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5 things Apple really got right in Apple TV 4’s tvOS UI, and 2 things that need work


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.

More From This Author

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.


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  1. stevelawrence - 8 years ago

    One obvious thing they seem to have missed is folders. I can only imagine how much scrolling around is going to be required once the App Store gets here and we’ve downloaded several of them. I guess they have to hold *something* back for tvOS 2.

    Another thing I haven’t seen discussed anywhere – what happens to the OS for ATV 3? Clearly it won’t get the App Store, but will it get the new white theme at least? And will Apple still push significant new apps to it or will it now remain frozen in time? They haven’t discontinued the ATV 3 but they haven’t exactly made it clear how the future will look for this device.

    • Abraham Song - 8 years ago

      Agreed. With all of the apps coming for Apple TV, the home screen is going to get super long and super clunky (if not already!)

    • Jeremy Horwitz - 8 years ago

      Completely agreed on folders, and what a natural thing to add to tvOS 2 based on past Apple history.

      From what we’ve heard, the ATV 3 will get Apple’s subscription video service but none of the other apps and frills.

    • Evan - 8 years ago

      I too have thought about this, but don’t think folders are the logical answer to this problem. I can easily see switching through pages or screens (similar to the ones on an iPhone) by swiping to the last item on the left or right of the screen, then swiping again in the same direction to change focus to a highlighted edge. Once clicked, a new page of home screen apps would slide in, sans the top 5 ‘docked’ apps.

      • Smigit - 8 years ago

        Yeah dunno if folders is a good solution. I’m guessing Siri is there for that, and if I was to sort things I’d do it using filters based on app categories. If the old Apple TV taught us anything, it’s that managing icons with a controller is a huge pain in the backside, and I think folders would complicate that not make it easier.

    • nemesisprime - 8 years ago

      With you on ATV3 curiosity.

      I don’t even care about a new UI – all I want is native support for  Music since it’s pretty much broken with it now.

    • markpetereit - 8 years ago

      Folders makes sense for a mouse or even touch interface, but being able to pull up any app by voice makes folders unnecessary IMO.

  2. michaelg379 - 8 years ago

    Good article Jeremy!

    Not only do I think the new Apple TV is great, but I plan on preordering it. But, I’m a little disappointed with the remote, I don’t understand why Apple didn’t have the remote include the same kind of force touch technology in the MacBook and Apple Watch to the remote’s touch pad, plus some kind of vibration or haptic feedback. Also I remember reports from I think a year or two ago from 9to5mac saying something like the new Apple TV might have some kind of Airport/Time Machine functionality but that didn’t happen. Despite these things, I’m definitely looking forward to the Apple TV, especially the gaming apps!

    • Jeremy Horwitz - 8 years ago

      It seems that there were a lot of different Apple TV 4 prototypes before this one. Apple has clearly been having a lot of problems deciding on focus, partners, pricing and the like, given all of the reports of spurned attempts to work with cable providers on DVR boxes etc. But this seems like a really good next move for the Apple TV, with a lot of positives (and relatively few negatives).

      The remote received many major upgrades this time around. I suspect that the feat of game developers using feedback for rumbling (and killing the battery) might have been a motivator to leave it out of the Siri Remote.

      • michaelg379 - 8 years ago

        I definitely agree with you, I didn’t think of the battery life being a factor with remote – that’s an interesting thought. Like I said though, none of the things I said are that big of a deal and I’m super excited to get one!

      • strawbis - 8 years ago

        Did you just say you’re “super excited”…?That came straight from Apple didn’t it? Get a grip Dude.

  3. Rob Tucker - 8 years ago

    Sadly, the networks & rights holders make this an impossible proposition for Apple. Everybody wants their own OTT platform, so they can fully monetise their content. And it’s understandable that they don’t want to suffer the same fate as the music labels that unknowingly conceded all control to Apple. The loser is the consumer. HBO, Netflix, HBO, Hulu, ESPN, FOX, NBA, MLB, Disney, NHL, CNBC, CBS, Bloomberg, etc. etc. etc. The more OTT platforms there are, the fewer eyeballs there are to go around. Why don’t you all, do the consumer a favour. Make a single platform, jointly & fairly owned by all parties. A single subscription & you get everything. Maybe the UI & tech geniuses at Apple mean they get a cut (fair) for creating the platform, but nobody want another platform, another subscription. And whilst your at it, get Spotify in too. A single “entertainment tax” of around £50 a month, that means you can view every film & TV program, and listen to every music track. And we can trust you guys to share the spoils fairly. Because currently, it’s like you’re all ignoring the man on the street that pays your bills.

