tvOS 10 review: Taking Apple TV to the next level

tvOS is the newest of Apple's four platforms. Based on the same underpinnings as the iPhone and iPad, but with an interface optimized for sitting across the room, it brought the App Store to television and breathed new life into the Apple TV.

Now in its second season, tvOS 10 — it follows the same version number as iOS — promises to round out the core experience and begin taking it to the next level. That includes a new dark mode to better match home theater setups and better spare sensitive eyes. It also includes support for up to four gaming controllers and the ability to live stream game video to all the popular networks.

Siri is getting more languages and more features, including better movie search, YouTube search, and HomeKit integration. Photos now supports Memories, just like iOS and macOS, and Music has gotten the same new design language as iPhone, iPad, and iTunes.

Apple TV can also borrow your iPhone or iPad keyboard, make text entry faster, and there's an all-new Remote app for iPhone that includes Siri support.

The original version of the new Apple TV felt both late and rushed. So, how does tvOS 10 feel? Let's find out!


tvOS 10 Dark Appearance

tvOS 10 introduces a new, dark interface that better fits watching Apple TV in a darkened room, at night, or in a home theater. Re-introduces, rather, as a dark appearance is what all previous versions of Apple TV shipped with, until tvOS 9 debuted with a brighter, whiter look and feel.

You can switch between the two in Settings, or just tell Siri, "dark mode" or "white appearance" and it'll flip for you automagically.

Any app that uses Apple's default interface elements will be able to adopt the new dark appearance automatically. Apps and games with custom interfaces can use "trait collections", a way for developers to specify design elements, to similarly adapt.

I set my Apple TV to the dark appearance in June, thinking it would be a welcome relief. I wasn't nostalgic for the old look; a dark appearance simply makes more sense when you want the content to be the star. But over the last few months I've found myself flipping back more and more.

Sure, at night, when you're looking for a movie to really immerse yourself into, dark mode is great. It's also far better for people for whom bright white presents an accessibility issue. The bright interface can also be light and uplifting, though, and set off the content in a different and sometimes more pleasing way.

Now I really appreciate having both and being able to flip so easily between them just by using Siri.

It makes it even more mind-boggling that iPhone and iPad can't do the same.

tvOS 10 Gaming

ReplayKit is Apple's framework for recording and live streaming games. Developers have to implement it on a per-app basis, which is sad, but if they do, you'll be able to show off your skills on YouTube, Twitch, and everywhere else your friends and audiences are.

The bigger news for tvOS gaming, though, is gamepads.

At launch, the Apple TV could support 1080p 60fps video games, intelligently downloading new levels while purging old ones to ensure you never ran out of space to play. Despite those advances, it had a monumental drawback as a gaming platform: With very few exceptions, it required Siri Remote support.

Yup, Apple had a shiny new controller and someone, somewhere, didn't want to create the impression that it was less than capable in any area, including gaming. But it was, and so ridiculously obviously that top tier game studios — studios that otherwise would have raced to dip a toe into the hot, new Apple TV waters — decided to wait it out, and a lot of early momentum was lost.

A year later, savvier minds at Apple have prevailed. With tvOS 10, developers can target games specifically and exclusively for gamepads, no Siri Remote needed. What's more, tvOS 10 can support up to four gamepads — four! — so all your friends and family members can play.

As someone who grew up laughing, raging, and trash-talking friends around marathon Halo sessions, that's huge for me. So's the idea of playing Lego game co-op with my god kids. Online is fine, but nothing beats in-the-room multiplayer.

But, it's a year later, launch hype has passed, and so it'll be harder to entice those top tier studios to take another look at tvOS. Hopefully at least a few do, though, and like what they see. Then more may follow.

Meanwhile, I have another dream...

The mass-market for games remains casual. That's why Apple, despite having hardcore gamers at the upper levels, focuses on it. So, the biggest win for everyone this year would be Nintendo getting in on the tvOS action.

