What is tvOS?

TvOS is the operating system that runs on the 4th and 5th generation Apple TV digital media player. It is largely based around the iOS operating systems, with added features designed to optimize app use on a television interface. The inclusion of an app store is the main feature that separates tvOS from older Apple TV software.

History of tvOS

TvOS 9, the first Apple TV-specific operating system, was released by Apple in September of 2015, available exclusively for the Apple TV 4th generation, which would be released in October of that same year. Before that, previous generations of the Apple TV -- generations 3 and lower -- used a variant of iOS called Apple TV Software, starting with iOS 4.

TvOS 9 aimed to provide an easy-to-navigate, simple television watching experience with a content-centric design and a focus on apps. It featured a native software development kit (SDK) to promote app development, and an app store for distribution. It also featured support for Siri and a universal search function that allowed users to perform a search across multiple applications.

Since the release of tvOS 9, Apple has released a new version of the operating system every year. With each release, Apple includes new features and expansions on the previous version. Newly released versions of tvOS are named to match the corresponding iOS releases; The first tvOS was released alongside iOS 9, so it was named tvOS 9 to reflect that.

Apple release dates for tvOS13

The current version is tvOS 13, which was made available to download and install on Sept. 24, 2019. It was released alongside iOS 13.1 and iPadOS. All app-capable Apple TVs -- 4th generation, 5th generation and any future releases -- can run tvOS 13. Prior to the official release, Apple released a public beta version of the software for testing.

On Oct. 28, 2019, Apple released tvOS 13.2, the first update to the latest version of the OS. It focused mainly on performance and stability improvements.

Soon after the release of tvOS 13, Apple introduced two new services, Apple Arcade and Apple TV+. Apple Arcade, released on Sept. 30, 2019, for Apple TV, is a gaming subscription service that gives users access to hundreds of video games. Apple TV+, released Nov. 1, 2019, is a video streaming service with original content and access to third-party content as "channels" within the service. Apple TV+ and Apple arcade are each available for a monthly fee.

Key tvOS features

Aside from the introduction of Apple TV+ and Apple Arcade, tvOS 13 comes equipped with a handful of new features and improvements upon past versions. The new features are:

  • Multiuser support. Users can now set up a personal profile for themselves on an Apple TV that they share with other users. Apple provides tailored recommendations to each user, and several apps allow for different user logins.
  • Control Center. The new Control Center allows users to switch accounts, change audio sources and put the Apple TV into sleep mode as well as manage other device settings. Users can access the control center by pressing the TV button on the Siri Remote.
  • Redesigned home screen. The new home screen includes new icons for several Apple TV apps, and allows for full-screen previews of new music, movies and games as users highlight the respective apps in the top row.
  • Picture-in-picture. Users can leave an app to do something elsewhere on the device and the video from the previous app will continue to play in a smaller frame on the screen.
  • New screensavers. Building on tvOS 12's addition of aerial-themed screensavers, tvOS 13 includes a new selection of underwater-themed 4K HDR-enabled screensavers.
  • Controller support. In the past, gamers needed to purchase Apple's Mfi certified, meaning made specifically for Apple products, controller to play games on the Apple TV. TvOS 13 now offers support for two widely used gaming controllers -- the Xbox One controller and the Dualshock 4 controller.
  • Original content. As mentioned, Apple TV+ features original content produced by Apple, featuring well-known actors and entertainers.
  • Redesigned Apple Music app. The music app has a new look and a lyric support feature that displays lyrics on the screen in time with the song.

TvOS 13 has most features in a version of tvOS yet. Updates in the past have included features such as:

  • controlling the Apple TV from a control center on all Apple devices;
  • enabling autofill passwords;
  • automatic connection to AirPods that are being used with an iCloud enabled device; and
  • compatibility with a selection of refreshable Braille displays.

Steps to update tvOS

An Apple TV will prompt users to inform them of available updates. Users of a 4th generation or higher Apple TV can install the latest tvOS update by:

  • going into the Apple TV Settings and selecting System > Software Updates > Update Software;
  • clicking Download and Install;
  • clicking Update Now.

The TV might restart during the update process, in which case it will present a status bar showing the update's progress. Once completed, the TV reboots, running the updated software.

Users can also enable automatic updates by going to Settings > General > Update Software and turning on Update Automatically.

Software updates are designed to mitigate problems and add new features, but in some cases, they can introduce new issues. Best practice suggests that users should hold off on updating their software right away, just to be aware of issues that crop up with any update. This can be the downside to updating automatically.

Usually, issues are relatively small inconveniences. However, sometimes an update glitch can turn an Apple TV into a "brick," meaning the device no longer turns on. Users can attempt to fix a bricked Apple TV by plugging it into a computer and using iTunes to restore it to factory settings. More commonly, a failed update will cause the TV to display a white screen with an image of a cord and the iTunes icon. In that case, users can restore the device using iTunes.

How to download tvOS beta

The most recent version of tvOS comes automatically installed in Apple TV boxes. However, Apple also makes beta updates that users can download to test pre-release software. A beta may typically contain new features, as well as pre-release bugs that are ideally eliminated before the release of the official update.

Apple releases both public and private betas. Public betas are available to participants of the Apple Beta Software Program, which is free with an Apple ID. The main aim of a public beta is to collect feedback on new features and bugs before official release. Private betas are only available to members of the Apple Developer Program and allow developers to build and test applications using the new update.

The latest beta, tvOS 13.3 beta 3, is intended for developers only. If a user has downloaded betas in the past, they can download a new one the same way they download any software update.

If this is their first beta, they can follow a series of steps to download it, either over-the-air or using a USB-C connection which is only available on Apple TV 4th generation. Users will need to have the latest version of Xcode, the interactive development environment (IDE) that Apple's SDK is based on, installed on their computer. Xcode is available for free through the Apple Store. Users will also need an apple developer account -- which they can create for free using their Apple ID at -- as well as either Apple Configurator or a USB-C cord.

Once downloaded, developers can use the beta to sideload apps for app deployment and diagnostics.

If developers wish to feature their apps in the app store, they must have a paid developer account, which can be a $99 individual account or a $299 enterprise account.

This was last updated in December 2022

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