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The Expanse Surprise Premiere

Followers of the blog might know that I’m a big fan of The Expanse series of books written by the team of writers under the pseudonym James S.A. Corey. The books have their ups, and their downs, and they’re certainly not highfaluting tomes. I was quite reticent when I heard that the SyFy channel would be adapting it to a television series. Despite the involvement of the original writers, I was pretty sure that the money SyFy would spend would not create what I had in my mind while I read. The production stills that were released certainly gave the impression of Babylon 5 (lights shining through colored gels and grates onto gray-painted MDF).

Then, over the weekend, there were some rumblings on Twitter that the first episode might come out very soon. Turns out, it was Sunday night. You can go watch it online, for free, on YouTube right now. I only mention this because I hadn’t seen any marketing about this happening at all. It appears that it’s still going to premiere on TV, but that’s not until December 14th. So … Weird, right? Surprise, it’s online, you can watch the first episode for free, and it’s not broadcast for almost a month. That’s certainly the most unusual television show premiere I’ve ever heard of. Typically science fiction shows have a very difficult time getting nerds to watch broadcasts when shows air because nerds use time shifting services (or other services) to watch things on their own terms. Fans of series like Stargate Universe might recall the cast on Twitter basically begging people to tune in when new episodes came out so that they could stay on the air (they did not).

I can only assume that a month worth of watching the first episode for free will only harm their premiere numbers. There will be a new episode out the following night, December 15th, but I have no idea how that will shake out either.

It’s a bold strategy, Cotton, let’s see if it pays off.

Now I’m going to start blathering on about the episode, so if you haven’t watched it yet, then don’t read this. After that, I’ll have spoilers for people that read the books, and have seen the episode. Seems pretty fair, no?

Spoilers for the First Episode of The Expanse

The episode starts with a pretty nice title sequence, and we get the general impression that people might have ships that have explored places and stuff. Then there’s a lot of exposition that fades in. Turns out there’s some political tension with belts and stuff. But you know how belts are.

Then we have a montage of a woman with CG hair floating around. She’s locked up in a thingy, and would like to be let out of said thingy. I found the hair really distracting. I get that they wanted to convincingly portray that she was in zero gravity, but it’s moving more than it should. Go watch videos of astronauts with long hair in space. It’s more like she’s underwater in a pool. Don’t worry, they save money by having her tie her hair back. Then they also save money by having magnetic boots.

She has a jump scare and then finds a room full of totally harmless-looking blue stuff that might be absorbing someone. This will all be fine, I’m sure. She screams and we cut away to some ships being maneuvered around in some sort of time-lapse sped-up way.

Ceres station, as the narrator informs us, is kind of a bummer of a place to be. Earth and Mars took all their ice and stuff. Which seems like a pretty lame thing for them to do. The camera fly0through is really, really, really, distracting. I know they wanted to make it feel big — expansive, one might say — but there’s only so much CG space station you should really fly through. Particularly air shafts which are too shiny.

We land on the guy giving the big speech about what jerks planets are, and we see the crowd the man is addressing. Thomas Jane is enjoying a shot of booze, and he’s addressed as a “badge” so we can tell he’s an edgy cop. We can also tell he’s one of the belter people, and his buddy is not.

We start to get the idea that Thomas Jane, as Detective Miller, is maybe a corrupt cop. Maybe. Also his handheld device has a crack, which is a nice touch. He’s going to go find Julie Mao, who looks suspiciously like the woman from the beginning of the episode. Almost like these stories all tie together or something.

We meet the Canterbury ice hauler. A guy gets his arm casually chopped off, and then we cut to a zero gravity sex scene. Hello, James Holden’s ass. Then we get a guy who’s very casual about that missing arm. Really, really casual.

I’m not sure how they got Adam Lisagor to agree to be the captain, but he does a pretty good job. The X.O. is … unwell, and Holden is trying to get out of getting promoted to his job.

Then we go to earth and have a nice family moment.

This is about the time when you realize that no matter where we are in the solar system, you’re going to be looking at blown-out highlights and crushing color correction.

Granny is not super-nice.

The crew has to go respond to a distress call, and there’s a very dramatic high-G maneuver they execute. It bugs me a little because the blacks of the ship are blue against space. They should be the same value as space. Holden and Naomi have a little chat about the distress call they’re responding to.

Back on Ceres, Miller is being Millery and he’s talking to someone about the missing person he was tasked to find.

When they approach the Scopuli, the ship is having some moire issues. It might just be something YouTube’s doing to the image, but it’s crawling when I checked it on my computer and on my Apple TV.

They board it and find … nothing. A suspicious amount of nothing. It’s not like it was at the beginning of the episode, and there’s a hole in the hull. They also find the source of the distress signal. They do some helmet cam stuff, but it’s a little strange because it’s not supposed to be helmet cams that are actual cameras in their world, just cameras for us as the audience. There’s also an error just above the bridge of Holden’s nose where we lose data. So… that’s kind of unfortunate. If you watch the “well it wasn’t pirates” you’ll see the flickering rectangle.

They realize this is a trap and there’s another ship that was using some sort of stealth tech.

Back on Ceres, Miller comes across a father and daughter. The daughter is playing with a bird. The bird is animated and rendered. They probably wanted to make it move like it was a bird in a low-G environment. It wouldn’t need to flap as much, and would basically be a little floaty. Unfortunately, the result is something really unconvincing as a bird. The unconvincing bird, and the coughing kid, inspire Miller to go beat up and suffocate the guy he took the bribe from earlier.

We go back to the Cant, shuttle, and mystery ship. The mystery ship fires torpedoes! They’re way too blue and saturated! Blue without a white core isn’t really how things flare. Then there are a couple torpedo shots where it has a white core and it’s a little more purplish. Not sure if these were divided up between different artists, but they’re not quite the same. This is particularly weird when the Cant blows up we get a strange mix of things including super-saturated anamorphic flare lines.

The effects are better than I thought they would be but while I can excuse the bird as potentially being an issue with time and money, the stuff with the black levels of the ship, and the weird hyper-saturated flares have very little to do with time or budget.

Hopefully we’ll find out what happens to people with the things and the stuff.

