Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of tvOS 9.2

In addition to the feature-packed release of iOS 9.3 earlier this week, Apple also pushed out a significant update for its new fourth-generation Apple TV in the form of tvOS 9.2, adding home screen folders, new Siri features, support for iCloud Photo Library, and Bluetooth keyboard support for its newest set-top box.

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Oddly, Apple seems to be continuing the trend of keeping its Apple TV software packages a numbered at least slightly behind their iOS counterparts, although tvOS 9.2 at least brings the numbering back into the same major version group for the first time in a few years. That said, despite its similarities, tvOS is essentially a separate project from iOS, and Apple has made that even more clear with the fourth-generation Apple TV, which seems to have shed the internal build number similarities of past Apple TV Software Updates.

Instaling the Update

Much like prior-generation Apple TV devices, tvOS updates are installed entirely over-the-air; while tvOS can be installed onto a fourth-generation Apple TV via iTunes, there is no “update” procedure for this — a full erase and restore operation is required. You can check for tvOS updates by going into the Settings app, selecting System, Software Updates, and choosing the “Update Software” option.

The Apple TV wil notify you of the new update and ask whether you want to download it. Unfortunately, this remains a two-step process, with a second prompt after the update has downloaded to confirm that you actually want to install it, so you’ll want to wait a couple of minutes for that second prompt if you plan on walking away from your Apple TV and letting it install in the background.

Podcasts (tvOS 9.1.1)

The fourth-generation Apple TV notably omitted any kind of native podcast support, an unusual omission considering the feature had been available on prior Apple TV models since the very first one came out in 2007. Although you could still stream podcasts from a connected iTunes library as before, or from your iOS device via AirPlay of course, the ability to view or listen to podcasts from the cloud completely vanished with the advent of tvOS. It wasn’t until the first tvOS 9.2 beta was released in January that we saw indications of the Podcasts app returning to the big screen, and in fact Apple chose not to wait until this release of tvOS 9.2, but rather snuck it into an interim tvOS 9.1.1 update. Rather than releasing Podcasts as a separate App Store download, Apple has included it as a built-in app, much like they did for the iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch version of the app in iOS 8.

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Not surprisingly, the new tvOS Podcasts app mirrors the features and style of the iOS Podcasts app, rather than its third-generation Apple TV predecessor. Pretty much everything from its iOS counterpart is here, simply optimized for the Apple TV screen. You can search for specific podcasts, browse through the library of featured and top-rated podcasts, see listings of the podcasts you’ve subscribed to, as well as unplayed episodes from those podcasts. Playback works much as it does for the Music app, although it’s a little quirky — tapping on the left or right side of a podcast while it’s playing will skip to the next or previous podcast, rather than skipping only 15 seconds forward or backward (as the equivalent buttons do in the iOS Podcasts app). However, if you tap on the podcast artwork in the Now Playing screen to bring up the scrubber and then scroll down to it, the standard Apple TV ten-second skip options will become available.

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The new Podcasts app also allows you to access Stations you’ve created in iTunes or on your iOS device, in addition to creating new stations from within the app. Settings for any station can be accessed directly from the Apple TV, allowing you to choose which Podcasts are included, sorting order, type of media, and how many episodes of each. Similarly, you can subscribe and unsubscribe to individual podcasts, and if you hold down the remote button on an individual podcast you’ll be able to access settings to specify sort and playback order, refresh interval, and episode limits.

Home Screen Folders

The ability to organize apps into folders on your home screen is now such a given on the iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch, that few people can probably remember a time when this wasn’t possible. However, it actually didn’t come to Apple’s portable devices until iOS 4 in 2010. When the fourth-generation Apple TV came along last fall, however, it forced us to consider how we ever managed to live without home screen folders, as our Apple TV home screens quickly became cluttered with icons of apps downloaded from the new Apple TV App Store. While the third-generation Apple TV with its limited set of built-in apps didn’t really need home screen folders, it became clear pretty quickly that this was something missing from Apple’s original build of tvOS.

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Fortunately, tvOS 9.2 delivers on this, allowing you to declutter your big screen by organizing your apps into folders, in much the same way you can on iOS, with a few necessary UI changes to accommodate using the Siri Remote rather than a direct touchscreen. Holding down the Siri Remote touchpad button lets you reorganize apps as you normally would, but you’ll likely notice now that apps can be dragged around more freely than before — move one app icon over another one, and a folder should be created from the two apps.

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It’s a little fidgety, but it works, and our only complaint so far is that there doesn’t appear to be a way to drop an app into a folder without actually opening the folder. This is something you can do on iOS if you release your finger quickly enough, and it can be very handy when filing away multiple apps. The Apple TV requires that you drop the app in, watch the folder open, and then hit the “Menu” button to close the folder before finding the next app to drop in.

