Six Colors
Six Colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

This Week's Sponsor

Type & printing history told in a letterpress volume by Glenn Fleishman - $10 off with code SIXSIX

By Joe Rosensteel

Have you considered using a camera?

A hedge of jasmine in bloom.

Look, there’s no interesting Apple news. We’re all waiting on tenterhooks for the big hardware announcement so we can find out the only thing anyone cares about: Will the 15″ MacBook Air come in a chip configuration that supports two external displays? While we wait for that—and only that—to happen, we might as well take advantage of this spring weather and go outside to shoot some photos. Snap some pics. Record those photons.

I’ve been on a little bit of a camera hardware kick, as you could tell from my last, thrilling post about tracking camera information with spreadsheets. But something also seems to be in the air (along with the pollen), because the fellas over at the Accidental Tech Podcast have been talking about cameras for a few weeks. Additionally, there’s a simmering dissatisfaction that people seem to have about the over-processed nature of their iPhone photos, and some hand wringing about iPhone camera modules for this September.

Perhaps it’s a good time to take a step back. Rather than just thinking about photos, what about taking a bunch of ’em? Open that closet and get out that neglected SLR, DSLR, or point-and-shoot from yesteryear. This isn’t just some sort of luddite “it used to be better” thing. This is also to make you appreciate what a magical little device your iPhone is. I am deeply uninterested in pitting the iPhone against other cameras, but feel the need to remind people that they’ve got some options in their life, and there are no wrong answers. (The images I’ve included in this story are unlabeled, resized to typical social media resolution, and stripped of metadata.1)

For the purposes of this post, I’m just going to talk about cameras that take SD cards, as that is basically 20 years worth of cameras, and SD cards are the easiest things for most people to deal with. You can spend $100 to buy and develop a single roll of Kodak Gold if you want that warmth two to three weeks from now, but let’s try for some immediate gratification first.

Charge the battery, pop in a SD card, and have an SD card slot or adapter ready to receive your photos. Personally, I recommend making the investment in Apple’s Lightning to SD Card Camera Reader. You can, of course, use any other SD card reader you’re comfortable with, but I find that having the reader at my side is easiest. Don’t waste your time with Wi-Fi apps—they’re always a terrible experience, and making the attempt will ruin your fun photo adventure.

But Joe, you say, won’t an old camera have—gasp—a low resolution? Yes. However, you’re not using these images to print a large-format photo mural, and up until the iPhone 14 you were only working with a 12 MP sensor, anyway. Chances are good that you’ll uploading the end result to a failing social-media company to data mine details of your life from, and they’ll show the images at much lower resolutions. Even early six megapixel cameras can get good images—you just can’t crop in a lot. Lower than six is a little iffy, but gen Z would say it’s very aesthetic. Some people really lean into what are generally considered to be defects.

Prime time to kit zoom

If you’re taking a camera out with you, odds are it either has a built-in zoom lens, or an interchangeable lens mount that came with at least a kit zoom lens. Maybe you also picked up some other lenses once upon a time. I find, personally, that it’s helpful to at least have a zoom lens with you. Just bring two lenses at most. You’re not trying to take up juggling.

Another reason I recommend bringing a zoom is to do a little back and forth comparison with your iPhone, and it’s the fastest way to hop around a range of focal lengths. It can also help you get an idea of what you do and don’t like about your lens(es). You can quickly google your iPhone model, and “35mm equivalent” to get the answers you seek (or divide the 35mm equivalent number by the crop factor for your sensor, such as 1.5 for APS-C), but here’s the info for the iPhone 13 and 14:

  • iPhone 13 “wide” lens: 26mm on a full frame (35mm) camera, 17mm lens on an APS-C sensor camera
  • iPhone 14 “wide” lens: 24mm on full frame, 16mm on an APS-C sensor camera.
  • iPhone 13 Pro and 14 Pro “telephoto” lens: 77mm for full frame, 51mm for APS-C
  • iPhone 13 Pro and 14 Pro “ultra-wide”: 13mm on full frame, 8mm2 on APS-C.

Again, this isn’t about generating an A/B comparison library to quiz your friends with. It’s just to build an personal understanding of how things translate.

On a later date, move on to the lenses that can do things your iPhone can’t do. Like the 70-350mm lens for my Sony that is equivalent to a 105-525mm zoom on a 35mm camera. Great to take photos of birds, or the moon with. Eat your heart out, Samsung.

Get in the zone

Photo of an Auto Zone sign with high contrast highlights

Get in the zone Auto Zone by walking around with your hand holding the camera grip, not just letting it dangle from your neck and bounce off your stomach every time you take a step. Head somewhere with some flowers, interesting shadows, varied textures, something that makes you think “what if I drew a little rectangle around that and it was a photo?” This might trigger some muscle memory from the last time you used that old camera.3 There’s no shame in auto modes, either, if you’re a little rusty—but try and go back and see what settings the camera picked and whether you agree with it.

