tvOS is the operating system that runs on the fourth and fifth-generation Apple TVs, offering a an easy-to-navigate television watching experience on Apple's set-top box.
With a full App Store, tvOS supports downloading a range of different apps and games that can be used on the Apple TV, and the interface design puts content front and center. Get to what you want to watch using Siri commands, the Apple Remote, or the Remote app on iPhone and Apple Watch.
tvOS includes several built-in apps like Photos for accessing your Photo Library, Apple Music, Podcasts, and Apple TV, an app that aggregates TV and movie content from tons of sources, including the Apple TV+ streaming service.
Channels are included in the Apple TV app, so you can subscribe to and watch content from paid services without having to open up a third-party app.
Apple adds new features to tvOS on a regular basis, and the 2020 update to tvOS is tvOS 14. tvOS updates never bring as many changes as iOS or macOS updates, but there are still some notable new features worth highlighting.
tvOS 14 introduces support for more gaming controllers, so you can pair the Xbox Elite Wireless Controller Series 2 and Xbox Adaptive Controllers with your Apple TV.
Multiuser support for gaming has been added, so each tvOS user can keep track of their game levels, leaderboards, and invitations when playing Apple TV games. A new option allows a screensaver family to be picked manually, so you don't have to sit through random swapping.
There's now a Home section in Control Center on the Apple TV, which is a great way to control your HomeKit-connected products right on your TV. There's even an option to view HomeKit camera feeds on the big screen.
Picture in Picture mode lets you watch a movie while you work out, watch a sports game, or open up a news app, and Audio Sharing support lets two sets of AirPods be connected to an Apple TV so two people can listen without disturbing others in the room.
AirPlay allows 4K videos to be shared from the Photos app and viewed in full resolution or watched in Picture in Picture mode, and for the first time, tvOS 14 will let you watch YouTube videos in 4K, though this feature is still rolling out from YouTube.
Apple released the tvOS 14 update in September of 2020. It can be installed on the fourth and fifth-generation Apple TV models.
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New Feature Additions in tvOS 14
tvOS doesn't get as many updates and feature changes as some of Apple's other operating systems, but Apple does add new capabilities every fall in each refreshed version of tvOS.
tvOS 14, which is being beta tested right now and is set to be released later in 2020, introduces a handful of useful changes that are worth highlighting.
Picture in Picture
Picture in Picture mode lets you view movies, TV shows, or apps in a small window in a corner of the screen while you also do something else on the Apple TV.
You can watch a movie while you work out, watch a sports game while playing a game, or open up a news app to see the daily headlines without missing your favorite TV show.
New AirPods Features
Audio Sharing support for the Apple TV lets two sets of AirPods be connected to a single Apple TV so two people can listen to a TV show or movie without disturbing the others in the room.
Apple added Home controls to tvOS 14, which allows some HomeKit-connected devices to be viewed and controlled right from the Apple TV's Control Center. There's an option to view HomeKit camera feeds on the bigger screen of the television, and they can also be watched in Picture in Picture mode.
4K Video Streaming
tvOS 14 will let you watch YouTube videos in 4K for the first time, adding support for YouTube's 4K video codec, but YouTube still needs to update its app for the feature to work. It also allows for 4K videos to be shared from the Photos app in full resolution or watched in Picture-in-Picture mode.
Multiuser Support for Gaming
If you have multiple people who use the Apple TV in your home and who like to play games using Apple Arcade, each tvOS user can now keep track of their individual game levels, leaderboards, and invitations.
Game progress is also saved per user so multiple people can play the same game.
More Gaming Controller Support
tvOS 14 adds support for additional gaming controllers that can be paired with the Apple TV for playing tvOS games. The Apple TV supports the Xbox Elite Wireless Controller Series 2 and Xbox Adaptive Controllers.
There's a new option to choose a screensaver in tvOS 14. In prior versions of tvOS, screensavers could not be picked manually and were shown randomly.
tvOS 14 lets a specific screensaver group be picked, like ocean, space, or cities, and Apple TV cycles between screensavers of that type.
Main tvOS Features
The Apple TV app is Apple's one-stop spot for keeping up with TV shows you like, finding new content, and getting recommendations. The overall app interface features sections for Movies, TV Shows, Sports, and Kids content at the top on both Apple TV and iPhone, while Library houses a list of content that you've purchased from iTunes.
"Watch Now" with its "Up Next" function is still front and center in the TV app, but there's a new machine learning-based recommendation engine that surfaces personalized content suggestions for you based on what you like to watch.
Up Next continues to keep track of what you're watching so you'll never forget what episode of a TV show you're on or where you left off watching a movie, while the "For You" recommendation feature draws in content from more than 150 streaming apps, including Hulu, Amazon Prime, DirecTV Now, PlayStation Vue, and more. In addition to the "For You" section, the TV app also offers "Because you watched..." recommendations much like Netflix.
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The TV app includes a "Channels" section, which is a key services feature that Apple introduced in 2019. Channels are subscription services that you can sign up for and watch within the TV app without having to open up another app.
