Apple just released its updated Apple TV app today across iOS and tvOS — it’s a big deal for the company, laying the crucial groundwork for the company’s new TV strategy with direct-to-consumer subscriptions and Apple’s own upcoming Apple TV Plus video streaming service.
So why does it still default to portrait mode for playing back video?
There’s simply no way around it — actually watching video using Apple’s native TV app is just an appalling user experience. Here’s how it works: if you’re watching a video on the TV app — presumably, one that you bought or rented on iTunes, streamed through one of Apple’s native partner channels, like HBO or Showtime, or whatever the method for using Apple TV Plus will be — on an iOS device, it will play in portrait. It also looks terrible.
If your device is set in rotation lock — as most iPhones tend to be in my experience — there is no way to watch video in landscape. The only way is to disable rotation lock, which requires swiping down into the control center (since there’s no way to access it directly on the playback screen), and then rotate the device. There is also no way to lock it in landscape mode once rotated, so better make sure to hold that phone steady.
What makes this all the more galling is that Apple didn’t use to do this! Back in iOS 10, videos in the TV app — even the new TV app rolled out with iOS 10.2 in December 2016 — would default to landscape mode, because of course they would. It was only when Apple released iOS 11 that portrait was made default, and it’s been stuck that way ever since. (Or to go way back into the past: Apple didn’t even offer portrait video for iOS at all until the release of iPhone OS 2.0, which added the feature for the first time in 2008).
What makes this all the more frustrating is that this is an entirely solved problem. Watch a movie or TV show on the Netflix or the HBO Go apps, and it’ll kick you into landscape by default. There’s not even an option to watch a show in Apple’s bizarre, letterboxed portrait mode because it is terrible, and Netflix and HBO both know that.
YouTube and Hulu take a different approach — they do present widescreen videos in portrait, at least to start. But those apps have other data and information that are being shown in the extra space (unlike Apple), like upcoming episodes or video descriptions and comments. More importantly, Hulu and YouTube offer a full-screen button that instantly makes the videos full-screen in landscape mode, giving the best of both worlds.
Of course, Apple’s video app offers a full-screen icon, too. It does this:
There are a lot of easy fixes to this: Apple could just make video play in landscape by default again, like it had for years. It could add a rotation lock toggle to the pop-over controls to make switching easier. It could make its full-screen button actually functional. But it’s been almost two years since Apple broke its app, and update after update hasn’t resulted in any changes.
Now, a lot of this may seem like me just ranting about an iTunes-adjacent app again, and that’s true: I do that a lot. But Apple is putting a huge amount of emphasis on the TV app here — this is where the streaming service will live, where the subscriptions that are going to be Apple’s lifeblood will come from, and where the iTunes purchases that give Apple a straight cut of the profits are.
Apple needs customers to buy content and to subscribe to services in this app. And if they can’t even be bothered to get the most basic function of streaming a TV show right — putting it in the right picture orientation — how is it ever going to succeed against these more entrenched companies.
And more importantly: if the only way to watch Apple’s shows is this unfriendly to users, who’s even going to bother opening the app?