This is where plugging in the SD card to your phone can come in handy in 2023, because you can more accurately assess the image the camera took on an iPhone screen. All camera screens are garbage, even new ones, when compared to the iPhone’s display. Your iPhone will give you the most accurate view of what you shot. When you get used to a camera, you can use the bad display to make relative judgments, but don’t assume that your photo will exactly look like that. This is very true when it comes to evaluating lens glare/flaring which might not look like much on the crappy display.

The mascarpone coffee drink from Loquat Coffee in a glass with a stainless steel spoon on top on a bright yellow table.

Shoot a couple shots with your iPhone too. Any photo you take will have metadata, and you can apply that to your older camera’s shots that might not have location data or accurate time. Also, while shooting, consider using one of the many third-party camera apps (like Halide or Obscura) to make the same kinds of shooting adjustments you were doing on your camera.

The aperture stuff, as it relates to bokeh, is going to be different, but it’s going to be the same as it relates to light hitting the sensor. The blur is based on distance of the object to the sensor, and sensor size, not just the amount of light coming in. This is why Apple invented Portrait Mode. Feel free to shoot with that too. Don’t take photos of wine glasses, and while it’s gotten better at handling some subjects, it’ll still cut off an ear or do weird stuff with drinking straws, even though it’s not as bad as before.

Photo of an iced matcha latte in a clear plastic cup with a black straw. The drink is on a wooden table, and a hedge is behind.

You’ll also notice, after being in the zone, that even at relatively similar exposures your images will have different dynamic ranges and tonality. The iPhone does some tricks to boost certain subjects, and drop those blown-out skies… and your old-school camera is probably not doing any of that. Also, your camera might have a larger sensor than the iPhone, but that sensor might be very old, limiting the potential range between the brightest brights and darkest darks it can record. Images may wind up looking more like slide positive film, but with an unpleasant highlight roll-off. Try shooting RAW and exposing for the highlights in your image (or using exposure compensation to force it down a notch), then take up the darkest parts of your scene in post if you want. Camera companies also added adjustment features to help boost the darkest areas too in-camera. Look up things like Nikon’s Active D-Lighting, Canon’s ALO, or Sony’s DRO, etc.

Lower range can also be something you can lean into in creative ways, like purposefully silhouetting subjects, or letting shadows completely fall away. Your iPhone will try to make everything a bright, even tone with some contrasty edges and highlight pops. Sometimes it looks a lot like what your own eyes are seeing, and other times it can appear a little boosted. But maybe what you really want is just to direct the viewer’s eye with your exposure—in which case, you’ll have to use a third-party app to control that exposure. I do wish the default camera app had exposure compensation.

Backlit street light on the right hand side of the screen in daylight. Record store facade with rough stucco on the left.

Working for your work of art

The big thing that you’ve probably noticed from shooting stuff back and forth between the camera and the iPhone is just how much more effort and thought needs to go into your camera shots. Even if you’re using a third party iOS camera app, it’s still doing a lot of the heavy lifting for you. Your camera, mostly as a product of its age, is going to be hella slow.

It also means having to manage a lot of settings that you weren’t previously thinking about, and dealing with files you didn’t have to bother with before.

Ask yourself if any of it would be improved if you changed something about that camera, like a different lens, or getting more familiar with settings and modes. Maybe it’s the circumstances you used it under. Was it daylight or night? Is it a crappy underwater camera that you should only use at the beach? Do you like everything about the lens and shooting experience but wish autofocus was snappier? There are solutions to these problems, sometimes even with relatively inexpensive used equipment from KEH, MPB, or the riskier eBay. Maybe just rent something from Lens Rentals.

Even if you put the camera back in the closet, I hope this experience has reminded you why the iPhone is such a popular camera, and why every year people clamor for even incremental advances in the ever-deepening camera module. Despite objections about “over-processing” images, it’s doing a lot of work you’d manually have to do. For being a camera for everyone, and every situation, it has to put on one hell of a show.

But sometimes it can just be a little fun to shoot with something else on the side.

  1. Cameras used in this post include an iPhone 13 Pro using both “wide” and “telephoto” cameras, a godawful underwater camera from Panasonic called the DMC-TS25 with a 16 MP type 1 CCD sensor that only shoots JPEG released in 2013, a Nikon D3200 DSLR with a 24.2 MP APS-C CMOS sensor shooting RAW released in 2012 with the 18-55mm kit zoom lens, a Nikon D40 DSLR with a 6 MP APS-C CCD sensor and even worse 18-55mm kit zoom lens, and a Sony a6400 mirrorless camera with a 24.2 MP APS-C CMOS released in 2019 with the 18-135mm kit zoom lens. 
  2. LOL. 
  3. I’m sure a large majority of the people reading this bought the cameras to take photos of their newborn babies and gave up, but pretend you used to be artsy. 

