Apple finally fixes SDR content on the Apple TV 4K with tvOS 11.2
A new software update for the Apple TV, tvOS 11.2, arrived today. It adds the previously delayed sports section to the TV app and allows users to change the rules about how the Apple TV 4K deals with standard dynamic range (SDR) content on high dynamic range (HDR) TVs. The update also offers users a solution to frame-pacing problems that occurred as a result of the gadget's default behavior of forcing all content to play at 60Hz.
Arguably the most notable addition is a new setting that allows you to force the Apple TV to match its video output settings to the content you're watching on a case-by-case basis.
When we reviewed the Apple TV 4K, we were not thrilled that, in order to keep the output HDR at all times on TVs that supported it, the device used Apple's own processing to convert SDR to HDR. This resulted in subpar SDR image quality with some content. Similarly, the Apple TV 4K automatically output content at 60Hz to 60Hz TVs, even if the source content was, say, 24Hz, or 50Hz.
It was possible to manually force the device to specific frame rates or dynamic range settings in the Apple TV 4K's settings menus before, but the change was always universal. That meant you could force the Apple TV 4K to stick to SDR before watching Game of Thrones on the HBO Now app, but you'd have to dig deep into menus to do it. If you wanted to next watch Wonder Woman in HDR from Apple's iTunes storefront, you'd have to repeat all that menu spelunking in order to undo those settings.
That was obviously more inconvenient than it should have been, so Apple promised to offer a solution in tvOS 11.2. Now there's a section under "Video and Audio" called "Match Content," which contains toggles for both dynamic range and frame rate. Apple's description of this feature says: "We'll use your selected display format to play content without alteration. We can also switch formats automatically to match the content's dynamic range and frame rate."
With this setting enabled, image-quality purists can avoid the problems inherent in the default approach. The device behaves more like the Roku Ultra or Roku Streaming Stick+, switching modes on its own depending on the content selected. This produces a slight flicker and runs the risk of handshake problems with some TVs, so Apple still hasn't made it the default. But Match Content is there if you want to trade a little interface smoothness for more accurate representation of the content—a trade-off most home-theater enthusiasts will be more than happy to make.
tvOS 11.2 brings one other notable change: there is now a Sports tab in the TV app. It draws live games and recent past games from networks whose apps support the feature, like ESPN. By default, the current score is shown in the preview as well, but you can navigate to settings to disable that feature if you don't want to spoil a game you aren't planning on watching live. The app will also let you follow certain teams so it can notify you when games are about to start. The sports features are available in both the Apple TV 4K and its HD predecessor.