If you haven’t read the books, but have watched the episode, get in touch with me on Twitter and let me know how you feel about the episode. Was it clear what was happening, or was it disjointed?

Spoilers for the Book

Some of the casting decisions are not what I had pictured. Naomi in particular is very polished from what I had envisioned from her description in the book. Amos also doesn’t seem quite as rough, and thug-like as I had pictured. It’s not really throwing me out of enjoying it, but it is strange.

Also Chrisjen isn’t in Leviathan Wakes, so I’m not quite sure what her character will be doing for this series. I don’t outright object to it, but I’m curious to see how they’ll integrate her. I haven’t read any spoiler sites, so if you know, don’t tell me.

Are there any changes people felt were egregious? I don’t see any.

I still think I prefer the big-budget epic in my head more than what I see on the screen.

2015-11-24 09:23:30

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Starting at Sixty Nine

Let’s leave out the Bill & Ted jokes and instead talk about the third generation Apple TV. It’s still in many stores, like Target which displays a 4”x5” price tag for $69 and a tiny, little shelf-edge-sized tag for the $149 one. Apple’s site has “TV” in the bar across the top, and devotes almost all of the page to the new model, but at the bottom there’s a link to buy the previous generation, and a link to a comparison chart. The chart is entertaining because Apple couldn’t make it any clearer that they do not want you to buy the third generation model.

That is the Bezos graph of comparison charts.

Why Keep This Thing Around?

A few possible reasons, in no particular order:

  • They don’t want to say “Starting at $149”.
  • They want to continue offering a sub-$100 AirPlay video experience.
  • They want to use the large install base of the previous generation as a bargaining chip in negotiating content deals, potentially for their OTT service as well.

Remember that they made a big deal out of this price reduction in March at the same event when they made a big deal out of HBO Now. It’s not entirely unreasonable to assume that while the device will never see a significant update, it might still receive “channels” of content.

It’s still possible to argue that those arrangements could be done without selling the current device at all, but maybe those content partners are skittish about deals for a $149-199 box?

Let’s not forget that Apple has the second-most expensive streaming media box. Only the Sony FMP-X10 4K Ultra HD Media Player is more expensive at $699.99, but no one’s really buying that one so we’ll set it aside.

The Next-Year Discount

Many have made the case that next year, the fourth generation Apple TV will receive a discount to $99, when a fifth generation premieres. Everyone pulled $99 out of their butts, but it sounds like a good number. We don’t actually know if the device is even on a yearly refresh cycle at this point though since there’s no pattern. It is still conceivable that it may be the case, but that’s still a 40% price increase to the entry point.

Regardless, that still means they’re selling the third generation TV for a full calendar year until that happens. Does that seem absurd to anyone else?

AirPlay Express

On a recent episode of the podcast Clockwise, Anže Tomic posed the question about why Apple doesn’t have something more like the Chromecast, or like the streaming sticks of Amazon or Roku. If there really is a customer that just wants to stream stuff to their TV, then they’re currently best served by the third generation box — as sorry as that sounds. Jason Snell coined the term “AirPlay Express” as a half-joke to describe such a thing, and I agree that it would certainly help make the lower end make a bit more sense than the current situation.

My cohost on Unhelpful Suggestions, Marko Savic, has argued against such a thing because he doesn’t think Apple needs to compete in the low-end space. Apple doesn’t make $200 netbooks, so why sweat it? Why not just drive those people toward spending a little extra? The merit of spending any time or effort on an entry-level streamer is debatable, I just happen to fall in favor of Apple doing it. A large volume of streaming-only service devices that aren’t 4-5 years old seems like a decent thing to do to appeal to many people.

Let’s not forget people live in homes with more than one TV set, and while people like Bradley Chambers and Zac Cichy buy up fistfuls of fourth generation devices for every TV, there’s a market of people that will only buy one $149 device for the household. Why not fill every room a fresh Apple scent?

2015-11-20 08:45:00

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Thank You, Alex

As I detailed in the Release section of my Apple TV post, I had some problems with the way the initial launch went. The package that I didn’t want, but needed to return once it arrived, never got into my hands. Where that package is, I don’t know. I repeatedly tried to get in touch with OnTrac, only to be referred to Apple’s customer service line. If I was out the money for the TV, then I was out the money for the TV, I just wanted to make sure OnTrac put it on the landing in front of the door to my apartment, and not anywhere else in the universe. If some unscrupulous thief made off with the package then that’s not OnTrac’s fault.

After briefly bouncing around some automated phone tree branches I was on the line with Alex. He was sorry to hear about my issues, and said they had been having some problems with OnTrac. He had the same tracking info I had, and said that they would open a service ticket with OnTrac and talk to them about the delivery. He did mention that if they found there was an issue they’d send me a new one. I didn’t think much of it at the time, because why would they ship me a new one? If I had, maybe I should have explained I was going to return it anyway.

Well, they shipped me a new one with FedEx. It arrived at the bottom of the stairwell, not the landing, but at least it was the right stairwell, and at least I had it.

I’m not sure what the specifics of Apple’s policies are here, or what happened to the first Apple TV, but it sure goes above and beyond at making me feel better about Apple as a company. Thanks.

2015-11-13 08:20:00

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Pushing for Controllers

When the Apple TV was announced several games were demoed on stage. Disney Infinity, and Guitar Hero were two of those games that require novel input. The developer docs even said that games could specify that they required a controller — a policy that was very quickly changed to mandatory Siri Remote support for all games.

Disney Infinity the app, not the hardware, was available as a free to download game with a level for the “Battle of Yavin”. Siri Remote support is there, but when I tested that for manipulating the flying ship, I just kept crashing into everything. It really did not feel like the Siri Remote and game were intended to work together at all. The other day, Disney announced the actual physical component of Disney Infinity for the Apple TV, a platform that allows special figurines placed on it to unlock content on the device. The platform is similar to the other ones that Disney makes for other consoles, except it’s black. More importantly, it comes bundled with a game controller. The SteelSeries Nimbus game controller that Apple recommends, but does not include. This is the only console Disney does this for.

Con: You must pay extra for the package with the controller regardless of whether or not you need a controller if you want the portal/platform.

Con: It is the most expensive edition of Disney Infinity at $100, and the other consoles at $65. If you had another console, there seems to be very little reason to pay extra for this version.