[Joe Rosensteel is a VFX artist, writer, and co-host of the Defocused and Unhelpful Suggestions podcasts.]

By Joe Rosensteel

Music to no one’s ears

Look, I’ve been hoping that at some point, the rocky transition from iTunes to the Music app would be over and we’d all look back on it and say, “Wow, I can’t believe that was so brief.” But it isn’t over. Here I am, in the year 2023, and I have the same problems using the app that I’ve had for about half a decade at this point. And yes, many of these problems are tied to changes made for the Apple Music service.

Apple Music's Listen Now screen
Somehow, none of these things are what I want to actually listen to now.

When launching the Music app on macOS, you always start off at the Listen Now section of the app. It doesn’t matter what I was previously listening to in the app—that information has been lost to the sands of time. I can’t resume playback of anything I was listening to on this device, or any other.…

This is a post limited to Six Colors members.

By Joe Rosensteel

How many Home updates does it take to turn off a light bulb?

four homekit switches
You may be surprised to discover that inside each of these buttons is a different button.

At some point, when I was reconstructing the automation that turns on and off the floor lamp in my living room for the third or fourth time, it dawned on me that I was sold a bill of goods regarding HomeKit.

I had set the bar for HomeKit so low: It just needed to turn on a switch at a time of day, and turn off the switch at another time of day. Even that stopped working, and here I was trying to coax it, to massage it, to just tell me what I could do to fix it. Pleading with the invisible force that controls my home to just give me an error message, to show a notification, anything at all.

That was how I closed out my relationship with Apple’s Home app, and HomeKit, in December of 2022.…

This is a post limited to Six Colors members.

By Joe Rosensteel

You don’t have to go home, but…

Someone bought the bar we were all hanging out in, and they started interrupting the music with edicts about bar rules, fired most of the staff, aren’t paying their bills, installed a velvet rope where VIPs can spit on the other bar patrons, had bouncers start to randomly remove people, and are bricking over the fire exits.

I’ll get my coat.

There are other bars, of course. There are communities on Discord or Slack, and microblogging services like Mastodon and People with big audiences might build their own Substack, or ask people to follow their Tumblr, or set up a blog via WordPress.

Or maybe just chill out and read a book? Imagine a main character who isn’t getting milkshake-ducked or bean-dad-ed into oblivion, for once.

Gather up your jackets, move it to the exits

One reason a lot of people have a hard time walking away from Twitter is because it’s where we’ve invested all our valuable time and resources crafting bespoke non sequiturs, and hewing reaction memes from the finest 12th generation copies of JPEGs.…

This is a post limited to Six Colors members.

By Joe Rosensteel

tvOS 16 is better at search–Siriously

One of the banner features of Apple TV and tvOS, is the ability to use Siri to get to what you want without having to remember which app it’s in, or where it is. Unfortunately, it hasn’t always lived up to that sales pitch. But as of the latest version of tvOS, it’s gotten a lot better.

Apple has slowly tweaked accuracy over the years (requests for “The Thing” now sensibly display The Thing you expect, and not Fantastic Four movies.) It was also a pain that if you clicked/tapped on a result there was no way to get back to those search results if that item didn’t turn out to be what you wanted. Now you can!

The results pages were have also been cleaned up a little, to make those first few options as relevant as possible. It’s less optimal if you stay on the page too long, because tvOS will start playing a trailer in the top two-thirds of the screen.…

This is a post limited to Six Colors members.

By Joe Rosensteel

Up Next? Disappointment.

Today I fired up my Apple TV and opened the Apple TV app to be greeted with a revised Watch Now tab. Much to my shock and horror, they made it worse than it was before! I hopped online and came across Chance Miller’s post for 9to5 Mac, and Jason Snell’s post, where he reacted as negatively as I have. This is not what I had pitched at all when I wrote a few months ago about how Apple TV, the device and the app, needed a revised and unified home screen experience!

This new development is bad for a few reasons, starting with the fact that the Up Next list was the only part of the TV app interface that a user could really customize or control to plan their viewing experience—everything from being aware of the latest episode popping up online, to deciding you weren’t that interested in a show any longer. That personalization is important because the act of viewing TV is a personal experience in your living room.

This change pushes that off of the screen so the information isn’t even available to them at a glance without moving the interface down. This is another hostile layer, because remember that if you don’t subscribe to Apple TV+, the app will load with a splash screen telling you to subscribe to Apple TV+, and when that is dismissed it will deposit you on the Apple TV+ tab of the Apple TV app interface which you need to navigate away from to Watch Now. Now you need to go down, too. Obviously, Apple TV+ subscribers have fewer layers to get through because they don’t need the sales pitch, but they’re still getting the other shows pitched to them whether they like it or not.

