Apple TV’s user interface has been through more changes over the past 8 years than any other Apple OS — the rare Apple UI that has seen more major changes than the devices it runs on. As improbable as this might have seemed for a “hobby,” fixing the Apple TV was one of the last topics Apple’s CEO Steve Jobs discussed with biographer Walter Isaacson: “I finally cracked it,” Jobs said about an upcoming Apple TV UI. “It will have the simplest user interface you could imagine,” apparently indicating that complex remotes would be a thing of the past. But after Jobs passed away, the Apple TV received only a couple of modest tweaks — improvements, but modest nonetheless — as Jobs’ mysterious “simplest UI” apparently remained unused.
As an Apple TV user and fan, I’ve spent years waiting for this week’s introduction of the fourth-generation Apple TV, as much for improved hardware as the opportunity to see Jobs’ vision in action. I’ve long suspected that pervasive voice control was the missing link — Siri was added to the iPhone 4S just before Jobs died — and from every indication, Apple has done a wonderful job of building voice navigation into the new Apple TV’s tvOS operating system. But did it get the rest of the UI right, or are we in for more years of main menu redesigns? Let’s take a look at what tvOS 1.0 gets right and wrong…
1. The New Main Menu: Cleaner (At A Cost).
We’d heard that the new Apple TV was going to get a more thorough iOS 7/8/9-style whitewashing, and that is indeed the case — soft transparent backgrounds and white space pervade the tvOS UI. But Apple went even further: the soft-cornered icons have become almost boxy, and despite preserving the last Apple TV OS’s white space between the icons, Apple has for some reason eliminated text from the grid. Unless you select an app icon, which makes it larger, adds a shadow, and makes text temporarily appear underneath, the only way you can identify apps without selecting them is by whatever’s inside the icon.
Unlike the Apple Watch, where the lack of icon labels is simultaneously necessary to the hex-like grid and maddening in creating inscrutably similar little circles, I think the Apple TV can make this change without frustrating users. As the grid above shows, developers are going to need to adjust to the change, but if icons can be built going forward with text and logos, this may wind up being a net gain for tvOS’s UI.
2. Next-Generation Layered/Parallax Icons
If I was going to guess at the single most “fun” thing about the tvOS UI, it would be the way that the cursor selection responds to subtle touches by letting you play with/tilt the icon’s edges, even when you’re not shifting from one icon to the next. It’s hard to tell whether Apple is supporting both completely flat and two layer logos with parallax abilities (see the animation above where Zooey Deschanel stays mostly in place as the icon box and words differentially tilt behind her), but if this is a new icon option for tvOS developers, this could be very, very cool going forward. (Update: Yes, multi-layered icons are part of tvOS, and developers can include up to 5 layers to create the parallax effect. They’re now required for app icons and optional for other graphic elements. Thanks, Evan!)
3. Apple TV Gets iOS 7/8/9’s Greatest Accomplishment: Reduced Chrome
I wasn’t a fan of iOS 7’s design, but it has improved somewhat over the past two iOS releases, and it led to one very positive change: edge-to-edge graphics that eliminate unnecessary borders, in some cases making much better use of the display. tvOS’s redesigned iTunes Movies interface is just one of many screens that really fill the TV’s screen with color, eliminating the stark black and white edges of the prior Apple TV UI in favor of full-edge bleeds and translucency.
Translucent white selection bars are also a great touch. There are obvious similarities here to iOS 9’s and iTunes 12’s music players, but tvOS’s menu UI looks more cohesive and engaging in subtle ways.
4. The Slide-Up Pane: Ingenious
Perhaps the single best new UI element in tvOS is the introduction of iOS’s slide-up overlay pane. Used within the main menus of tvOS, it makes good use of its space at the bottom of the screen, provides a very clear set of options (move left and right to navigate, flick up to expand the pane to a larger size), and uses icons that appear to be just large enough to discern from one another at a distance.
It also is a great way to provide intuitively actionable information. Could Apple have done with a smaller box? Yes. Could it be more translucent? Definitely. But it doesn’t seem terribly intrusive in this form, and that little ^ makes very clear that you swipe upwards to take over the screen with more information. That’s just a smart way to leverage what people have learned from iOS’s Control Center to improve the TV experience.
5. Siri: Very Close To Awesome
Apple’s original UI for Siri — a neon microphone against brushed metal and linen — mightn’t have been perfect, but it was pretty cool for the time. The concept of a Siri overlay with voice-matching waveforms looked fine when it debuted in iOS 9, but now that it’s in watchOS and tvOS, it’s becoming pleasantly familiar, and the shape seems to work no matter what screen size or orientation it’s on. Does the whole screen need to get smoke black dimmed for Siri? I don’t think so — contrast it with the frosted pane above, which works well without taking over the whole display. The Siri UI would be fine as a frosted black pane at the bottom of the screen — but I love the fact that videos and games continue moving in the background after it’s activated.
6 + 7. But… Maybe There’s A Little Too Much Glass (And Overly Thin Fonts)
Apple’s best UIs have conveyed a sense of pixel-level obsession — there used to be stories of Apple designers and executives poring over icons with magnifying glasses to get everything right down to a dot. Since iOS 7, that obsessiveness over pixels has given way to sheets of flat color, soft gradients, and thin fonts. The screenshot of tvOS 1.0 above says a lot to me on this topic: frosted glass bars are being given a lot of room to spread out in this interface, and text readability looks like it’s going down again. I like the overall look of tvOS, but I’m not totally sure that all the UI elements are right quite yet, and for me, oversized translucent panes are the chief issue. What do you think?
8. A Future Bonus: Third-Party UI Freedom
Although it’s still very early in the new Apple TV’s lifespan — sample third-party apps have only been shown on stage — I don’t want to leave out the incredible potential of third-party apps to improve tvOS’s UI further. One of the prior Apple TV’s least appealing elements was the small set of canned, pre-designed templates “channels” could choose from, and although we’re sure to see some duds once the App Store opens the floodgates to developers, I fully expect that there will be some great new third-party UIs with ideas Apple later adds directly into the OS.
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Check out more of my editorials, How-To guides, and reviews for 9to5Mac here! I’ve covered a lot of different topics of interest to Mac, iPad, iPhone, iPod, Apple TV, and Apple Watch users. I’ve recently discussed how to safely prepare and wipe your iPhone for resale or trade-in, and how to get the best iPhone trade-in price to help buy an iPhone 6S.