Demystified: 720p vs 1080p Apple TV

In the wake of the 1080p Apple TV announcement, several stories (namely this one) have, as a result of hitting that ‘publish’ button as soon as humanly possible (it’s a pageview world, after all), gotten a few things wrong. With that, accept the following facts as truths:

1) Whereas the 2nd-gen Apple TV could only output HD video at 720p, the new one can crank out full 1080p thanks to its upgraded SoC.. But we knew this already, right?

2) What they’ve gotten wrong is the distinction between 1080p playback and 1080p output. Here’s what matters: The older, A4-based Apple TV IS capable of 1080p playback, just not 1080p output. Any video played back on the 2nd-gen Apple TV is output at a maximum of 720p.

3) Virtually nobody cared about point #2 above until now, since available content from iTunes was only 720p and it was only going look as good as 720p anyway, since the hardware was limited to 720p output. But I can personally verify that a 2nd-gen Apple TV can decode and play 1080p content downloaded from the iTunes Store to an iTunes library on the local network. Yes, once it reaches HDMI and your TV it’s 720p, but the bits flying through the air arrive at the hockey puck as 1080p video, and the A4 processor in that hockey puck can handle those bits just fine.

3) H.264 encoding profiles have hardly anything to do with anything except for video quality as it applies to file size. While it may SEEM like interesting reading, take my word for it: it’s not. Just know that even though a 1080p image is more than twice the size of a 720p image, it won’t take twice as long to download or stream.

So, what does this mean for me?

First, everyone should go into their iTunes settings and enable 1080p downloads. [To do this go to the ‘Store’ tab in iTunes’s preferences and select 1080p in the ‘When downloading High Definition videos prefer’ dropdown menu.] For a negligible increase in download time and file size, you’ll get twice the resolution and be able to take full advantage of the retina display on that iPad New, as well as the fantastic displays we’ve had for years on those Big Cat OS computers.

If you have a 1080p capable television, I also urge you to upgrade your Apple TV hardware. Well, duh… With 1080p iTunes content, 1080p Netflix streaming, as well as MLB, NBA, and AirPlay it looks like the device to beat.

But there are more than a few people with 32” or smaller televisions, most of which are only 720p displays. If your living room/bedroom/bathroom/kitchen/jail cell/man cave home theater setup falls into this category, just update your settings in iTunes and call it a day. Your older Apple TV will playback the new 1080p content just fine on your 720p monitor, albeit at that same 720p resolution, but you’ve future-proofed your content. Yay. Only when you purchase a new 1080p television will you need the new 1080p Apple TV, and you’ll already have the 1080p content.

Finis. And did you know you that if you bought a 720p movie from iTunes, you can upgrade it to 1080p for FREE, using iTunes in the Cloud?