New Apple TV Unable to Play Certain Videos

A number of Apple TV users are reporting that, when they try to play certain videos, they get messages saying:

This content cannot be played because its format is not compatible with the Apple TV

In a thread on Apple’s support forum, users are discussing what might be causing this. The Apple TV is compatible with the following video formats:

  • H.264 video up to 1080p, 60 frames per second, High or Main Profile level 4.2 or lower
  • H.264 Baseline Profile level 3.0 or lower with AAC-LC audio up to 160 Kbps per channel, 48kHz, stereo audio in .m4v, .mp4, and .mov file formats
  • MPEG-4 video up to 2.5 Mbps, 640 by 480 pixels, 30 frames per second, Simple Profile with AAC-LC audio up to 160 Kbps, 48kHz, stereo audio in .m4v, .mp4, and .mov file formats

It seems, that in some cases, the issue is the bit rate used to rip DVDs or Blu-Rays. One forum poster reported the following:

  • Works: Low Complexity, MPEG-4 video file, 1079 kbps, 720 x 304, MPEG-4 video codec
  • Does Not Work: Low Complexity, MPEG-4 video file, 1296 kbps, 720 x 404, MPEG-4 video codec
  • Works: Low Complexity, MPEG-4 video file, 4380 kbps, 720 x 540, H.264 video codec
  • Does Not Work: Low Complexity, MPEG-4 video file, 2026 kbps, 720 x 540, MPEG-4 video codec

I have to say, ripping videos has always seemed to be a black art. When you look at the settings in Handbrake, it’s not clear what is the best way to rip a video. I’ve always just used High Profile, and I’ve never – yet – had any problems. I have Blu-Rays that I’ve ripped with that profile that exceed 6000 kbps, and they’ve always worked fine; I’ve tried some on the new Apple TV, and I haven’t had any issues yet.

But there are also different codecs. Unlike music, where the codecs don’t change very often, video compression is constantly being improved and tweaked. The new Apple TV has, in particular, a limitation regarding what types of videos using the MPEG-4 codec. But I doubt many people have used MPEG-4 in a very long time. If you do use have videos encoded with MPEG-4, you may need to convert them to H.264, which seems to be the codec that will be supported the most for a while. (Though the newer H.265 is available).

26 thoughts on “New Apple TV Unable to Play Certain Videos

  1. My solution is simple (and should work on AppleTV) – use MakeMKV to rip an exact copy of the video, subtitles and audio into an MKV container and serve it with Plex. On iPad or iPhone, use VLC to play the files if you want to take them with you. Yes, it requires more storage space, but when I think of the time required to correctly configure Handbrake per DVD (and for TV shows from the video years, per rushed) and then the wait for transcoding, even with an SSD, 16gb RAM and a quad-core i7, the cost of storage seems a fair trade-off for a mere 10 minute wait for MakeMKV to finish.

    • Yes, it is very time-consuming. I’ve been ripping Blu-Rays of bought of the RSC’s filmed Shakespeare plays. As you say, it’s pretty quick to make the MKV, but then Handbrake, even on a 5K iMac, takes hours to make a file.

      This said, I’d rather have the smaller files to eventually put them on iPads. Each of the MKVs I’ve ripped is about 40 GB. I do have a 128 GB iPad, but that would only let me put two such MKVs, along with apps and music.

      But what about Plex? Can it play files that the Apple TV itself can’t play, such as the ones that are posing problems here? It plays MKVs, right, but what about other types of files?

      • It’s my understanding that the Plex Media Server will transcode anything non-native to the ATV into a format that it can natively stream.

        • God, I hate Plex.

          Despise having to run a server in the house. Hated the transcode quality when I could actually get the damn thing to work. Can’t seem to get it stable on the aTV4, so I removed it – I’ll wait for Infuse and do it all in the AppleTV.

          • Interesting to hear a naysayer. You don’t actually have to “run a server.” You can just put it on any computer, and let it run in the background. (I’ve been testing it since yesterday.) So far, I haven’t seen any issues in quality, but I’ve only looked at a few videos that are in formats that the Apple TV can play.

