Apple TV reigns with best picture quality among streaming devices in pandemic’s early days

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Apple TV Siri Remote
Streaming video quality during early 2020 was above par using Apple TV devices.
Photo: Ste Smith/Cult of Mac

While it might be far down the pecking order of best selling streaming boxes, the Apple TV and Apple TV 4K got high marks in the first quarter of this year for best picture quality speed and shortest lag time in starting videos, according to data collected from billions of sensors embedded into video applications.

The results are a clear sign of how well streaming devices and services performed in a period where more people around the world were homebound due to the coronavirus pandemic and turned to watching television en masse.

Streaming media intelligence firm Conviva reports Apple TV devices continued a multi-quarter trend of setting the standard in picture quality, improving 15% to an average of 8.14 Mbps. Xbox came in second with a 25% improvement and 7.06 Mbps, while Roku jumped 37% with an average video rate of 6.94 Mbps.

The streaming numbers

Content providers like Netflix and device makers like Apple look at various standards to gauge improvements in the quality of playing streaming content. Conviva’s embedded software monitors everything from viewing minutes to buffering, videos that failed to start, the number of seconds it took for videos to begin, and overall picture quality.

People watching on Apple TV devices waited less time than with any streaming box during the quarter. Viewers waited just 2.76 seconds – a 22% improvement compared to a year ago. No other device came even close, the study found – 4.26 seconds on Xbox, 4.40 on Roku boxes, and 5.38 seconds on Amazon Fire TV devices.

Apple TV boxes put up an impressive showing in the quarter, with 25% growth year-over-year and 8% of all connected TV viewing hours. Xbox came in first with 10%, Amazon Fire TV second with 9%, Apple third, and Roku seventh with 4%.

But Apple TV didn’t deliver such sweeping improvement in other groups. It was worst when it came to videos failing to start – up 36% from last year with 0.79% of videos failing to begin. While that number might look to be insignificant, it was the worst among its competitors and can reflect negatively on overall performance.

Roku devices had the best video start failure rate at 0.12%, followed by Fire TV with 0.23% and Xbox at 0.57%. Roku improved its video start failure rate by almost half in the first quarter.

As for the buffering of content, Apple TV devices improved 21% year-on-year at just 0.15%, for a fourth-place position ahead of Fire TV. Xbox ranked first with 0.13%

While the results are judged by devices, many of the reasons for their performance – or lack thereof – can be directly related to the apps and the services streaming infrastructure, together with the streaming box.

The accuracy of the studies’ numbers becomes more impressive when the methodology is added to the picture. Conviva embeds its own proprietary sensor into some three billion streaming video applications. It measures in excess of 500 million unique viewers watching 150 billion streams per year with 1.5 trillion real-time transactions per day across more than 180 countries.