Pro: Discounted controller for the Apple TV.

Pro: You can unlock the characters with codes instead of buying a portal/platform for any of the Disney Infinity console or PC versions.

I’m inclined to believe that Disney knows the game is terrible to play without a controller and is trying to fill the gap Apple left here.

On MacStories, Federico Viticci hopes that more game studios will offer these sorts of discount bundles on controllers for the Apple TV. I don’t agree with this because the Apple TV only supports up to two controllers, so if you bought two games, that’s it, you’re good on controllers for forever. In the case of Infinity, there’s the whole code redemption instead of hardware platform, but I’m fairly certain people actually buy these things or they wouldn’t make them.

Skylanders, which has the same physical figurine component (predating Infinity) will allow people to use their existing “portal” from the iOS version of the game. In fact, it’s one of the featured apps in the “Games” category of the TV App Store. Right along with Disney Infinity and Guitar Hero.

The really interesting game is Guitar Hero. They’re the only game on the TV App Store that can require hardware other than the Siri Remote. Just them. Now, the primary reaction is to say “Oh well, duh, you totes need a guitar.” There is a version of Guitar Hero for iOS that doesn’t require a guitar controller. I don’t disagree that you need that sweet axe, it’s just strange that they are the singular carveout for this requirement. I have no idea why that is, other than they might have been wooed to the platform before the Siri Remote mandate and worked out a deal to avoid it.

Activision Publishing, Inc. Games [9+] ★★★★☆ [Editor’s Choice] PLEASE NOTE: Guitar Hero Live REQUIRES the Bluetooth GUITAR CONTROLLER to play (available at your local or online retailer).

Offers In-App-Purchases [Bluetooth] Accessory Required

Just them. Weird, huh? Not like world-ending-panic weird, just weird.

Keep in mind that you can’t even use a Bluetooth keyboard with the Apple TV, even though it’s based on iOS. Last night, Steve Troughton Smith (an iOS developer) uncovered keyboard support for the TV’s focus-switching in the iOS 9.1 beta, so it’s either in there, and off, or it’s coming. It’s unlikely that we’ll see apps that require a keyboard, but hey, if You’re Activision, you can require a guitar.

2015-11-12 08:30:00

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Crossy Remote

One of the things that confuses me about the lack of a Remote app for iOS that’s compatible with the 4th generation Apple TV is that 3rd parties can make their own iOS remote controls that work inside their own tvOS apps. Take Crossy Road, for example. You start the game on the TV, and after a series of non-obvious steps you get the iOS app to see the tvOS app game and function like a second controller. You don’t see a mirrored screen, or anything, but gestures and taps work as if you had another Siri Remote to play the game.

So if these frameworks exist, and existed before the September event when Crossy Road developers demoed it on stage, then why no Remote app? Why leave it to third parties to build their own remote functionality into their tvOS and iOS games?

I have no answer, but there doesn’t appear to be a technical limitation holding it back. I also find the common excuse that Apple hasn’t had enough time to implement such a feature implausible since it’s easy for third parties to implement per app.

Tim Cook even mentioned he used his Apple Watch to control his Apple TV (3rd generation) during the watch unveiling in 2014. Seems like it hurts the Watch to remove functionality from that device.

Is it an intentional omission because they don’t want people using a Remote app instead of the Siri Remote? That’s strange since it won’t hurt device sales. You can only use one Siri Remote per TV, and each TV comes bundled with one remote. It wouldn’t hurt accessory sales under those conditions unless we’re supposed to be buying game controllers, but then why let games build in their own controls?

Maybe it’s coming, maybe it isn’t, in this great, unfinished rush that is the Apple TV product launch. For now, it goes in my stack of questions.

2015-11-09 15:00:00

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Negative Criticism

I received a lot of feedback from people that they enjoyed hearing me on Upgrade last Monday, and appreciate my subsequent blog post about my experiences, and thoughts, surrounding the Apple TV. I’m grateful for that feedback. Apple’s film/TV efforts are of paramount interest to me. I really do want them to do well in this space, and I’m personally invested in their ecosystem.

However, there’s been another vein of feedback, mostly regarding Tweets where I share quick thoughts, that I’m too negative. I dismissed that feedback, and then had doubts about what I had said, and typed. I’ve reconsidered everything, –also taking in other podcasts and reviews, and I’ve gone back to my initial conclusion. My criticisms are valid.

As I’ve repeatedly said: I like the new Apple TV, and it is better than the old Apple TV, but that is not what I’m measuring it against. I’m measuring it against the time since the last Apple TV iteration. I’m measuring the completeness of the platform. I’m comparing it against other devices and services on the market. Add to that that many of the comments and criticisms are all very similar and I’m being perfectly reasonable.

There is one area though where I could have been clearer in communicating though; D-pad vs. touchpad remotes. I’ll try to break that down again:

  • The entire interface is made to work with either a D-pad or a touchpad. All of it.
  • Any other TV remote, Universal remote, or compatible game controller with a D-pad can be used.
  • D-pads allow exact precision for certain things like entering text, or making a selection on a grid.
  • The touchpad is better at scrubbing, and allows for certain interface effects like pivoting tiles, and parallax in the tiles.
  • A replacement Siri Remote is $80.
  • At $160, or $200, a large percentage of the cost appears to be tied up in this remote. (We don’t know the material costs, or margins, but the retail value of these two things is known.)
  • Other than scrubbing, and parallax effects, is it worth the added cost to the device?

To some that’s negative. That’s been repeated back to me as if I want the old aluminum stick. I don’t, it’s a pragmatic thought excercise. They didn’t go far enough distinguishing its function so a D-pad could not be used, but they felt it was better than the touchpad and worth the expense.

As for the symmetry? Everyone agrees. Even people that are “positive” feel like it was a mistake.

The buttons? The most “positive” podcast episode about the new Apple TV, The Talk Show (with Adam Lisagor) was even named after how they wish there was a way to distinguish the buttons by touch.

As a game controller? No one likes, or recommends, playing games on the remote versus third-party controllers. There are a few people on Twitter that say it’s good, but then say they use a game controller anyway. In that case, it’s perfectly valid to question why Apple thought it was suitable to do so with the remote, and why there is no first-party game controller. It’s not negativity. (Also saying you’re not really planning on playing any games with it in your review doesn’t excuse any of this, it just doesn’t personally impact you.)

