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tvOS 13’s small improvements make for a much better Apple TV experience

tvOS 13’s small improvements make for a much better Apple TV experience


Multiuser support, compatibility with Xbox and PlayStation game controllers, and more

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Photo by Chris Welch / The Verge

Apple’s latest major software update for the Apple TV, tvOS 13, includes a fresh coat of paint for the home screen, introduces Xbox and PlayStation controller support for gaming, and adds a long-requested feature: multiuser personalization. As Apple focuses on its upcoming Apple TV Plus video subscription service, it’s not leaving behind the hardware that shares a very similar name.

tvOS doesn’t try to reinvent the Apple TV experience, but it builds upon prior versions with a few improvements that make Apple’s streaming box better, which is exactly what you’d want to see from a major OS update.

New home screen

tvOS doesn’t drastically change up the home screen that Apple TV owners are by now well familiar with, but it does add some visual polish. The top row of app icons now has a dock in the background to visually distinguish it from the rest of the grid.

These are the apps that can display additional content at the top of the screen when you hover over them (recommendations, most popular, etc.). With tvOS 13, they can also now include autoplay video, which fills the entire screen. The Apple TV app makes the best use of this capability; you can swipe up on the remote to activate sound, watch video previews full-screen, and swipe between left or right to watch others. Most third-party apps aren’t yet taking advantage of this new feature, which Apple calls Top Shelf, but I’d imagine they will. Again, you’ve got to put an app’s icon in the top row for this to matter. 

Apple Arcade and controller support

Apple’s gaming subscription service, Apple Arcade, makes its way to the TV screen with tvOS 13. Launch titles like Oceanhorn 2, Hot Lava, and Sayonara Wild Hearts are all present on the Apple TV, and they (along with other games you’ve purchased) can now be played with an Xbox One wireless or PlayStation DualShock 4 controller. Some titles require a proper controller — no one likes using the Apple TV remote for gaming — and you’ll be informed of this when you attempt to download one.

I can’t say enough about just how much Microsoft and Sony’s controllers improve the overall experience of playing games on the Apple TV. Playing with the gamepad that you already know makes all the difference. The one hiccup I’ve encountered so far is that not all games show the right buttons on-screen, but I expect that will be fixed up over time as developers update their titles.

The Apple TV 4K, with its A10X Fusion chip, does a satisfactory job running Arcade titles, although a few felt sluggish to me. If Apple wants the Apple TV 4K to feel like a genuine console, it’ll need a hardware upgrade sometime in the not-too-distant future. That said, plenty of Apple Arcade games look wonderful on the big screen, and cloud saves allow you to pick up where you left off on the level you might’ve been playing on your iPhone or iPad.

Multiuser support and Control Center

Holding down the TV button on the Apple TV remote will open a new Control Center menu, which slides out from the right side of the screen. On Apple TV, Control Center shows the time, date, lets you select between user profiles, and offers shortcuts for sleep, Now Playing, AirPlay, and search. Unlike on iOS and iPadOS, you’re unable to customize Control Center on tvOS 13 or add other buttons. Maybe next year.

For the first time ever, tvOS now supports multiple users on the same Apple TV. You can invite additional users to add their profile directly from the Apple TV or by using the Apple Home app. Each person gets their own Up Next personalization in the Apple TV app, their own playlists and recommendations in Apple Music, and so on.

The following apps all support multiuser, according to Apple:

  • Apple TV app
  • Apple Music
  • Apple Podcasts
  • iTunes Movies
  • iTunes TV
  • App Store

Third-party app developers can take advantage of multiuser mode, but many of the biggest streaming services like Netflix and Hulu already ask you to pick who’s watching when you open them, so it’s kind of a moot point.

That’s honestly about it for major new tvOS features with this update. But there are a few other small additions worth mentioning.

  • Song lyrics in Apple Music: Apple Music gets some design tweaks in tvOS 13 and can now display lyrics on-screen in sync with the currently playing song. You can also swipe on the Apple TV remote to choose a certain line and skip to that part of the tune.
  • Picture-in-picture mode: The Apple TV app now lets you shrink down the video and position it in one of the four corners of the screen as you browse around for other content. But PIP feels half-baked in tvOS 13, as it only works with the Apple TV app right now — and only inside that Apple TV app. If you fully go back to the tvOS home screen, the video stops playing.
  • New screensavers: No one buys a streaming device for the screensavers, but Apple continues to add gorgeous footage that plays when your Apple TV is idle. After mesmerizing drone footage in prior years, tvOS 13 adds 10 underwater screensavers in crisp 4K.
  • It takes more effort to turn on the Apple TV: Apple made one change that’s getting mixed reactions from customers. It used to be that merely pressing the touchpad on the Apple TV remote was enough to power on the device, but that’s no longer the case. You’ve now got to press an actual button (menu, home, etc.) to wake the Apple TV from sleep.
  • Wireless audio sync: For cases where the video from your Apple TV is out of sync with the audio from your home theater speaker system, Apple has added a new feature that cleverly uses your iPhone’s microphone to calibrate everything and keep it matched up.
Image: Apple

tvOS very much feels like a release aimed at refinement and entertainment. And the introduction of multiuser means no more mishmash of recommendations.

Of course, a software update doesn’t address Apple TV’s biggest issue: price. With Roku and Amazon offering 4K HDR players at around half the cost of an Apple TV 4K, Apple continues to face an uphill battle. We’ve just gone through another fall product season without an Apple TV streaming stick or cheaper 4K player — albeit there’s a chance we’ll get something at Apple’s rumored October hardware event. But if not, and even as studies continue to show that Roku and Fire TV can be a hellscape of user tracking, I’m not sure there’s enough in tvOS to win over customers who are fixated on price.

But if you’ve already got an Apple TV 4K or fourth-gen model, there’s a lot to like about this tvOS 13 update.