The New AppleTV: I'm Not Mad, I'm Disappointed

The Good Parts

Setup is easier than anything else in the market, because the Bluetooth pairing with the iPhone is so future-stuff. I set it up before the Remote app was updated to work with it, though, so typing in all those passwords and codes was a pain.

The thing is pretty fast. Things jump around and zip from screen to screen pretty rapidly. Lag is noticeable and unforgivable in the context of what is the New Normal for this device, and honestly devices in this market as a whole.

The Bluetooth remote is faster and better than an IR remote. I don't have to point the thing at the TV like a monkey.

Scrubbing on this thing is hooooooooooboy it's beautiful. It's the most pleasant and happy I am when I'm using the device.

The app model as a whole is better than the channel model provided by the old device. The older devices channel model made you manually hide every channel you knew for a fact you were never going to watch, which was a cumbersome process at best. It also left too much control of the interface up to arbitrary channel additions, meaning you could be looking for something you want to watch and have to re-find it because some new channel pushed it to a new row. Now, you only have the stuff you want, and new stuff goes to the bottom. Sweet.

Siri is great, and when I remember to use her and she works (more on that later) it's really a better way to use a TV. Scrolling and swiping from screen to screen from row to row, typing letters, all that sucks. I don't really have to do that anymore, and that's better.

I've never had to charge the remote. I do, when I think to do it, but I've never been like oh shit, the battery's gonna run out, I'd better charge it. That's a pretty good indicator of how long it lasts.

I guess it's nice to turn the TV on with the same remote? My audio goes straight to a soundbar with independent controls, so I don't get to use that part, but the powering on part is nice.

Sometimes when I use this thing I contemplate my own death

The downside to the app model is that every app gets to define its own user interface. It can abandon convention and become completely inscrutable, and it's really really important to have a scrutable TV interface, I'm discovering. It also doesn't help that Apple's "guidance" for UX design leaves me asking some very serious questions.

Let's start with the remote.

The Remote

The old Apple remote was about as small and simple as a remote can get. It had about the same number of controls as an NES controller: up, down, left, right, select, menu, and play/pause. You didn't really need a label for most of them, and because of the layout, you knew which side was up and which end was the right end to point at the TV. Granted, it was small, so you drop the thing and it finds really impressively small crevices to get stuck in, but when you were using it, you didn't really think about it, because you were able to operate it while looking at the screen. You know, because it's a remote for a screen that's six to ten feet away from you when you're using it.

I think that if you had a real Design Think-y meeting about how to fuck up that remote, you could end up with something a lot like the remote they shipped with the new Apple TV.

A good remote is:

  1. Ergonomic. It feels good in the hand.
  2. Tactile. It should tell you how it works by touch, so you can use the remote without looking at it while you watch your game or housewives or whatever.
  3. Simple. No one wants to spend time futzing with their remote. It's supposed to do what it's supposed to do and then go away.

Is it ergonomic? No. It feels like a bar of soap, except it's too narrow to hold comfortably so my fingers prefer to be off of it rather than on it. It's too skinny and too narrow. I don't like holding it.

Is it tactile? No. It's got six buttons, positioned in a 2x3 directly in the center of the remote. One of the buttons (the Siri button) has a slight divot in it, and the volume up and down buttons are connected, but that doesn't really help unless you've got the arrangement memorized. If you pick up the remote in the dark, it's really a crapshoot if you're holding it the right way. It doesn't even light up or glow in the dark. That would fix everything. No, instead, it leaves which direction is up to the fates. And which direction is up is important, because one side does nothing and the other side could fuck your shit up good.

The danger zone is the touch button surface thing, that covers the top front quarter of the device. You touch it, and it brings up the on screen controls. Your finger moves across that surface, even for a second, and whatever you're watching stops, scrubbing in one direction or another. The responsiveness is almost instantaneous: there is no affordance for accidental touches whatsoever.

If you were holding it, that would be one thing. But when the remote falls down, and you pick it up, and it fucks up your movie, you want to never use it again. And it falls down a lot. And it gets stuck in crevices a lot. Have fun playing Operation with your couch.

If that wasn't enough, there's another thing about this touch urbane that bugs me. Apple has made touch surfaces out of glass since they started making touch surfaces. A bit of glass inside a matte casing means you can touch it. iPhones, iPads, MacBooks, the whole lot work this way. So, when the glass surface on this guy does nothing, and the matte surface does a whole bunch of stuff, you throw all the intuitive gesture stuff out the window. Matte surfaces don't drag well: they're matte.

Is it simple? I'd say it's about as complicated as a six button and touch surface remote could be. It doesn't adopt any conventions from iOS, and establishes new symbology that isn't really clear. If you go from the old AppleTV to the new one, you have to relearn how to use the remote, which can be really frustrating if you developed some speed with the older one, aside from the frustration everyone gets when they're forced to relearn some shit they already knew.

I can't overstate this: I should not care this much about a remote. It should just fade into the background, like any good UX, and just make way for the content I care about. Instead, I jumped for joy when the Remote app was updated to support it, and use that most of the time now.

tvOS UX and Design

I did not think I would miss the old design, but I do.

