Complex Is as Complex Does

It hasn’t been that long ago that when I arrived back from the annual January CES, my desk looked something like the photo here, staring back at me with a “pick me, pick me" plea. But with all of the brochures and press releases and miscellaneous literature first transferred to CD-ROM, now to flash drives, and (in some cases) merely a cryptic card directing you to the manufacturer’s website, the reading material can now fit in a tiny corner of my suitcase.

Owners’ manuals were once like that, but with a fundamental difference. They were slender things that could be read and understood in an hour or two. But as products, particularly HDTVs and AVRs, became more complicated, their manuals grew larger, not to mention the need to produce them in 15 languages. Before they reached that ‘doomed pile” stage, companies leapfrogged straight past the CD-ROM and flash drive phases and loaded their complete manuals onto their websites, no longer offering them in print. In the case of HDTVs, they also put them on the TV itself in the form of a “help” menu. In the latter case, someone forgot to notice that it’s difficult to learn to use a control while you’re viewing an on-screen menu that blocks you from seeing the image you’re trying to tweak.

Eliminating the need to print a manual, with the high costs that this entailed, freed companies to make the manual, and the product itself, ever more complicated. As I sit here, I’m perusing the manual for a new UHDTV that just arrived for review. The make isn’t important to this discussion; it could be any high-end set from any major manufacturer. What is important is its length: 200 pages. And not 200 pages of a well organized, printed prose. No, it’s 200 oddly organized pages downloaded from the maker’s website.

Such “e-manuals” assume that you’re viewing it from the set, or perhaps on your computer screen. If I want to know details about a set’s 3D features and controls, I expect to find them where “3D” first shows up in the “manual,” not as a link that directs you to page 185. Brought up as I was on printed manuals, I prefer the direct approach; I want all of the pertinent information in the same place. Even worse is that manufacturers like to print only one manual for their entire lineup, inserting “only for CZTV-65HD” and “except for CZOV-65UHD” liberally throughout the common text.

Yes, I lament the loss of full-featured (not “Start-up Guide!”) printed manuals. I’ve often printed out key portions of those on-line behemoths, though rarely the entire thing (my paper and ink budgets aren’t big enough). But ancient texts have shown that typical buyers immediately tossed the printed versions into dark corners where they could commune with yellowed pages on “How to Operate Your Beta VCR,” or “How to Set up Your Turntable.” Oops, bad example there—as we speak thousands of new vinyl fans are searching for the ageless wisdom residing on those long-lost turntable/ arm/cartridge scrolls. And as for that Beta deck, if they still have it connected it’s now been flashing “12:00” for decades.

But VCRs, turntables, cassettes, and…um…8-Tracks are relatively straightforward technologies compared to today’s UHDTVs. I wonder how many buyers unpack their new TV, turn it on, and never adjust the picture controls, assuming that the manufacturer certainly must have set it up for best performance out of the box. But we all know (don’t we?) that this is far from correct.

And beyond basic performance, today’s UHDTV (or just a run of the mill HDTV!) offers more goodies than even the knowledgeable user can use. There are controls that let you mess up the picture to your hearts content. Other features include the ability to watch videos, pictures, and audio files from your own home network (wired or wirelessly, of course), a camera so you can live-schmooze with your Facebook “friends,” and (soon, possibly) a link to a nearby personal trainer to help you work off all the pizza and beer you’ve consumed engrossed in obscure TV shows, movies that tanked at the box office, or binge-watching 200 episodes of Law & Order over a lost weekend.

But I digress. All of these features consume huge chunks of that on-screen or on-line “manual.” It’s not only long, it’s likely badly written as well. It’s an uncomfortable fact that the only group on a manufacturer’s payroll that truly knows how the set works and what it can do are the engineers. Usually, it’s a different group, or even an outside contractor, that writes the manual. I just love explanations that read, ‘Brightness Control: Adjusts the brightness of the picture.” Then there’s the inevitable “lost in translation” rabbit hole. If you don’t have a six-year old handy to help you navigate through all of the set’s features without that undecipherable on-screen manual, you might find yourself taking weeks to learn how to make the most of it the hard way—by trial and error.

But it wasn’t just UHDTV manuals that inspired this pithy rant. AVRs and surround preamp processors are even worse. Their features are also legion, including video processing, sound modes from the mandatory (stereo, mono, surround) to the bizarre (Capital Dome, Yankee Stadium, Anechoic Chamber), the ability to reassign the a receiver’s 11 (!) channels to tri-amp the front speakers with enough left over for two surrounds (or the option to send six different programs to six rooms), and more.

The answer? Simplify. As a modest proposal, pushing the Home or Menu button could offer two selectable menus. On a TV, for example, a Basic menu would provide the most-obvious features: input selection, a choice of three or four picture modes (Standard, Cinema Day, Cinema Night, Philistine Vivid), a menu for the basic controls, and that’s it. A more thorough, Advanced menu will add everything else. But all extraneous features will be off when the set arrives out-of-the-box—Dynamic Contrast, Super Color, Noise Reduction (how often do you need this with modern sources?), Motion Interpolation (which today is almost universally turned on as delivered) and more.

You might argue that this is the way sets are configured today, and in some cases you’d be right to a point. But perhaps they don’t go far enough. In my concept, when you first push the Home or Menu button, you’ll see only those two options: Basic and Advanced, with none of the specific controls visible until you make a selection between those two choices.

While I’m at it, could we please eliminate picture controls that block out half or more of the screen while you’re trying to make an adjustment. Also design remote controls to keep the buttons from being so close together that you make the wrong choice at least half the time. And color calibration controls shouldn’t produce different readings when you’re in the menu than when you drop out of it, nor should calibration controls be buried deep below multiple menu layers (perhaps only a calibrator can fully appreciate the last two).

In response, manufacturers might argue that today’s sets have become so loaded with features that it’s impossible to simplify either the manuals or the menus. I wonder if there might be a market for a line of sets offering the most basic of features. Video controls? Yes. Calibration controls? Yes, Apps for streaming services? Yes. But as to which features to eliminate, that’s a subject for extensive owner surveys. On the table would be things such as using the set as a hub for photos, home videos, music (through the poor sound of most modern flat screen sets), 3D, screen mirroring, video conferencing, social networking, and Internet surfing. An HDTV isn’t an alternative for a home computer.

A/V products have become more complex with each passing year in an effort to reach every possible buyer worldwide. Manufacturers also continue to change their on-screen menus almost yearly in an effort to make their features as usable as possible. They rarely succeed; perhaps feature-creep and the accompanying complications are just unavoidable signs of the times.

Grigory30's picture

But for me the more complex the products it is, the more use experience can get while they try to explore it deeply. So a complex products is for me a challenge too so we can understand more about the products we had :)
Just my opinion tho lol
Grigory -