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TV App Review

Today Apple released tvOS 10.1 and iOS 10.2, both of which bring several additions to the operating systems. Chief among all additions, the clear centerpiece of these updates is a brand new app called TV. When Tim Cook announced this app onstage earlier this fall, he plainly stated its purpose: TV exists to create a unified TV experience, one place to access all TV shows and movies.

Does it succeed? Is this the best television experience available today?

Before answering those questions, it’s important to consider the history of underwhelming television endeavors that brought Apple to this point.

Steve Jobs introduced the first Apple TV set-top box over ten years ago, in September 2006. That product unveiling came at the tail end of a keynote focused on the iPod and iTunes, where Jobs announced the additions of Movies and TV Shows to the iTunes Store. At its birth, the Apple TV was not meant to revolutionize television; it was made to support the iTunes ecosystem Apple was building.

Throughout its first three iterations, the Apple TV was never a hallmark product like the iPod, Mac, or iPhone; it was simply a hobby for the company. It was Apple dipping its toes in the TV market. But the fourth generation Apple TV represented a shift. With modern hardware, a new operating system dubbed tvOS, and a vision that the future of TV is apps, Apple dove full force into the television market. It set out to create the best TV experience possible.

The newly released TV app is a significant step forward in realizing that goal.

TV is intended to address a modern issue. While the future of television may be apps, up until now Apple’s implementation of that vision has been lacking; it’s been lacking because the more video apps you have, the more navigating it requires to find the content you love. More time navigating means less time watching. TV was built to solve this problem.

The TV app on tvOS and iOS centralizes content from a wide array of video apps in one place, presenting that content in a simple and familiar interface. No one wants to juggle an assortment of video apps, jumping from one app to another to find the content they’re looking for. We’ve all learned to tolerate it, but none of us wants it. So Apple built TV to be the new hub of our video-watching life.

Table of Contents
Digital Hubs Need Inputs
Navigating TV
Watch Now
Up Next
What to Watch
TV Spotlight / Movie Spotlight
Browse by Category
New TV Shows
Curated Collections
Top TV Shows / Top Movies
Recently Watched
Library
Store
New Releases on iTunes
Buy or Rent on iTunes
Start Watching Now
Watch with Your TV Provider
Search
Miscellaneous Extras
Rich Content Details
Title Heading
Trailers
Seasons
Related
Ratings and Reviews
Cast and Crew
Information and Languages
Goodbye IMDb
Siri
Remapped Button on Siri Remote
Settings
Pushing the Vision Forward
Digital Hubs Need Inputs
Since TV’s value is found in its ability to pull content from various providers into a single unified experience, a TV app with no content feeding it is useless. You can only have a great experience with the TV app if you pay for content. The more content you pay for, the more valuable TV becomes.

For anyone paying for traditional cable or satellite service, a new feature called Single Sign-on is the best way to funnel content into TV.1 Before the TV app and Single Sign-on, every video app with content you wanted to watch would require an independent verification that you’re a paying customer. But with Single Sign-on, that annoyance is solved; you simply enter your TV provider credentials once, in the Settings app. Your credentials are stored in iCloud, meaning they populate across all devices, and they automatically sign you in to every app that your TV plan entitles you to.

Visit the TV Provider menu in Settings to setup Single Sign-on; on tvOS it’s under Settings > Accounts > TV Provider
Visit the TV Provider menu in Settings to setup Single Sign-on; on tvOS it’s under Settings > Accounts > TV Provider

In addition to solving the problem of having to log in multiple times, Single Sign-on also solves a discoverability issue on Apple TV. Previously, as a cable or satellite subscriber, you never knew for sure which apps would accept your credentials and which wouldn’t. The only way to find out was to download each app and go through the login process, hoping for success. Single Sign-on makes this a non-issue by presenting a list in the App Store of apps tailored to your specific television provider. You can download anything you’d like, and with minimal effort you have access to all the content you qualify for. No searching for apps or additional logins required.

Download an app, then grant permission for it to use your Single Sign-on credentials
Download an app, then grant permission for it to use your Single Sign-on credentials

If you don’t pay for a traditional cable or satellite package, there will likely be a lot less content available to you in the TV app. You’ll be limited to content that comes from streaming services like Hulu, HBO Now, or Showtime. If the TV app integrated with every major streaming service, this likely wouldn’t be an issue, but at TV’s launch there are two major holdouts that do not have their content available in TV: Netflix and Amazon Prime Video. The omission of these big players hurts. It weakens what Apple is trying to do with TV. I understand why these companies aren’t waving the white flag and giving Apple full user interface control, but if Apple truly wants to offer users the best experience, something has to give. The company must work relentlessly for one of two results: either make these holdouts an offer they can’t refuse, or make the TV app such a hit with users that any company not on board will be missing out.

When an app integrates with TV, it presents a permission dialogue when you play a video, or the next time you visit TV after downloading the app – whichever comes first
When an app integrates with TV, it presents a permission dialogue when you play a video, or the next time you visit TV after downloading the app – whichever comes first

It should be noted that Netflix and Amazon Video are not the only video apps without TV integration, but they do seem to be the only major players who are intentionally abstaining from the platform. Similar to how Apple launched Apple TV’s Siri search last fall with a limited number of partners, but expanded that roster of partners in the weeks and months that followed, I think we’ll see a similar story play out with TV integration.

