Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of tvOS 10

This week, Apple somewhat quietly released tvOS 10 to the public, following its unveiling at WWDC in June. Although tvOS 10 doesn’t have the comprehensive list of enhancements that its much more prominent iOS sibling carries, it does add a few significant improvements to bring it more in line with what iOS 10 introduced. It also makes some other minor enhancements to the Apple TV experience.

Installing the Update

You can search for the latest tvOS update by going into the Settings app, scrolling down to System and then selecting Software Updates and Update Software. You’ll also notice an Automatically Update option in here — if this is turned on, your Apple TV may have already downloaded and installed the latest tvOS update while you weren’t looking, but you can hit Update Software anyway to go out and fetch it yourself if it’s not already there and you don’t want to wait.

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You can also check if you’re on the latest version of tvOS by going into the About screen found under General in the Settings app, which will show “tvOS 10.0 (14T330)” for the current release.

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Apple TV Remote App

The fourth-generation Apple TV oddly debuted last year without any support for the iOS Remote app that had become a key component for many users of the prior generation of set-top boxes. Apple did slightly rectify that with tvOS 9.1 a few weeks later, but that was largely a stopgap, as Apple SVP Eddy Cue revealed that the company was working on a considerably better app that would deliver the full Siri Remote experience.

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Alongside the release of tvOS 10 comes the new Apple TV Remote, effectively a replacement for the former Remote app for iOS, which remains on the App Store for iTunes remote control, and has been renamed iTunes Remote.

The new app provides all of the capabilities of the physical Siri Remote on your iPhone, including the touchscreen and interactive keyboard features from the prior Remote app, a Now Playing screen with playback controls, and a button for issuing Siri commands.

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Further, the app includes a game controller mode as well. Once you’re in a game, a game controller icon should appear at the top of the screen which switches into a landscape interface, with a touchscreen surface on the left and two game controller buttons on the right. In this mode, the apps work as the Siri Remote would, including accelerometer and gyroscope support. It still won’t replace the experience of using an actual game controller, but we do find the larger iPhone has a much better feel for gaming than trying to use the more dainty physical Siri Remote.

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One other really nice bonus in the new app is support for interactive notifications, allowing you to easily bring up the keyboard right from the iPhone lock screen. This saves the trouble of going into your iPhone and opening the app — in fact you don’t even have to unlock your iPhone. A notification appears whenever the Apple TV is at a text entry prompt, which can be opened with 3D Touch (or swiping and tapping View on non-3D Touch devices) to bring up the keyboard right in the notification. If you don’t like this feature, or want to restrict it from appearing on the Lock Screen, it can be configured in Settings, Notifications in the same way as any other iOS Notification.

Dark Mode

For almost eight years, the classic Apple TV user interface was white on black — arguably a preferable design for a living room entertainment system. So naturally, when the fourth-generation Apple TV arrived, there were those — ourselves included — who found the new, bright “all-white” UI to be a little jarring, and certainly not well-suited to home theater environments.

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Fortunately, tvOS 10 addresses this with a new Appearance option found under Settings, General. This toggles between “light” and “dark” with the former being the standard tvOS interface that we’ve gotten used to, and the latter bringing the UI back into the third-generation Apple TV era.

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You can also use Siri to toggle more quickly between the two appearance modes without having to take a trip back into the Settings app. Simply say “switch to dark mode” or “switch to light mode” to do this.

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Note that Dark Mode should also affect standard overlays displayed when watching a movie or TV show. Apple’s built-in Movies and TV Show apps already display dark overlays, however third-party apps will have to be updated for tvOS 10 support.

Search Movies by Topics

When tvOS 10 debuted in June, Apple SVP Eddy Cue announced that users would be able to search movies by topics with Siri, demonstrating the feature by asking for Siri to bring up “high school movies from the 80’s.” In our testing, this feature doesn’t yet appear to be fully implemented as of this writing — one of our editors was able to make it work without difficulty, while in other cases, using the exact phrase that Cue used in the demonstration resulted in Siri telling us that it can’t search by topic.

