Apple today pushed out a slew of public betas across iOS, iPadOS, macOS, and watchOS. But I’m here to tell you that you shouldn’t sleep on the other new beta released today: it’s for tvOS 17. After installing it, your first impression might be, “Hmmm... that’s all?” There aren’t any glaring interface changes or game-changing redesigns.
But the more you explore the Apple TV’s latest software release, the clearer it becomes that this is one of the more significant updates Apple’s streaming box has received in many years. It introduces FaceTime on the big screen. Control Center is so much better than before. And there are several new features that demonstrate the unmatched cohesion of Apple’s ecosystem across platforms.
If you’re going to risk testing an early beta, the TV streaming box in your living room is a pretty low-stakes option for checking out what’s new. I feel way more comfortable throwing tvOS 17 onto my Apple TV 4K than I would diving into iOS 17 or iPadOS 17 on a primary device — at least until a few more releases make their way out. In the unlikely event that everything goes sideways, you’ll need to contact Apple for customer support. But I’ve never had that level of headache with any tvOS beta in the past.
It’s got very little to do with streaming apps
Apple seems to be happy with where the Apple TV’s software currently stands for general entertainment purposes. The homescreen, as ever, remains a grid of apps — and like Roku, the company seems reluctant to depart from such a simplistic interface. If a content-forward experience is more your speed, you can always hop into the Apple TV app to access your Up Next queue spanning different streaming services, watch Apple TV Plus originals, or rent something for movie night.
tvOS 17 isn’t trying to reinvent any of this. There are now six icons in each row, so you can add yet another app to your main “dock” at the top of the screen, but that’s about as exciting as the big interface changes get. Apple no longer seems preoccupied with becoming some all-encompassing aggregation hub for streaming entertainment, and there are good reasons for this. The company’s pipe dream of streaming content from popular third-party subscription services directly from the Apple TV app quickly fell apart. Netflix refuses to play ball with any effort to create a universal watchlist outside of the confines of its own app — whether it’s from Apple, Google, or anyone else — so what’s the point? Things are now more fragmented than I’d like, but it’s the content owners and streaming services putting those walls up for their own self-interest.
So instead, Apple is making improvements and touching up areas of the Apple TV experience that it can fully control. And it’s starting with one of the iPhone’s first major ecosystem tricks.
FaceTime on Apple TV
Let’s just say the thing: yes, this absolutely would’ve been nice to have, say, two or three years ago while we were all mired in pandemic lockdown isolation. Better late than never, I suppose — especially when the execution is this slick.
FaceTime on Apple TV seamlessly uses your iPhone as a Continuity Camera (just like is possible on a Mac), so you can set it down on your TV stand with the camera pointed toward you, and you’ll appear on the screen alongside whoever you’re chatting with. You get the standard array of FaceTime gimmicks like Center Stage and even on-screen effects like hearts or fireworks that can be triggered by certain gestures.
And this iPhone-as-camera setup goes further than FaceTime and traditional video chat. You can also use it for karaoke sessions with Apple Music’s Sing feature, which removes vocals from songs and displays the lyrics on screen. Now you can enable the Continuity Camera function to show a video feed of whoever’s performing and apply visual filters.
Silly? To some people, sure. But it’s hard for me to envision something like the underpowered Chromecast with Google TV pulling off some of these features so smoothly. Apple is slowly beginning to flex its silicon might and put more distance between its streaming box and anything from the under-$100 competition.
Continuity Camera on tvOS is also open to developers, with Zoom and Webex already planning to release apps on the platform. Again, it feels late, but I’m sure these apps will still occasionally prove useful.
Control Center now lives up to its name
The thing about Control Center on the Apple TV is that you’ve always been able to just sort of ignore it in most cases. It’s there for those who want it (or if you need to quickly switch user profiles), but you’re no worse off just navigating tvOS using the Siri Remote and enjoying content without pulling up the collection of toggles and shortcuts.
This year, Apple is making Control Center what I’d consider indispensable and far more useful. The layout is tighter but more dense with information: AirPods and audio settings get prominent placement, there are plenty of buttons and switches for your smart home gadgets, and even some “how wasn’t this there already?” conveniences like a sleep timer placed among the other controls. No more dozing off while your Apple TV stays powered on all through the night.
I’ll never lose you again, Siri Remote
I’ve frantically hunted beneath my couch for the Apple TV’s remote for the last time. And it feels very good to say that. tvOS 17 finally adds a remote finder feature that’ll let iPhone owners track down the tiny aluminum clicker in less time. It’s not as exact as an AirTag, and I’d certainly prefer that level of precision, but the “warm, warmer, it’s gotta right here somewhere” animation on the iPhone is easy enough to understand and sure beats having no help at all.
Fixing hard-to-hear dialogue at the software level
If you’re neck deep in the Apple ecosystem and are one of those people using second-generation HomePods as the speakers for your Apple TV 4K, the speech in the shows and movies you watch will be getting much clearer with tvOS 17. An optional “Enhance Dialogue” setting will better separate what’s being said from all the other action happening and bring it even more forward in the center channel mix.
Voice enhancement modes are nothing new for soundbars and home theater gear, but we’re increasingly seeing companies also try to solve the “what’d they just say?” dilemma with software tricks; Amazon’s Prime Video service rolled out a Dialogue Boost feature for select content back in April.
Plus a bunch of small stuff — and more dazzling screensavers
There’s something mesmerizing about the Apple TV’s 4K screensavers. Before I even realize it, I’ll find myself staring at them for several minutes at a time in a zen-like state. Apple has said the final release of tvOS 17 will include “a collection of stunning new locations, including Arizona’s Monument Valley and California’s coastal redwoods.” These weren’t present in the initial betas, but hopefully they’ll be added soon. You’ll also be able to have Memories from your personal photo library appear as screensavers if you’re tired of the scenic aerial views.
The tvOS 17 update also brings with it a number of smaller quality-of-life improvements. Those include support for third-party VPN apps and behind-the-scenes improvements like upgrading Dolby Vision to version 8.1 to support an even wider net of HDR content.
You can start using the tvOS 17 beta today, and the final public version will be released this fall alongside the rest of Apple’s major software updates. There are still bigger changes I’d love to see: Apple is badly lagging behind at natively integrating live TV services like YouTube TV or Sling TV into its tvOS software; a live guide somewhere would really help everything feel less siloed. Amazon, Google, and even Roku are doing better at making live TV a core part of the streaming gadget experience. Apple’s never going to launch some live TV subscription package, so it just needs to bite the bullet and extend an olive branch to those already doing it well.
But if nothing else, it’s apparent that Apple didn’t forget about tvOS this year. Quite the opposite. The Apple TV is growing up into something much bigger than a Netflix box. If you’re paying more for it than other streaming players, it should do more — and now it’s starting to get there.