Apple's TV Calibration Feature Might Bork Your Picture Quality, Actually

Illustration for article titled Apple's TV Calibration Feature Might Bork Your Picture Quality, Actually
Photo: Stephen Lam/Stringer (Getty Images)

Last month, Apple introduced the new Apple TV and with it, a new color calibration feature in tvOS 14.5 for its streaming boxes. The way it works is you hold a compatible iPhone against the screen as it flashes through a series of colors and then voila—you’re supposed to get a properly balanced TV in a super-easy way. Turns out, it might not be that simple.

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Professional TV calibrator Vincent Teoh posted a YouTube video (via 9to5 Mac) that puts the new color balance feature through its paces. Teoh used two first-gen Apple TV 4K boxes and an iPhone 12 Pro to see whether the feature improved color accuracy on the LG C9 OLED TV, Samsung’s Q80T QLED TV, Sony’s XH90 (X900H) LED LCD, and a Sony BVM-HX310 reference monitor worth roughly $42,000. Some of the tweaks aren’t that noticeable to a layman’s eye, but Teoh also measured the results with professional calibration tools.

In Teoh’s testing, Apple’s calibration feature delivered mixed results, and in others, actually made color accuracy worse. For example, with the Samsung TV, the calibration feature did improve color accuracy but also ended up making the overall image bluer in tone. It also shifted the Sony’s image to a cooler tone while worsening overall color accuracy. The best results came from the LG TV, in which the feature improved color accuracy without shifting the image to a cooler tone. Meanwhile, the feature should’ve left the $42,000 reference monitor alone. Instead it “corrected” the image to an inaccurate one, which defeats the whole purpose of the feature. Overall, it appears that Apple’s feature uses a bluer white point than the standard D65 white point used by filmmakers and other creators.

Another issue is what out-of-the-box preset mode you’re running the calibration feature on. If you’re using the most accurate one for your particular TV, you might not notice too much of a change. But if you’re calibrating from a much more inaccurate setting, like Standard, Teoh found Apple’s feature delivers more significant improvements—but at the expense of image quality. Color accuracy was better, the feature ended up overcompensating, resulting in posterization. (Posterization is when instead of a smooth transition between color gradients, you end up with visible bands.) The feature also performed differently on OLEDs versus LED LCDs. These results also line up with CNet’s testing, which found that the feature sometimes improved an image and color accuracy. Other times, not so much.

Or in other words, while the Apple TV 4K’s color calibration feature works and is super simple to use, it’s not a replacement for choosing the right preset picture setting or having a basic knowledge of what these settings mean. (For most people, that’s going to be Cinema or Movie.) Once you’ve done that, you can try the color balance feature, see how it shifts the image, and go from there. Sorry folks, but one-stop solutions are always going to be too good to be true.

Consumer tech reporter by day, danger noodle by night. No, I'm not the K-Pop star.

DISCUSSION

tcerruti
Logan05

It should be noted that this feature isn’t actually changing the settings on the TV but rather it’s calibrating the display settings on the AppleTV. The TV settings remain unchanged and it’s a simple matter to switch the AppleTV output to the default.

Also, for televisions with DolbyVision it’s disabled. DolbyVision controls the settings to get the picture right for content that supports it so there’s no need for this tool.

The AppleTV calibration tool is a nice to have for older sets that lack DolbyVision. If it improves the image to the viewer great. Otherwise it’s a simple thing to reset to the default.