  4. Why does a movie on the AppleTV in iTunes say Play and not Download or Rent?

    In the Live Keynote Demo, she searched the Movie ‘Paddington’ (which isn’t on Netflix) using Siri, found the movie in iTunes and hit Play. No Downloading.

    Is this just a renaming, or a possible hint at a upcoming iTunes Subscription, similar to Netflix?

    I’m confused.

    • I should add: There was no confirmation of payment or download, such as with the current system. Just click and play, like Netflix.

    • Evan - 8 years ago

      I’m hoping that’s because it was in the demo computer’s iTunes library. Still haven’t gotten a solid answer about how it will work with Home sharing, playing movies, shows, and music from your personal non-store-bought library.

    • Evan - 8 years ago

      Of course it could’ve also been previously purchased, that’s the other answer.

    • I highly doubt it. Currently on AppleTV, if you load up a movie you already own, it displays as “Play” (Or if you don’t, buy or rent.)

      Since this was a highly-controlled demonstration, they already ‘own’ all of the content in the demo.

    • Paul Douglas - 8 years ago

      It was likely already owned. Downloading wouldn’t happen anyway – iTunes already supports streaming of purchased and rented content

  5. secdj - 8 years ago

    Does anybody know of current APPLE TV will get some kind of refresh software? Not taking about tvOS but like an updated color scheme or something? Would be nice.

    • Paul Douglas - 8 years ago

      They haven’t said anything about it. We do seem to know Apple Music support won’t be coming, at least not initially. Beyond that there’s not a lot we know about what may or may not happen to the current software.

  6. pdoobs - 8 years ago

    it’s just too damn bright. in a dimly lit or completely dark room this ui is going to be blinding.

    • lowtolerance - 8 years ago

      No, it isn’t too bright, and no, you won’t go blind. Viewing a TV screen is not like viewing a phone screen six inches from your face at night in a dark room. If you are not blinded from normal TV watching in a dimly lit or dark room, then you will not be blinded by this UI. It only seems bright because you’re used to seeing dark backgrounds.

  7. Evan - 8 years ago

    There’s a lot of interesting insights to be gained from reading the tvOS developers guide. To answer one of the questions asked by the author, every app icon or selectable item from the home screen (including movie and tv cover art) will have layered images (3 min – 5 max) packaged to give the parallax effect. Some other selectable items throughout the UI will have this as a requirement as well.

  8. Tom A (@Newdeal99) - 8 years ago

    I really wish it would have been immediately available for pre-order at least. Not sure why they didn’t give an actual date

  9. Michel Chenard - 8 years ago

    I think the biggest problem with Apple TV is that the advertisement of it is simply non existent. What i mean is that they do not advertise well what is available on it. i don’t mean what shows or movies. I mean what stations. Everyone is used to watching stations to watch a favorite show or movie. But since I and most don’t seem to have a clue what stations are available, Apple TV is not going to be a big success. I know that they carry HBO and Netflix and lots of sports channels. But what about channels like ABC, CBS, NBC and in Canada channels like CTV, CBC? We are used to watching these channels to follow our favorite shows. To expect us to run out and dump our cable for Apple TV is simply not going to happen as long as the general public is assured that we all still will have access to these major broadcasters to follow our favorite shows.

    • Paul Douglas - 8 years ago

      That will change with the App Store. Get used to the idea of “Available on the AppleTV App Store” icons like the existing “Available on the App Store” icons on adverts for Apps and websites. Broadcasters will likely start putting them on any marketing for their OTT services. And Apple will definitely run its own “Available on the App Store” ads as it does for the iOS devices.

  10. One thing I am not seeing is the “computer” icon that allows me to browse the media stored on my computer. I download the movies, music, and TV shows I purchase off iTunes and keep them on a Drobo due to the cable and internet being unreliable out where I live. If they have removed this feature, or if I have to walk to my computer on the second floor every time I want to start a movie or TV show then this would be a deal breaker for me.

    • markpetereit - 8 years ago

      What you saw in the demo is most likely how the media on your computer will be accessed. I’m sure there will be an initial, guided setup that connects you to Home sharing, just like the current versions. But once configured, I suspect those options will be available in a secondary configuration screen somewhere, probably accessed using voice commands.