The high order bit for TV interface design has to be what I'm calling for the purposes of this review "Cognition". Cognition is measured in milliseconds, and is the amount of time it takes to figure out your current place in the UX. What's the currently selected option' where are the the places you can go, what is the direction things scroll if they scroll, etc: these are all things someone operating a remote control for that interface needs to know, and needs to know fast.

The old design kept elements at a fixed size and used highlighting to show the currently selected element. Additional elements were in a vertically scrolling list view, so you could go up or down, and left to right as elements were arranged in a grid, but no elements were off screen to the let or right except for in the Hero units at the very top, which were distinguished as primary highlighted placement. It was similar to all the store interfaces on all the other products. Lists were always vertically scrolling, so you could see more options and kept a sense of place in the list as you scrolled down. At the top was a key to where you were and where you just came from.

It was a bit heavy handed, but it wasn't like it was in Corinthian leather or anything. It was set in Black, so turning on the thing didn't light up the room. Text was white, so you could read it against black from far away. Highlight were in blue. When an image was highlighted, it was bordered in blue. It was really, really easy to see where you were at.

The new interface tries to jazz things up a bit by adding a third dimension, and shows your current selection by bringing it forward, in effect growing it about 10%. This is way too subtle, and it means you can't tell what's selected until you start moving around. Interface elements also switched orientation from vertical to horizontal scrolling, meaning you can only see three or four options before you start moving through a list and losing your first two. That means lots and lots of swiping and swiping... on a matte surface. This is not fun.

To top it off, there's a buffer, where an element shifts and spins before your selection moves to the next element. Does it look cool? Yes. Does it make it functionally more difficult to use? Yep.

Keep in mind, this is just for Apple's stuff. This is in the iTunes TV Shows app. Getting from season to season is a pain in the ass, jumping to a new show takes work, etc. not only are these the system apps that get shipped with the device, but it's also how Apple teaches developers how to design for the platform. And the interpretation by the developers in the field has been predictably chaotic.

Third Party Apps

Shipping a platform instead of a API based channel means tvOS gives up control over the way UI elements look and feel. Third party apps are free to adopt conventional UX, or not. If they improve upon the system designs, it's good. If it does its own weird thing...

My most used apps on the old and new Apple TV have been Netflix, Hulu and HBO Go. For a while, they were the only apps I had on there, and I was cool with it. All three have different UI/UX.

Netflix is the best, simply because it ships their standard UX that they've shipped on all their other products, bringing it in line with their brand. Categories scroll horizontally, switching categories moves vertically. Episodes are listed in a vertical list. It all makes sense, and works pretty well. I kind of like it better in some ways, as it lets each screen take some of the character of the show I'm watching.

Hulu is a mishmash of vertical and horizontal scrolling, with windows of different sizes, and more often than not the hero images are broken or misrendering. The fact that this is not the worst offender of the three has less to do with its own flaws and more to do with...

HBO. I devour their shows and movies. I think their back catalog is unstoppable, filled with some of the best TV ever made. I routinely dive in when I'm looking for something to watch. It pains me to say this, but the HBO interface provided here is a god damn mess.

Highlighting is indicated by a subtle white line, either to the left, or underneath, or around, or wherever depending on which menu you're in. You're supposed to navigate through multiple levels of options on the same window, moving from category to season to episode, and since you don't know or aren't clear where you are if you've just finished an episode (because continuous viewing isn't a feature in this version, you end up back at the menu when an episode is finished) moving the remote at all can send you really far away from where you're at depending on which level the app has placed your cursor. Oh, you're at s3e5 and you wanted to go to s3e6? Too bad, you're now in s6. Oh, you want to go back? S3e1. Walk there.

Want the special features? Have fun guessing that gesture. Seriously, using this app is a nightmare.

Now, Apple also ships an alternative to all of this scrolling and scrolling and guessing, in the Siri function. Say a series and a season and an episode, and boom, you're there! That is, if you've implemented universal links properly, and the direction sent to your app goes through. Sometimes, with Netflix, it does. iTunes, of course my has a 100% success rate. HBO just sends you to the Show's main page and let's you figure it out from there.

As a whole, the AppleTV feels like something designed by someone without consideration for real life use. Its affordance site for the aesthetic detract from the usability of the product. It boggles my mind that this was shipped by Apple.

Overall

Overall, it's a mixed bag. It's a pretty design, the hardware is fast, video streaming and processing is almost instantaneous, scrubbing through video when you actually want to is great. The app model itself is absolutely the way it should be done, and as the SDK improves and more tools and capabilities are at developers' disposal, the experience will get better and the variety of content will improve (I'm not saying the content or variety of content is lackluster at all, far from it: merely that as companies join the platform more diverse content and content types get added).

But the details, the little things that make using Apple devices so great, the tiny affordances they agonize over to provide an experience that's not just to be looked at but to be used, tools for a new millennium, are absent on this device. Using it feels like work at best and dangerous at most.

If you're in the market for a device like this, I'd buy the older AppleTV before this one. I'd wait a year or so for a new version of the OS, and for Apple to get their TV ducks in a row, before recommending this as a must buy.

The Title

I want to say the title is too strong, because it doesn't really give away how many positive things I think about this device, or let on to how optimistic I am about it as a platform. But, it's not: when I look at this device, I see everything it could have been, all the hopes I had for it, and come away with a palpable sense of let-down. It's a great first step down a great path, just a few steps behind where I expect them to be at this point.