Mario Run has just been announced for iPhone. What would it take for Nintendo to start making their classic controllers and releasing them bundled with re-rendered versions of their classic games for Apple TV?

This dream might sound beautifully, profoundly naive, but thanks to tvOS 10, I think it's one that could finally be a reality, and for every major studio and franchise.

tvOS 10 Siri

Over the last year, Siri has become my primary interface for Apple TV. Rather than swipe and click my way around the focus interface, I simply tell Siri what I want, and Siri gives it to me. It's already international and already supports multiple languages, even concurrently — I can ask to play a movie in French, and give the title of the movie in English. With tvOS 10, though, Apple's making Siri even better.

Now you can specify types of movies: "Show me sci-fi movies" or "show me movies about time travel." You can even specify multiple criteria. "Show me sci-fi moves for kids" or "show me musicals from the 1970s."

Siri lives in the cloud, so Apple can adjust, expand, and update things like popular genres at any time. Once in a while that's confusing — I swear "superheroes" worked for a while but currently doesn't. Other times it's fantastic, as the latest hot trend at the cinema just works on Apple TV.

Siri can also search YouTube now. And just as delightfully and ludicrously as you'd expect. "Search YouTube for WWDC karaoke." "Search YouTube for iPhone unboxing."

I do wish Siri would persist more like it does now on macOS. When you say "Show me The West Wing Season 2" it pops up immediately, but when the episode ends it throws you back to wherever you were in the focus interface, not where you were in Siri. And that kills your ability to keep on watching.

There's still no voice activation, either. So no "Hey, Siri". Apple TV doesn't have a high number of beam-forming mics, like some home assistant boxes, nor is the use case as clear in a multi-person environment. But I'd love to see some implementation of it eventually.

There's also quite a lot an iPhone or iPad can access via Siri that Apple TV can't, especially anything requiring web access. I understand the desire not to have web frameworks exposed on a television, but it leaves a gap.

With the whole family gathered around the TV, when and where better to look up something in Wikipedia or get an answer from Wolfram Alpha? Perhaps iOS 10-style Siri apps, when they're brought to Apple TV, will take care of that.

One item that was at the top of my personal Siri wish-list did get checked off with tvOS 10, though — HomeKit.

tvOS 10 HomeKit

HomeKit is Apple's framework for home automation. It provides a consistent, secure, and voice-activated way for accessories to be coordinated and controlled. It's been working on iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch for a while, and now it's working from Apple TV as well.

There is one major limitation: Apple TV and Siri Remote don't have Touch ID or heart-rate sensors to authenticate you the way iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch do, so you can't control anything that requires authentication. That includes garage door openers or door locks.

It might sound inconvenient but it's really about security. If someone gets a hold of your Siri remote and changes the colors of your lights, it's annoying. If they open your doors to intruders, it's potentially life-threatening.

There's also no Home app for tvOS yet, like the one just introduced to iPhone and iPad with iOS 10. Apple TV is a very different device with a very different interactivity model, which makes it less than ideal for the type of set up and management Home excels at. Still, for times when Siri isn't appropriate, it'd be great to have a focus interface version of the Home app to handle the basics.

Otherwise, the implementation is excellent. I have most of the lights in my house hooked up to it, and even the LED panels in my studio, through a smart plug. I love using them when I watch TV shows and movies. I can make my living room look like a Tatooine sunrise or Arrow green.

I wasn't sure I'd need to use it on Apple TV, though. I'm never more than a few feet away from my iPhone or iPad, and "Hey, Siri!" is really effective. But then I started paying attention to what I was doing.

Previously, I had to change devices or contexts to activate Siri. I had to either tilt up my wrist to use my Watch, or stop tapping or talking to the Siri remote and switch to my iPhone or iPad. Once in a while, I'd even forget what I wanted to do while making that change. I'd see a Tweet notification or something and dive into that. Yeah, brains are jerks.

Now, though, everything stays in one flow. I tell Siri on the Apple TV what I want to watch, and immediately tell my room how I want to watch it.