What is featured?

The editorial layer Apple adds to their interfaces, across all their operating systems and services, leaves a lot to be desired. I don’t reject efforts to be told about other content that exists outside of my personal bubble—but what Apple provides is usually irrelevant to me, either because I don’t want to watch it or because I’ve already seen it!

Right now, for example, the list of titles in the Featured row that takes up most of this interface is almost entirely made up of things I’ve already seen. Some of them are, in fact, in the Up Next view right below it—but the view of the title in the “Featured” row is the same view everyone gets, whether or not they’ve ever seen the show. For shows that I’m watching, it doesn’t even offer me my next episode. There’s literally no personalization.

If Apple has a list of titles they want in Featured and a list of titles they want in Up Next, am I to believe that they lack the raw computing horsepower to remove duplicates from those lists? Or to override the unpersonalized button with a more personalized one?

How does any of this benefit me as a user? You’re going to take the brave, bold stance of recommending “Ted Lasso”—a show I’ve seen all of and which isn’t going to a have third season until some indeterminate time next year, maybe? What brain trust thought that the cultural zeitgeist around Ted Lasso was so strong right now in November of 2022 that it merited a featured position?

For Apple

For a long time, the Watch Now page has had a very, very, very bad For You row. Whatever logic is running behind the scenes seems to just make random associations out of a grab bag of anything I’ve ever seen. To solve this problem, as Apple often does in the Apple TV interface, they just push it further down. It’s now the 12th row down on the Watch Now screen, effectively about 4 “pages” of stuff away from the top.

That means that we’ve got Featured taking up that first page, the top sliver of the second page being Up Next, and then a bunch of other suggestions for things that some human being picked out of a hat for all users to see. It can be anything from sports, to suggestions for other things I can pay for, to Apple TV content (which is promoted in a thousand other places) and then the height of machine learning has a list of shows and movies I might like which starts with the critically panned TV adaptation of The Time Traveler’s Wife.

Again, what benefit is there to browsing any of this material that has been put together without care or respect for me? If you want to take control of my TV from me, then it better be for a good reason, and not just because you’re oblivious to what I want.

What’s good for… Apple?

What this really comes down to is respect. I do not feel respected as a customer when I see my Apple TV autoplaying an ad for Abbott Elementary in general when it knows exactly which episode is next for me in the series.

If Apple wants to say that the Apple TV device, and the Apple TV app, are worth the money because they provide a premium experience, then they can’t keep sliding down into the same mediocre moves as any other platform owner.

The Apple TV in my living room isn’t Apple’s electronic billboard. If I wanted to own one of those, I’d have saved some money and just bought an Amazon Fire TV Stick.

[Joe Rosensteel is a VFX artist, writer, and co-host of the Defocused and Unhelpful Suggestions podcasts.]

By Joe Rosensteel

Apple Store, shut up and take my money

When is a store not a store?

When it’s an Apple Store.

Since their mythic inception, forged in the crucible of Ron Johnson and Steve Jobs and their hippie-dippy retail ideas, the Apple Store has always been an anti-store. It’s not your daddy’s CompUSA! It’s not your grandma’s RadioShack! The Apple Store was a place to chill with your friends, while you looked at all the weird stuff no one was buying until iPods were popular, and then the iPhone.

A number of architectural revisions have occurred since then, and technical reorganizations have reshaped the shop. But the stubborn persistence to be unlike other retailers, often to the point of frustration, remains the same.

By my count, there are three ways to behave at the Apple Store as a customer seeking to buy something:

  1. You approach an Apple Store employee and tell them you want to purchase something.
  2. You approach an Apple Store employee and tell them you want to pick up something you ordered already.

This is a post limited to Six Colors members.

By Joe Rosensteel

How short can a Shortcut be if a Shortcut is cut short?

Every so often, I get the smart idea that I should smooth over an everyday problem I have with the power of computers. I know some Python. I work in Nuke, which is a big pile of procedural code blobs that operate on inputs. And I’m capable of using Stack Overflow. I also have plenty of repetitive problems — or more accurately, annoyances — that would be easily fixed with silicon and electricity.

However, other than a handful of little snippety bits and bobs, my life is remarkably manual. Everyone else seems to be living longer, healthier, happier lives with Apple’s Shortcuts — Jason Snell has done some really impressive stuff that goes far beyond mending the ordinary paper-cuts of life. Let me explain my issues (in regards to automation, at least) and perhaps someone out there will have some wild idea for one of them.

I love Nodes

Part of a Nuke project. See? Flow charts are powerful. (Courtesy Dan Sturm.)