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That said, tvOS 9.2 does have another trick up its sleeve for organizing apps into folders: menu options. If you press the “Play/Pause” button on the Siri Remote after you’re in app organization mode — basically the option used to remove apps — you’ll see there are now extra menu options to move an app directly into a folder or create a new folder from the current app. You can still delete the app from here as well, whether it’s in a folder or not.

Moving apps out of folders works the way you’d expect it to; open a folder, hold the button on the app you want to remove, and then simply drag it outside the boundaries of the folder window. If you’re removing the last app that’s in a folder, this will also remove the folder. If you bring up the menu by hitting Play/Pause from an app that’s already in a folder, you can also move it to a different folder, or move it back to the Home Screen from there.

iCloud Photo Library

When Apple announced iCloud Photo Library in 2014, taking it out of beta early last year, one place that it was conspicuously absent from was the Apple TV, which only included support for the older iCloud “My Photo Stream” feature and Shared Photo Albums from iCloud. These features were carried over into the fourth-generation Apple TV, but only now with tvOS 9.2 can a user’s entire iCloud Photo Library be accessed from the big screen.

iCloud Photo Library can be enabled from Settings, Accounts, iCloud, and once switched on, will disable and hide the legacy “My Photo Stream” option — unlike on iOS devices, where using them both makes some sense in certain situations, the two can’t be used simultaneously on the Apple TV. Of course, since you can’t actually capture photos on an Apple TV for uploading to other devices, there’s really no reason to ever need both options.

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Once iCloud Photo Library is enabled, the built-in Apple TV Photos app expands from its previous Shared Albums view to provide separate tabs for Photos, Shared, and Albums, in a design reminiscent of the iOS Photos app. The Shared tab provides the original single-screen view that was seen in tvOS 9.1, providing access to Shared Photo Albums, with a summary of recent activity at the top, and the albums shared from the user’s iCloud account below.

The Photos tab shows a timeline of a user’s photos that have not been hidden using the iOS or OS X Photos app. While earlier tvOS 9.2 betas grouped photos into date ranges similar to iPhoto’s “Events” layout, this approach appears to have been abandoned in favor of a simple detailed timeline view, grouped by date and location, similar to how photos are presented in the iOS Photos app — although sorted in reverse order, with recent photos shown at the top of the screen. Unfortunately, while this is useful for seeing your recent photos, the lack of the higher-level month and year groupings found in the iOS and OS X Photos app — combined with the omission of any sort of search functionality — means you’ll be doing a lot of scrolling if you want to go back to older photos. Although we’re happy to have the photos appearing at all, it’s really not an efficient design at this point for actually navigating an iCloud Photo Library directly, and we’re definitely hoping Apple is still working to improve it behind the scenes for future tvOS releases.

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Fortunately, the Albums tab is a little more useful, providing a view of all of your iCloud Photo Library albums, including the standard pre-defined albums for Favorites, Selfies, Panoramas, Videos, Slo-Mo, Time Lapse, Bursts, and Screenshots. Notably absent are the built-in All Photos, Hidden, and Recently Deleted albums. Hidden photos are also handled differently on the Apple TV from the way they work in the other Photos apps — as indicated by the lack of a “Hidden” album, these photos won’t appear on the Apple TV at all, even if they’re contained in specific albums. In fact, we were surprised initially to see some albums that appeared completely empty in the Apple TV Photos app, since they consisted of nothing but hidden photos. It’s an unfortunate inconsistency in the way iCloud Photo Library works, although we can understand the value in keeping hidden photos hidden on a device that’s shared and viewable by multiple family members. It’s worth noting as well that, for whatever reason, album folders don’t appear in the Apple TV Photos app — only top-level albums — so this can be another useful way to hide away those albums that you don’t want to see on the larger screen.

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It’s also worth noting that the iCloud Photo Library is entirely view-only on the Apple TV at this point. You can’t organize photos into albums, mark them as favorites, or delete them, although swiping up on the Siri remote while viewing photos in full-screen mode will display date and time information below the photo.

Siri — Dictation and App Store Search

While Siri’s capabilities were quite limited in the original tvOS release — you could search movies and TV shows, and ask for weather, sports, and stock information — Apple has been incrementally improving Siri on the set-top box with each tvOS release. tvOS 9.1 added support for searching and playing Apple Music content, and tvOS 9.2 now adds support for searching the App Store, as well as using Siri for dictating text into fields, including spelling out passwords.

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When bringing up a text field, a message now appears letting you know that you can access dictation by holding down the Siri button on the remote. The first time you do this you’ll be prompted to opt-in to dictation support — after that step, it can be activated more seamlessly by holding down the Siri button whenever a text field is displayed. While Siri’s normal search functionality will probably still be handier for the Apple TV’s own universal search feature, dictation will definitely come in handy with third-party apps that implement their own search dialogs. As an added bonus, you can even spell out passwords with Siri, including special characters by name (e.g. pound, ampersand, question mark, etc), which can be helpful if you don’t have a keyboard or iOS device handy, although of course, you’ll be giving away your password to everybody in the room. A new option in the Apple TV Settings app also allows you to toggle Dictation on or off independently of Siri.

