Wish-list: Let me back up (and restore) my Apple TV

Apple TV
Apple TV (Image credit: iMore)

I have two Apple TVs: One for my living room, and one for my much-tinier office TV screen to test tvOS betas and take screenshots. I didn't intend to pick up two Apple TVs — a result of my sister and I not coordinating and buying our parents the same Christmas gift — but I'll admit, having one for testing purposes is pretty nice when your job involves writing about Apple TV.

Setting up that second Apple TV, however, wasn't so nice. That's because, unlike your iPhone or iPad, Apple doesn't back up your Apple TV apps and settings to iCloud. If you purchase a new Apple TV and want to set it up, you're doing so from scratch.

Apps, begone

When it came to the third-generation Apple TV, you didn't have to set up much: You needed to enter a Wi-Fi password and your Apple ID, and hide any pre-installed apps you didn't care for. The fourth-generation Apple TV is a different beast entirely, largely because of its app population.

When you buy a new or second Apple TV for your house, you can automatically set up your Wi-Fi and Apple ID, but when it comes to reconfiguring your apps — and any personal data within them — you have to do it one-by-one, via the Purchased screen. Apple kindly offers a Not on This Apple TV section so that you can quickly see what apps you're missing, but it's a hassle: You can't batch download apps.

Those apps also don't retain their data and preferences unless they've been syncing to iCloud. If your games offer iCloud sync, you might retain levels and power-ups, but if they don't — or if the implementation is done poorly — you're starting over.

A version of iCloud's backup service for Apple TV could fix much of this, allowing you to keep your app data intact, avoid lengthy app re-downloading, and save your Settings customizations. Even if you didn't have a second Apple TV, a backup is useful in the event your current hardware breaks for any reason.

The other backup problem

Apple TV

Even with Apple offering a backup service, there's one problem iCloud can't fix. Many Apple TV streaming apps have their own separate usernames and passwords; if I have to re-download Hulu to a new Apple TV, that means reentering my information to log in.

This has been a problem since the first iPhone backup, to no great surprise. Apple doesn't want to be responsible for saving your personal logins inside an app, nor does the company want to make it easy to get into your other accounts if someone nefarious manages to execute a restore.

But there has to be an easier way. Some apps have built in pseudo two-factor authentication on the Apple TV as a way to avoid slide-typing with the Apple TV remote or praying password dictation works as promised: When you launch an app for the first time, it displays a six digit code and asks you to visit a website on your Mac to confirm you want to use your account on this Apple TV. This is a much nicer process, overall, for reactivating accounts.

Given the iPhone's support for Bluetooth and tap-activation, however, this could be even easier: For example, if you have the Hulu app on both your iPhone and new Apple TV, the Hulu TV app could prompt you to "tap" your iPhone to the Apple TV to transfer login data — just as you do during your initial Apple TV setup.

The design factor

Apple had a lot of work to do on the new Apple TV before it shipped last November, and important features got left on the drawing table for it to ship on time. That included high-value stuff like Dictation, full access to iCloud Photo Library, and some Siri commands — all of which are in the latest tvOS 9.2 update.

As such, I understand why backing up or restoring from backup wasn't at the top of the Apple TV and tvOS team's list: Ultimately, I don't think most users are going to have multiple Apple TVs, and the need to restore from backup is (hopefully) rare.

But there is a need there: App developers who install beta software may need to restore malfunctioning Apple TV units. Those buying a new Apple TV for family members may want to set it up with a lot of the same apps or logins as their own. And if your own Apple TV breaks, iCloud backup can save you a lot of the heartache of reassembling your app collection.

What do you think, iMore? Would you use an iCloud backup service for Apple TV, or are there more pressing matters Apple should deal with? Let us know in the comments.

Serenity Caldwell

Serenity was formerly the Managing Editor at iMore, and now works for Apple. She's been talking, writing about, and tinkering with Apple products since she was old enough to double-click. In her spare time, she sketches, sings, and in her secret superhero life, plays roller derby. Follow her on Twitter @settern.