A common smear lobbed by Real Programmers against Shortcuts (and Workflow and Automator before it) is that it’s just a toy to make tools of colorful blocks, rather than the more alpha-masculine energy of monospaced characters with spaces, or tabs, or semicolons.

This is not a problem at all for me, because I love flow charts populated with colorful blocks (or Nodes, as Nuke calls them). I use them all the time, every day. They’re a great way to do procedural work where data needs to be routed, and the format makes it easy to debug because you can “walk up the tree” to see just where an unexpected result is coming from.

Shortcuts has some of that functionality, but not all. It doesn’t branch into a tree, but is very vertical1. There’s a little gray line that connects actions in Shortcuts, except when it doesn’t, and many connections are invisible because they rely on variables. In Nuke, connections between nodes get a little green line that denotes a connection between parameters. You can also change your perspective on the tree, letting you evaluate from where you’re viewing it. That’s great for debugging, and I wish there was a way for me to do something similar in Shortcuts without having to edit my Shortcut to produce diagnostic stuff.

More bothersome is Shortcuts’ lack of detail on what actions are capable of doing. I was looking into the options for the Focus Mode action and I can set it to a time, but not a duration, or until an event ends. Well, what’s an event? “Event – The event after which to turn off the Focus.” That cleared it up!

These aren’t big deals. Anyone can get around those minor annoyances, and I do—but I’d love it if I didn’t feel so vertically constrained.

Trigger unhappy

The real place where Shortcuts falls down for me is a lack of triggers and actions that apply to my needs. I want my automations to leap into action when certain events occur—and that’s frustratingly difficult, if not impossible. This is largely the fault of app developers not providing any useful Shortcuts functionality, but even when I find workarounds for that, I still run into issues with triggers.

Example 1: On the day a new episode of a TV show was available, people would tweet about the TV show, and if I didn’t have the chance to watch the show yet, then I would see stuff from the show. Some people would tweet the show name, or a hashtag, which could be easily filtered, with the assumption being people set up and remove filters on a weekly basis timed perfectly to coincide with when they watched the media and expiring when the have finished watching the media.

That’s not a good assumption that those people were making, of course, but it is the kind of thing that could be automated. However, the official Twitter app doesn’t expose any actions for setting or deleting mutes. Neither do Twitterrific or Tweetbot. It can be done with the Twitter web client if you do automated web page navigation hacks and use something like Keyboard Maestro, but that would be ridiculous. That’s not Apple’s fault at all, but it does show the dearth of useful actions.

Example 2: I want to set the Focus Mode on my Mac and iPhone to Do Not Disturb when I received a call on Microsoft Teams on my Mac. That’s not possible at all! The iOS version of Teams exposes four Shortcuts actions for Teams:

  • Call
  • FaceTime
  • Open Cortana in Teams
  • Join my meeting

There’s no way to trigger an automation based on receiving a call, and no way to incorporate automating answering a call other than joining a meeting (which is not, strictly speaking, the same thing as a call). Why Cortana is there at all is a complete mystery.

Even those few actions aren’t available on the Mac version of Microsoft Teams. Nothing for AppleScript either. So no way to automate or trigger anything at all, right? Well… There’s the orange dot. You see, macOS knows my microphone is active and audio is being used, because that’s how it can show me that orange dot in the corner. Apple hasn’t exposed any automation triggers for that, though, so I can’t change Focus when the microphone is in use.

I can do things like make a menu option that turns on Do Not Disturb — but that’s already in Control Center, so why make a Shortcut for that? Why make a keybinding for it? Why can’t I hook into something and use that to drive something else?

Example 3: I want to unmount my Time Machine volume during the day. I don’t need to hear it churning away cleaning up files while I’m working over a remote desktop connection to my office. It’s not doing anything, but also doing everything.

There is a Disk Utility action to unmount the drive. There’s no Disk Utility action to remount the drive. Why? But I can do it on the command line with diskutil. Great. I’ll just add it to a personal automation in Shortcuts… except that the macOS version of Shortcuts doesn’t offer personal automations. Why can’t any of that be consistent? It’s just mounting and unmounting a Time Machine volume at certain times.

Maybe after WWDC?

It’s early days for Shortcuts on the Mac. But those early days are painful. I’m finding it hard to discover situations where I can use Shortcuts to solve all those little issues in my life. I hope that this year’s WWDC announcements offer continued forward momentum for Shortcuts on the Mac.

That includes more ways to fire off triggers based on the state of the system. And more outreach to small indie devs like Twitter and Microsoft to get them to support Shortcuts properly.

Because there’s nothing worse than knowing you have this annoying little thing that could be automated away, that should be automated away… and finding out that it just can’t be.

  1. You can build subroutines into separate shortcuts, and execute them from the main shortcut, but this can get messy in a hurry—and they’re completely separate visually. 

[Joe Rosensteel is a VFX artist, writer, and co-host of the Defocused and Unhelpful Suggestions podcasts.]

