Unlike the early days of iOS, most of Apple’s more recent “point one” iOS updates (e.g. 9.1, 9.2, etc) have added relatively few new features, focusing instead more on developer API improvements and bug fixes. With the release of the first iOS 9.3 developer beta earlier this week, however, Apple appears to have returned to making more significant user-facing improvements. In a similar vein, with the new fourth-generation Apple TV now running its own iOS variant — tvOS — developers can also get an early look at what Apple has in the works for the set-top box. Based on past experiences, iOS 9.3 should enter public beta within the next day or so, giving non-developers who have signed up for the beta program a chance to try the new features; it’s unknown right now whether Apple plans to offer a similar option for Apple TV users to try the latest version of tvOS before a wider public release. Here’s a slightly closer look at some of these new features in both iOS 9.3 and tvOS 9.2.
Updating to the Betas
As of this writing, you’ll need to be a member of Apple’s Developer Program to install either iOS 9.3 or tvOS 9.2, although a public beta of at least iOS 9.3 is likely to be arriving over the next couple of days. With this beta cycle, Apple has provided a new installation method that should make getting onto the beta much smoother than in the past: Instead of having to download the entire beta image and load it onto your iOS device or Apple TV via iTunes or Xcode, Apple now provides a configuration profile that can be downloaded directly onto the target device, allowing it to then update to the latest beta using the same Over-the-Air (OTA) Software Update methods as for publicly released versions. Installing the Configuration Profile on an iOS device is simply a matter of opening the beta download web page in Safari or emailing the Configuration Profile to yourself and opening it from within the iOS Mail app. Apple TV users will need to use Apple’s Configurator tool to upload the profile onto their device. Once the profiles are installed, the iOS or tvOS betas should appear in the same manner as any other iOS or tvOS update.
With this latest beta, Apple has even published a preview page, highlighting what’s new in iOS 9.3 — an unusual step for a point release of iOS. In the preview page, Apple highlights a new “Night Shift” mode, additional security and privacy for the enhanced Notes app debuted in iOS 9, along with improvements to News, Health, CarPlay, and new features for iPads used in educational environments.
One of the most interesting new features in iOS 9.3 is Apple’s new “Night Shift” mode. Developed in response to studies that exposure to bright blue light in evening hours can impact a user’s sleep cycles, the new feature allows users to adjust their screen to a warmer set of colors. The feature can be found under the Display & Brightness section in the iOS Settings app as “Blue Light Reduction” with options to toggle it on or off manually, adjust the color temperature, and specify a schedule for turning it on and off automatically — based either on sunset and sunrise for your location or specific times of the day. Much like using “Do Not Disturb” on a schedule, Blue Light Reduction will be toggled on at the start time and off at the end time, regardless of whether you’ve turned it on manually or not — so if you decide to turn it on earlier in the evening, for example, it will stay on until morning.
The Cooler to Warmer slider lets you set the color temperature, and it’s worth noting that even the most extreme “Cooler” setting on the left hand side is still slightly warmer than the default.
Update: Beta 2 reorganizes the Night Shift settings, replacing the reference to “Blue Light Reduction” with the actual advertised name of the feature: “Night Shift.” The section for the Night Shift settings have been moved from the main Display & Brightness settings into a sub-section that is laid out more like the iOS “Do Not Disturb” settings, with separate switches for “Manual” and “Scheduled,” and options to set a schedule and adjust the desired color temperature farther down.
A button has also been added to Control Center for toggling Night Shift mode on and off on the fly, placed in the bottom “apps” row between the Calculator and Timer buttons, rather than in the top row, where Do Not Disturb and other related mode buttons are located — an odd place for it in our opinion. Further, unlike the Do Not Disturb button, tapping the Night Shift button presents a menu with options to either turn Night Shift on or off “for now” or “until tomorrow.” It’s a bit unclear what these options do at this point, since either option appears to be overridden by the Night Shift schedule, if one is set, although it’s worth noting that if no schedule is active, the prompt will not appear when turning Night Shift mode off. We’re presuming that Apple is still in the process of tweaking this feature, so it will be interesting to see what happens in the final release.
With Apple’s move to a more robust Notes app in iOS 9, many users are probably storing a lot more information in Notes than they used to, considering that for users with simpler needs, the app can now hold its own against even more powerful apps like Evernote. A new “Password Protection” feature in iOS 9.3 now allows individual notes to be secured with a password, or to use Touch ID for authentication on supported devices. This can be configured in the Notes section under the iOS Settings app, and once specified the same password is used for all notes. Protecting a note is done via the Share button, where a “Password Protect Note” action can now be found beside the usual actions such as “Copy” and “Print.”
What’s particularly nice about this feature is that it doesn’t require that you secure the entire Notes app — anything you don’t specifically choose to protect remains accessible in the same way as before, with password protected notes instead showing a lock icon beneath the note name. The first time you access a password protected note, you’ll be prompted to enter the password or use Touch ID to confirm your identity, after which you can access that or any other secured note as long as you remain within the Notes app. Password protected notes will also be synced to your Mac via iCloud, and can be accessed in the Notes app on OS X 10.11.4 (which is also currently in beta).
