Interface Faceoff, Pt. 1
Let’s be honest about something for a minute: While many of us love Netflix as an alternative or supplement to cable or satellite TV, its user interface is awful.
To be fair. Netflix isn’t alone. In a previous (and now woefully outdated) post, where we dug deep into the various content providers of the day and stratified them according to quality of delivery and quality of content, we outright ignored user interfaces, simply because most of them are abysmal. That’s ironic, given that the screens you use to navigate your content
libraries or search through the trove of on-demand shows and movies in an attempt to find something worth watching are an incredibly important part of the movie-watching experience.
The original plan for this post was to rectify that by parsing all the major platforms and arranging them from best to worst on the design of their interfaces.
And then Disney+ happened.
Disney’s new subscription-based streaming service has been the talk of the entertainment industry for the past few weeks, for a number of reasons. For the purposes of this rant, though, Disney+ shines a very bright light on the fact that the user experiences for most other content delivery systems are so woefully lacking that a ranked list simply doesn’t make sense anymore. Because when you get right down to it, the home video industry currently has exactly two good examples of functional, attractive, and easily navigable UIs: Disney+ and Kaleidescape.
So instead of asking you to slog through a list of all the rest, complete with everything they do wrong, I thought I would instead focus on what Kaleidescape and Disney+ do right with their UIs in relation to the also-ran efforts from everyone else.
Before we get to a discussion about what makes these two UIs so good, I should point out that I don’t consider all of the digital video services to be in direct competition with one another in terms of their user experiences. That’s because there are two quite distinct ways in which we consume home video these days in the digital domain.
Disney+ and similar services like Netflix, Hulu, HBO Now, and the upcoming HBO Max and Peacock, just to name a few, function as subscription-based on-demand libraries, where you don’t own anything but rather have access to a wealth of revolving-door content for anywhere between $4.99 and $16.99 per month.
On the other hand, services like Vudu, iTunes, and
Kaleidescape offer à la carte sales of movies and TV episodes (along with bonus features) that are either added to an online library of streaming content you ostensibly own in perpetuity or downloaded to local hard disks or servers for viewing at any time.
There are, of course, services that offer a hybrid of these two approaches, like Amazon Prime Video and Apple TV+, both of which feature a library of on-demand content
for a monthly subscription fee, as well as access to films and TV shows that can be purchased individually. This does muddy our discussion a bit. But for the most part, I’ll attempt to keep any comparisons apples to apples.
In this first post, I’ll be digging into Kaleidescape and what it does right compared with other buy-it-and-own-it services like Vudu, iTunes, and to a lesser degree Amazon Prime. In Part Two, I’ll take Disney+ for a spin and highlight all the reasons it stands out in the realm of subscription-based streaming UIs.
What Other Digital Movie Retailers Can Learn from Kaleidescape
I’ve long contended that Kaleidescape has the best user interface in the entire home video industry, and I stick by that. The thing is, though, I often focus on aesthetics when talking about what makes the Kaleidescape home screen so appealing, and that’s really only half the story. It’s true, the beautiful layout of cover artwork is slick and inviting, and the way titles flitter on
and off the screen just never gets old in terms of wow factor. But none of this would really matter if the Kaleidescape UI wasn’t so well-organized and easy to navigate.
All of that animation is really in service of helping you figure out what you’re in the mood to watch. Gravitate toward something like Star Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope,
and the onscreen layout of cover art rearranges to fill the screen with similar titles—other Star Wars movies, of course, but also other action/adventure fantasy films. Pick one of those titles instead, and suddenly it becomes the center of a new universe, with similar titles orbiting outward toward the edge of the screen.
And, hey, if you know exactly what you’re in the mood to watch, you can skip this animated wall of cover art and skip straight to an alphabetical list of movies you own. It’s a different-horses-for-different-courses approach to digital library management
that none of the other collection-based services seem to understand.
Buying new movies is also as easy as navigating over to the Kaleidescape Movie Store, a wholly separate area of the UI that features yet another unique interface designed to suit its purposes. You can navigate the Store by genre, by collection (for example, Marvel
Cinematic Universe or 2019 Oscar Nominees) or jump straight to new releases or pre-orders. If nothing less than 4K HDR presentation will do, you can also easily filter the store to just show titles available as such.
Contrast this with something like Vudu, which is probably Kaleidescape’s best competition, at least in terms of how it functions. Like Kaleidescape, Vudu allows you to purchase films in the digital domain outright, rather than paying a subscription fee to access an ever-changing body of on-demand content. It also comes with bonus features like audio commentary, deleted scenes, and behind-the-scenes documentaries, when they’re available.
No matter the device, though, navigating Vudu is an absolute nightmare. In addition to its outdated look and feel, simply making your way to the library of content you own is unintuitive, to put it kindly.
A few weeks back, my wife was itching to re-watch a documentary we own about the history of Dungeons & Dragons art, so I told her to cue it up while I powdered my nose. I told her the name of the movie (Eye of the Beholder) and the service on
Vudu’s home (top) and “My Vudu” (bottom) screens
which we owned it (Vudu), and walked out of the room. When I came back a few minutes later, she was still futzing around on the home screen simply trying to figure out how to get to our library of previously purchased content.
This is largely due to the fact that every screen in Vudu looks the same: A wall of static cover artwork against a bleh blue background. There’s no real indication that, to get to content you already own, you have to navigate all the way up to the top of the screen, scroll over to My Vudu, go down from there, and toggle to the right to find Movies. There aren’t multiple roads to the same destination the way there is with Kaleidescape. There’s no visual or navigational difference
between content you own and content Vudu is trying to sell you. And as for the latter, unless you know exactly what you’re looking for, Vudu’s organizational structure is an embarrassment.
You could say the same for services like Amazon Prime, too, especially when it comes to purchasing new films instead of waiting for them to hopefully show up on-demand. And Amazon makes it doubly difficult to find content in 4K HDR, especially in the way it treats the 4K release of a film as a wholly different title from the HD release.
There are things that could be better about the Kaleidescape user experience, to be sure. I grow aggravated that I often have to download both the 4K HDR and Blu-ray-quality versions of a film if I want to access all the bonus features, for example. But in its layout, navigation, operation, aesthetic design, and overall intuitiveness, Kaleidescape is so far ahead of all the other “build your own library” video services that it’s hard to knock it for the fact that there is a bit of room for improvement.
To be clear, I don’t expect other digital cinema retailers to mimic Kaleidescape’s flowing animations or speed-of-thought responsiveness. We’re talking about a dedicated media server with tons of processing power versus apps meant to be installed on sub-$200 devices. But Vudu and others could learn a lot from the way Kaleidescape uses varied graphics and navigation, along with an intuitive layout, to make the process of buying, organizing, selecting, and navigating a growing movie library such a slick experience.
In the next post, I’ll be digging deeper into Disney+ and all the things it does well compared to similar subscription-based on-demand streaming services.
Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.