Apple have released tvOS 15.4. Its fourth release since publicly debuting last September, tvOS 15 continues to build upon arguably the most focused software cycle for Apple TV since its reintroduction nearly seven years ago. Featuring a host of enhancements, returns, long requested feature additions and hints toward the future, its finally time to jump into another fruitful offering from the TV team.
Video Player Interface
A redesigned video playback interface quietly debuted last year and has grown in stature and significance with each passing update, offering further flexibility and extensibility. Initially premiering with Chapter info and Content Tab support, the video player has since gone on to adapt to the current user activity with Apple Fitness+ metric and time display options available during workouts and Apple Music gaining the ability to add interviews and music videos to a users Apple Music Library during playback.
tvOS 15.4 further expands on those excitng developments by granting access to the Up Next queue within the video player, rethinking the playback interface as a gateway to content with just a swipe of the Siri Remote. Mimicking the Up Next queue we have grown accustomed to at the very top of the TV app’s Watch Now tab, this noteworthy addition is currently available during playback of Apple TV+, Apple Channels and iTunes Movies and TV Show purchases initiated through Siri or the TV app. My initial thoughts on the new integration did question how useful this could be in practice, and prematurely wrote it off as a feature for the indecisive amongst us, or for those who prefer to skip the credits at the end of a show and jump straight into the next item in their queue. It wasn't until last week’s Peek Performance media event that I started to realise how useful this could be for live TV.
With Friday Night Baseball mere weeks away from debuting on Apple TV+ this new integration could be especially handy for channel-hopping during live sports or tuning into breaking news. A potential perfect match for Apple’s long-standing live TV ambitions which could come to fruition at any moment.
As it stands the success of this new enhancement rests on third party’s adopting Apple’s video player for a consistent experience. Whilst there may not be much incentive for a third party service to want to link away from its own app, from a users perspective its what I'd prefer. The current experience links you out to third party streaming apps, but in doing so the lack of in-built Up Next breaks any consistency, causing frustration and confusion.
History has shown that developer adoption of recent tvOS API’s has been lacklustre at best and its hit and miss what route even the big players take - Disney's Hulu uses Content tabs and Apple's video player whilst Disney+ does not. My hope is that we see more from Apple within the developer agreement terms later this year, along with an over-the-top OS-wide Up Next that offers a universal experience users can trust.
As the video player continues to develop into something of a second home on Apple TV, one omission that still puzzles me is the lack of audio device options. Up until last year there was a easy way of selecting your audio device of choice from the playback interface. Whilst its nice to be able to auto-pair AirPods, setting up shared experiences with two pairs of headphones is far more laborious than it was before.
Other than that small gripe the continued expansion of the playback interface is likely the most exciting aspect of tvOS in years. The Apple TV experience is something of a fruit-salad of iOS design and user interactions from the past decade. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that the successful redesign of the video player hints to a design overhaul for the rest of the OS.
The TV app has also seen a number of server-side upgrades over the past year. New Apple TV+ and Store tabs may have been the headline grabbers but we also saw improved editorial as well as rows of recommendations based on titles from our recent watch history.
A significant upgrade joining those refinements within the TV app are channel specific Up Next queues. Now available for Apple TV+ and Apple Channel rooms, the new channel specific queue’s offer focused content browsing which quickly reminds you of shows you'd abandoned or forgotten to catch-up on mid-season. Sadly these are only present in Channels you are currently subscribed to, so if you are someone that dips in and out of your subscriptions and wanted the Channel specific Up Next queue as a way to entice you back - for now at least - you're out of luck.
Whilst currently exclusive to Apple TV+ and Apple Channels, you have to imagine that the end goal is to offer a consistent experience across all streaming apps. Apple can pull the data for third-party apps integrated with the TV app, so it would be fair to speculate that the ultimate goal would be to eventually add a customisable space with shortcuts to these rooms - and speaking of Shortcuts, a new set of Shortcut Actions would be welcomed to reflect the new direction.
It should be noted that both new Up Next implementations are only able to display one piece of artwork. For that reason users are able to choose between Poster Art or Still Frame by visiting Settings > Apps > App Settings > TV.