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It’s possible that some back-end work on Siri is required before this feature is fully rolled out. Regional differences may also be a factor, although we tested the feature with two Apple TVs both set to the U.S. for language, regional settings, and iTunes Store accounts.

YouTube Search

While Siri on tvOS doesn’t get the full third-party SiriKit capabilities of iOS, Apple has added the ability to search YouTube directly. Simply tell Siri to “Search YouTube for…” and it will open the YouTube app and enter whatever you’ve dictated into the search field.

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The launch of Apple’s home automation framework has been fairly spread out compared to many of the company’s services, although it’s understandable considering the time it takes to build a critical mass of accessories compatible with the service. Despite this, however, the lack of direct HomeKit support when the fourth-generation Apple TV shipped last year was a big surprise to us — especially when you consider that the Apple TV already acts as the hub for remote access to HomeKit accessories. In other words, HomeKit accessory commands are processed through the set-top box, but prior to tvOS 10 there was no way to allow the user to participate using the Apple TV itself.

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The Apple TV is a logical place for controlling home accessories. It seems totally natural that you should be able to tell Siri to “set the movie night scene” rather than reaching for your iOS device, or even talking to your wrist. So we knew it had to be coming, eventually, and with tvOS 10 it’s finally arrived.

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Siri HomeKit commands can be used to adjust most accessories (e.g. “Turn off the living room lights”) and activate scenes (e.g. “Set the movie night scene” or even simply “It’s movie night”), and they actually work really well, and often more quickly than issuing the same commands on the iPhone or Apple Watch. About the only exception is that you won’t be able to control security devices such as door locks. These types of devices require authentication — usually via Touch ID or an Apple Watch with Wrist Detection enabled — and since the Apple TV doesn’t have any way of authenticating you, it will simply refuse to let you do anything with these accessories, directing you to issue the command on your iOS device instead.

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Fortunately, as of iOS 10 and tvOS 10 by extension, Apple has opened up the ability to query HomeKit security devices without requiring authentication — so you’ll be able to check if your doors are actually locked from your Apple TV, for example, but you won’t be able to lock or unlock them without using your iPhone or Apple Watch and authenticating first.

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tvOS 10 also adds HomeKit support for third-party apps, allowing developers to build home automation apps that can run directly on the Apple TV.

Apple Music

tvOS 10 updates the Music app, in an attempt to bring the spirit of the Apple Music redesign from iOS onto the big screen. The layout is different — after all, it’s designed to be used on an TV screen rather than a handheld device — but the same type of reorganization has been done. The top menu bar now puts Library first and foremost on the left-hand side, followed by For You, Browse, Radio, and Search, basically mirroring the iOS app layout. A Now Playing option also now appears at the far right if anything is currently in the play queue.

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The Library view presents a menu of the usual categories on the right side of the screen, with panning artwork on the left that reflects the albums in whichever category is currently highlighted. A Shuffle All option lets you start playing your entire music library (for those who are inclined to do so), while the other options let you dig down into Artists, Albums, Playlists, or even a list of all of the songs in your entire library.

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The For You and Browse sections have been redesigned in the same manner as in iTunes 12.5.1 and iOS 10, with new mixes shown at the top of For You, followed by Recently Played, playlists and albums of the day, and more.

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Browse displays a separate menu bar at the top of the screen for switching between New Music, Curated Playlists, Videos, Top Charts, and Genres, and again presents the same information that the new iOS 10 Music app shows in this section, just organized more appropriately for the big screen.

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Similarly, Radio includes sections for Featured, Beats 1, and Stations, and includes access to prior Beats 1 shows for on-demand playback.

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Beyond the front-end changes, the playback experience in the Music app remains much the same as in prior tvOS versions. Once you actually start playing a track, the same cover art display is still shown, and touching (not pressing) the Siri Remote touchpad will bring up the detail view. The song menu, accessible via the ellipsis or pressing and holding on the Siri Remote touchpad, now includes a Dislike option, and a new lyrics button at the top allows you to view the lyrics for the current song, if available. Unlike in the iOS Music app, lyrics are not available from the song menu.

