Apple has had a slightly odd relationship with 4K video content over the years, especially where streaming services like Netflix and YouTube are concerned. While Apple began delivering 4K HDR movies on its iTunes Store three years ago, when it released its Apple TV 4K back in 2017, the support for 4K content from other services was somewhat limited.
Most significantly, although YouTube has long offered content in 4K, the Apple TV couldn’t participate, for reasons that have never been entirely clear, and as if that wasn’t bad enough, the situation was even stranger for Mac users — even those who had a 27-inch 5K Retina iMac found themselves limited to 1080p HD when watching iTunes movies purchased in 4K HDR, and streaming other services like Netflix and YouTube in 4K was completely out of the question.
It wasn’t until last year’s release of macOS Catalina with its accompanying standalone TV app that users could stream 4K HDR content from iTunes and Apple TV+, although that was sadly limited to 2018 and later Macs, no doubt due to matters of copy protection and format support. However, this still remained limited to Apple’s own content, since it was exclusive to Apple’s own macOS TV app.
Why Do These Limitations Exist?
Sadly, these limitations are generally more corporate than they are technical. Hollywood takes its content very seriously, and in fact Apple had to battle to get 4K content onto its platforms in the first place, and while some of this was a question of pricing, since Apple didn’t want to charge a premium for 4K movies or force users to “upgrade” for the better quality, there’s also no doubt that security and copy protection were part of the discussions as well.
Basically, studio executives remain as paranoid as ever about users copying their content and sharing it around for free, even though there’s been ample evidence that most of these protections don’t work nearly as well as they’d like them to.
The Apple TV, with its closed environment, provided a great proving ground for 4K movies on iTunes, since Apple was able to make the device considerably more secure, but when it came to the much more open Mac, there were too many ways to potentially bypass copy protection, and while Hollywood was willing to live with that for its older 1080p HD content, it was much more nervous about letting out its 4K crown jewels.
What About YouTube?
Of course, copy protection doesn’t apply to YouTube videos, and while Apple and Google have both been relatively mum about why YouTube isn’t supported in 4K on the Apple TV, many experts suspect the answer in this case is a purely technical one.
Unlike other 4K content from providers such as Netflix and of course iTunes itself, Google was using a unique 4K video format, or “codec” for YouTube, which wasn’t supported by the Apple TV. Whether Apple could have practically supported this codec is another question — the answer is probably yes — but it’s likely that baking in support for a format that was only used by YouTube wasn’t high on Apple’s list of priorities.
YouTube in 4K on Apple TV
However, it looks like Apple TV users will be able to view YouTube in 4K when tvOS 14 arrives later this year. The Verge noticed a reference buried on the tvOS 14 preview page that 4K support for YouTube is coming.
Watch the latest YouTube videos in their full 4K glory. Your favourite music, slo-mo, outdoor, and vlog footage never looked better.
While The Verge has asked both Apple and YouTube for more info on what’s behind this change, there’s a suggestion that it might simply be YouTube’s decision to switch to a new codec that’s more easily supported by the Apple TV, or Apple may have actually begun supporting the older VP9 codec.
Netflix in 4K on Big Sur
Meanwhile, it looks like the new version of Safari that’s coming with macOS Big Sur this year will also add support for streaming Netflix in 4K to your Mac.
As noted by 9to5Mac, the support for HDR videos that’s coming to Safari seems to be the main driver here, since this also means Safari will finally support the HEVC codec. Ironically, Apple’s recent Mac models have been fully compatible with HEVC for a couple of years now, but Apple hasn’t updated Safari itself to actually support the codec, which is what Netflix uses for 4K streaming.
Since Netflix doesn’t offer a native macOS app, but instead relies on the browser, this meant that Netflix content viewed on your Mac was limited to 1080p. However, with macOS Big Sur, Mac users will finally be able to watch movies and TV shows from Netflix in 4K resolution with Dolby Vision and HDR10.
Unfortunately, much like the 4K iTunes and Apple TV+ support that came to macOS Catalina last year, this will be limited to newer Macs — specifically those introduced in 2018 or later, so as with iTunes movies, if you’ve got an older Mac, you’ll still be stuck watching at 1080p.
Notably, it also doesn’t look like 4K support will be coming to YouTube on macOS just yet, but that could change by the time Big Sur gets released in the fall.