The Next Apple TV May Support 120Hz Displays (Here’s Why That’s a Big Deal)
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While it’s not nearly as high-profile of a product as Apple’s long-rumoured AirTags, we’ve been waiting and wondering about rumours of a new Apple TV in the works for just about as long. Yet, while Apple’s item tracking tags seem very likely to make their big debut in the next few weeks, reports of a new Apple TV are far more uncertain.
Of course, even though the Apple TV hasn’t been updated since 2017, it’s probably fair to say that the current Apple TV 4K is more than adequate for its intended purpose: Streaming video from various online content services such as Netflix, Disney+, and of course, Apple’s own Apple TV+. After all, it supports 4K, Dolby Vision HDR, and even Dolby Atmos, so there’s not much more we could ask for when it comes to simply watching movies and TV shows.
So, if the Apple TV were merely a streaming box, it might need little more than a modest refresh. However, from the first release of the tvOS-powered fourth-generation Apple TV back in 2015, it’s clear that Apple has more in mind for the set-top box.
Sadly, it’s been hard to figure out exactly what that is. While it’s obviously not a console on the level of the PlayStation or Xbox, the Apple TV is clearly a platform designed for running games and other apps, with its own App Store, and even game controller support. Yet, Apple has yet to take that to its full potential.
In fact, we were quite surprised when Apple didn’t release a new Apple TV in late 2019, since the release of its subscription gaming service, Apple Arcade, seemed like it would have been perfect timing. If nothing else, a new model of the set-top box that added an A12 or A13 CPU and more storage would have been a boon for Apple Arcade fans. Despite that, however, not only did 2019 end with not even a mention of the Apple TV, but we made it through all of 2020 without a peep by Apple either.
By the end of last year, even Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman was left scratching his head, suggesting that the Apple TV was once again “missing its moment” by failing to capitalize on the holiday gifting season and increased home television viewership that had come as a result of the global health pandemic.
Although Apple saw record viewership for some of its Apple TV+ movies, it’s a safe bet that a lot of those viewers came from many other smart TVs. While that’s obviously great for Apple’s streaming service, these third-party partnerships have already made the case for owning an Apple TV even less compelling.
All of this takes us to the obvious conclusion that Apple has something much bigger in store for its set-top box.
The Next Chapter
Let’s face it, Apple has had plenty of opportunities to simply refresh the Apple TV. After all, a company that manages to crank out major new technologies in its iPhones, iPads, and Macs should find it trivial to simply slap an A12 chip and some more memory into a small set-top box.
The timing and missed opportunities lead us to believe that Apple must have something even bigger up its sleeve, and now new code found in the latest tvOS 14.5 beta seems to confirm what we’ve been hearing rumours of for a while: The next chapter for the Apple TV will be to turn it into more of a game console than a streaming box.
This latest discovery, courtesy of 9to5Mac, reveals that Apple is paving the way for 120Hz display support, with multiple references in the code suggesting that Apple may already be testing a 120Hz mode for the Apple TV.
Much like the “ProMotion” displays found on Apple’s iPad Pro, a higher 120Hz refresh rate would provide much smoother performance. However, on a television set, a 120Hz refresh really only serves one purpose: gaming.
Unlike the iPad, where things like Apple Pencil interactions and web page scrolling can feel smoother and more responsive at higher refresh rates, a higher refresh rate isn’t really relevant for anything else on a device like the Apple TV. Even the highest-quality 4K HDR video from Apple TV+ and Netflix still only runs at 60 frames per second, for which the standard 60Hz displays are more than accurate.
In the world of fast-paced games, on the other hand, high refresh rates are extremely desirable. There’s a considerable market for 120Hz TVs among gamers, which can already be driven by the PlayStation 5 and the Xbox Series X.
Adding 120Hz support to the Apple TV would be the strongest evidence yet that Apple plans to turn this into a game console first, and a streaming box later, and when you consider how much money Apple is pouring into Apple Arcade, plus some high-profile titles now landing there, it’s a move that makes a lot of sense.
After all, the Apple TV as we know it today doesn’t really offer all that much that you can’t find in a variety of other set-top boxes and smart TVs. Apple has even embraced this by making its own TV app available on a wealth of other platforms as well, from Samsung TVs and Roku devices to Sony’s PlayStation 5.
At this point, the only thing that really distinguishes the Apple TV from any other home entertainment device in its class is the App Store, and more specifically the gaming side of the App Store. While not all iOS game developers have embraced the tvOS side of things, it’s been one of Apple’s core requirements for Apple Arcade titles from the beginning. This makes it pretty clear that Apple still considers the Apple TV to be a key part of the strategy for its gaming subscription service.
Apple TV Pro?
It’s also worth keeping in mind that the 120Hz display support found in tvOS can only be for an entirely new piece of hardware. The current Apple TV 4K only includes an HDMI 2.0 port, which isn’t capable of handling the higher refresh rates.
So, for 120Hz displays to become a reality, Apple would need to release a new version of the Apple TV with HDMI 2.1 support, and it seems likely that such a box will be an upgrade in many other ways too.
We already heard last October that Apple was working on an extremely powerful new Apple TV that would turn the entire lineup on its ear. This box would include an A14-series chip as a bare minimum — quite possibly even the A14X that’s expected to land in this year’s iPad Pro.
Apple has also been aggressively adding game controller support in iOS and tvOS over the past couple of years, embracing PS4 and Xbox One controllers back in iOS/tvOS 13, and taking that even farther in iOS 14. Support for Sony’s latest PS5 controllers even appeared in iOS 14.3 betas last fall, and it’s expected to go live with the impending release of iOS/tvOS 14.5.
On top of all of this, there have been reports that Apple is working on its own first-party game controller — something that it would arguably need to bundle with the new Apple TV if it’s going to be seriously pushing it forward as an Apple Arcade console, rather than a streaming box.
When’s It Coming?
Unfortunately, at this point, we’ve heard numerous reports with very little to tie them all together into a cohesive product or timeline. It’s bits and pieces, many of which seem to come from code snippets in tvOS betas, but there have been no reports that anybody has actually seen a finished product, or even a real prototype yet.
That said, the Apple TV is such a relatively boring-looking product that it’s entirely possible that leakers and other industry sources — who obviously have much more interesting things to talk about — could be completely missing the new model. It’s also conceivable that Apple may even be playing this one much closer to the vest.
So, while we wouldn’t be entirely surprised to see Apple unveil the new Apple TV either at an upcoming special event, or even as part of the WWDC keynote, we also have no evidence that directly suggests that it will be making an appearance that soon.
[The information provided in this article has NOT been confirmed by Apple and may be speculation. Provided details may not be factual. Take all rumors, tech or otherwise, with a grain of salt.]