YouTube on Apple TV: Our Thoughts, and Yours

As simple as its Apple-designed interface may be, YouTube’s unfiltered mish-mash of user-submitted content can make a very poor first impression on Apple TV. Depending on the videos you initially stumble across—their content, not the quality—you may swear that you’ll never try YouTube again. But further testing shows that YouTube on Apple TV is redeemed by better-than-expected H.264 video quality and a search feature that already yields a surprisingly robust collection of watchable clips, helping you dig through the junk to find gems.

Interface and Video Quality

The basics of Apple TV’s YouTube interface are discussed in our Complete Guide to Apple TV 1.1 Software and YouTube, and from a technical standpoint, Apple’s new feature works basically as expected. Moving through YouTube’s four standard video categories—Featured, Most Viewed, Most Recent, and Top Rated—is easy in an Apple TV interface-consistent way, and similar to the categorization found on the main page of the YouTube site. When videos are selected, Apple TV generally does a fine job of displaying them.

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Above: A 4×3 video, properly formatted for Apple TV. Below: A 16×9 video, squeezed improperly to 4×3.

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We say “fine” rather than “good” or “great” because we’ve mostly been able to view videos from start to finish, but the clips aren’t even close to universal in properly using a widescreen display. Some obviously widescreen clips display with black bars on all four sides. Some obviously non-widescreen content doesn’t fill the screen vertically. In fact, it’s exceedingly rare that a clip actually uses as much of the TV as it could or should. We also saw some videos where sync problems made the screen go black for a few seconds before resuming. Whether this is YouTube’s fault, its users’ fault, or Apple TV’s fault is unclear, but the end result’s the same: videos could surely look better.

 

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Above: A 16×9 video, displaying on only part of the widescreen TV. Below: A 16×9 video, filling the whole widescreen.
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The one serious positive here is that they have the potential to do so. YouTube’s recent adoption of the H.264 video standard—apparently pushed by Apple—means that the next generation of video clips can boast superior smoothness and detail without consuming commensurately more bandwidth. While re-encoded old clips will almost certainly not benefit from H.264 recompression, and a number of the clips we’ve seen suffer from desynchronized audio and video, properly formatted new clips do and will look pretty good on Apple TV—better for sure than what people would expect from the words “YouTube on a high-definition television.”

Content and User Experience

So how does YouTube on Apple TV make a poor first impression? The answer starts out simple—it’s the content—but becomes more complex as you begin to realize that it’s not all the content, just the stuff that YouTube is spotlighting. If you’re a YouTube novice starting your search for videos in one of Apple TV’s first four sections, you’ll be shocked by how awful some of the “featured,” “most viewed,” and “most recent” content is, and there’s no way for a user to manually refresh the lists.

 

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In our first search session this morning, we came across a crazy, nonsensical rant by one YouTube user against another YouTube user (“Get the f*ck off of YouTube”). There was a VHS-grade copy of a My Little Pony cartoon labeled as a triple-X video. Heavily artifacted wrestling videos and a woman in a green poker visor playing word association. Step by step guides to pirating music and videos, and ads for various web sites. And all sorts of other garbage. It was how the iTunes Store’s podcasts section would have looked if Apple had never sorted or filtered it.

From Apple, a company so concerned about the quality of user experience, this felt shocking. It was as if Apple TV’s main menu had just opened a portal into the bottom of a trash dump, and the contents were spilling onto the high-definition television.

 

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Above: Apple TV can now teach you how to pirate music and videos, thanks to this YouTube step-by-step guide.

It was really bad. We couldn’t decide whether we were reliving the classic Springsteen song 57 Channels (and Nothing’s On), or the Brad Pitt explanation in 12 Monkeys as to why his character’s mental institution didn’t have a telephone: “if all of these nuts could just make phone calls, they could spread insanity, oozing through telephone cables, oozing into the ears of all these poor sane people, infecting them. Wackos everywhere, plague of madness.”

Improving the Apple TV Experience

But as we continued to test YouTube on Apple TV, we realized that we were seeing so much bad content for two reasons: unlike the YouTube site, we were trusting Apple TV to point us to good stuff rather than using the Search box to enter text that interested us. And again unlike the YouTube site, which sorts its content into popular categories (such as “Music”), Apple TV was pushing us generically towards broader recommendations. Some of those recommendations—like the Most Viewed videos—were clearly made because of misleadingly named videos, not because of the quality of their content.

 

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Our Cambridge, UK-based editor Bob Levens made a couple of interesting points. Sure, “Andy Warhol would be rolling in his grave. All you need is a cheap webcam, a computer, and zero talent. The new stars of the Internet. But to be fair, some good comes from [YouTube].” He then sent a link to an artist he discovered on YouTube, and noted that he’d “just bought two of his albums on the strength of his YouTube videos. “It’s just a case of separating the wheat from the chaff.”

 

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The way to do that is to use the Search feature. Then use the same phrases, such as “comedy,” “music,” or “sports,” you’d find on the main page of the YouTube.com web site, or enter in terms that specifically interest you, like the names of specific actors, shows, artists, or athletes. If you’re lucky, you’ll find something that’s not just technically good-looking, but also is actually legitimate content—not just, as we’ve seen, something totally unrelated using your search term as a hook.

 

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Searches for SNL and Ali G surprised us with the robust libraries of short, amusing clips that were available. There’s more actual Beatles music on YouTube than in the iTunes Store, if you can believe that. And when a clip was finished, Apple TV generally led us to other legitimate related clips. We even found a music video for the upcoming Transformers movie, packed with footage that hadn’t been shown yet in the official trailers. It’s somewhat unclear at this point whether most of these clips are legitimately provided, or just copyright-violating user uploads that will disappear as soon as they’re discovered, but watching little videos of your favorite personalities, movies, and shows can easily become addictive, regardless of the source.

 

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Search is a temporary remedy until Apple takes what we consider to be necessary steps: adding proper filter categories like the ones on YouTube.com, and allowing users to save their favorite search terms for repeated use later. It’s great to build a list of videos you liked, but people really want to have easy ways to check YouTube intermittently (or automatically) for specific content. As-is, Apple TV has you wade through a lot of sewage before you come across something worthwhile, and as the iTunes Store’s Podcasts section demonstrates, even if the content pool skews that way, there are easy ways to avoid that sort of experience.

Overall, once you realize that you can actually find some good videos using the tools you’ve been provided, YouTube on Apple TV turns out to be a more compelling addition to the device than we’d originally expected. Further video and interface tweaks can only make it better from here.