By Joe Rosensteel

Searching for a better guide: Live TV in the age of streaming

As a so-called elder millennial, I remember our 19″ Zenith television, with an actual clicker, that sat in the oak armoire in the family room. It would display whatever happened to be broadcast, and that was it. You could buy a TV Guide from the grocery store, and it would have a printed listing of what would be on TV and when, so people would plan to watch a channel at a certain time or set their VCR to record something on tape.

Then we had cable, and eventually a cable channel that just showed a programming guide that slowly scrolled through all the channels. Eventually, we got an interactive programming guide, where you could click to move around in a grid of channels. Finally came the ability to set a DVR recording from the grid.1 The important thing is that we offloaded the burden of managing live TV viewing to computers.

We’ve lost some of that simplicity because of the innovations in on-demand TV. On-demand TV is great, and it lets us live our lives unencumbered by any viewing schedule. However, there are still live events, news, and other situations where I prefer to leave the decision-making up to network programmers while folding laundry.

“Live” TV is rarely live, but it is linear in that there are discrete blocks of programming, TV or movies, arranged sequentially. Think of it more like a playlist, and that playlist is linked to a specific point in time and can be compared with other playlists.2

But sometimes, the channels aren’t quite linear. Some let you restart a show that’s already in progress—making the linear channel more like a showcase for on-demand video content. You might also record an upcoming program or receive a notification that an event is happening live.

In the world of streaming TV, even “traditional” TV is complicated.

Live on Fire

The gateway to Amazon’s live TV interface.

Amazon recently revamped the Fire TV’s Live TV viewing. While this latest Fire TV update made a host of awful additions to the Fire TV home screen, Amazon’s live TV interface revision is interesting, and something Apple could learn from.

To access the new Live TV view on Amazon Fire TV, you go to the top row of the (very bad) home screen. Once you select Live, you’ll see a Guide button, a few recently watched or favorite programs, and some suggestions for live programming. The guide button opens a very traditional interactive guide view. The guide is populated based on which apps on the Fire TV offer live TV integration. (All recently updated Fire TVs will already have IMDb TV and Fire TV News synergistically integrated.)

The Menu button on the Fire TV remote will bring up options to add the currently selected channel to your Favorites, Add Channels, Manage Channels, and More Info. Previews are displayed of what’s on a channel if you hover over it. If you’re already watching something and looking through the guide, that channel’s content will appear in a picture-in-picture box. Add Channels isn’t really about adding channels—it’s a list of apps available on the Fire TV store that offer guide integration.

Unfortunately, everything in the guide’s grid view is categorized by what app it’s in, which makes it feel more like several guide views were glued together. It isn’t sorted based on content type (for example, all the news offerings from all the services in one spot)—for that you’d need to look at the main “Live” view of the home screen, not the guide view. Most importantly, it doesn’t do anything with duplicate channels offered by different apps.

(If you favorite America’s Test Kitchen on Pluto, it’s different from favoriting that channel under IMDb TV. Why? Because these are ad-supported offerings—so it matters very much which service your eyeballs are going to.)

Amazon’s guide mostly suffers because it lacks integration with cloud DVR services. You need to use the guide available inside of each of those discrete apps for those. The same goes for notifications about upcoming programs. There is no convenient way to jump between the Fire TV guide, or live view, to the streaming app’s version of that guide. So you need to back out and navigate to the thing you’re already looking at.

Apple, far from the tree

All those pros and cons for an integrated guide sure sound tough to manage, don’t they? Well, what if you didn’t do anything at all to manage that? Welcome to Apple’s TV app!

The TV app does offer a row of live news channels, it’s not filtered by what you’re subscribed to, drastically reducing its utility. Instead, the crown jewel of live TV in the Apple TV app is found in the Sports tab.

There are many sports.

The Sports tab lists upcoming events organized by sport. But no attempt is made to filter results based on compatible subscriptions. Presumably, the logic is that if you see a game you want to watch, click through on it, see that it requires ESPN+, then you’ll subscribe to ESPN+ and not just say, “Why the hell are you showing me something I can’t watch?”

Plenty of room for improvement

While Amazon could certainly do a better job of cleaning up their unified view to be more fully-featured and useful, it’s an impressive attempt all the same.

Apple, meanwhile, has really fallen behind. The TV app itself has done a decent job of presenting itself as a catalog of individual on-demand programs (except for Netflix!) and live sports. Still, the last few years have resulted in an explosion of apps offering live, linear TV channels—and Apple needs to react.

Certainly, if the Fire TV interface is any guide3, Apple has an opportunity to create a better, more unified experience for presenting all the live TV options a user currently has access to.

Sometimes you just need to put something on while you fold laundry.

