While support for the object-based Dolby Atmos surround sound technology is “on the roadmap”, it’s unclear when Google’s YouTube app for tvOS might serve 4K HDR video on Apple’s upcoming 4K-enabled media streamer.

YouTube, upscaled!

At present, the official YouTube app available in tvOS’s App Store simply upscales 1080p video to 4K on the new Apple TV. This actually gives early adopters a worse user experience because, in most cases, upscaling 1080p content to 4K looks less than great (unless you hook up your new box to a non-4K TV set, which defeats the purpose of buying into 4K).

The Verge’s Nilay Patel notes in his detailed review of Apple TV 4K that Apple doesn’t support the open-source VP9 video format which YouTube delivers 4K video streams in.

Apple TV video formats

At present, Apple TV 4K supports three major hardware-accelerated video codecs:

  • H.264
  • HEVC (H.265)
  • MP4

As a result, YouTube on the new box doesn’t stream 4K HDR video.

What this means for you

It’s a problem that affects Safari on macOS and iOS as well and is the reason why you currently cannot watch 4K YouTube clips in Safari for iPhone or Mac.

From the article:

Again, the specifics of the issue are nerdy, but the result is that no one who buys a new Apple TV can watch 4K YouTube videos—and YouTube is the single largest source of 4K video. Until Apple and Google figure it out, MKBHD and #teamcrispy will all be running at 1080p on the Apple TV 4K. Sorry, boys.

Given its steep price tag and insane processing power, it’s something of a disappointment that early adopters won’t be able to enjoy YouTube in 4K on their Apple TV 4K.

This is clearly a matter of politics, not a technical issue.

VP9 versus H.265

The VP9 codec was originally developed by Google to compete directly with the HEVC (H.265), which Apple backs and has adopted across iOS 11, macOS High Sierra and tvOS 11. Android has supported VP9 since version 4.4 KitKat and most desktop browsers are able to render VP9-encoded video out of the box.

By contrast, Microsoft’s discontinued Internet Explorer and mobile/desktop Safari are the only two major browsers lacking VP9 support, with Safari in particular remaining the last H.264 holdout among web browsers.

Though open and royalty-free, parts of the VP9 codec are covered by patents held by Google.

Gosh, not another format war

The thing is, Google grants free usage of its own related patents as long as a company does not engage in patent litigations.

This may explain why Apple has avoided adopting VP9 thus far.

Either Apple will have to eventually implement support for the VP9 codec across its operating systems or Google will need to update the YouTube backend in order to serve HEVC (H.265)-encoded video streams to Apple users (they actually did this for the original iPhone).

It’s the user experience that suffers in the end.

We certainly don’t need another format war—we’ve had plenty of those. Apple and Google ought to find a workable solution that’s in their customers’ best interest, not their own.

The new Apple TV is slated to arrive tomorrow.