Apple TV deserves better than tvOS

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Year after year, one Apple operating system ends up getting short shrift when the company announces its annual updates at WWDC. While iOS, macOS, and iPadOS all show off their shiny new features, an overlooked sibling is left sitting sadly on the bench, waiting for its chance to shine–a chance that never seems to come.

I speak, of course, of tvOS.

And yet, tvOS is far from an also-ran when it comes to my household. A few years back I switched to consuming pretty much all my content through the Apple TV, and it’s put me in a contradictory situation when it comes to the set-top box: appreciative of how quietly and competently it does its job, and all too aware of where it could be so much better.

Off the grid

The internet is abuzz with rumors that the next version of iOS will allow for further Home screen customization, allowing you to put icons wherever you want.

But will no one think of poor tvOS? Not only do its apps remain trapped in the prison of a grid, but it’s never even gotten any of the other customizable Home screen features that the iPhone, iPad, or Mac have in recent years.

For example: widgets. I’d love to have the option of removing some of the apps from my Home screen and replacing them with widgets of my choice. I could glance at the weather, see the score of the most recent Red Sox game, or perhaps even eyeball a Home Kit video camera. It doesn’t have to be mandatory, but I’d like to have the control and options here that I have on my other devices: I’m not sure what makes the TV so special that it doesn’t apply.

In general, I don’t need a screen with 30 icons on it: it’s hard enough to find anything beyond the top couple rows as it is. On my iPhone and iPad, I’ve taken advantage of the App Library feature to move most of the icons off my Home screen; I can always get to them via Spotlight if I really need them. Why not on the Apple TV too? Yes, that might mean resorting to Siri, or search, or even the Apple TV app, but those are all fine by me, frankly. The long and short of it is that the tvOS Home screen is long in the tooth and for such valuable real estate, is really underutilized.

Watch out

You can already start to see Apple nudging its way towards the future of the Apple TV in the latest version of the Apple TV…app. Where you watch Apple TV+. (Seriously, the naming is one of the worst parts of this platform.) Apple has attempted to collect a queue of all the shows you watch in a single location, which is still very handy, despite two major problems. First, after all these years there’s still no integration with Netflix. I get it: they’re two big companies and they’re at loggerheads when it comes to discoverability and who gets the customers’ data. But at this point, it’s still the users who get trapped in the middle, so it seems like Apple should swallow its pride (ha!) and make a deal to get Netflix integrated.

Apple TV got an updated interface last December, but it feels like it could do more.


The second is perhaps a more pervasive problem, and it’s one that Apple can solve all on its own: the unfortunate tendency for the company to serve up its own content before everybody else’s. In the Apple TV app, this means that the queue of your Apple TV+ shows is easy to get to, but if you want to see the list including shows from all your streaming services, you have to navigate to an entirely separate section.

Moreover, you have to spend some time scrolling past ads for the company’s other content. Who exactly is this $99 box working for at that point? The customer who bought it to watch content or the company that wants to sell it?

Anything but integral

While Apple’s taken strides to improve the way the Apple TV works with other parts of its ecosystem, there are still a few places where I find myself frustrated by a lack of integration.

Passwords remain one. While it’s possible to login to apps on the Apple TV using your iPhone to access iCloud Keychain, there’s no native system on tvOS to do so. Why can’t my passwords sync over so I don’t have to drag out my iPhone to jump through a bunch of hoops? I’m still happy to use my iPhone or Apple Watch for confirmation that it’s me, as I can do with purchases, but it’d be nice to reduce some steps.

Likewise, the Apple TV is one of the few Apple devices that provides support for multiple profiles, but if you want to set up a user for, say, a kid, then you’re swimming upstream. Apple’s Screen Time feature for managing usage simply doesn’t exist on the set-top box, and instead of having one systemwide kid-friendly profile option, you have to painstakingly set it up for each app you use. It sure feels like tvOS could use a central set of frameworks that apps can use to provide a feature like this.

So is tvOS a respected member of Apple’s platform family, or nothing more than an also-ran? Hope springs eternal: we’ll have to wait until this year’s updates–due to be announced just a couple months from now–to find out.

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