes. The upgrade from Mac OS 9 to X took away lots of things, some of which came back (DVD playback), some of which came back but in a noticeably inferior implementation (Graphing Calculator), and some of which never quite came back (the Finder, the control strip, easy backup/installation, window shading). They do this with their hardware, too: from obsolete technologies (floppy drive, modem) to very useful features (ability to play DVDs from other regions — since recent Macs have region checking in firmware).

    Of course, the opposite approach gets you Microsoft Windows: they don’t seem to ever take anything away, so you’re left with a huge monstrosity that can still probably run all my Windows 1.0 programs, and is so complex that it’s hard to develop for and probably hard for them to develop. And it still crashes a lot (I guess they still haven’t figured out how to force graphics drivers to not run in the kernel).

    In the grand scheme of things, I think even if they did support 1080 today, and they wanted to take it away to support all App Store apps, that would be a good tradeoff: users get more actual features they can use, lower power consumption, and lose out only on a small quantitative value that most of them probably can’t even see, anyway. The rumor is dumb not because Apple is taking something away (they do that all the time), but because it’s false, and because it would be a good thing even if it was true.

    • “I think the interesting thing is that this rumor is entirely believable.”

      Yeah, but in fairness, there have been a lot of “entirely believable” Apple rumors over the years that have turned out to be utter bullshit.

      Based on my Twitter exchange with Topolsky (I’m @flargh and he’s @joshuatopolsky, if anyone cares), it’s clear that he very sincerely believes in what his source has said. But that information it isn’t independently verifiable. So readers have to take what they’re being told on faith.

      That’s not how I’m wired to work. I believe in “trust but verify.” And absent of a verifiable source, I do not trust what I’m being told.

      Call me cynical – you wouldn’t be wrong.

  • Marc

    I love my Apple TV, for what it is, but I’ve always felt what it’s really lacking is developers. Apple TV needs LiveStation, it needs Boxee, it needs stuff I haven’t thought of yet. No matter what the new box is or is capable of, it will be nothing if it doesn’t have an SDK.

  • I am hoping this new no-1080p video rumor is untrue. Our Apple TV gets used every day. My biggest complaint is lack of 1080i/p and 720p/30 playback. Most of our home video for the past four years has been shot 1080i/30, and some 720p/30. Compressing all that down to 540p/30 is not only depressing, but frustrating as it cannot serve as a functional single-location master copy of my video. (As you point out, but many don’t comprehend, even the 720p is limited to 24fps. The top resolution for 30fps is 960×540, or one-quarter of 1080p.)

    5Mbps of H.264 is pretty good, even for 1080p if done well. So it’s not the data rate, just the resolution of the conversion’s output. Data rate becomes key if, as rumored, this is a storage-free device.

    I’m quite confident the new AppleTV/iTV/whatever will gain full 720p/30, since the iPhone 4 and iPad can do it. My suspicion is this hardware could handle 1080p, but too far beyond display capabilities to bother supporting (extra storage and battery drain with no upside).

    A related thought; assuming this is a developable iOS system, Apple will immediately be in the video console game business. If their video hardware cannot handle 1080p playback the same video hardware won’t be anywhere near competitive with other gaming systems. The new device can be a successful gaming system without going head-to-head with the others, but can’t look years behind either.

  • nobirth

    I’m sure someone pointed this out in the thread above, but the engadget article refers to the fact that the iPhone hardware has been capable of playing 1080p material and that if the the iTV cannot play 1080p then it is nerfed compared to what the iPhone hardware is capable of. This is based on the idea that the iTV is based on iPhone hardware, not the appleTV hardware. http://www.engadget.com/2009/08/20/iphone-3gs-totally-capable-of-1080p-video-playback/

    • I’d say that article indicates the phone isn’t capable:

      “We tested out a bunch of HD trailers from Apple’s QuickTime trailer site, some videos we shot with a Lumix DMC-GH1 and some other random videos with general success, but there were some major hiccups: high bitrate 720p video off the GH1 stuttered during playback, and loading the Avatar trailer consistently crashed the phone’s audio driver until we restarted.”

      Until someone provides an official statement from Apple stating that the new Apple- or iTV was going to ship with 1080 support, Peter’s point is still dead-on.

  • Steve K.

    Big question is whether the device will support 1920×1080 for non iTunes videos. I don’t believe we’ll see a $99. device though. It’ll be $129. Look at Apple’s track record. Steve loves the $129. price point. Just enough to squeeze another $20. out of consumers.

    • Steve K.

      Sorry, I meant $30. out of consumers. Damn iPhone keyboard!

  • Nate

    Peter Cohen accuses Topolsky of poor fact checking when in fact Cohen is guilty of not fully researching engadget’s story (ok, rumour) so we have a blogpost about nothing. I have just wasted the last five minutes of my life. The most Cohen can claim is that Topolsky wasn’t clear enough and it that worth a whole post?

    Also I don’t get the hatred of engadget, not that I read it that often, but by purposely not linking to the story on which this whole post was based is childish and needless.

    • Peter Cohen

      “I have just wasted the last five minutes of my life. “

      Duly noted. Your subscription refund is in the mail.

      “not linking to the story on which this whole post was based is childish and needless.”

      I’m not going to help boost Engadget’s traffic to a crap story. You want to read it, knock yourself out. But that doesn’t mean I have to make it easy.

  • George

    Resolution is only one of many lower quality issues with “economical” bandwidth vs Blu-Ray. Jerky video, blown highlights and inferior sound are a few more things that can lessen the “quality” aka HD experience. MP3 deja vu all over again. It can be done right but most viewers don’t feel it’s worth the money. Very Sad!

  • Tobias

    I still feel the one thing Apple TV really needs to make it a good product for the average consumer is DVD ripping support right in iTunes. Normal people can’t and won’t work out how to use Handbrake. I believe easy CD ripping was a huge part of the iPod’s success, the iTMS was really only able to take off once everyone was already familiar with using their iPods, through their existing collection of content that they had ported over. I can’t understand how ripping CDs can be perfectly legal but ripping DVDs not.

    • Peter Cohen

      “I can’t understand how ripping CDs can be perfectly legal but ripping DVDs not.”

      A lot of it has to do with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). The sticking point isn’t in people making backup copies of their own movies – that’s perfectly legal. The problem is that the DMCA makes the distribution of software used for circumventing copyright to be illegal, when used for reasons outside of fair use. What’s more, it’s a moving target – the DVD makers are constantly updating and changing the technology they use to encrypt movies.

      It’s a sticky legal point that’s landed companies in court before, and I’m sure that Apple is simply erring on the side of caution to reduce liability. But in the end, the consumer suffers because the law is incomplete at best.

    • Steve K.

      If Handbrake is too hard to figure out (which it’s not) try Ripit from The Little App Factory. http://thelittleappfactory.com/ripit Just insert disc and click.

  • Peter Andrén

    I’m just curious of one thing here, guys… In the article Peter wrote “Your Apple TV can’t handle that now.”

    What’s the technical problem here if we overlook the bandwith… Is this a hardware- or software issue? Would it be possible to get Apple TV to show 1080i and 1080p?

  • Apple TV does support 1080p http://www.appletvhacks.net/2009/12/30/1080p-coming-to-apple-tv/

    yes, hacked Apple TV;)

  • cjmegatron81

    The title was clarified, but unfortunately the blogosophere still ran with the feature being “lost”.

  • Paloma

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