Speaking of Siri search, the TV app does benefit from the search partnerships Apple formed in the past year, even if those search partners aren’t directly integrated with TV. For example, although Netflix won’t show its content in the main section of TV, Watch Now, the full catalogue of Netflix titles will still show up through any searches you perform. You can then watch those titles in Netflix with the simple tap of a play button.

Navigating TV
Once you have content providers in place, the TV app goes to work doing what it does best. It presents a clean, attractive, user-friendly ecosystem for videos to call home.

TV’s interface follows the design example of iOS 10’s Music, News, and Home. It’s marked by bold headers, large buttons, and strategic splashes of color, all of which make the app feel very familiar to any iOS 10 user.

On both tvOS and iOS the app consists of four main sections: Watch Now, Library, Store, and Search.

Watch Now
Watch Now is the flagship section of TV, its name communicating the problem it solves. Gone are the days of navigating various apps and menus to find the right video. Nobody wants to go on a content scavenger hunt, we all want to “watch now,” and this is where that’s made possible.

The content that appears in Watch Now depends on apps you’ve given permission to connect with TV. Once an app is connected with TV, its content will appear in Watch Now even if you don’t pay for that app’s streaming service. You won’t be able to play the content, however, without first being sent to the source app and signing up for service.

Watch Now on tvOS

Watch Now on iOS

My preference is to keep Watch Now filled only with content I have immediate access to. This is achieved through not giving an app permission to connect with TV unless I pay for its service. If you’ve already connected the app, its permission can be revoked in the Settings app under TV.

If you set things up as I have, with only content you qualify for in Watch Now, there will be no signing into anything in this section. The beauty of having all video content in one place is realized here; if it’s in Watch Now, you’ll be able to start watching it with a single tap.

Revoking an app’s permission to connect with TV
Revoking an app’s permission to connect with TV

When you select a video in Watch Now, it doesn’t actually play in the TV app, but in the source app that content is pulled from.2 Despite this, Apple’s intent is that users feel as if they’ve never left the TV app. The execution of this vision is mixed, with tvOS better fulfilling it than iOS. Often a video will load on tvOS without even a sign of the content provider’s logo, whereas on iOS, after hitting the play button you’re usually greeted not only by a logo, but at times even by much of the video app’s interface as your selection loads. The same is true after a video’s conclusion. In my testing of the CBS app, after an episode of Supergirl ended on tvOS the next episode of the season autoplayed, whereas on iOS I was bumped back into the CBS menu interface. This experience varies from app to app, but generally speaking iOS frequently breaks the illusion of not leaving the TV app.

Because TV works as a hub for other apps to feed their content through, you must have those video apps installed on a device if you’d like to play their content. Automatic downloads between Apple TV and iOS devices makes it easy to keep apps on all your devices, but in those times you want to watch something on a device that’s lacking a particular app, Apple has made the issue simple to remedy. The missing app’s video will still appear in Up Next, and upon trying to play it you’ll receive a pop up dialogue asking if you’d like to install the app. Hit yes and the download begins, while a new message informs you that the video will begin playing as soon as the download is complete. It’s a nice experience that prevents ever having to navigate away from Watch Now to find your device’s missing app.

Installing a missing app through TV
Installing a missing app through TV

Apple rightly made Watch Now the primary tab of the TV app in tvOS. It’s the first place you’ll land upon opening the app, and it’s also the place you’ll arrive when hitting the Siri Remote’s remapped TV button.3

Curiously, Watch Now’s position in the tab bar is not the same on iOS as on tvOS. iOS makes it the second tab, following Library. This may be for sake of consistency with the iOS Music app, where Library is also first tab, but in TV it makes no sense. TV’s Library only contains iTunes content, which is unlikely to be what you’ll want to watch the majority of the time. Hopefully with TV now out in the wild, Apple can learn from users’ behavior and move iOS’s Watch Now to the prime position it deserves.

Up Next
Up Next is the first section you’ll find in Watch Now. It contains several types of videos that TV believes you’ll want to watch soon, including:

Videos you’ve started but haven’t finished.
The next episode in a series you’ve been watching.
Recent iTunes Movie or TV Show purchases you’ve made.
Videos you’ve added using the “Add to Up Next” action.
All of these are grouped together in your Up Next list, and they’re each marked by a couple different identifiers. First, every video shows you which app it will play in, whether it’s Hulu, Showtime, etc. Second, an identifier tells you which of the four categories listed above the video belongs to. If it’s a video you left without finishing, the word “Continue” will appear along with a bar indicating how much progress you’ve made in that video. If the video belongs to a television series you’re watching, it will say “Next Episode” or “New Episode” along with the season and episode numbers. If the video is a new iTunes purchase it will say “Purchased” and list the runtime of the video. Finally, anything you manually added to Up Next will say “Recently Added.”

Videos can be added to Up Next from anywhere in the app

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