Thoughts on the Apple TV After Six Months

I like it a lot.

For me, the TV is not a platform where I constantly want to try out new apps. Just two apps, Netflix and YouTube, cover 90 percent of my usage. I expect this to be the case for many other people, too, though the particular handful of essential apps will differ from person to person. That’s why having an App Store is great.

The remote looks really nice, and I imagine it works great in Jony Ive’s perfectly-lit, tidy, pure white living room. In real life, it often is a usability disaster:

  1. It’s (nearly) impossible to tell which side is up without looking at it (hint: home theaters are often dark). I hit the wrong button all the time right after picking it up.

  2. If the buttons were recessed (as on Apple’s old IR remote), they’d be much less likely to activate accidentally when the remote inevitably falls between the sofa cushions.

  3. Unlike the Magic Mouse, Magic Trackpad, and Magic Keyboard, the remote doesn’t have an off switch. This means you have to unplug the Apple TV every time you want to properly clean the remote. Not cool for a device that people routinely handle with fatty potato chips fingers.

I wish Apple took a cue from their Smart Battery Case’s focus on function over form for the next revision of the remote.

Usability aside, the hardware of the remote is great. The battery lasts for several months, even under regular use. Communication over radio is so much better than infrared. Moreover, the legacy IR transmitter on the remote is the best I’ve ever owned, much better than my TV’s. You don’t have to point at the TV at all to adjust the volume.

Navigating the UI via touch works mostly fine, although it does feel imprecise at times. I imagine that a simple four-directional pad would actually work better for most things I frequently do. However, I can see why Apple went with touch because it allows interactions that would be impossible with buttons, like scrubbing.

I don’t use the video scrubbing gestures a lot. It’s usually much faster and more precise to click the right or left side of the touch surface to skip ahead or back 10 seconds. But when you need to quickly scrub through a video, having the possibility is wonderful. Just like on iOS, unintentional movements of the playhead in the last moment when you lift your finger off the touch surface are a problem. I think the software could do a better job of identifying and ignoring them.

The convenient click-to-skip-ahead gesture doesn’t work well in all apps. For example, the Netflix app blocks repeated clicks when the video is buffering, essentially defeating the purpose. The same works smoothly in Apple’s own Movies app.

I’m not a fan of the ubiquitous tab bar navigation. It’s way too easy to accidentally swipe slightly-up-and-then-right when you actually meant to swipe right on the touch surface, causing you to switch tabs and often lose your scroll position on the original tab.

I continue to not be a fan of voice interaction on any device. Siri is too slow and unreliable. The ability to dictate in text fields (added in tvOS 9.2) is welcome, but only semi-useful if you want to use it with multiple languages. Siri only understands one language at a time, and there is no convenient way to change the dictation language when you’re in a text field. I estimate my search queries are split about 50–50 between German and English, so it sucks either way.

I thought I’d be interested in gaming on the Apple TV, but I’m not. When I want to play a casual game on the couch, the iPad is my preferred device. I didn’t get a game controller for the Apple TV, though, so that may change my perception.

The default UI animations are slooooooow and block user input while they’re running. Many people have complained about this on iOS where for some reason it never bothered me much, but I often hit this on tvOS. Example: you paused the video for a few minutes and the screen saver kicked in. Now you want to continue. Pressing the Play button twice in quick succession (once to dismiss the screen saver, once to continue playback) doesn’t work; you have to press the button once, then wait for the fade-out animation of the screen saver to finish before you can press it again. Argh!

Despite all the problems I mentioned, I really like the new Apple TV and use it almost daily.