Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV or a new Google Chromecast Dongle – 4K Won’t Matter

September 22, 2015

4K isn’t part of the current round of fighting.


A quick disclaimer: I own a Chromecast dongle. I don’t use it much. My daughter plays Just Dance Now every couple of days on it. And sometimes we watch our pictures on the large screen. So I can’t be called a true user of these devices.

That said, these devices are heavily used for streaming, which means video, which means a video codec. Which means I am a bit interested in them lately. Especially now with the H.265 crisis and the newly found Alliance for Open Media.

We had two launches lately and rumors of a third one. Let’s look at each one of them from the prism of codec support and resolution.

Apple TV

Apple TV has its issues with the web. The spec of this upcoming device, from Apple’s website, include the following video formats:

H.264 video up to 1080p, 60 frames per second, High or Main Profile level 4.2 or lower

H.264 Baseline Profile level 3.0 or lower with AAC-LC audio up to 160 Kbps per channel, 48kHz, stereo audio in .m4v, .mp4, and .mov file formats

MPEG-4 video up to 2.5 Mbps, 640 by 480 pixels, 30 frames per second, Simple Profile with AAC-LC audio up to 160 Kbps, 48kHz, stereo audio in .m4v, .mp4, and .mov file formats

Running an A8 chip, it can be deduced that it might actually have H.265 capabilities, but Apple decided to not use them for the time being – the same way it removed H.265 from FaceTime on the iPhone 6.

They also aren’t going overboard with the resolution, sticking to 1080p, streamed with H.264. The nice thing here is their 60 fps support.

There’s no 4K though. And no H.265.

Amazon Fire TV

Amazon announced its own response to the Apple TV a day after the Apple TV announcement. As with all classic after-Apple announcement, this had the two obvious features: lower price point and better hardware.

The better hardware part boils down to support for 4K resolutions.

The specs indicate the following content formats:

Video: H.265, H.264, Audio: AAC-LC, AC3, eAC3 (Dolby Digital Plus), FLAC, MP3, PCM/Wave, Vorbis, Dolby Atmos (EC3_JOC), Photo: JPEG, PNG, GIF, BMP

So higher resolutions probably get streamed at H.265 while everything else is H.264.

Here’s the rub though:

  1. Amazon is now part of the Alliance for Open Media – created to ditch royalty bearing codecs such as H.265
  2. The HEVC Advance announced their intent to leech ask payment based on streamed content and not only devices sold. How does that get calculated into a low margin retailer such as Amazon?

This is a hardware device. No real option to add or replace video codecs easily – at least not at such high resolutions. They worked on this one for over a year, so they couldn’t have foretold the mess that H.265 patents will be today. They didn’t want (or couldn’t) risk it with VP9. So now what?

Will this 4K device be useful for watching Amazon video movies at 4K? How higher will these need to be priced to deal with the royalty headaches of H.265?

Google’s YouTube service certainly isn’t going to support H.265 for its 4K streams anytime soon.

Can’t see 4K using H.265 on a hardware device in 2015 the right choice. Sorry.

Google Chromecast

Only rumors for now, but it seems this one will be announced on September 29th. We will know soon enough how stupid my estimates really are.

Here we go – these are my own estimates:

  • We really know little about the Chromecast’s specs. Even the one on the market – no clue on the video codec in it. It might be VP8 or H.264. My bet is on H.264 on the older model
  • The new Chromecast won’t support H.265. It will have support for H.264 and VP9
  • It won’t do 4K. It will focus on software related features to beat competition
  • VP9 will be there to better work with YouTube’s new VP9 support and reduce bandwidth strains on both Google and the end customer

We will see in a a week how I fared on this one.

Bottom Line

While 4K is a higher resolution than 1080p, it is too new and too niche at this point:

  • There aren’t enough TVs out there supporting 4K
  • There’s not enough content available
  • No one decided way of compressing such resolutions (with a nice patents minefield to go along with it)
  • And there aren’t many viewers who will be able to see the difference anyway

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  1. Let’s be completely clear about something….4k/UHD has literally nothing to do with codecs. It’s the spatial resolution of a video stream or a display device.

    4K as a streaming format may be enabled/enhanced by more efficient codecs, but that’s entirely another matter. There is literally no requirement for 4K streaming at present.

    Today the opportunity presented by 4K is more about display applications. 4K displays will be unavoidable soon enough. How to best leverage that screen real estate?

    Consider the idea of rendering to a canvas as presented at your recent Kranky Geek event. How about we do something sensible about allowing a screen share and a presenter to viewed simultaneously, both at optimal resolution?

    Similarly, let’s not beat up traditional vendors about having or not having 4K video capability. There’s just no point. OTOH, if they’re selling 80″ displays that only resolve 1080p that’s pretty short term thinking.

    The codec wars will continue to be sure, but they needn’t get in the way. The display aspects of 4K can be enjoyed without requiring HEVC or VP9.

    Now, 8K…where just the display is currently $133,000. That’s the new frontier….for theaters.

    1. Michael,

      Thanks, but there really is a correlation between a codec and the resolution.

      The more the codec can compress at a given quality, the less bandwidth it will need for a given resolution. In most cases, there’s no feasibility in streaming 4K videos in H.264 whereas doing that with a better codec can and does work.

      There are also issues like the range allowed by the motion estimation built into a codec and other nuances that may render older codecs obsolete. In the same token, video companies resolved to H.264 when going HD instead of using the older (but at the time popular) H.263 codec.

      As for what can be done with more resolution – much. But that’s hardly the point for a device located in the living room with the sole intent of making us couch potatoes. 4K is currently being touted as the best live sport experience out there. There’s not much content, but then again, that was the case with HD. Until all content was HD. 4K content is available today (or next year) by high end smartphones… and yes – you’ll need more storage and better codecs to handle it properly.

      1. 4K/UHD, even streaming 4K, can be achieved using a variety of codecs. In fact, it is being achieved using a variety of codecs, if you consider new entries like Thira & Perseus.

        The players involved may want/need higher compression efficiency, but HEVC is not the only game in town, just the current leader.

        I don’t see 4K as being all that useful in the home. 1080p at higher frame rates and HDR are more impactful to the consumer. However, those benefits likely can’t be separated from newer 4K UHDTVs, with faster HDMI interconnects.

  2. > Bottom Line

    you forgot the biggest one

    the average user doesn’t yet have enough *reliable* bandwidth to do the lower resolutions, let alone anything better.

    that will probably still take decades – the infrastructure just isn’t there yet

    video streams on mobile?
    forget it – that prepaid will be out of credit within hours

    your dreamingt if you think a lot of users are in any hurry to pay much more than $30 a month for their mobile plan

    and is there any research into how intolerant users might be of streams that drop out often?

    the user experience is way too often one of frustration

    1. Michael,

      There are carriers moving towards 200Mb-1Gb connections already. Reliability will always be an issue, but one that can be managed in certain installations. It will take time for 4K videos in real time to enable full worldwide coverage, but I don’t see this as issue #1 at the moment.

      As for mobile and prepaid – who cares? Videos are still mostly watched from the home and over DSL or WiFi – even when done over a smartphone or a tablet. In many countries, this still entails a flat monthly fee for access with no discernible limit on the amount of monthly data.

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