Apple decided to release the device, as it is, on a schedule they selected, with the R&D they chose. They said the future of TV is apps. It is far too generous to merely compare it to the old Apple TV and say it’s better than that one. (A device they are still happy to sell!) Ask yourself why they did what they did for every feature you see, or don’t see. Some things seemingly have no logical answer, like Bluetooth keyboard support, where it could be anything from a lack of development time (unacceptable answer), or an intentional omission to prevent word processor apps. I even saw someone suggest it was a security issue, which is the kind of excuse that doesn’t stand up to basic scrutiny.

I also feel as if I need to disclaim where my criticism is directed. It’s directed at the abstract entity of Apple, and the key executives that approve the product. I am not writing about device shortcomings to make the engineers and designers feel bad. I’ve worked on many film and TV shows and I know that criticism of the film is not criticism of my work on the film. Nor do projects I’ve worked on deserve glowing reviews based on how much effort I put in. If that were the case, I would have only worked on films, and TV shows, that bowed to rave reviews. So no, it is not ever a personal critique of the people putting blood sweat and tears in.

I know that the project will continue to improve. That no matter what you may think of the Apple TV, or the remote, or the App Store, or game controllers – we can all agree improvements will at least start to happen. Let’s just all be honest that it needs improvement, and not all of it is a software tweak.

2015-11-08 21:45:00

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Apple TV

Anyone that reads this blog knows that I have some passionate feelings about Apple’s media ecosystem. Seems pretty natural, since I work in media, and I quite like Apple. This does lead me to be critical when I see some shortcomings. If you just want to feel happy, and smile, then read my overall summary here, and no further: I like it. I do not love it. I wouldn’t draw a little heart next to it. We are not sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G. The device would benefit greatly from some more work. I also would only recommend the device to people that own a previous generation Apple TV, or earlier. I am not going to buy one for everyone I know, or tell them to do so.

(Rolls up sleeves)

OK then.

Release

This was not the most elegant release of an Apple product ever. They announced that it would be available in October in September. Then, at the end of October, it was available for order on that last Monday in the U.S. Free shipping would get you the device as early as Monday, November 2nd. Paying extra could get it to you on the 30th of October. In store availability was listed as “Coming Soon”. Fearing that meant the supply was constrained, I picked the free shipping option. I typically prefer to pick up in store because I work long hours and don’t like the thought of a box sitting around for many hours on a weekday.

Of course, Wednesday there were rumors that stores would have the devices on Friday, the 30th. This is sooner than my estimated shipping time. I could not cancel my order because it was in a stage referred to as “preparing for shipment”. I contacted customer support, and there was nothing they could do. It would be shipped, and delivered, and then I could return it if I wanted. Knowing this, I went to Century City Mall’s Apple Store and bought an Apple TV Saturday, October 31st. Happy Halloween. The sales process in the store was smooth and pleasant. I was not offered an HDMI cable, but didn’t need one. I planned to return the shipping device.

This is pretty far from a graceful product launch. It just shows up Monday. No availability for stores is listed, and then by that Friday, it’s available in stores before it’s shipped for people that might have bought on Monday. Crummy.

Even more annoying is that as I write this, that delivery TV unit was marked as “delivered” by the company Apple contracted with, OnTrac, and is nowhere to be found. That’s my fault for putting any faith in getting something delivered when I’m not home (first time in 10 years anything’s gone missing). I really should have waited and not ordered at all on that Monday. I was too excited to have one, and now I’m out $163 — unless it turns out it’s been misplaced. (OnTrac wouldn’t return my calls or email, and I had to send a public-shaming tweet on Twitter before a representative got in touch. They let me know that I can’t deal with them, I have to call a special number for Apple and talk to them.)

UPDATE: This shipping situation was resolved.

Initial Setup

When connected to your TV, and to power, the Apple TV prompts you to get started with the install process. You’re offered the opportunity to load data from your nearby phone to assist with the setup process. As Jason Snell, Myke Hurley, and I all detailed on Upgrade 61, this process is a bit of a mixed bag. The Bluetooth setup didn’t work at all for Myke. The setup worked for Jason Snell and I. Also, when I moved my new Apple TV from my boyfriend’s apartment to my apartment it wasn’t automatically on my WiFi network. I’m guessing it only copies WiFi credentials from your iPhone, but I listened to Dan Benjamin say that it worked for him when he took his from his office to his home. I’m not sure why that worked for him and not for me, but I would need more data, and I’m fresh out of WiFi locations and TVs.

There’s no mechanism to trigger the pairing again, from what I could tell, other than a device reset, I assume. The only reason this is even worth mentioning is because it is an absolutely terrible experience to type passwords on the Apple TV. The whole alphabet on a row, and a narrow touchpad, lead to a lot of frustration as you try not to overshoot or undershoot letters. Unlike previous Apple TV devices, this is the only way to enter text.

What’s in the Baaaahhhhhhhcccksss?

As Myke opined on the episode of Upgrade I was on, the new TV doesn’t include an Haytch-DMI cable. Jason Snell relayed a story that he was asked if he had a cable by the Apple Employee he picked up his device from. The employee I collected my device from made no such offering/warning. It didn’t take me by surprise of course, because… well I wouldn’t be writing these blog posts if it took me by surprise. Myke was concerned that many people would assume the cable would be included. If you do need one, get Amazon Basics, or Monoprice, or whatever. No rose-gold-plated HDMI cables for me.

Apple does include a Lightning cable, which they charge a pretty penny for when you buy one by itself, so it’s not like they’re worried about the expense of a cable. Also, I have a lot of Lightning cables at this point, and I’m willing to bet all Apple TV customers do. The remote even comes with a charge, which is the only reason to use the cable. Since there are minor variations in HDMI cables, it seems like it would be better to include that and exclude the lightning cable for a comparable cost.

Remote Possibilities

The one thing I had wondered about for many months was whether or not the Apple TV would support an updated version of the Remote iOS app. Then all the press reviews started to come in, and the app is not supported, much to my chagrin. When I talked to Jason Snell on Upgrade, I was surprised to learn that he had asked about this back at the first product announcement and had been told by an Apple representative that it would not be supported at all. Not a “maybe” or a “later” but a “no”.