  1. To take the ferry cost a nickel, and in those days, nickels had pictures of bumblebees on ’em. “Give me five bees to a quarter,” you’d say. Now where were we… 
  2. Some services (like Sling, YouTube TV, and others) encapsulate the entirety of the linear cable TV experience into an app. But there are also many free streaming-only linear TV services supported by ads, like Pluto TV and Tubi. And some on-demand services (Peacock, Paramount+) also offer linear channels. 
  3. Jason put that in—don’t blame Joe. 

[Joe Rosensteel is a VFX artist, writer, and co-host of the Defocused and Unhelpful Suggestions podcasts.]

By Joe Rosensteel

When Apple TV’s ‘Universal Search’ is a black hole

I have to search for a lot of movies to watch on my Apple TV because I have a movie podcast. If a movie is located within a service that I’m already paying for, then I’d like to get that. I don’t want to browse all of the services, and I don’t use websites that claim to have a complete catalog of where movies are available because that’s not always true, and they also can’t take into account movies that I have already paid for in my library.

It’s not an easy problem to solve, but Apple at least seemed interested in solving it when they introduced Universal Search for Apple TV. Unfortunately, Apple doesn’t seem so interested in this problem anymore—and Universal Search has become increasingly useless and frustrating.

Play me a movie, please?

Recently, I asked Siri to display “Fight Club,” and was presented with a button to start watching it right away in Prime Video. So easy!

Unfortunately, when it started playing, it was a very compressed, blocky stream, and I could immediately tell something was amiss. I pressed the back button and discovered that what I had clicked on was actually “Popular Movies and TV — Free with ads” within Prime Video. In other words, Amazon had embedded its ad-supported IMDb TV service inside of Prime Video, with very little to differentiate the two very different presentations.

Let’s try another example: David Lynch’s 1984 “Dune.” Universal Search said I could watch it on Hulu, but it’s not really available on Hulu.

Because of Apple’s infamous App Store rules, Hulu can’t actually tell me what I’m missing. Searching within the Hulu app on my iPhone will show “Dune,” which is why it’s being indexed for universal search… but tapping on it for more info only generates this error message: “Sorry, but your subscription doesn’t include that movie. You can manage your subscription from your account page.”

Next to Hulu in my “Dune” search results is the button to get the Starz app—allowing me to deduce that perhaps I need to add Starz to Hulu for an extra $9/month, or subscribe to Starz through Apple for $9/month. But what’s the point in Universal Search if it leaves room for this ambiguity?

This happens again and again. Services like Prime Video and Hulu include an array of films and TV shows in their search indexes, when they’re not really available on those services… but on extensions to those services that might offer degraded quality or an upsell to a product I’m not buying.

What a mess! But it turns out that Apple does provide third party developers with the ability to tag a tier identifier to the indexed content that Universal Search, and Siri, ingest. It’s just that these developers aren’t doing it, and Apple doesn’t seem to care. Instead, it’s up to me—the guy paying these mega-companies money every month—to individually verify whether or not a movie is available.

Something’s very wrong with that system.

The bait and switch

Of course, even if a developer correctly labels their video tiers, it wouldn’t address issues such as mixing low-quality ad-supported streams with paid streams, meaning there’s no way to distinguish what kind of viewing experience one can expect until you click on a tile in Universal Search and start playback.

And it’s hard to imagine that this inaccurate data is really just there by mistake. It’s far more likely that this is an attempt to drive unsuspecting users into viewing their video ads, or inducing them to sign up for their add-on services (that can’t actually even be referenced on Apple’s platforms). Why not degrade the user experience a little bit in exchange for bumping up the quarterly numbers a little bit?

But in fairness, it’s also possible that some of these cases are simply caused by underfunded tech staffs at billion-dollar companies where money is spent wildly on the next big swords-and-sorcery streaming series but not on the developer who has to maintain an AppleTV app and interact with a huge back-end media database. That poor developer at Amazon who decided to cram IMDb TV listings into Prime Video might have only had the best of intentions. (But probably not.)

Beyond ads, there are the issues of variable quality. Is a film in 4K, HDR, HD, or standard def? Is the streaming service buttery smooth, or chunky Paramount+? Is the film edited, or presented in an alternate cut? If a film exists on several services, it’s incumbent on Apple’s interface to give us more information so that we can pick the version of the film we actually want to see.

It’s like a special, pay-for-access library… where some of the books are missing, others chopped up, random pages might be glued together, some have water damage, and on a bunch, the interior pages have been replaced with a pop-up diorama indicating that the regular version of the book is also available—but the pop-up book is sadly not allowed to tell you where it’s located.

The librarian shouldn’t shrug and say it’s up to the book publishers to put properly printed books and place them on the right shelves, and not print empty books with coupons to buy the real book in a nearby bookstore. It’s the job of the librarian to curate their collection and make sure that their books are readable and available, and to direct their patrons to right where they want to go.

