Among the handful of new features found on the 2021 Apple TV 4K, including the redesigned Siri Remote and A12 Bionic processor, is High Frame Rate.
Shortened to HFR, this is the latest home cinema acronym to get your head around, and generally refers to video content that is shot at more than the standard rate of 24 frames per second.
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HFR video content is not to be confused with a display with a high refresh rate. While televisions and video game consoles talk about having refresh rates of 60Hz, 90Hz or even 120Hz, this is the refresh rate of the display rather than the frame rate of the content displayed on it. You also shouldn't confuse HFR with HDR, which stands for High Dynamic Range.
What is HFR?
To understand why upgrading to a device that supports HFR matters, it is worth quickly explaining that the frame rate of a video is how many individual images are shown per second. Our eyes can only see the individual images up to a certain speed, and after that they appear as a smooth, moving image.
You will have encountered low frame rates when streaming video buffers due to a poor internet connection, or when a low-power computer isn't able to play a game or 4K video smoothly, and so some frames are dropped to stop the video grinding to a halt.
Movies have traditionally used a frame rate of 24 per second, as that offers a good compromise between smoothness and production cost, as that figure comes from a time of physical film reels and sound embedded onto the same film. Today's television broadcasts operate at a slightly higher frame rate, typically of 30fps in North America and 25fps in Europe.
You may have seen in recent years the option to watch certain movies in the theater at a higher frame rate. The Hobbit trilogy was recorded at 48fps and movie fans could opt to watch it at 24 or 48fps, depending on what projection technology was offered at their local movie theater. The higher frame rate version was smoother and with more detail, but some viewers criticized it for looking unusual, due to it being different to the 24, 25 or 30fps everyone had spent an entire lifetime watching.
The Hobbit's 48fps version was seen as an experiment at the time of its release a decade ago, and it can now only be viewed on disc or online at 24fps. But the industry is still interested in the potential of HFR; James Cameron intends to use the technology for his sequels to the Avatar movie, and Netflix has experimented with higher frame rates too.
What are the benefits of HFR?
While some prefer the traditional look of 24fps movies, higher frame rates can be helpful elsewhere, particularly when it comes to sports broadcasting. Here, a higher frame rate means smoother footage and more clarity when it comes to viewing fast-paced action on screen; this is especially useful for slow-motion replays.
Today's televisions generally offer a refresh rate of up to 60Hz, so can handle footage shot at 60 frames per second, but it will be up to broadcasters to produce and distribute content at a frame rate higher than the current 24, 25 or 30 fps standards. For now, broadcasters are more interested in higher resolution (4K) and greater brightness (HDR).
Are there any drawbacks to HFR?
HFR makes most sense when used for gaming and high-speed sports broadcasting. It can be used for all sorts of other applications too, but has been criticized for changing the look of a movie, as with The Hobbit. A higher frame rate can make a big-budget movie feel too lifelike, with viewers likening the footage to a soap opera instead of a glossy production full of special visual effects.
The higher frame rate often means extra detail seen in each shot, putting more pressure on a movie's production team to ensure every scene looks its best. A mistake in a background detail of a scene previously disguised by the motion blur of a 24fps video would be seen far more clearly when shot and viewed at 60fps.
Smartphones, game consoles and HFR
Many of today's flagship smartphones can record video at high frame rates. Some even shoot Ultra HD resolution footage (also known as 4K) at 120fps, which can then be used to create slow-motion clips. Today's game consoles, including the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X, also work with HFR, given their ability to play games with a 120fps frame rate.
Some high-end televisions have a 120Hz refresh rate, but this particularly feature is unlikely to be commonplace for some time yet. And, while video games can already be played on gaming PCs at 120fps or more, TV and movie content is unlikely to reach that level for quite some time. For now, HFR footage is most commonly created by, and viewed on, our smartphones.
Why does the new Apple TV 4K have HFR?
When it announced its latest streaming box, Apple made a note of its new compatibility with HFR. Staying within Apple's famous walled garden for now, this means the 4K Dolby Vision footage shot by the iPhone 12 at 60fps with HDR can be viewed exactly as it was shot, on the Apple TV via AirPlay.
Apple made a big deal about putting Dolby Vision on its iPhone 12, so it makes sense that the Apple TV 4K can now show that footage on the biggest screen in your home. The inclusion of HFR also means the Apple TV 4K is ready to show 4K content that has both HDR (or Dolby Vision) and a high frame rate in the future – this might suggest that upcoming Apple TV+ content will be shot with a high frame rate.
We hope this will also encourage broadcasters and streaming companies to experiment more with creating and distributing HFR content. But for now this feels like a case of Apple future-proofing its streaming box for the iPhone and Apple TV+ productions, rather than preparing for an imminent shift by Hollywood from 24fps to 60fps.
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