The new Apple TV also dropped support for Bluetooth keyboards.

I feel like this is an enormous mistake. The process of text entry is like sliding your thumb back and forth over the width of a ruler. This makes no sense to me given the number of times that you can enter text during the setup process. Even after a successful Bluetooth pairing, you’re still entering iCloud and iTunes account passwords (almost always the same) and at some point you’ll be prompted to either enter your CCV number from the credit card associated with your iTunes account, or to use iTunes on a computer to update your payment info. Jason Snell experienced the later and detailed it a bit on Upgrade, and in a post for his site.

It was far easier to enter passwords using the old Remote app for iOS. I didn’t even like the Remote app but I’m even less in-like with not having one at all.

Not only that, but the capabilities of the Siri Remote match those of most iPhones — in fact most iPhones surpass them. One particular area that most modern iPhones excel is in securing your identity and verifying your purchases. The TV doesn’t care one lick about that. Even when they know that entering the password over and over is annoying, the solution is “ask every time”, “ask once every 15 minutes”, and “do not ask again”. Which is not a secure solution when you think about what people are going to select after having to deal with entering passwords through the setup process.

Also consider the number of people that will be using the device in a household.

Sensors

The new remote comes with many of the sensors the iPhone has. It even has a touch sensor that uses glass. Although the touch sensor is more like a very tiny trackpad than a screen. Very tiny.

I feel like they aren’t of much use. You see, tvOS doesn’t use them for anything other than the parallax effects. That’s it. The rest is all for games apps, which are terrible to play with Apple’s remote. I’ve been told that the games are better with third party game controllers, but that’s not what the TV ships with, and Apple doesn’t offer their own.

Sensitive Issues

The touchpad calibration seems slightly off for me. I’ve tried the options for adjusting the touchpad sensitivity in Settings, but even at it’s highest sensitivity, I frequently skip one past, and go one short. It’s not as precise as a directional pad — a D-Pad.

Confusingly, the whole Apple TV interface works with the previous generation remote, or with a universal remote of your choosing. That makes it feel like there’s even less of a reason for all the fanciness of the remote. A part of me wonders if it would have been better to target a lower price point by using a directional remote with a microphone. A substantial portion of the device’s expense seems to be tied up there. Offload the gaming experience to a real controller, since I think the remote is an absolutely terrible game controller in every game I’ve played.

Disney Infinity 3.0 - Battle for Yavin, is available for the device, and it was something Phil Schiller was very excited about at the product launch. However, this is the worst game I tested. The remote needs to be held sideways, and it’s far too small for that. It’s like I’m trying to hold a doll-sized teacup and saucer to play a game. The buttons also don’t have the right responsiveness for a game controller in this configuration, and the touchpad is, again, too small.

Siri Pros and Khans

Siri has functioned much better on the TV than I had assumed it would. Most queries, and commands, work as expected. I don’t like to use it to command the TV, but that might be because I’m not used to talking to the remote. The few cases that seem to trip it up have to do with words that sound the same. Unfortunately, when I asked for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan Siri transcribed it as “Star Trek two the wrath of con”. No results, of course, because no movie is named that. Unfortunately, it’s not smart enough to use context to resolve a situation like that. Jason Snell had some similar experiences when he was looking for something with a very generic name, Spy.

It’s worked for every actor, and character, I could think to test so far. It’s also nice that you can phrase your command to only return Netflix results. I knew that Netflix would be in Universal Search but I am elated that it can be used as a filter for searching.

This works as advertised. Netflix is returned first for any titles where it’s present, over iTunes, which isn’t free. A really positive experience. One strange thing is that when your Universal Search result loads a movie up, you get a screen that is very similar to the iTunes store screen, only with the icons for other services in a bar below the description. I wish that the search results were distinguished a little differently from the store pages, or that the store pages just were the same as the search result pages.

App Store

One of the nice things about setting up the fourth generation Apple TV over the previous one, is that you’re left in complete control over what you want to have on the home screen. No more cricket channel! You do need to open the App Store and start populating the screen with all the usual suspects though. Netflix, YouTube, Hulu (if you’re into that sort of thing) etc. Broadcasters also have apps, and the App Store team has highlighted all the major things you would want. You do need to do a bit of initial downloading, but most of the media apps are relatively small compared to the games.

For people just starting out, I recommend going to the Purchased Apps section of the App Store. Many of the iOS apps for media companies will have tvOS support. Same for games. This is a quick way to get all the things you’ve already bought elsewhere. It won’t remember passwords, or authorizations, or anything, so you have to go back through and do that for every app that requires one, on every device you own.

Most of that activation consists of going to a URL on your computer, or iOS device, and entering a short code that the TV gives you. There’s some wrangling with service providers for some apps. Cord Cutters and Cord Nevers will find this really frustrating because there isn’t any warning in the app store that you’ll need a cable, or satellite, subscription for many of these. Even the broadcasters that you can pick up using an antenna put their content behind walls, and they do it differently, and for different kinds of content. NBC has a section in their app where they make it clear you can watch some programs below without needing to be signed in to anything. Some. The CBS app is useless without a CBS All Access subscription.

When you start to add up all the content subscriptions, it gets quite expensive. You know what would be great? A single sign-on through Apple that gave the apps the appropriate authorization and let you just watch TV. That would be swell. I am assuming that when Apple launches their OTT, it will basically just be that. However, with the way the TV is right now, it might be a service you log into in every app individually still and then authorize your account on another device…

Sharing is Caring

Apple has launched a new platform, in 2015, and it has no social component. Sure, you’re signed in to Game Center through your Apple ID, and you’ll see a little message notification in the upper-right corner welcoming you when launch a game, but that’s it. There’s no Game Center interface or app. It just makes a note of your game progress which you can see on other platforms.

While it’s fun to joke that a Twitter client would be terrible, the ability to share a link to what you’re doing in an app, or a link to an app, or piece of media, would be a huge improvement. There’s no concept of sharing services at all. Remember, this is 2015.