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Full support for iCloud Photo Library was finally introduced with the release of tvOS 9.2 earlier this year — more than two years after Apple originally debuted the cloud-based photo service. We’re pleasantly surprised, however, to see that with tvOS 10, Apple is keeping it more tightly in step with its equivalent iOS update, bringing support for the Memories feature into the tvOS Photos app.

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The Memories section is laid out in much the same way as in the new iOS 10 Photos app, with a video clip at the top, a summary of photos below that, followed by People, Places, and Related Memories at the bottom. An option at the very bottom lets you save the memory you’re currently viewing as a favorite, where it will appear in a Favorite Memories smart album in the Albums section.

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The Places map from a memory can also be expanded to show a full-screen map view, complete with panning and zooming controls accessible by pressing the Play/Pause button.

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Unfortunately, this is the only way to access any kind of photo map view right now — unlike the iOS 10 Photos app, Photos on the Apple TV doesn’t have a Places smart album, nor are any kind of details available when viewing individual photos.

Quick Start

A new Quick Start setting has been added in Settings for iTunes Movies and TV Shows. When enabled (the default), this feature will begin playing a selected video faster in the best resolution available, even if the full quality version can’t be streamed right away. This is how many third-party apps like Netflix already work, but the iTunes apps on the Apple TV have traditionally waited until enough of the video stream was buffered to provide seamless full-quality playback.

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Users who prefer to always have the full quality version available before beginning playback — even if it means waiting longer — can toggle this option off to return to the previous behavior.

Single Sign-On

Sadly, while Apple announced that a Single Sign-On feature would be coming to tvOS 10, it appears that this has been pushed back to some unspecified point in the future. It’s unclear whether this is a back-end change that Apple has to make, or something that we’ll have to wait for until tvOS 10.1 ships.

Automatically Install Apps

iOS users have been able to set their iPhones, iPads, iPods, and Macs to automatically download purchased apps between devices since the advent of iCloud in 2011, so this is another one of those features that was perplexingly omitted from the fourth-generation Apple TV when it first launched.

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The good news is that it’s here in tvOS 10, and works like you’d expect it to. It appears users will be prompted to turn on automatic downloads when first updating their Apple TVs to tvOS 10, but the option can also be toggled manually in the Settings app under the Apps section. Once enabled, when you download a new app on your iOS device that has a corresponding Apple TV version, it will be automatically delivered to your Apple TV.

New Developer Features

tvOS 10 adds HomeKit and PhotoKit support to allow developers to create more powerful home automation and photo apps that take advantage of iCloud Photo Library. ReplayKit support has also arrived in tvOS 10, allowing developers to live stream games and do screen casting.

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As a result, there are some new options in the Privacy settings to allow users to see a list of apps that have requested access to Photos and HomeKit data. A new Notifications section in the main Settings screen also suggests that apps will be able to take advantage of a new notification system.

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As of yet this section remains empty — clearly none of Apple’s own apps tie into this system, so we’ll need to wait for some third-party apps to take advantage of it to see how it works.

Accessibility Changes

tvOS 10 adds support for Switch Control — an accessibility feature that allows users with very limited mobility to use switches and other adaptive device hardware to control the Apple TV user interface. The feature came to the iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch in iOS 7.

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A new Display Accommodations section in the Accessibility settings also adds the ability to adjust display features such as colors, light sensitivity, and white point to accommodate users with visual impairments.

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These features can also be configured as Accessibility Shortcuts, activated by triple-clicking the home button.

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tvOS 10 isn’t a huge update by any stretch of the imagination, especially when compared to everything new that arrived in iOS 10. Despite this, however, we’re pleased to see Apple paying more attention to the set-top box, and keeping it in step with new features that come to the iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch — a refreshing change from the very slow rollout of features in the tvOS 9.x series. With tvOS 10, the fourth-generation Apple TV now feels like it’s ready for prime time and can sit alongside its macOS and iOS brethren as a full member of Apple’s family of devices.