As the smart TV market grows, TV user interfaces are changing. At one time, watching TV was as simple as turning your set on and turning the channel and volume dials. The invention of the remote changed this basic interface. Then there were separate remotes for cable and satellite boxes, TV recorders and disc players, with so many buttons you needed a cheat sheet to use them. Universal touch-screen remotes simplified this, but now smart TVs are taking things a step further.
By 2020, Strategy Analytics projects that half of American homes will have 4K TVs, most of which come with smart TV features that link your TV to the Internet. This makes controlling your TV more like using your computer or smartphone. In an age of smart TVs, here are some important user interface features to take into account when considering sets and cable and satellite services.
Few things are more frustrating with your remote than a signal that’s so slow the show you wanted to watch is over by the time you’re able to change stations. Traditional cable boxes are notoriously slow because of a couple of technical restrictions. First, set-top boxes are designed to support the oldest available model, meaning that the software code for graphics and features is limited to what older models can handle. Second, most cable companies devote relatively limited bandwidth to the interface between set-top boxes and the rest of the network, resulting in bandwidth congestion that slows signals down.
Fortunately, newer boxes that rely on IP and wireless connections bypass this problem. One of the fastest user interfaces currently on the market is that accompanying the DISH Network’s Hopper 3™, which achieves seven times the speed of previous models by using the fastest set-top box processor available, a Broadcom 7445 quad-core Arm processor.
Accessibility for all users is another key feature of a good TV interface. FCC regulations require video user interfaces and instructions to be accessible on a wide range of devices in a way that includes audiences who are visually impaired or hearing impaired. A current FCC proposal aims to ensure that users can access programming they’ve paid for from whatever device they choose to use, whether it’s a leased set-top box, a consumer-purchased set-top box or a smart TV app. This legislation is likely to promote unified user interfaces that can search across over-air broadcasts, pay-TV broadcasts and over-the-top (OTT) services delivered directly over the Internet.
One feature that affects accessibility is legibility. If you can’t read a user interface, it isn’t very useful. Traditional interfaces have used outdated graphics due to technical limitations, and even some newer interfaces use washed-out colors that make it hard to read letters and distinguish selection options. The Hopper 3’s new user interface addresses these issues with a clean, flat-screen design (similar to that used on mobile devices) to make items easy to see on a small screen. Large, bright buttons and the ability to switch between normal and large font sizes enhance the Hopper 3 interface’s legibility.
Superior navigational control
User interface designer Paul Quimby says that the best smart TV user interface is one that lets you use a superior system to control it. Traditional remotes have limited input options compared to a computer keyboard or a smartphone pad. The more an interface resembles a computer or mobile device interface, the more navigational flexibility you have. CNET adds that current interface trends also are incorporating alternative input methods, such as touch and gesture input, voice control, and video facial recognition.
Easy search capability
A good user interface makes it easy to find what you want to watch. Having to scroll through hundreds of channels and time slots in a linear fashion is time-consuming and tedious. Newer interfaces provide more efficient search options modeled on Internet search engines and social media sites. For example, the Hopper 3 supplements its TV schedule listings with a home page that displays recently recorded options and top picks based on your preferences. It also has a search function that uses auto-complete, so you can find most movies by typing in just three letters. The Hopper 3 also integrates Netflix’s library into its search results and hopes to have additional sources, such as YouTube, in the near future.