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Disney+ Review: Clunky, buggy, and you’ll want it anyway

Disney+'s terrible design won't stop you from signing up

Disney Plus Lifestyle
“While the interface is rough, the allure of Disney's best films and shows will be difficult to pass up.”
  • Disney's best in one place
  • Every Simpsons episode
  • 4K HDR and Dolby Atmos
  • Impressive original series
  • Buggy interface
  • Wonky search
  • No Recently Watched list
MSRP $7.00

For months leading up to its debut, it was easy to think ofDisney+ as yet another streaming service. But as it moved closer to launch date, I suddenly couldn’t help thinking about the sheer possibilities. Imagine it: The gleam of a century’s worth of groundbreaking properties, from Mickey to Marvel, all ready to rush into your brain on demand. It’s a fantastic idea (especially at $7 per month), and nearly everyone in my circle was equally excited.

A streaming service is a lot more than an idea, though, and as Disney+’s rocky launch soberly reminded us, delivering massive files into millions of homes through a scattershot of pipelines isn’t easy. Studio powerhouse or no, Disney was charged with building a quality delivery system for all its goodies from scratch, while competing against rivals who have been at it for over a decade. And so far, that method of delivery is pretty dang underwhelming.

For Disney superfans, Disney+ will be a no-brainer regardless. But unlike the polished perfection of Disney’s many other ventures, its new streamer is currently a clunky, buggy, work in progress.

A Netflix clone this ain’t

Firing up Disney+ for the first time (assuming you can get it to fire up) reveals plenty to like about its surface-level design. A pleasing layout of panels at the top divides content into five pillars: Disney, Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars, and (because Disney owns everything) National Geographic. Resting your cursor over any of the panels even sparks a cool bit of studio-specific animation.

You can create your own avatar (and within its settings disable background videos, which Netflix desperately needs), download titles to view offline, and stream on up to four devices at once.

Under the polished veneer rests a flurry of frustrations.

Below the main panels, you’ll find shows and movies broken into fun titles like Beasts and Monsters, Out of the Vault, and Disney Through the Decades, which, as it sounds, categorizes titles from the 1920s up. A familiar control panel on the left side hosts Search and Home icons, and other ways to navigate. As expected, it all looks a lot like Netflix, but with a Disney twist.

But under that polished veneer rests a flurry of frustrating issues waiting to be discovered.

Some issues are rookie stumbling blocks. Many users were initially unable to even open the app or launch certain titles due to site overload (a reported 10 million subscribers signed up in the first few days), while slow loading times seem to be par for the course at present. On multiple occasions, I opened the app to find all the title panels greyed out for several seconds, and video has totally frozen on me more than once.

Apart from these early scrapes and bruises, there are bizarre lapses in pragmatic design. First and foremost is the lack of a Recently Watched or Continue Watching section. Once you back out of a film or series, it’s not stored anywhere, requiring you to hunt and peck your way through the interface to get back. That’s Day 1 stuff.

The workaround seems to be manually adding titles to your Watchlist, but even that solution isn’t great for TV shows.

For example, I’ve been bingeing classic Simpsons episodes (a prize from Disney’s Fox acquisition), and I am currently on season 2. But clicking on the series panel doesn’t take me back to my last episode (or even season). It’s as though I’ve never touched it. My place within an episode is saved, but unlike Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu, there’s no visual indication of how much of each episode I’ve watched.

Speaking of The Simpsons, the show doesn’t seem to be relegated to any subcategory, so you’ll need to search manually to find it or, again, add it to your Watchlist. In addition, most videos don’t allow you to click Restart, meaning you’ve got to rewind if you want to watch from the beginning. It appears Disney has already updated this, adding Restart/Resume to at least some titles on Roku devices, but when I opened The Lion King on my Roku TV, it was there one moment and gone the next. It’s kind of a mess.

Goodies like 4K HDR, Dolby Vision, and Dolby Atmos come at no extra charge.

That’s exacerbated by wonky search. My wife wanted to watch the original 101 Dalmatians, which we’d scrolled past earlier. Typing “101” in the search pane evoked two live-action films and a straight-to-video animated sequel, but not the original movie. Turns out it was labeled under “One hundred and one” and the system wasn’t smart enough to find it. The Apple TV app helpfully allows for voice search directly in the Disney+ search pane, but finding a film I knew was there should have been much easier.