The Notes app also gains a few new settings options: You can now choose to sort your notes by Date Edited, Date Created, or Title, although sadly this can’t be done on the fly — you’ll need to return to the Settings app to change it. Options are also now available to choose whether photos and videos taken in the Notes app are also saved to the iOS Photos app, and whether or not the local “On My iPhone” (or iPad or iPod touch) account should be available or not. Update: Beta 2 changes the “Password Protection” setting to read “Notes Password” but the setting otherwise works in the same manner as before.
Apple’s CarPlay feature has been gaining traction as new 2016 car models have begun including the feature as almost standard equipment in many cases. A great advantage of CarPlay, however, is that its features are controlled almost entirely on the iOS side, so most new capabilities can be added simply with an iOS update, without requiring any involvement by the maker of the equipment in the dashboard.
With iOS 9.3, Apple brings the full suite of Apple Music capabilities to the CarPlay dashboard. While Apple Music playlists and Radio stations were accessible via CarPlay before, iOS 9.3 adds the “For You” and “New” sections to the in-dash screen so you can more easily find music from your Apple Music subscription. The “Radio” section gets a minor reorganization as well, moving Beats 1 up to the top of the list.
Apple’s preview page also promises “Nearby” support in Maps via CarPlay, but as of this first beta, we were unable to notice any difference. We’re not sure whether it’s just not there yet in the current beta or simply not available up here in Canada where we tested the feature, but it promises to help you quickly find gas stations, parking, restaurants, and other points of interest while you’re on the go with simply a tap. We’ll be sure to report more once the feature appears and we’ve had a chance to take a closer look at it.
Update: The “Nearby” feature does appear to be available in iOS 9.3 beta 2, but for now at least, it’s limited to locations in the U.S. When traveling in the U.S., or simply starting from a map view in the U.S., tapping “Directions” on the CarPlay Maps screen will bring up a set of icons similar to those used in the Maps app on the iPhone, allowing a quick search for nearby gas stations, restaurants, coffee shops, fast food locations, grocery stores, and shopping centers. We’re not sure why this seems to be limited to the U.S., particularly considering that a Nearby search can be initiated from Maps on the iPhone screen while connected to CarPlay, and the results will show on the CarPlay screen, sans shortcut icons. We’re hoping this is simply a limitation of the current beta and will be available to a wider audience by the time iOS 9.3 is released to the public. Note: About a week after the release of iOS 9.3 beta 2, the “Nearby” icons began appearing in CarPlay for Canadian locations as well, and the feature will presumably roll out in a similar manner to other countries where Nearby is supported, if it hasn’t already.
iCloud for iBooks
While users have been able to synchronize purchased iBooks between devices for some time, other content types in iBooks such as PDFs were left out of the loop; you could synchronize things like page positions for PDFs that were already on multiple devices, but the PDF files themselves had to be loaded in using some other method, such as syncing from iTunes. iOS 9.3 now adds an “iCloud for iBooks” feature that fills in this missing gap — once enabled, all of your content in iBooks will synchronize between iOS devices that are signed into the same iCloud account.
In the iOS Photos app, a new option can now be found in the actions row in the Share Sheet, allowing you to duplicate a photo or series of photos.
Update: The second beta of iOS 9.3 adds a new setting in the Music section, allowing users to decide whether Apple Music songs they add to a playlist will also be automatically added to the user’s “My Music” library. Previously songs were always added to “My Music” by default — the new setting allows it to be turned off.
iOS 9.3 is also expected to bring improvements to the News app, although for now it appears that they won’t be expanding availability outside of the U.S., U.K., and Australia. The improvements will include better content curation for a user’s particular interests, in-line video playback from the news feed, and landscape support for the iPhone. The Health app also gets some improvements, providing App Store discovery to help find third-party health tracking apps with new slider menus on certain categories, and better integration with health data received from the Apple Watch.
With iOS 9.3, schools and other educational environments will also be able to make more effective use of iPads in the classroom, with the ability to setup shared profiles on iPads, a new Classroom app to facilitate teacher/student interaction, an admin portal for managing a school’s iPads and apps, and “Managed” Apple IDs that can be created for students by the school administration. Although it looks like these features will be limited to educational environments — rather than facilitating shared iPad use within families — it should definitely be an interesting set of enhancements for using iPads properly in the classroom.
Update: iOS 9.3 beta 2 also apparently adds the ability for accessories such as Apple’s Smart Keyboard and the third-party Logitech Create Keyboard to be updated via the Smart Connector, similar to how this works with Lightning-connected devices.
Apple has been a bit more quiet about what’s new in its latest tvOS beta, but the new version appears to finally add a Podcasts app, Bluetooth Keyboard support, and Home Screen folder support, among other things, bringing the new Apple TV more in line with its third-generation predecessor and its iOS counterpart.
