Tech

Apple TV's new feature to improve picture quality may actually do the opposite

The tool is supposed to boost picture quality on screens with bad default settings.

Apple TV digital media player is screening at a store inside Galeria Krakowska shopping mall in Krakow, Poland on May 4, 2021. (Photo by Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
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A lot of new television sets come out of the box with picture settings that might not actually be the best for enjoying, you know, television. By default, TVs use custom color settings that the manufacturer thinks look good. Samsung, for instance, is notorious for jacking up saturation to make colors pop. It’s all subjective, and you might not like the choices Samsung or someone else has made.

When Apple recently announced its updated Apple TV 4K set-top box, it introduced a novel tool that’s supposed to automatically tune a TV’s picture quality to filmmaking standards. Users point an iPhone at their TV screen, and the Apple TV uses the phone’s light sensor to compare the preset color balance to the industry-standard specification. It only adjusts picture output for the Apple TV, not affecting the TV’s settings directly.

YMMV — The only problem is that professional cinematographers have tested the new feature and say it sucks. Rather, it might not suck all the time but it performs inconsistently at best. Vincent Teoh, a professional calibrator and YouTuber who goes by HDVTest, found that Apple’s calibration tool in some cases can make picture quality worse than it was before (if we’re judging it against the industry standard).

In one instance, he used the tool on a Sony reference monitor that was already perfectly calibrated, and Apple’s feature still tried to correct the image. He also ran tests on monitors from LG, Samsung, and Sony, using professional calibration equipment to measure the end result. Picture quality was only slightly improved in some cases, and diminished in others.

Theo isn’t the first person to find the mixed results using Apple’s new feature. CNET in its own testing found that with regards to TVs from LG and Vizio, it was better off using the built-in “color accurate” modes offered by those companies. A TV from Insignia it tested saw better color accuracy after using Apple’s tool, however.

Yes, but — In Apple’s defense, Teoh found that the tool did improve color accuracy on a Samsung QLED TV, though it shifted the image to a bluer tone. And on an LG OLED, the calibration feature improved picture quality without affecting temperature, just not as much as a professional calibrator would have. The feature might not be perfect, but it could still bring better picture quality to the average Joe who buys a TV at Best Buy and isn’t going to tinker with settings.

You might like the way your Samsung TV looks after Apple’s calibration, and that’s really all that matters — even if it’s not as accurate to the industry standard as it potentially could be.

Many TVs today include default “accurate” modes that are supposed to adjust picture quality to conform to the same standards as Apple. Experts suggest that you should first test these preset modes on your TV before giving Apple’s tool a try, and then compare them both to see what looks best to your own eye. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, after all.