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Apple TV Top Shelf: The Best Kept Secret in Streaming TV

You’ve probably never heard of it, but for the few apps that take advantage of it, The Apple TV Top Shelf provides the best user experience in streaming TV.

Fancy Bits LLC’s “Channels” App – Top Shelf Goodness at its Finest

For those fortunate enough to have an Apple TV, or those who have already acquired a free one, there is a high probability you are missing out on one of its best features. In simple terms:

When an app is placed on the top row of the Apple TV’s home screen, it gets imbued with hidden superpowers – Apple calls it Top Shelf and it’s one of the best kept secrets in Streaming TV  –  here’s why…

Apple TV Top Shelf – How it Works

From the Apple TV home screen, when a top row app icon is highlighted, the content in the top two-thirds of the screen changes to display content specific to that app. For most apps, this is just a logo or splash screen – that’s the bare minimum requirement that Apple requires of app developers. However, savvy app developers can do MUCH more than that – and when they do, their apps can become much more useful and engaging.

Apple TV Top Shelf – The Apps that do it Best

Apple’s own TV App provides a glimpse of the power of the Top Shelf functionality available to all apps – at least to those whose development teams go the extra mile to program for it. As you can see from some of the examples below, apps like Channels, Plex, Netflix, HGTV and a few others have gone beyond (well beyond in the case of Channels and Plex) the bare minimum and added enhanced interactivity here.

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Apple TV Top Shelf – Missing in Action on Some Popular Apps

Unfortunately, not all apps have followed the example set by Apple’s TV App and excellent examples like Channels, Plex and others. For example, the following apps merely show a static image:  ESPN, YouTube, Amazon Prime, DIRECTV NOW, Sling, Vue to name a few. That’s discouraging considering the sizable development teams behind those apps – especially when compared to the relatively small team behind Channels. For users it’s a huge missed opportunity. For example, here’s all you’ll get with YouTube:

Youtube’s Sadly Disappointing Top Shelf Splash Screen

I’m struck by how little publicity this feature gets from both app developers and from Apple themselves. By now, Apple’s near complete lack of tvOS evangelism is well-known. As Brad Gibson’s site has chronicled on more than a few occasions, despite being a truly standout product in its space, the Apple TV continues to suffer from a virtually non-existent marketing and product evangelism effort from Apple.

It’s a shame that more apps don’t leverage this feature. In terms of user experience, its allows for one of the best app experiences available on any platform.

What do you think? Are you an Apple TV user? Do you have examples of apps that utilize top shelf that you’d like to share or comment on. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below:

  • I’m not holding my breath on this one, but one thing that Apple could do to help raise awareness of top shelf apps would be to create something like an “Optimized for Top Shelf” criteria that apps would be categorized by. Apps that meet this criteria, like Channels, Plex and a few others, would then be enabled with a special visual indicator (perhaps a corner graphic icon to denote this) as well as perhaps an extra popup during installation that could inform the user of the enhanced functionality of placing the app in the Top Shelf row.

    As it is now, there is no way of knowing whether an app has enhanced top shelf functionality or not until you actually place it there and see what happens. Most users don’t even know you can move apps, so without Apple’s help, many apps functionality will never be fully utilized.

  • Karl Childers

    Nice post. Top Shelf also works with the TV app which can provide a quick preview of recently added content available in the “Up Next” category without having to actually open the app.

    Speaking of the TV app, I often find myself wishing the app was the main UI for the Apple TV (with some modifications of course). Apps could have their separate category in the navigation at the top. “Live TV” could also be added next to Sports in the navigation menu which could show all available live programming from the various apps which feature live feeds. The “Up Next” feature could also offer more flexibility so that if a viewer goes back and watches old episodes of a show it would still notify the viewer that a new episode is available. As it stands now if I watch old episodes of Bob’s Burgers for example it will only show me the next episode after the one I last watched and newly released episodes won’t appear unless it is next in line for viewing. That’s one of the issues that I ran into with Hulu Live too. Whenever I would watch a show it would throw off the Up Next programming.

    • Good points Karl. TV app is the future of the Apple TV UI. I really like it. Over time as more deals are made it will get stronger. I have it on my top shelf.