The first half of 2019 has in many ways mitigated the Apple TV’s usefulness. Early in the year we learned that smart TVs would gain support for AirPlay 2 and HomeKit, which were formerly exclusive to Apple’s set-top device. Then more recently, Apple launched a brand new TV app which will also live on both smart TVs and third-party streaming sticks. Following these announcements, it was unclear whether Apple was content to let the Apple TV become even more of a niche product than before, or if the company would put renewed efforts into the product to help differentiate it from new competition. It turns out the latter was true – at least to a degree.
tvOS 13 is perhaps the most substantial update to the Apple TV’s software since the debut of tvOS in 2015. That’s not saying a lot, because past updates have been relatively lackluster, but it does say something about Apple’s commitment to the Apple TV platform. Taken in combination with the redesigned TV app that arrived last month, this latest version of tvOS makes a strong case for Apple finally taking television seriously – particularly as the launch of Apple TV+ draws nearer.
The latest version of tvOS starts with an updated Home screen, which includes a Control Center pane, and most notably adds multi-user functionality, as well as expanded game controller support, plus a few other upgrades.
Updated Home Screen
The new Home screen in tvOS 13 isn’t a radical departure from what was previously available by any stretch, but it does look a bit different at a glance. The same grid of icons is present, but now the top row of apps is visually set apart in its own floating panel that Apple calls a dock. Like before, apps in the dock can utilize special top shelf privileges to display content of some type, but now that content stretches to fill more of the screen, and developers can even use top shelf to load videos from the highlighted app – without ever leaving the home screen. Developers can still use top shelf for a sectioned content row though, like they could before; Netflix is a popular example of this implementation type.
Besides the improvements to the dock and top shelf, the main addition to the new Home screen is Control Center, which can slide in from the right side of the screen like it does on the Mac. Control Center houses frequently accessed controls like Sleep, AirPlay, Search, and data about what’s currently playing; it is also home to the standout feature in tvOS 13: multiuser support.
tvOS 13 enables different family members to have a custom-tailored experience when using the Apple TV. Each user can have their own custom Up Next queue in the TV app, their own Apple Music collection inside Music, and more. This feature works particularly well when paired with the TV app’s channels feature, because channels content is all Family Sharing-compatible, so each family member can enjoy channels with a single subscription.
As I mentioned, the quickest way to switch users is through Control Center, which can be accessed not just from the Home screen, but even inside apps.
Game Controllers & Apple Arcade
One of the biggest missed opportunities of the Apple TV has been its poor gaming ecosystem. Although games have long supported using an external Bluetooth controller on the platform, gaming on Apple TV has just never taken off. Apple has another shot at this though, because the company is launching its Apple Arcade subscription service this fall, which will include support for playing games in the Arcade app on tvOS 13. While the company isn’t making its own dedicated controller for tvOS, it’s done the next best thing: added support for two of the most popular game controllers in the world. Both the PlayStation DualShock 4 and Xbox Wireless Controller will be compatible with tvOS 13, and it’s a sure bet that most, if not all Apple Arcade titles will support them.
All the Rest
Underwater Screensavers. Screensavers continue to be one of the best features of tvOS, despite how silly that may sound. Whereas last year tvOS added screensavers shot in space, this year screensavers are going underwater. The BBC Natural History Unit has partnered with Apple to produce underwater screensavers in glorious 4K HDR.
Apple Music Live Lyrics. I very rarely use Apple Music on my TV, but now Apple’s giving me a new reason to: lyrics can now be displayed on-screen in sync with the music you’re listening to. The interface for this looks particularly nice, a good fit for leaving on at parties or maybe even karaoke nights.
I’m excited to see tvOS get some love in a year when the TV app already scored a big redesign. It was an unexpected surprise of WWDC, especially when considering that tvOS 13 introduces multi-user support, a feature that still doesn’t exist on older and more significant platforms like the iPad. Supporting PS4 and Xbox One S wireless controllers is another exciting change because it gives me hope that, paired with Apple Arcade, gaming might have a life ahead on the Apple TV after all.
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