            • The component on the computer *is* a server – a media server. The hardware on the appleTV is (usually) sufficient to decode and play the file – all it needs is a connection to the file source. If your file is in a MPEV4 container, transcoding it again (after having already been transcoded by being ripped off the DVD or BluRay) is a needless degradation in quality.

  2. My solution is simple (and should work on AppleTV) – use MakeMKV to rip an exact copy of the video, subtitles and audio into an MKV container and serve it with Plex. On iPad or iPhone, use VLC to play the files if you want to take them with you. Yes, it requires more storage space, but when I think of the time required to correctly configure Handbrake per DVD (and for TV shows from the video years, per rushed) and then the wait for transcoding, even with an SSD, 16gb RAM and a quad-core i7, the cost of storage seems a fair trade-off for a mere 10 minute wait for MakeMKV to finish.

    • Yes, it is very time-consuming. I’ve been ripping Blu-Rays of bought of the RSC’s filmed Shakespeare plays. As you say, it’s pretty quick to make the MKV, but then Handbrake, even on a 5K iMac, takes hours to make a file.

      This said, I’d rather have the smaller files to eventually put them on iPads. Each of the MKVs I’ve ripped is about 40 GB. I do have a 128 GB iPad, but that would only let me put two such MKVs, along with apps and music.

      But what about Plex? Can it play files that the Apple TV itself can’t play, such as the ones that are posing problems here? It plays MKVs, right, but what about other types of files?

      • It’s my understanding that the Plex Media Server will transcode anything non-native to the ATV into a format that it can natively stream.

        • God, I hate Plex.

          Despise having to run a server in the house. Hated the transcode quality when I could actually get the damn thing to work. Can’t seem to get it stable on the aTV4, so I removed it – I’ll wait for Infuse and do it all in the AppleTV.

          • Interesting to hear a naysayer. You don’t actually have to “run a server.” You can just put it on any computer, and let it run in the background. (I’ve been testing it since yesterday.) So far, I haven’t seen any issues in quality, but I’ve only looked at a few videos that are in formats that the Apple TV can play.

            • The component on the computer *is* a server – a media server. The hardware on the appleTV is (usually) sufficient to decode and play the file – all it needs is a connection to the file source. If your file is in a MPEV4 container, transcoding it again (after having already been transcoded by being ripped off the DVD or BluRay) is a needless degradation in quality.

  3. Plex plays back essentially any kind of media file you can throw at it, no matter what codec, container, or encoding profile. That’s one of the many reasons folks love and rely upon it.

    • That’s interesting. So on the Apple TV, it uses software decoding, whereas the Apple TV is probably using hardware decoding, at least for H.264 videos.

  4. Plex plays back essentially any kind of media file you can throw at it, no matter what codec, container, or encoding profile. That’s one of the many reasons folks love and rely upon it.

    • That’s interesting. So on the Apple TV, it uses software decoding, whereas the Apple TV is probably using hardware decoding, at least for H.264 videos.

  5. I’d like to see a good “How to” rip DVD’s and Blurays for use on the new ATV and/or Plex. I know MakeMKV and Handbrake, and some tagging software, but I’d still like to find a good workflow to use to make iTunes and Plex play nice.

  6. I’d like to see a good “How to” rip DVD’s and Blurays for use on the new ATV and/or Plex. I know MakeMKV and Handbrake, and some tagging software, but I’d still like to find a good workflow to use to make iTunes and Plex play nice.

  7. Plex smartly is separated into two components: the server and the client. While they can both be located on the same PC, in practice, they are usually separated, with the server on a PC, and the client on a TV endpoint.

    When they are separated, the server quizzes the client to see if the endpoint can natively playback the audio or A/V file. If the endpoint can, it get served natively. If the endpoint can’t, it gets a transcoded stream that is the best the endpoint can handle.

    Additionally, this is how things work on mobile, assuming you have adequate bandwidth on your server side to do streaming. The Plex server sits at home, and the Plex mobile client gets a transcoded stream that is adjusted to whatever mobile bandwidth you’re getting, and whatever formats your endpoint can playback.