AirPlay

I’ve had some peculiar things happen with AirPlay. The parentheses problem is still on the device, which is super annoying, and sometimes when your AirPlay connection drops, you’re greeted to multiple Apple TV instances to pick from. The other issue is that while I was listening to audio in Overcast, AirPlayed to my TV from my iPhone, and I opened the Photos app on my iPhone, Overcast stopped playing and my Photos app was mirrored to the TV. I have AirPlay mirroring off. I left photos, hit play in Overcast, set one of the two Apple TV instances as my source and waited for it to start playing again. Same thing. Mirroring was off when I was outside the Photos app, but once it was launched, it overrode my setting and mirrored my photos. I also tested with the Music app on the phone. With that I got long pauses in playback, but they would pick back up again.

Anyway, this is not so good.

4K

Just go read the thing I wrote about this before. Same. I think it’s awkward that the iPhone records in UHD, and they’re making a big deal about the iMac Retina displays (not 4k UHD). Also it’s a marketing tool for Amazon and Roku to use against Apple. Other than that? Inconsequential.

No Backup

One of the really strange omissions for a device built on top of iOS is that there is no way to back up the device at all. Not to iTunes, nor to iCloud. This didn’t even dawn on me until most of the way through the week. You can’t restore your device from a saved state at all. Your purchases are all intact, but that’s not the same thing. Hopefully they roll something out, and certainly before next year (maybe?), when people upgrade devices.

The Future

The device feels very unfinished. Surprising, given the amount of time between the last model and this one. Rumors are that the team working on it stopped and it sat there while Apple tried to work with outside parties. Then they gave up and had to resume. Apple picked when to ship this device though, just like every other thing they make.

There’s also the issue of “Starting at $69” — that’s not true. Selling the other Apple TV is bizarre. It functions as a cheap media streamer but it has no direct relationship with the current TV. On a recent episode of the Clockwise podcast, Anže Tomic asked the panelists why there wasn’t a cheapo streaming dongle like the Chromecast, or Fire TV Stick. There was an ensuing discussion and Jason Snell coined “AirPlay Express” which I will use to refer to whatever they replace the $69 unit with. I do not think it’s a good experience to continue to sell the old one, and I don’t think it’s acceptable to retire it and leave a $159 price umbrella for the competition. Maybe an entry level device couldn’t play games, or came preloaded with streaming apps?

I do have some hopes for the future, like a unified content strategy, single sign-on experience, picture-in-picture, and some sort of guide view that displays all the live streaming media from installed apps. Oh, and Touch ID…

Last November, Dan Moren wrote on SixColors that his wishlist item for the next Apple TV was Siri integration. I saw Dan’s post and argued that it would be better to have Touch ID integration. Well everything’s coming up Morenhouse! The Siri integration is there, and Touch ID is not. Good thing no one hates entering passwords, because the new Apple TV certainly doesn’t make you enter passwords. OH WAIT IT TOTALLY DOES. Maybe next time, you will all clap louder at my ideas.

It’s pretty typical of Apple Product launches to already talk about what we want to see in the next one, so I didn’t want to bring this up on Upgrade and derail us.

2015-11-04 08:30:00

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Defocused on the Incomparable Network

The podcast Dan Sturm and I do has joined The Incomparable’s network of shows this week. A while back Jason Snell had suggested that our show would be a good fit with what they do, and I took that as a huge compliment because I have always admired the shows that he produces over there. From the main “The Incomparable” which started it all, to the spin-offs, and sub-spin-offs that populate the site. There’s a little something for everyone. That includes us now too.

For anyone unfamiliar with our show, but somehow reading this blog (How? Why?) I’ll briefly explain the podcast. Dan has a background in directing commercial projects, and VFX compositing. He has strong opinions, and he hates space.

I have a degree in computer animation (chillax, it’s a BFA and I’m not even a good animator) and I’ve worked for 10 years doing lighting and compositing (told you I wasn’t a good animator). I have different opinions, and I love space.

Together we spend as little time talking about the industry we work in as possible, and most of the time talking nonsense about movies we watch.

What kind of movies? I would describe the assortment as “eclectic”. Everything from modern action movies, to 80s comedy, to 80s action, to 90s comedy, to… Hmm. Maybe it’s not that eclectic.

New listeners might enjoy the episodes with guests they’re familiar with:

And since it’s October again, there’s all the Halloween (ish) themed stuff from last year:

Ghostbusters II was just recorded, so expect more spoooooooky stuff this month.

Also, my love of The Incomparable Radio Theater specials (the series wasn’t out yet) inspired me to write the fake award show episode. That’s a terrible place to start as a first time listener, but Dan spent like 40,000 hours editing it, so I want to demonstrate that our audio podcast isn’t just about our pretty looks.

Long Time Listeners

We (Dan) updated the show art for the new network bug, and Greg Knauss imported all of our episodes and setup the redirects. Since Dan ran the original site, and owns the domain, he got to do all the real work. (Like usual, I am a parasite. (But I did composite together that Zeppelin gif! (That’s the kind of thing a parasite would point out.)))

Oh, and if anyone needs to transform some podcast files1 from “ep#-YYYY-MM-DD-v###.mp3” to “defocused#.mp3”:

import glob
import os

src = glob.glob("*.mp3")

for s in src:
    os.rename(src, (src.split("-")[0].replace("ep", "defocused") + ".mp3")

Dan and I work pretty hard on this hobby of ours, and we have worked on it for over a year. The show is still going to be run the same, and still just as bad/good as ever.

The announcement went live when I had a work deadline so I basically just faved things as they came in. I do really appreciate all the feedback from listeners, and I know Dan does too. I also appreciate all the work Dan, Greg, and Jason Snell put in to get Defocused rolling.


  1. This section is for Dr. Drang.

  2. 2015-10-16 00:00:00

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4.0666K Retina iMac

The 4K iMac came out. When this resolution was originally mentioned in the rumors, I was a little confused. 4096 x 2304 is not what all the TV people call 4K, or even what the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus shoot. That 4K is the UHD resolution of 3840×2160. Apple doesn’t ship any display, on any device, that is 3840x2160.

We all watch scaled video, all the time, and that’s no sin. But it would be nice if Apple would ship something that was 1:1. If you watch “4K” video on your “4K” iMac, every pixel is being resampled to scale up by 1.0666.