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Searching the App Store using Siri also works much as you’d expect: simply hold down the Siri button on the remote and ask it to “Search the App Store for…” or “Find apps by…” to search by developer, or other variations. Some searches like “Find the Netflix app” appear to take you right to the App Store page, while others, particularly those that result in multiple hits, will bring up the standard results overlay on the bottom of the screen, in the same way as Siri does for Movie and TV Show results.

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Sadly, even with the addition of iCloud Photo Library, Siri doesn’t (yet) gain support for the iOS 9 ability to search photo content — a disappointing omission considering the effort otherwise required to navigate a large iCloud Photo Library on the Apple TV. Similarly, support for HomeKit voice commands, which we would also see as a very obviously useful extension of Siri in the living room, are also still missing. That said, we remain optimistic that these features will be coming in a future tvOS update, but it’s unfortunate that it’s taking so long for tvOS Siri to catch up to even the most basic capabilities of iOS Siri.

Bluetooth Keyboard Support

When it was released, the fourth-generation Apple TV also conspicuously omitted support for external Bluetooth keyboards, which, combined with the lack of support for Apple’s iOS Remote app, made text entry on the set-top box for usernames, passwords and searches far more cumbersome than necessary. While Bluetooth keyboard support came relatively late to the third-generation Apple TV, its removal on the fourth-generation model seemed particularly odd considering that it debuted with support for Bluetooth Game Controllers and Headsets, not to mention the Siri Remote itself. While Apple addressed the iOS Remote app in tvOS 9.1, it’s not until this latest update that full Bluetooth keyboard support has returned to the device.

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Bluetooth keyboards will now once again be discovered from within the Bluetooth settings, and are paired in much the same way as on the prior-generation Apple TV model. Once paired, the keyboard can be used to navigate menus (with the arrow keys) and enter text, and if you’re using an Apple Wireless Keyboard — or another keyboard with similar controls — playback and volume buttons will also work as expected. As an added bonus, the F3/Expose button even brings up the App Switcher.

App Switcher

Speaking of the App Switcher, Apple has also redesigned the layout of this in tvOS 9.2, bringing it more in line with iOS 9. Open apps are now shown as a series of overlapping windows, rather than the previous, side-by-side panel view.

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Screen Savers

tvOS 9.2 also sees the return of another feature that didn’t originally make it over from the third-generation Apple TV — iTunes artwork-based screen savers. If you’re an Apple Music or iTunes Match subscriber, you can now base a screen saver on artwork from your cloud-based library, using any of the standard screensaver styles (we personally like both “Cascade” and “Floating” for this).

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Similarly, if you’re using Home Sharing and have an iTunes library running, you can choose to pull your screensaver images from not only music in your iTunes library, but even podcast, movie, or TV show covers, again with your choice of screensaver style.

Other Changes

tvOS 9.2 makes one significant UI change that may leave some users a bit confused — it certainly threw us when we first encountered it in the beta. In prior tvOS versions, sliding your finger left or right on the Siri Remote touchpad when watching a video immediately began scrubbing through the video, while in tvOS 9.2 you now need to press down on the touchpad to pause the video (or use the play/pause button) before you can shift the playback position by swiping. While the prior method was a bit more easily accessible, it could arguably be too easily accessible — it was easy to trigger by accident and lose your position in a movie or TV show — so we can see why Apple changed it. The ten-second skip buttons still work as before, however, so you may find it easier to skip multiple ten-second increments than go through the effort of pausing just so you can skip a program intro sequence.

Apple Music settings gain the same Add Playlist Songs to My Music feature that was added to the iOS 9.3 Music settings, allowing you to build playlists of content from Apple Music without adding those items to your own music library.

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Settings for iTunes Movies and TV Shows now gain new options for choosing to sort Wish Lists for movies and Favorites for TV shows alphabetically or by date.

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The Computers settings (for Home Sharing) adds a “Repeat Media” option.

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It seems obvious by now that Apple’s approach to the fourth-generation Apple TV was to release it with as much functionality as the company could deliver at that time, and then incrementally improve it with tvOS updates. While one could make a valid argument that much of what is in tvOS 9.2 are features that should have been there in the first place — and we certainly wouldn’t disagree — the reality is that we’re just happy that Apple is very actively iterating on the set-top box. In our opinion, tvOS 9.2 makes an already good product even better, and sets the stage for even more much-needed improvements in future tvOS versions. Key areas such as Siri support still need to expand to catch up to what’s possible on iOS devices, but we’re encouraged by the progress we’ve seen thus far. tvOS 9.2 is a solid update and a good indication of where the new Apple TV is going.