I appreciate Apple’s desire to present users with simple choices. Simplicity is good. But in this case, it has led to a bizarre guessing game about what will happen if I pick one app over another. It calls into question the accuracy of Apple’s search results.

In other words, it all comes back to Apple. Universal Search is Apple’s product. It’s up to Apple to verify that their search results are the best results for their users—and right now, Apple is failing.

[Joe Rosensteel is a VFX artist, writer, and co-host of the Defocused and Unhelpful Suggestions podcasts.]

By Joe Rosensteel

The future of the TV app is still unclear

Tim Cook, five years ago.

It’s been five years since Apple announced the TV app—auspiciously on the same day it unveiled the first-generation Touch Bar MacBook Pros. A year earlier, Tim Cook first declared that “the future of TV is apps,” but in short order Apple realized that the future wasn’t hunting for different TV shows and movies across a half-dozen different apps, all with completely different navigation experiences.

So in came the TV app. Apple was so confident about it, the company changed the behavior of its own remote control so that the home-screen button no longer went to a home screen full of apps, and instead just launched the TV app.

Unfortunately, the TV app still hasn’t replaced the home screen—in part because it still doesn’t represent all the content that is available on Apple’s devices. Some wheeling and dealing brought Amazon’s Prime Video app into the fold, but Netflix remains separate—probably forever. (Netflix knows that its subscribers will open up its app to browse and watch something, and sees only disadvantages in mixing its content in with other services and providing Apple with valuable viewing data.)

The TV app experience is also subpar. It’s largely presenting links to other apps, meaning the other apps need to properly handle your login status and play back video. I still periodically run into dead-ends, where an app just dumps me onto its home screen rather than playing what I selected. But more often than not, you’ll eventually get to the video you selected, after your TV flickers and makes you choose a user profile (because most of these apps don’t integrate with tvOS’s user profiles system).

There are also occasions where these linkages just completely break. Recently, HBO Max stopped being integrated with my TV app and wouldn’t display anything in the Up Next area, or show any suggestions. It turns out that HBO Max had been disabled in Settings, but I don’t recall doing that. It seems to have just happened. And what’s worse, I only figured this out by digging down several levels in the Settings app. (It’s also a completely different path from how the same authorization handled on iOS.)

Speaking of inconsistencies, the TV app provides information about suggested programming based on what apps you have installed on your device. If you have apps on one device and not another, the TV app will make different suggestions.

Then there’s the inconsistency of video playback across apps. Apple’s fancy jog-wheel-like ring on the new Apple TV remote hasn’t been adopted by most of Apple TV apps five months after it was made available. The TV App has unified content on the Apple TV, sort of, but playing back, pausing, and scrubbing through your video will be different on almost every app.

To get around a lot of these app issues, Apple took a page out of Amazon’s playbook and announced Apple TV Channels in 2019. (“The future of TV is one app!” Tim Cook didn’t declare.) A provider could elect to not build an app at all, and instead supply Apple with video and data that would populate the TV app for anyone subscribed. All payment processing and everything else would be handled by Apple. This is theoretically a way to offer a better experience to subscribers if the content provider—let’s say Paramount+ (née CBS All Access)—happens to be pretty terrible at building apps, and isn’t really a destination for browsing.

It’s not a bad idea, but Apple TV Channels hasn’t replaced apps. Every content provider with an Apple TV Channels subscription still maintains a separate app, and HBO abandoned ship when it launched HBO Max. Also if you choose to use an app, you’ll still see offers to subscribe via Channels inside of the TV app alongside the material you already have access to. To Apple, the app and the channel are separate products.

Despite swimming in an ocean of data, the TV app’s suggestions are often for things that are for a broad audience rather than being targeted to individual tastes—and often feature content you’ve already watched. This is like opening up a TV Guide, or a newspaper, not like a 21st century app for managing your TV viewing experience.

That brings us to the one Apple TV Channel that has some, shall we say, special privileges: Apple TV+. Apple’s own streaming service was announced at the same event as Apple TV Channels. I mentioned earlier that the TV app is very sensitive about what you do and don’t have installed. But after my Apple TV+ subscription lapsed the other day, more than half of the TV app is still guiding me toward content available on Apple’s service.

After five years, it’s a letdown to have this universal menu of offerings not be universal, not accurately represent what’s available to the user, provide links to inconsistent and unreliable apps, and be skewed by promotion of for Apple TV+. It’s enough to make you wonder why any video provider would want to participate in an app that buries its best content under a giant carousel of buttons devoted to promoting “The Line,” coming November 19 to Apple TV+.

[Joe Rosensteel is a VFX artist, writer, and co-host of the Defocused and Unhelpful Suggestions podcasts.]

Search Six Colors