Apple TV might not be getting an Amazon Video app anytime soon, but the latest software upgrade, available today for free, brings some new capabilities including new Siri voice tricks, "dark mode" and control for smart home devices.
Absent for now, however, is one of the bigger usability enhancements Apple promised earlier this year: single sign-on. Apple's representative told CNET that the feature, which eases setup of TV apps like Watch ESPN and FX Now that require a cable subscription for full functionality, is coming later this fall.
Here's a quick look at some of the new features available today in TVOS 10.0, the latest version of the Apple TV software. Many were first revealed at Apple's WWDC event in June, and we've tried many of them already in beta form.
If you check your box for the update (go to Settings > System > Software Updates > Update Software) and it's not available yet, sit tight. We checked our test box at CNET and it's available now, so yours should be coming later today.
Movie category search via voice
Now Siri, Apple TV's voice search system, can find movies by category when you ask for them using the voice control remote. Most of the categories I tried, from "movies about elections" to "movies about dungeons & dragons," worked as I expected. "Movies about Australian cattle dogs" failed, however...guess I'll have to rely on the Internet for my Blue Heeler fix. Category search doesn't work with TV shows or music, however, and as usual results are restricted to a (growing) list of supported apps.
This optional setting turns the background of Apple TV's menu screens from default white and light gray to black and dark gray. I prefer it to white overall, especially in a darker room. It will also reduce power draw very slightly for plasma and OLED TV owners, as well as the faint buzzing hum audible on some plasma TVs.
HomeKit smart-home control
The Apple TV will be able to control smart-home devices, like lights and thermostats, that work with Apple's HomeKit system. In Apple's example you'd say "Set the thermostat to 72" into the Siri remote, and the device complies. While most HomeKit functions are accessible using a phone or tablet, an Apple TV (or a newer iPad) is required for remote access and home automation tasks, like geofencing to turn on lights when before you approach the home. Check out our look at the Home app for details.
'Memories' for photos
Apple TV's Photos app gets a new top-menu item called "Memories," which automatically creates collections based on subject and date.
Redesigned Apple Music app
Just like on mobile devices, the Apple Music app on Apple TV gets a new look in tvOS 10 and access to new features like the Discovery Mix.
Automatic app downloads
When you download an app that supports this feature, like MLB.com At Bat or Zillow, to your phone, it's also automatically downloaded to your Apple TV. Some users might enjoy this feature but we found it annoying, cluttering up the Apple TV with apps we didn't necessarily want there. It can be toggled on or off in the main settings menu's Apps section.
How single sign-on sausage is made
All of the above extras are available now, but single sign-on will be added later this fall. I'm not surprised at the delay, actually, since this simplifying feature seems -- like so much about pay TV in the US in general -- brutally complex to implement.
Single sign-on is designed to allow Apple TV owners to more easily find and sign into the multitude of so-called TV Everywhere apps. These include HBO Go, Showtime Anytime, Nick Jr, FX Now and many others. Some of the most popular, like Watch ESPN, Fox Sports Go and NBC Sports, offer live sports.
Access to the apps' live streams and full selection of on-demand content is typically only available to people with an active pay TV subscription (cable, satellite, Verizon Fios or even Sling TV or PlayStation Vue) that supports the app. Typically you'll need the corresponding channel as part of the pay TV package -- so you need to subscribe to HBO on cable to use HBO Go, for example. Apple TV and other devices like Roku and Amazon Fire TV offer most of those apps now, but with other devices you have to sign in to each separately, using the credentials (username and password) associated with your cable TV account.
With Apple TV, signing into one of the apps will automatically log you into all of the others, hence "single sign-on." I was given a walkthrough of how the system would work in June after the WWDC announcement by Apple's representatives.
The first time you download and install an app like Watch ABC or CNN Go, you'll be asked to enter your TV (cable or satellite) provider and sign in with your user name and password. The second and subsequent times you install another app, say Fox Sports Go or Watch Disney Junior, you won't have to sign in at all. "It just works," as Apple's rep told me. You can also choose or change your provider anytime using Apple TV's settings menu.
The single sign-on function will also work across iOS devices (iPhones and iPads), so if you log in with your cable provider credentials on your iPad, it will sync with your iPhone and "just work" without needing a separate sign-in. You will have to sign in separately (just once each, the first time) on an Apple TV and an iOS device.
In addition, the TV app store will have a dedicated section featuring all of the apps available to subscribers of a particular cable service in one location. If you're a Time Warner subscriber, for example, the store will surface only the apps -- like Watch ESPN, HBO Go and FX Now -- that you have access to. At launch the system won't be able to separate out premium channel apps (it will show HBO Go whether or not you have access to it, for example) but it's still better than nothing. Note that Roku already has a section of its channel store called "TV Everywhere," but it's not customized to your particular provider.
To make the feature work requires cooperation from app developers and providers, and Apple's representatives declined to specify which providers will be supported at launch. Dish was shown on-stage by Apple itself during its WWDC keynote, while initial reports said Comcast was a hold-out. Perhaps those issues contributed to the feature's non-inclusion in this release of tvOS 10.
If it works well, single sign-on saves a a big hassle during Apple TV's initial setup and might even be a cure for those problem apps that occasionally become spontaneously unauthenticated, forcing you to sign back in.
Of course you could make the case that some of the biggest beneficiaries of single sign-on aren't regular consumers at all, who only have to sign on once per app, but tech reviewers like me who have to sign in to all of these these apps with every new device they test. I won't lie, I'm pretty excited to see it in action. Now if only Roku would do the same thing.