YouTube Has Begun Gradually Rolling Out 4K Support for the Apple TV

YouTube icon on Apple TV Credit: Jesse Hollington
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Although iOS 14 and tvOS 14 have brought a wealth of new features related to video playback, it’s clearly taking YouTube a bit of time to embrace the new capabilities being offered on the iPhone, iPad, and Apple TV.

Even though it looks like while we may still have to wait a bit before the streaming giant turns the switch on Picture in Picture on the iPhone — in fact, the whole thing is becoming a bit of a mess lately — the good news for Apple TV users at least is that it looks like YouTube is ready to start delivering on the promise of streaming to the set-top box in full 4K resolution.

Although the Apple TV 4K has been around for years, with 4K content widely available not only from Apple and iTunes, but also from other streaming services like Netflix, HBO, and Disney+, the fact is that YouTube has always been an outlier on Apple’s big-screen streaming device, with users limited to watching in 1080p, even when the source material was available in full 4K UHD.

The main reason for this discrepancy is that YouTube chose to adopt Google’s VP9 codec for 4K content instead of the much more commonly-used H.265/HEVC. Since Apple didn’t offer support for playing back content encoded in that particular format, none of its devices were compatible with YouTube’s 4K video content.

Apple’s Approach to 4K Video

To be clear, this was mostly Apple’s problem and not YouTube’s; while obviously, YouTube chose to use a non-mainstream codec, most other smart TV and streaming box manufacturers embraced it more enthusiastically, leaving Apple’s devices as the notable exceptions when it came to watching YouTube in 4K.

However, at WWDC this past June, Apple announced that it would be increasing its 4K video support in both macOS Big Sur and tvOS 14. In the case of Big Sur, that actually meant introducing full 4K capabilities into Safari 14 for the first time to support all streaming services, not just YouTube (although it appears you’ll still need a newer Mac to take advantage of 4K playback for at least some services like Netflix). In contrast, for tvOS, it simply meant adding support for the VP9 codec so that users will actually be able to play YouTube videos in 4K on the set-top box.

It isn’t just the Apple TV, either; iOS 14 (and iPadOS 14) also adds support for Google’s VP9 codec, meaning you can watch YouTube in 4K on your iPhone and iPad too.

YouTube 4K Starts Arriving on tvOS

Like most new features introduced in iOS and tvOS, of course, Apple just provides the groundwork, and it’s still up to developers to take the necessary steps to support these features. For most developers, this means releasing an app update, but Google and YouTube take a very different approach with their apps, rolling out features based on changes on the back-end.

This means that you probably won’t see an obvious update to the YouTube app that suddenly advertises the arrival of 4K support — and even if you did, it might not be available to you specifically right away, since Google tends to roll out these features much more gradually, as it did with dark mode in Gmail for iOS.

So, it’s not surprising that even though 4K YouTube support seemed to be missing in action when tvOS 14 was released to the public last month, at least some users are starting to see it appear on their Apple TV boxes.

According to FlatPanelsHD, several Reddit users have reported that the 4K or “2160p” quality option has begun appearing in the YouTube app. Much like how it showed up on the iPhone in iOS 14 earlier this year, the setting isn’t being advertised but is rather simply buried as a new higher-resolution option in the normal quality settings. It’s also unclear whether videos are defaulting to 4K in all cases, so you might have to pull up the quality settings to make sure.

Users who report seeing the new 4K setting are running the whole gamut of tvOS versions, from the original 14.0 to the latest 14.2 beta, and yet many aren’t seeing it yet either, regardless of version. So this is one of these areas where you’re just going to have to patiently wait until YouTube throws the switch to turn it on for your account group or server.

Some Limitations

Sadly, it’s not all 4K sunshine and roses just yet, as YouTube appears to have still a few limitations on what videos will play in 4K on the Apple TV.

Right off the bat, it seems that only 30fps is supported right now in 4K. If you attempt to play a 50fps or 60fps 4K video, YouTube won’t just try and lower the frame rate — it will actually drop it down to 1440p resolution.

HDR is also not supported right now. Although you’ll still be able to watch 4K HDR videos in full 2160p resolution, they’ll be rendered in 4K SDR instead.

It’s unclear if these are temporary limitations that will be resolved at some point in the future as YouTube continues rolling out its 4K support, or if it’s a question of the older A10X chip in the Apple TV 4K not quite being able to handle decoding 4K VP9 content at 60fps or in HDR, which of course both require more horsepower. Notably, iOS 14 and iPadOS 14 both support YouTube in 4K 60fps HDR, so this appears to be unique to the Apple TV. However, it’s worth noting that we’ve only observed the full 4K quality on newer A12- and A13-equipped iPhone and iPad models, and earlier reports suggested that 4K didn’t even appear on older devices.

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