One of the most unusual omissions in the fourth-generation Apple TV was a dedicated section for Podcasts — a feature that had been available on the Apple TV since the very first model came out in 2007. While users of the new Apple TV could stream podcasts from a connected iTunes library as before, the ability to view or listen to podcasts from the cloud completely vanished with the advent of tvOS. Fortunately, with the latest tvOS 9.3 beta, Apple has seen fit to put it back in the form of a built-in Podcasts app, rather than as an App Store download.
As one would expect, the new tvOS Podcasts app bears more resemblance in terms of features to the now-built-in iOS Podcasts app, rather than the third-generation Apple TV version. All of the functionality you’d expect from the iOS counterpart is here, optimized for an Apple TV screen, including the ability to search for podcasts, browse through featured and top podcasts, and view both a list of all of podcasts you’ve subscribed to as well as all of your unplayed podcasts. Playback works much as it does for the Music app, although it’s still 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 version), however if you click 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.
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.
Bluetooth Keyboard Support
Another odd omission that we lamented in the release of the new Apple TV was how support for external keyboards had disappeared entirely. Combined with the lack of support for Apple’s iOS Remote app, this made text entry on the set-top box for passwords and searches far more cumbersome than necessary, and the removal of Bluetooth Keyboard support seemed like a particularly odd limitation for a device that debuted with support for Bluetooth Game Controllers and Headsets, not to mention the Siri Remote itself. Apple addressed the iOS Remote app in tvOS 9.1, and now this latest update will be bringing full keyboard support back to the table.
Bluetooth keyboards will now be discovered under the Bluetooth settings, and can be paired in much the same way as on the prior-generation Apple TV. 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, and the F3/Expose button will bring up the App Switcher.
Speaking of the App Switcher, tvOS 9.2 changes up the App Switcher to a design more in line with iOS 9, presenting open apps as a series of overlapping windows rather than the older, side-by-side view.
Home Screen Folders
Now that the Apple TV supports third-party apps, it was only a matter of time before users’ home screens began to get a bit cluttered, and one of the things we missed from the very beginning was the ability to bring a bit of order to the chaos. tvOS 9.2 addresses this by adding the ability to organize apps into folders in much the same way as on iOS: hold down the Siri Remote button to reorganize apps as you normally would, and you’ll notice 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.
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.
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.
tvOS 9.2 adds back artwork-based screen savers as well — another feature that didn’t originally make it over from the third-generation Apple TV. If you’re an Apple Music or iTunes Match subscriber, you can base a screen saver on album artwork from your cloud-based library, using any of the standard screensaver styles (we personally like both “Cascade” and “Floating” for this). Similarly, if you’re using Home Sharing and have an iTunes library running, you can choose to instead 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.
Update: iCloud Photo Library
With tvOS 9.2, it looks like Apple will be bringing full support for iCloud Photo Library to the big screen. A new option in the iCloud account settings allows you to toggle on access to your full iCloud Photo Library. Once this option is enabled, the Apple TV Photos app will expand to provide tabs for Photos, Shared, and Albums, much like the iOS Photos app.
The Photos tab shows a timeline of all of a user’s moments, much like the iOS and OS X Photos apps, but optimized for the larger screen and Siri Remote navigation. Instead of a detailed timeline, the Photos view begins with grouping photos into date ranges, similar to the “Events” layout previously found in Apple’s iPhoto app. Selecting a date range will present the more familiar view of individual photos grouped by date and location.
A Shared tab provides access to Shared Photo Streams, and presents the standard view that users of the Photos app in tvOS 9.1 will already be familiar with. The Albums tab provides access to iCloud Photo Library albums, both pre-defined and user-defined ones, in a layout very similar to the OS X Photos app.
The iCloud Photo Library interface appears to be entirely view-only at this point, with no ability to reorganize, mark, or delete photos, although swiping up on the Siri remote while viewing photos in full-screen mode will display date and time information below the photo.
Update: Siri Dictation and App Store Search
The third beta of iOS 9.3 adds support for using the Siri Remote for direct dictation into text fields such as searches. A prompt appears in the search field that you can access dictation by holding down the Siri button on the remote, and you’ll be prompted to opt-in to dictation support the first time you try to access it. The feature otherwise works much as you’d expect. While Siri’s normal search functionality will probably still be handier for the Apple TV’s own universal search feature, we can see where dictation can come in handy with third-party apps that implement their own search dialogs.
You can also now search the App Store using Siri. This 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 Movie and TV Show searches work.
Update: Other tvOS Changes
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.
The Computers settings (for Home Sharing) adds a “Repeat Media” option.
Both iOS 9.3 and tvOS 9.2 are interesting updates for the new features they bring to the table. In the case of iOS 9.3, we’re happy to see Apple going back to improving front-facing user experiences in smaller updates, rather than just addressing bugs. With tvOS 9.2, the fourth-generation Apple TV in many ways becomes a more mature device, catching up to important capabilities missing from its predecessor — if you’ve been on the fence about buying an Apple TV, this latest update may be enough to tilt the scales. Keep in mind that these are still first betas, so we may still see some changes or even other new features before final release. We’ll likely be taking a more detailed look when the public releases arrive.