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The Apple TV 4K’s HDR Nightmare

by Josh Centers

As much as it pains me to say this, Gene Munster was right. For years the former Piper Jaffray analyst was routinely mocked because at every Apple investor call, he would ask Apple leadership if they were planning to make an Apple-branded smart TV set. But after weeks of fighting to get HDR working with my Apple TV 4K, I’m convinced that if Apple intends to succeed in the TV business, the best thing to do would be to ship a television set that just worked. I’ve been writing and updating “Take Control of Apple TV [1]” for four years now, so I know that if I’m flummoxed, the average user has little hope.

In the simplest possible terms, HDR video lets you watch movies with a broader range of colors than before. While you either have to have an enormous TV or sit very close to the screen to notice much difference with 4K video (as I explained in “Apple TV Finally Enters the 4K Realm, but It Will Cost You [2],” 12 September 2017), HDR is a more striking change, and one that doesn’t require a TV the size of Texas.

If you want to see what HDR looks like without trying to set it up on your TV, you can view 4K HDR iTunes video content on an iPhone 8, iPhone X, or 2017 iPad Pro [3] (see “HDR Movies Now Available for 2017 iPad Pro Tablets [4],” 16 September 2017).

But for the big screen experience, you’ll need an Apple TV 4K. That’s when the problems start. You may go to enable that setting and… it’s not available. Or maybe you force the setting and weird things start happening: your Apple TV slows down, you get weird sparkles on your TV, odd bands of color, or the screen just freezes. As you can see in the photo, that’s what happened to me, and here’s what you can do to try and fix those issues.

[image link] [5]

Are You Prepared for HDR? -- First, make sure that you’re properly set up for HDR. As for hardware, you need:

For years, I’ve said that an HDMI cable is an HDMI cable. That’s no longer entirely true. For HDR, you’ll need what’s known as a “high speed” HDMI cable designed for the high bandwidth requirements of 4K resolutions, 60 Hz refresh rates, and HDR color. The good news is that high speed HDMI cables are cheap: I bought one for $6.99 on Amazon [6].

When checking your TV’s specifications, note that there are two main HDR formats: HDR10, which is more widely adopted, and Dolby Vision, which is visually superior. A TV that supports Dolby Vision should also support HDR10, but not vice-versa.

Making all of this even more confusing is the fact that users can update the software in most recent TVs. In my article introducing the Apple TV 4K [7], I noted:

For instance, my 2015 Sony supports HDR, but only via Android apps that run on the TV itself. That’s because its HDMI ports are HDMI 2.0, not HDMI 2.0a, which is the minimum requirement to transmit an HDR signal (HDMI 2.1, of course, also supports HDR).

As it turns out, one of my Sony TV’s updates fixed this, though the community isn’t sure which one it was [8]. The only way I discovered the change was by stumbling across Settings > Picture & Display > Dynamic Range while looking through my TV’s settings one night. It pays to explore your TV’s settings every so often.

You also need to make sure that your content supports HDR. In the iTunes Store, this is easy to see in a movie’s listing [9]. Look for the 4K icon — the one next to it will say either Dolby Vision or HDR if the film is available in HDR.

[image link] [10]

But if the content is in Dolby Vision and your TV can do only HDR10, does your TV display some HDR or does it ignore that data completely? I don’t know. Apparently some TVs can translate between the formats, but it’s a murky issue.

Generally, you can expect newer movies from major Hollywood studios to be in 4K and some sort of HDR. The notable exception is Disney, which isn’t yet releasing its videos in 4K. Also note that you won’t have to pay anything extra for 4K or HDR in iTunes, and iTunes will upgrade existing HD movies for free once the studio upgrades the underlying content.

Finally, keep in mind that you need to have a fast Internet connection to stream 4K content. Apple and Netflix both recommend 25 Mbps or more of downstream bandwidth.

Check Your Apple TV Settings -- Once you have the right TV, the right cable, and the right content, you need to make sure that HDR is enabled on your Apple TV. For that, head over to Settings > Video and Audio > Format. What you see is based on what your setup will support. Ideally, choose 4K Dolby Vision 60 Hz here, though 4K HDR 60 Hz is a close second place. If you don’t see even 4K HDR 60 Hz, you can usually scroll down to the bottom, choose Other Formats, and select it from that list, but doing so will likely cause the aforementioned problems.

At first, I forced my Apple TV 4K to output 4K HDR 60 Hz in Settings > Video and Audio > Format > Other Formats. Initially, it seemed to work. (Much like changing resolutions on the Mac, when you change formats, the Apple TV takes a minute to switch to that format and then asks if you can see the display. If you don’t respond to the prompt, it assumes you can’t see it and returns to the previous setting.)