    It’s a very well thought-out and very well designed system. And again, it’ll playback pretty much anything. If you’ve got video files from 1998, no problem. If you’ve flac audio, no problem. The original server engine was derived from the same source as VLC’s, if that provides any insight.

  8. Plex smartly is separated into two components: the server and the client. While they can both be located on the same PC, in practice, they are usually separated, with the server on a PC, and the client on a TV endpoint.

    When they are separated, the server quizzes the client to see if the endpoint can natively playback the audio or A/V file. If the endpoint can, it get served natively. If the endpoint can’t, it gets a transcoded stream that is the best the endpoint can handle.

    Additionally, this is how things work on mobile, assuming you have adequate bandwidth on your server side to do streaming. The Plex server sits at home, and the Plex mobile client gets a transcoded stream that is adjusted to whatever mobile bandwidth you’re getting, and whatever formats your endpoint can playback.

    It’s a very well thought-out and very well designed system. And again, it’ll playback pretty much anything. If you’ve got video files from 1998, no problem. If you’ve flac audio, no problem. The original server engine was derived from the same source as VLC’s, if that provides any insight.

  9. “It’s my understanding that the Plex Media Server will transcode anything non-native to the ATV into a format that it can natively stream.”

    Yeah. Just in case I wasn’t sufficiently clear:

    Assuming Apple isn’t handicapping 3rd party apps for media playback in some way, here’s how Plex SOP works:

    – If a particular media file will play on the client, then Plex will playback natively.

    – If a particular media file won’t play on the client, then Plex will transcode it for playback.

    So you get the best of all possible worlds, which is why knowledgeable folks love Plex.

  10. “It’s my understanding that the Plex Media Server will transcode anything non-native to the ATV into a format that it can natively stream.”

    Yeah. Just in case I wasn’t sufficiently clear:

    Assuming Apple isn’t handicapping 3rd party apps for media playback in some way, here’s how Plex SOP works:

    – If a particular media file will play on the client, then Plex will playback natively.

    – If a particular media file won’t play on the client, then Plex will transcode it for playback.

    So you get the best of all possible worlds, which is why knowledgeable folks love Plex.

  11. Replying to keldommage above; my comments only thread 5 comments.

    Yes, it’s a server, but it’s not a “server,” in the sense of a dedicated machine.

    Are you saying that Plex transcodes files that the Apple TV can play natively? That wasn’t my impression.

  12. Replying to keldommage above; my comments only thread 5 comments.

    Yes, it’s a server, but it’s not a “server,” in the sense of a dedicated machine.

    Are you saying that Plex transcodes files that the Apple TV can play natively? That wasn’t my impression.

  13. “Are you saying that Plex transcodes files that the Apple TV can play natively? That wasn’t my impression.”

    Yeah, as stated, that’s certainly *not* how all the other manifold Plex clients operate. If the endpoint can playback a file natively, that’s how Plex serves it.

    But I don’t use Apple streamer boxes, so as I did caveat, for all I know, Apple *could* be handicapping 3rd party video playback in some way to steer folks into using the iTunes ecosystem, which wouldn’t totally shock me given today’s Apple.

    (The best way to test this, rather than just eyeballing PQ, is to check CPU usage on the Plex Media Server when you playback a file you know for sure can play natively on the endpoint. Some CPU usage is expected for serving files natively, but CPU usage will obviously be quite high when transcoding.)

  14. “Are you saying that Plex transcodes files that the Apple TV can play natively? That wasn’t my impression.”

    Yeah, as stated, that’s certainly *not* how all the other manifold Plex clients operate. If the endpoint can playback a file natively, that’s how Plex serves it.

    But I don’t use Apple streamer boxes, so as I did caveat, for all I know, Apple *could* be handicapping 3rd party video playback in some way to steer folks into using the iTunes ecosystem, which wouldn’t totally shock me given today’s Apple.

    (The best way to test this, rather than just eyeballing PQ, is to check CPU usage on the Plex Media Server when you playback a file you know for sure can play natively on the endpoint. Some CPU usage is expected for serving files natively, but CPU usage will obviously be quite high when transcoding.)

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