If only there was a HomeKit-enabled popcorn machine...

About single sign-on...

Back in June, "single sign-on" was announced as a feature for tvOS 10. As long as a channel made an app, and you had a cable or satellite provider that supported it, you'd be able to sign on once and gain access to all everything available from your provider. In essence, once you logged in, Apple would both store your credentials and show you all the channel apps available to you. Download, and you'd be automagically logged in and ready to go.

Unfortunately, single sign-on didn't make it into the final release. When it ships, I'll update this review to include it.

tvOS 10 Photos

Photos now includes Memories. It doesn't sync the Memories made on iPhone, iPad, or Mac. Instead, it examines the photos in iCloud Photo Library and creates memories specifically for Apple TV.

Some of them are awkward. Some are forgettable. Some, though, are pure magic. To see a face, a place, an event, or even just a moment that meant a lot to you in the past, and to rekindle it in the present… pure magic.

Since televisions tend to be far more public than phones or even tablets, you do want to be careful about what kinds of photos you let sync to the big screen. That's as true for Memories as it has been for screen savers.

Discretion is your friend, especially when the family is gathered around. Otherwise, it beats the old slideshows many of us were subjected to when relatives and friends came back from vacations.

And it really can help unbury things that would otherwise be lost in the mass of digital material we're all piling up all the time now.

tvOS 10 Music

Music on Apple TV has gotten a makeover to match the new look of the Music app on iPhone and iPad, and iTunes on the Mac. As a result, it's much more coherent.

Your own Library will blessedly be up front again, followed by For You and its new daily playlists. Browse will show you what's new, and Radio still has Beats 1 and other stations.

I still use Apple Music primarily through Siri, so my workflow won't change much. But for those of you who do browse through the app, the workflow — and playflow — is much, much smoother.

tvOS 10 Apps

tvOS apps can be badged now, just like on iOS. I typically turn badges off, because number counts stress me, but for those of you who want to keep up-to-date on all your updates, have at it.

Thanks to the addition of categories and better search, it's also become much easier to find apps on Apple TV.

Sharing them, though, is still painful. tvOS 10 attempts to fix that, at least a little, with automatic app downloads. Now, when you download a new app on iPhone or iPad, if it's bundled together as a "universal app", the Apple TV version will also download at the same time.

Not every developer will be able to support universal app pricing to make this work, of course. It's a step in the right direction, but what we need is a leap. Also, if it's tvOS only, then everyone is SOL.

iOS 10 considers app sharing to be so important every Home screen icon now includes it as a 3D Touch shortcut. Yet it remains impossible to get a great new Apple TV app and share it with your friends.

I get the challenge. Unlike iPhone, iPad, or Mac, Apple TV isn't a personal device; it's a communal one. Different people in the house might be using it at any given time, sometimes on your account, sometimes on their account. There's no Messages app or Mail, and Twitter has just launched but there's no Facebook to be found. You also don't want app share notifications going off while you're trying to watch TV or play a game.

That makes it tough to figure out how to properly send share links and how to show links that have been shared. It's another one of those problems that's easy to write about when you're not the one in charge of implementing the fix. Still, it's a problem that needs to be solved.

I'm holding to hope that there's some way to smartly use the Apple Push Notification service to share apps, with alerts only showing up when you go to the (badged!) App Store app.

tvOS 10 Remote app + Continuity Keyboard

When the new Apple TV shipped, it wasn't compatible with the existing Remote app for iOS. Apple updated the old app in short order but also promised a new app — one that could take better advantage of all the new Apple TV features — would follow. And followed it has.

The new Apple TV Remote app includes Siri support, so you can ask for what you want as well as browse for it. It also shows the cover art on its new now playing screen, and can double as a game controller. Thanks to the built-in accelerometer and gyroscope, that means you'll be able to play using your iPhone at least as well as you could with the Siri Remote.

The new Apple TV Remote app only has an iPhone interface, though, no iPad interface. You can run it on iPad, but it's the iPhone interface letter- and pillar-boxed. Which is terrible.