I am excited about the updates to the range of colors that can be displayed. From Jason Snell’s review for Macworld:

Apple says that the display in this 4K iMac, as well as the revision to the 5K iMac that was announced the same day, offers an expanded color space. Thanks to new red-green phosphor LEDs, the displays can display a wider range of red and green light than before, allowing them to display 25 percent more colors.

In a demo at Apple, I was able to detect subtle differences. The new displays can offer more color detail and more vibrancy than the display on the older 5K iMac models. I’m a little red-green color blind, and even I could detect the differences. If you work in graphics or video, you’ll probably be happy to have access to a display that’s capable of displaying 99 percent of the P3 color space.

P3 is DCI-P3, which… Well, go read this, and then this.

2015-10-13 09:30:00

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I Once Was in Maps, but Now I'm Found

I was very excited about Apple Maps when the rumors surrounding its launch circulated in 2012. The Google contract for map data was going to expire but the company that deeply respects its customers would have something amazing. I cautiously updated my iPad (3) to iOS 6 to test it out, and didn’t update my iPhone 4 to iOS 6 until the following January, when the Google Maps app was available. There’s no denying how bad it was, because Tim Cook even wrote a statement apologizing for it.

I keep testing out Apple Maps every few months to see what’s happening with it – Usually when major updates are announced, or when some tech-pod-blog-ocaster mentions a positive experience. I would like to be pleasantly surprised, and then remove Google Maps. They are a company that specializes in personalized ad tracking, and here I am, shoving my location in their face.

Instead, here we are, three years later. Still working around Siri, and working around apps that integrate Apple Maps (like Yelp), and copying and pasting addresses in to Google Maps.

Works for Me

When I have discussed my issues with Apple Maps in the past I’ve received feedback that was not entirely helpful. Informing me about how well Apple Maps works in places I am not has done very little to improve how Apple Maps works here.

Telling me that I can report issues from inside the Maps app is something I already know, and have talked about in the past. It is safe to assume I have reported the complaints detailed below. Expressing my disappointment is not mutually exclusive to reporting issues. They’ve spent three years working on Maps, and made a big song and dance number about it at WWDC in June. I am not being overly critical of some just-launched beta from a startup.

However, I must apologize for ignoring the earnest advice to move somewhere else. I’m sure if I moved somewhere my job wasn’t then the quality of a maps and directions app would be unimpeachable.

Location, Location, Location?

There have been several improvements to location data both in the map view itself, and from the various iOS features which hook in to apps. Certainly this is much better than when the service launched with multiple, conflicting addresses for locations, and conflicting Yelp reviews. Even last year, when I bought my iPhone 6 with iOS 8, the location data was still pretty wonky. One particular test I conducted was asking for directions to “City Hall”.

The Maps app now correctly lists the city hall for the city I’m in right now (Los Angeles) as the first suggestion when I type the query, and follows it up with the other halls that are closer to me, but not the city hall of the city I’m in. For some inexplicable reason, “City Hall” in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania is still listed as a suggestion. At least it is no longer the primary result.

However, if I hit “search” without selecting one of the suggestions, I receive “City Hall, London”. Not to spoil any surprises, but if you click the little car icon for driving directions the app will regretfully inform you that it could not determine a route.

Confusingly, when I ask Siri for directions to city hall, I am presented with a list of locations that’s completely different from those suggestions the Maps app generates, and one of them is a gospel hall.

I don’t understand why these results are all different. Even if it’s struggling with the generic term, it should have the same struggle everywhere.

What about “Downtown LA”?

No, Apple Maps. I can’t even.

On a more positive note: Someone at Apple accepted one of the many reports I’ve been sending about my apartment address. I check every six to eight months, so I’m not exactly sure when they fixed my address. I no longer need to get route guidance to my neighbors’ buildings, and I can use Siri commands like, “Give me directions home”. This is a very exciting development for me.

The other location improvements have less significance to me, but I do still miss Google’s Street View. If you tap on an address that has no Yelp data you get a spartan, white page with a slowly rotating satellite view of the street, which is useless.

Categories for nearby locations are very nice, and I haven’t come across anything miscategorized, but I have a nit to pick about it all being radial to your location, and you can’t build a route. This is tricky, I know, but gas stations along my commute are more helpful than a radial cluster of pins from wherever I am along that commute. Waze has these sorts of features, but I had poor performance from their app and removed it in frustration. It would be nice if Siri could leverage the categories, and the route I’m on, as if it was some kind of virtual assistant.

LA Transit

(Update: I took Apple’s announcement at WWDC that iOS 9 would have transit support in LA to mean it would be included when iOS 9 launched. According to a page buried on Apple’s site, they have not rolled out Los Angeles support yet.)

Transit directions are of academic interest to me, but I have no real ability to test them other than trying a few random queries. While Apple has made arrangements for public transit data in LA, it seems to be very incomplete. No bus routes are available when I conducted some searches on the Westside. I also conducted a search from Culver City to the Los Angeles Convention Center, which should have shown me the Expo Line light rail route, but instead I got the same error as the buses. “Transit directions are not available between these locations. View routing apps.” I can select the installed Google Maps app and I’m presented with the Expo Line. It doesn’t even flinch. Maybe there are some routes that function in LA, since Apple listed LA as a city they would have this data for, but I can’t think of any.

Perceived Slowness

Since the Apple Maps app was introduced, the slow, whimsical animations have bugged the crap out of me. You don’t always see them, sometimes it just snaps directly to the relevant view. Other times it involves a lot of slow pans and zooms. I don’t need to see all of North America while the app slowly zooms in to where I am. I am pretty aware of where North America is in relation to me.

3D also seems to add some processing weight to the situation, which I don’t really need. Building height is one of those metrics they got from their aerial mapping that’s neat in demos, but doesn’t serve any purpose in the real world.

The flyover stuff… I mean, I guess it’s cool? But I don’t use it. It’s always in Apple’s marketing, but why? It doesn’t help you do anything. And it still has weird spots that … I just don’t know why this is a marketable feature.