But I immediately noticed sluggish performance — unusual for the Apple TV 4K — and my wife complained about it “going nuts” when I wasn’t there. Over time, I too noticed various glitches and artifacts.

If that sort of thing happens to you, go to Settings > Video and Audio and choose Check Cable. That runs a test to see if your current HDMI cable can support the display settings you’ve chosen, and it will set your Apple TV to output the best quality it detects. Alas, running this test always set my Apple TV back to 4K SDR 60 Hz — SDR stands for standard dynamic range.

If you use an A/V receiver, it could also be involved. Even if it has HDMI ports, it may not support 4K video, and even if it supports 4K video, it may not do HDR. I haven’t used a receiver for years — a direct video connection between the Apple TV and your TV set is always simpler and more reliable. To avoid the need for an A/V receiver, I bought a TV with plenty of HDMI ports and a 5.1 sound bar. (Even when I last had a receiver, I set it up so that it only handled audio.)

The eventual solution turned out to be related to my TV settings. After much fussing, I finally solved all of my HDR woes by going to Settings > External Inputs > HDMI Signal Format on my Sony TV set and changing the HDMI ports from Standard Format to Enhanced Format. After doing that, everything worked great at 4K HDR 60 Hz, and it passed the Check Cable test.

Good news for fellow Sony TV owners: the upcoming tvOS 11.3 update will reportedly add support for Dolby Vision for Sony TVs [11]. But for now, 4K HDR 60 Hz is the best I can do, and I don’t even have an option to try to force Dolby Vision.

If you want to push the envelope for a smidgen of extra quality, on the Apple TV 4K, go to Settings > Video and Audio > Chroma (if it’s available), and set it to 4:2:2 instead of the default 4:2:0. RTings has a decent explanation [12] of what this does, but in essence it means less compression and thus a theoretically clearer picture.

But Now Everything Looks Weird! -- You’ve enabled all this stuff and now things look strange. Part of it is the HDR look, which can take a little getting used to. But by default, the Apple TV 4K makes everything HDR, and it also displays everything at the highest possible frame rate. HDR conversion makes for unusual colors and even artifacts, and forcing a high refresh rate causes what’s often called the “soap opera effect,” where everything seems to move just a bit too smoothly.

Fortunately, the Apple TV 4K offers a fix for these issues. Go to Settings > Video and Audio > Match Content and turn on Match Dynamic Range and Match Frame Rate. The only downside of this setting is that you may see a brief black screen whenever the Apple TV switches formats, but if you have a high-speed HDMI cable and everything is working properly, you likely won’t notice it.

For more helpful Apple TV tips, check out “Take Control of Apple TV [13],” which I’ve updated for the Apple TV 4K and tvOS 11.

Is This HDR On? -- I hope I’ve helped you get the most out of your Apple TV 4K’s picture quality, but here’s a sad confession: even though HDR is enabled on my Apple TV, I’m playing HDR content, and I’m using a high speed HDMI cable, I’m not certain that it’s actually reaching my TV. HDR movies look a little different, but our perceptions can be deceiving when it comes to audio-visual stuff, which is why that world is so full of snake oil. Let’s examine the evidence:

So, although the picture looks outstanding, I can’t tell you for sure that my Apple TV 4K is actually displaying any form of HDR. I’ll be curious to see if the iOS 11.3 update changes anything.

Why Do You Have to Go and Make TV So Complicated? -- I give up. The picture looks fantastic regardless of whether or not it’s actually HDR, and I have more important things to do than spend weeks of my time figuring out if my TV is displaying an extra two bits of color. Besides, I mostly watch old black-and-white episodes of “The Andy Griffith Show.” (I’m more interested in the technology of TV than the content itself. So sue me.)

TV should not be this complicated. Even back in the old days, when I had to help my dad adjust the outdoor antenna to watch “Married with Children” on Fox, what we were doing made sense. This HDR nonsense is just indecipherable. I’ve been emailing friends who have contacts throughout the industry, and everyone is as confused as I am. And I literally wrote a book in this space!

It’s not entirely Apple’s fault. The TV world has long worked like this, with numerous incompatibilities between TV sets and peripherals. But Apple could solve all of this by making a television. Imagine: no calibration, no special settings, nothing to twiddle with! Just sit down and watch TV in the best possible quality. Sure, it wouldn’t be Apple’s most profitable business, but neither is the current Apple TV.

Until that day comes, I’ve seen my family relying more and more on my Chromecast Ultra [15]. It has no interface, and no settings as such — it just works. Best of all, it’s voice controlled when paired with a Google Home [16] smart speaker. Nothing delights my son quite as much as saying “OK Google, play PJ Masks,” and seeing the TV coming to life with his favorite show. It’s magical. Hmm, something magical that just works… that sounds like the products our favorite fruit company used to produce.