Apple TV Remote gets talked about on the Keynote stage but has been chronically, embarrassingly resource constrained for years. It's something Apple needs to un-constrain, because they're Apple.

The new remote app does let you use Siri to control the Apple TV, but only from within the app. You can't simply say "Hey Siri! Play The Flash on Apple TV!" and have iOS and tvOS figure it out. It's a complicated problem to solve, full of potential collisions, but given that I can control a wide range of HomeKit accessories from my iPhone or iPad, and can't even turn my Apple TV on or off, it feels like a problem that should be solved.

Beyond the Remote app, there's also a new continuity-powered keyboard feature built in. Continuity is the technology that lets multiple Apple devices relay and handoff activities from one to the other. With tvOS 10, Apple TV can handoff text entry to your iPhone.

When you get to a text field on your Apple TV, if your iPhone is in proximity, an alert will pop up and let you know you can enter text right there, using the iOS keyboard.

It's a nice touch and incredibly convenient.

tvOS 10 Miscellany

tvOS can be updated on the server side any time. Bugs in the TV Show app can and have been fixed, for example, without Apple pushing a traditional software update. Just like the content, parts of the interface and their behaviors are dynamic. That can make it tough to tell what's new and improved in tvOS 10 and what's been slowly improving over the last year.

Either way, a lot of the core apps have gotten a lot better, even over the last 6 months. The TV Show still won't autoplay multiple episodes of the same show the way Netflix does, but it will queue the next app for you to play. Baby steps!

More specific to tvOS 10, though, is the same kind of support for wide color that Apple is rolling out to the Mac, iPhone, and iPad. Apple TV doesn't have a built-in DCI-P3 display the way the Retina 5K iMac or 9.7-inch iPad Pro, or the iPhones 7 do, of course. We're starting to see high-dynamic range on television sets, though, and it looks like Apple has also built in support for the next-generation Rec 2020 standard as well, which is even higher gamut.

Everyone still wants 4K support, but that'll require new hardware. I've been to Dolby and watched both side-by-side, and 1080p HDR blows 4K away at normal TV sizes. So now I'm looking forward to having both.

Accessibility had gained switch control, a feature that enables navigation using single or multiple switches paired over Bluetooth.

TVML, the markup language that makes it easier for developers to whip up channel apps, also gets the dark appearance, as well as well as video embeds, overlays, a Now Playing tab, and more.

Multipeer connectivity, which came to iPhone and iPad wth iOS 7 but it making its first appearance on Apple TV with tvOS 10, makes it easier for devices to work together. Whether it's over the same Wi-Fi network, directly using peer-to-peer Wi-Fi, or over Bluetooth, they can discover each other and securely transmit messages, streams, and files.

In other words, it makes it more likely your iPhone or iPad app will "just work" when it comes to interacting with your Apple TV app.

Bottom line

tvOS is new and the Apple TV has a very specific purpose. Both of those things might seem like they conspire to keep tvOS updates on the short side. Yet tvOS 10 has several significant new features.

Setting games free from the Siri Remote, opening them up to four gamepads, enabling video recording and streaming, bringing HomeKit to Siri, an all-new remote app — it all makes for a smoother, more satisfying living room experience.

It feels like I spent most of this review pointing out not what's here but what's still missing. That's because I love the Apple TV. I cut the cord years ago and Apple TV is the only way I watch anything anymore. I want it to be amazing.

iOS 10 and watchOS 3 are huge updates. By comparison, tvOS 10 is much smaller. There are only so many resources and so much attention to go around. What's in tvOS 10 is great; I just wish there was more of it.

It took the new Apple TV far too long to launch, and it was far from complete at launch. tvOS 10 is a good step forward but we need a leap.

It's a super product. It means to be. It just needs the resources and attention to meet its potential. It's for that reasons above all, it's capacity to be great, that I've made it my only TV.*

Apple TV 4K


* With apologies to Richard Donner.

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