Glancaeble

It’s important to keep your eyes on the road. Glancing at certain elements of your console for vital info is a necessity. Using thin weights for the display of information in a navigation app is just dumb. At a glance, you can see the number of miles to your next turn, or decimal value thereof, and an icon representing the kind of turn you will need to execute. White bars float over streets, but you can’t read them, and the street you’re turning on to is so tiny and waif-like that it might as well not be there. A thicker weight is used for the time, but again, a small size makes it hard to read clearly in a split second. Things also wouldn’t need to be so small if they weren’t all crammed in the top bar.

Even the icon for the turn you need to execute can be comically wrong.

Google Maps does a much better job at communicating at information at a glance. The top shows you an icon for the turn you need to make, as well as icons for lane guidance, and the name of the street you are approaching, instead of putting the emphasis on the number of miles you’re traveling to the turn. An estimate for the remaining time to travel is also available in large, thick numbers across the bottom of the display.

Google also changes aspects of the display based on traffic information, but more on that in the next section.

Traffic

One of the things I’ve found puzzling about the design of the Apple Maps interface is that you can see traffic, and travel estimates supposedly influenced by traffic, in the route overview, but no traffic information is provided when turn-by-turn is on. All the roads are tranquil, neutral tones, and a serene blue path flows before you. It’s as if you’re in a kayak, on a river, being gently pulled along by the flow of water.

That’s not true, of course, because why would there be that much water in Los Angeles?

At heavy intersections, like Highland Ave. and Franklin Ave., you see no information about the flow of traffic in any direction. Instead of blue, you should see the streets run red with the blood of the Traffic God. Woe betide thee that commute on his most sacred of poorly designed intersections!

Tonight, Apple Maps routed me down Cahuenga to Highland. That sent me past the large, somewhat famous, amphitheater known as The Hollywood Bowl. Not a big deal, unless there’s an event at The Bowl. Guess what? There was an event! Van Halen! There were orange, safety cones and traffic cops directing at intersections. Apple Maps just herp-derped me through that. The only difference in the display was the estimated arrival time slowly ticking upward as I crawled.

On exactly one occasion I had Apple Maps present me with a yellow bar across the top, and Siri’s voice notified me that there was a delay due to an accident. (No alternate routing was provided on this occasion.) Waze has a leg up on Apple and Google when it comes to accident notifications. You even get notified about which lane the accident is in. Google sources some Waze data, but isn’t as specific. On the 101 N last night there was a very sudden slowdown, without warning, at a time of night when there shouldn’t be traffic at all. I waited patiently for Apple Maps to let me know what it was, and Apple Maps was oblivious to it. There was apparently a car accident that closed two lanes, and the car was being loaded on to a flatbed truck, so it wasn’t recent. Why Apple Maps kept silent about it, I don’t know.

Google Maps, in contrast, indicates traffic in several places. When cars are moving slowly, the road is red, as well as the estimated travel time. It serves as an appropriate cue that Google knows the street I’m on is slow, and thus I trust that Google is correctly monitoring the flow of cars. When Apple Maps has an unchanging interface, and an estimated arrival time that keeps ticking up, I have no sense that they understand the clusterfuck I’m stuck in. It’s not that Google Maps clears traffic, but it reassures you that it knows of it.

Google also provides alternate route suggestions as traffic conditions change. Sometimes there’s a prompt for a different route that will save X number of minutes. If I don’t accept the change, then I putter along on the current route. Far more often, I see the little gray paths with estimates of how many minutes faster, or slower, the route is.

I must ding Google for those little gray routes though. Often times the minute-by-minute fluctuations of traffic change on those paths so they are not always improvements. Also, Google’s app will occasionally lay several of the route suggestions on top of each other. For instance, you might be on Melrose, and the original path is to make a left at Highland, you see a suggestion to stay on Melrose and it will be 3 minutes faster. You tap it, and get a slower route. Zoom out and you’ll see that there were two routes it was suggesting that coincided at Melrose, so you got a route, but not the fast one you thought you were seeing. Why this behavior has persisted is beyond me, but it’s been there since they put these branching suggestions in.

Lanes

Lane guidance is a feature present in Google Maps, but not found in Apple Maps. I find it invaluable when I am traveling in a congested area and unfamiliar with where turn lanes, or exits, will split and join. Some exit lanes might quickly expand in to three lanes with turns in different directions, and Google Maps will tell you which ones you can be in, or even that you will be fine in the lane you’re already in. It’s a comfort, but not a requirement. If you miss a turn, or can’t get to an exit lane, then any map app will reroute you. It’s just nice to reduce the rerouting.

It’s not flawless though, and Apple could learn from Google’s mistakes if they ever implement this feature. Google notifies you of the lane arrangement as it will be when you need to change lanes, not in terms of the lane arrangement you’re currently in.

An irritating example of this is traveling through Downtown LA. The Google Maps issue is that the number of lanes on the 110, heading toward Santa Monica, changes rapidly. You’ll be notified to get in the exit lane to merge from the 110 to the 10 around the 7th avenue exit. If you immediately maneuver to the lane, in the freeway as you currently see it, then you’re in the wrong spot. Two more lanes will merge on to the right of you before you get off, and Google Maps was including those lanes in the guidance it gave when they weren’t there. Ugh.

It took me a bit to wrap my head around the way this guidance gets delivered, but I still prefer it to Apple Maps, which cheerfully asks you to exit right, sometimes with little warning.

Apple Maps also seems blithely unaware of where special turn lanes start and stop, unlike Google. On a major roadway, it is not unusual to have a left turn lane start a significant distance from an intersection, and feature a solid, white line to deter people from making last minute lane changes. When making a turn from Santa Monica Blvd. to Beverly Glen Blvd., Apple Maps verbally alerted me to make a left after it was no longer legal to do so.

I have it on good authority that the vans Apple is driving around have lidar, and that lidar can be used for figuring out lanes. The more light will bounce off the reflective paint than off of anything else, even reflective cars. They might just be throwing away all that data and using the lidar to make really neat, really useless flyovers, but I hope they are using it to determine lanes.

Until We Cross Paths Again

I’m not even remotely on the fence about this decision. I am very disappointed because it would be the most convenient, OS-integrated, privacy-focused application for me to use. I simply value efficiency too much to rely on it in high-traffic LA. I hope it continues to improve, and that they continue to build in features that help it better estimate, and communicate, road conditions, and provide me with an interface that demonstrates that.

2015-10-05 00:45:00

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