So, for example, if you come across a show you want to watch on your iPhone or Apple TV that's on Showtime, you can tap to subscribe to Showtime right in the TV app, and then you can watch that show without leaving the app.
Some of the Channels that are supported include CBS All Access, Starz, Showtime, HBO, Nickelodeon, Mubi, The History Channel Vault, Comedy Central Now, and AMC+. Apple has also started offering special bundle pricing to Apple TV+ subscribers, and Apple TV+ users can pay $9.99 per month to watch both CBS All Access and Showtime.
You'll still get recommendations for content from services that aren't a part of Channels, so while Hulu isn't something you can subscribe to and watch in the TV app itself (you need to watch Hulu content in the Hulu app), you can still see Hulu content suggestions just like the original TV app.
The TV app is available on iPhones, iPads, the Apple TV, and the Mac. Apple has also brought the Apple TV app to Roku and the Amazon Fire TV, plus smart TV offerings from companies that include Sony and Samsung.
Apple TV+ is Apple's streaming television service, which launched in November 2019. Apple TV+ offers all of Apple's original TV shows and movies, such as "For All Mankind," "Dickinson," "Servant," and "The Morning Show."
Apple TV+ costs $4.99 per month, and up to six members of a family can share access to one subscription using Family Sharing. Apple is giving all customers who purchase an iPad, iPhone, Mac, or Apple TV as of September 10, 2019, a free one-year subscription to Apple TV+.
For more information on Apple TV+, make sure to check out our Apple TV+ guide.
Original TV Shows and Movies
Apple has more than two dozen original television shows and movies in the works, many with high-profile actors, actresses, directors, and producers. We have a full guide with a list of all of the TV and movie projects Apple has in development available here.
tvOS supports games designed for the Apple TV, including those independently developed for tvOS and those available through Apple Arcade, Apple's $4.99 per month gaming subscription service. Apple Arcade provides access to more than a hundred games on iPhone, iPad, Apple TV, and Mac, all with no additional in-app purchases or ads.
Games can be played using the Apple Remote, a game controller designed for iOS, or a console game controller like the popular DualShock controller from PlayStation.
Siri on the Apple TV is activated by pressing the dedicated Siri button on the Siri Remote and then speaking a command. Siri can respond to a huge range of requests on the Apple TV, doing everything from offering up movie recommendations to revealing the actors in a television show.
As on iOS, Siri can open apps and games and respond to commands that are more than simple content searches. For example, Siri can display sports scores, movie times, weather, and stock status. Siri can also be used to change specific settings with commands like "Turn on Enhanced Speech," a feature that boosts dialogue and softens music and sound effects, or "Turn on closed captioning" for subtitles.
Siri understands topics and can answer topic-based searches like "Show me movies from the 80s," or "Show me movies that feature dinosaurs," or "Find documentaries about architecture." Siri can also understand when multiple topics are included in a single command, such as "Show me spy movies from the 1960s" or "Show me high school comedies from the 90s."
A Siri feature called Live Tune-In lets Siri open up live TV content in apps with commands like "Watch ESPN" or "Watch CBS," and Siri can also find content within apps. For example, "find me YouTube videos with kittens" launches the YouTube app and show the relevant search results, as does a command like "find me comedies on Netflix."
Siri also works alongside a systemwide search feature in tvOS that allows searches to bring up content from multiple apps like Netflix, iTunes, Hulu, HBO Go, Showtime, and more. So if you search for something like "Harry Potter," all of the various apps where you can watch a Harry Potter movie come up. A list of apps that support systemwide search can be found in an Apple Support document.
One of the neatest Siri perks is a feature that replays content. During a TV show or movie, ask Siri "What did he just say?" or a similar command and Siri rewinds 15 seconds and temporarily turns on captions. Rewinding and fast forwarding can also be done with voice commands like "Fast-forward five minutes," or "Play from the beginning."
Siri displays information on the cast in a movie or television show when queried. Asking questions like "Who directed this movie?" or "Who stars in this movie?" brings up a list of the cast. Siri can filter based on cast, director, date, or age rating.
With commands that bring up extra content, like behind-the-scenes information, sports scores, or weather, the information is displayed at the bottom of the Apple TV interface so it does not interrupt the show or movie that's on the screen. Tapping on the remote opens the bottom bar full screen, pausing the television show or movie that's playing, and it's simple to switch between tasks with a swipe of the remote.
The Apple TV, like the iPad and HomePod, can serve as a home hub that connects to your HomeKit products and allows them to be accessed remotely when you are away from home. For remote access to HomeKit devices, an Apple TV, iPad, or HomePod is a requirement. Otherwise, HomeKit products only work when you're connected to the same Wi-Fi network.
tvOS How Tos
tvOS 14 is designed to run on the fourth- and fifth-generation Apple TV models. It is not compatible with earlier versions of the Apple TV, as those models do not support tvOS.
More on the Apple TV
For full details on the fourth- and fifth-generation Apple TV models, make sure to check out our dedicated Apple TV roundup, which includes details on the Apple TV hardware.