A/V goodness, with a catch

One driving factor behind Disney+’s $7 value proposition is the inclusion of goodies like 4K HDR, Dolby Vision, and Dolby Atmos for select titles at no extra charge. Amazon does this too, but Netflix makes you select its priciest tier for that privilege. As I can attest, watching Disney jewels like The Empire Strikes Back in 4K HDR with Atmos is pretty epic, even if it’s the “Extended Edition.”

But, again, there are some odd barriers. For one thing, like most services, there are multiple device restrictions. Currently, it appears the Apple TV 4K is generally the preferred Disney+ device for both video and audio quality, with Roku’s 4K streaming devices coming in second (namely because they don’t support Dolby Vision). Other devices like Chromecast, Roku TVs, and, surprisingly, the new Nvidia Shield and Fire TV 4K sticks, do not appear to support Atmos currently, but do support HDR.

How does the service compare to Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and others? Here’s what you need to know.

What’s more unexpected is that exactly which titles work as advertised still seems to be in question. Like the Star Wars collection, Disney+’s marquee original series The Mandalorian should support 4K HDR and Dolby Atmos. But unlike Empire, I was unable to get The Mandalorian in Atmos on my Apple TV 4K. Meanwhile, a colleague was able to get the Star Wars films and The Mandalorian in both 4K HDR and Dolby Atmos on a Roku Streaming Stick+. Clearly, there are still some kinks to work out.

(Note: As of publication. Disney hasn’t released a comprehensive list of supported devices for each format, but we expect Atmos support to make its way to more devices in the future. To be continued …)

Content is, in fact, king

If you’re still with me — and still full-throttle on Disney+ — it’s no doubt due to the incredible allure of all those great TV shows and movies. And yes, having access to the majority of Disney’s best from every generation is awesome, even if the interface isn’t.

Particularly if you grew up on Disney/Pixar, your brain will fall into the nostalgic sunken place as you scroll through titles from your childhood. From Sleeping Beauty and the Fox and the Hound to Finding Nemo and Toy Story, it’s all there. Well, mostly.

Your brain will fall into the nostalgic sunken place.

Diving deep, it’s clear Disney+ isn’t exactly comprehensive even for older titles, likely due to licensing complications. I’m a big fan of those old Goofy shorts from the ’50s that “teach you” how to do things like drive or ski — the latter is there, but the former isn’t. That’s something of a pattern. A bigger omission is the original Muppet Show, though most of the films are available.

It’s not a huge deal, but here’s hoping everything will show up eventually. I inevitably found myself wanting to watch whatever was missing.

Star Wars and Marvel also aren’t yet comprehensive due to some Netflix deals, but those expire in 2020, at which point the collections will be complete. Until then, you can satiate your appetite with classic animated series for each.

Then there are some nature shows from Nat Geo, and for millennials, there are throwback Disney Channel series aplenty, from Hannah Montana to Boy Meets World.

As for Disney+ originals, The Mandalorian is great and Jeff Goldblum’s reality show is fun, but it will be a while before there’s much here. Multiple new Star Wars and Marvel series are on the horizon, but most won’t be available for years. Meanwhile, Netflix has hundreds of original series and thousands of movies. It’s the quality versus quantity debate, to be sure, but it will be interesting to see how quickly folks fall back to Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon when The Mandalorian wraps.

Our take

Disney seems to have spent more time shoring up content for its new streaming service than designing its interface, resulting in a buggy, often frustrating user experience. But, as Disney execs understand, the allure of all those iconic shows and movies for a monthly fee that’s below what you’d pay to rent two films for the evening will be difficult to pass up.

Is there a better alternative?

Alternatives, we got: Netflix, Hulu (which can be bundled with Disney+), Amazon, HBO Max, Apple TV+ … the list goes on. But what Disney brings is something no one else has, and that’s the real genius of Disney+ (and the impetus behind the streaming wars). It’s something of a content hostage situation: They have it, we want it. And for now, it’s very affordable.

How long will it last?

Disney’s new streamer isn’t going anywhere — the mega-studio is in it for the long haul. What’s more, I expect this service to continuously improve as Disney finds its way in the streaming world. Expect more features and fewer bugs as time goes on.

Should you buy it?

If you love Disney, you’ll want Disney+, though if you’re not eager to see The Mandalorian, you may want to wait a bit. Otherwise, if you’re a fan of even one or two of these franchises, Disney+ makes sense from a sheer cost perspective. Just be aware that streaming isn’t easy, send Netflix a thank-you note, and get ready for some bumps along the way.

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