  • Couldn't agree more. Surprised this request didn't come earlier. I've held off on getting a second ATV4 for this very reason. I just don't want to spend the time downloading all my stuff and entering credentials. I'd rather just use my 3rd gens.
  • The Apple TV needs to support HomeKit Siri commands and an updated remote with a lock switch.
  • Id like to be able to download my iTunes movies and TV shows instead of just streaming. I can do this with my iPhone, iPad and Mac. Not though the one device I actually have connected to my TV. Sent from the iMore App
  • Agreed, what's the point of having 64GBs if everything is streamed? It would be nice if Internet access wasn't a requirement.
  • Hi, I agree that AppleTV should have a back-up. Every time you restore the AppleTV you have to start from scratch. This is time consuming especially if you have a lot of apps. You point about logging in to each service is well taken. Since I am an Optimum customer I should be able to get a screen with all my apps (HBO, Showtime, CBS, History, etc) so that I can sign in to them at the same time.
  • I will disagree with you on one point. I believe that many people would have multiple Apple TVs. I have 3 in our house. Living Room, Master Bedroom and Daughter's Room. Mind you we don't have cable and these are the Gen 3 models so maybe we are not the norm. I agree with you completely that a backup and restore, even for the older ones is much needed. I hide quite a few of the channels that we don't ever use and it's always the same set up each and every time. Granted I only have to do it once per each one unless they add a channel we don't use or want and then I have to hide that one on all three.
  • I must be one of the rare ones out there as well - I don't have a cable TV package (just internet & VOIP service from Comcast/Xfinity) and use 3 AppleTV units in my home entertainment setup (1 in my bedroom, 1 in my mom's room and 1 in my daughter's room - which she uses mostly for mirroring her iPad screen to). I have two 9TB RAID arrays that hold an iTunes Library of music, TV shows, movies, and podcast episodes. I regularly add content to my iTunes Library which then gets streamed to my mom's room as soon as I can get it uploaded. All the units used to be Gen 3 units, but I replaced the one in my room with a 32GB Gen 4 unit because of the availability of apps and games and knowing my daughter likes to play a lot of apps on her iPad mirrored to the AppleTV, I thought getting a second one for her would be great and eliminate having to mirror many apps. However, the thought of spending several hours setting up another new AppleTV unit causes me to put off getting another unit. If I could just have a restorable backup from the main unit in my room and universal login setting that my daughter could take advantage of, I'd drive over to the local Apple Store and swipe one off the shelf as fast as I could lay my grubby little paws on it!
  • I miss the optical audio port. It was a great way to stream music to your sound system when your TV is turned off. Now I have to keep my old Apple TV attached to my sound system, so I need two Apple TVs to do the same thing one used to do.
  • I use HDMI connection cable to the sound system from the TV (and HDMI from AppleTV to TV) and after loading up My Music from my iTunes Shared Library, I just turn off the TV but leave the AppleTV and sound system on. The sound kicks off for about 3-5 seconds when the TV is powered off, but then it comes right back and plays as if the TV was on. I use and RCA HDMI equipped Home Theater receiver system. If your sound system supports HDMI, this setup may work for you to stream your music.
  • I wish I could do that, but my sound system only does video passthrough via HDMI, not audio. I tried that when first setting everything up, and I ended up needing a TOSlink cable to connect my TV to the sound system.
  • My system is getting on in age - about 5 years now - and it's fan(s) stop working now and then causing an interruption in signal to the TV (both audio and video) so I'll be looking for a replacement unit sometime this year. I never actually thought about it since I've always had HDMI audio & video passthrough on my receiver units, but now that I'm aware of it, I'll make sure to check any new unit that I might purchase has a&v HDMI. If your unit is getting long in the tooth, might be the time to look at a new one with this option, as well. This last one was fairly inexpensive at $100 on sale around Christmas time and that was almost 5 years ago, so I'm sure you could find a replacement unit for a small cost that can provide decent quality (this one is 5.1 Dolby with quite a few sound settings and room setup - distance & levels - options to get a very decent result).
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  • >> and hide any pre-installed apps you didn't care for.
    Wait.. the apple tv comes with bloatware?
  • Well said Serenity - I pray someone at Apple sees your column and takes it to heart. It's not only a pain when you have two or more Apple TVs, but what if one of them fails and you get a replacement then you have to completely start from scratch? Sent from the iMore App
  • I actually think this is a feature many users could use. Most people have multiple TVs, why not multiple Apple TVs? When I get my home I'll have a TV in the living room and one in the basement/den/whatever. Sent from the iMore App
  • Yes this is very much needed. I've put off buying a second apple TV due to not being able to setup from a backup. Also want one central login for my cable TV provider that then actives all other apps that require a cable login. Sent from the iMore App
  • I agree.
  • Serenity I think you might be surprised how many of us have multiple ATV's. I personally have 4 of the new ATV4. I also have 4 of the Roku 4's. This is the one area where Roku is far superior to ATV4. On Roku if you add an app on
    one then it automatically downloads on the other. The sign in is still one at a time. I just find it hard to believe how
    incredibly difficult they have made this. It kind of makes you wonder if they even use their on devices.
    Download app on tv 1, sign in. Go to tv 2 download app sign in. Go to tv 3 download app sign in.
    Go to tv 4 download app sign in.
    Delete app on tv 1. Go to tv 2 delete app. Go to tv 3 delete app. Go to tv 4 delete app.
    Love the new ATV4 but what a pain to set up or change.
  • Serenity, great article pointing out the need for ATV backup and restore. I think your assumption that most people only have one may not be correct. Many people have multiple TV in their homes, and therefore multiple ATVs. When you do have multiple ATVs, it makes a very strong case for the ability to sync to iCloud.