HomeKit Video Improvements
HomeKit Video notifications have been the bane of my Apple TV existence for the longest time with pop-ups continually interrupting my viewing experience, and despite the array of customisation on offer I ended up having to switch all notifications off for my front porch camera to secure my sanity. For that reason alone, the reintroduction of Snooze notification options is well received. Visible within the HomeKit camera full-screen view, the Snooze Button allows users to snooze activity notifications for 15 minutes, an hour, or until tomorrow, and in doing so the Snooze icon will turn purple to signal its sleep state - reminiscent of Do Not Disturb in iOS.
By far the most exciting addition to HomeKit Video feeds on Apple TV is the introduction of picture-in-picture. Admittedly, this passed me by during the Beta phase. It’s perfect for those times where you want to keep a close eye on a specific HomeKit camera whilst engaging in a Movie, TV Show, Game or Workout. On first view the feature seemed rather niche, but the ability to track the front door whilst waiting for deliveries over the last couple of days has proved to be invaluable. For the new-parents amongst you its worth considering a HomeKit camera as a cheaper alternative to dedicated baby monitors for use with this feature. The only improvement I could think of for this use case would be to have a noise notification for the picture-in-picture feed - and of course some way of integrating two-way audio, whether thats from connected HomePods, the Siri Remote or the Remote on iOS.
Captive Wi-Fi Network Support
The last time I tried to use an Apple TV on a captive Wi-Fi network was to watch an episode of Ted Lasso with a good friend of mine following a night of Champions League football in Manchester. That simple request lead us to re-purpose the Ethernet cable attached to the hotel room's entertainment centre and play a questionable game of furniture Jenga for an unsafe Apple TV viewing experience.
Captive Wi-Fi network support - also available for HomePod - puts those questionable antics to bed. Now you can use Apple TV in more locations including hotels, dorms, care-homes, hospitals - or even cinemas as my example shows. Just connect to the network and follow the additional sign-in steps through an iPhone or iPad running the latest updates for a straightforward connection process.
Apple Watch Purchase Authentication
With WatchOS 8.5 you can now use your Apple Watch to authenticate purchases and subscriptions on Apple TV with a double press of the side button. This also means that you now have the option of using Apple Watch as your solo input device without the need to reach for your iPhone or Siri Remote.
To set up this new way of authenticating purchases on Apple Watch head over to your Apple TV and go to Settings > Users & Accounts > Choose Account > Required Password > Purchases > and choose Always or After 15 Minutes. Now when clicking the buy or subscribe button on Apple TV, the default will be to authorize with a double-click of the side button on your Apple Watch, iPhone or iPad with the prompt automatically appearing on the screens of your personal devices.
Note that if you’re not wearing your watch and don’t have your iPhone or iPad nearby, you can still enter your password manually by swiping down on your Siri Remote and choosing "Confirm With Password".
Tap to Navigate
Absent since mid-August of last year, Tap to Navigate makes a welcome return under Physical and Motor options within Accessibility settings. Akin to Tap to Click on MacOS and iPadOS, Tap to Navigate allows you to lightly tap rather than physically click or swipe to navigate using the Siri Remote. It's been a preference of mine for many years but unfortunately at the time of writing the return of Tap to Navigate is only supported by the latest iteration of Siri Remote hardware despite the feature being available for the recently retired Siri Remote of old.
AirPods Enhanced Controls
Accessed via Control Centre by selecting your connected AirPods or compatible Beats headphones, Spatial Audio Controls have been updated with all options now displayed thanks to a better use of screen real estate. Those options include Spatial Audio options for Fixed or Head Tracking (previously hidden within Accessibility) and a toggle to Spatialize Stereo and Noise Control options allowing users to easily switch between Noise Cancellation and Transparency modes.
Audio Return Channel (BETA)
Lastly its worth noting that some Apple TV and HomePod users lacking Atmos output on third party devices via eARC/ARC since updating to tvOS 15.4 should disable and re-enable the Audio Return Channel (Beta) option by going to Settings > Video and Audio > Audio Output.
tvOS 15.4 is another impressive release full of refinements and late additions that improve the overall Apple TV user experience. Whilst it would be disingenuous to say the latest update reinvents the Apple TV wheel, the foundations set over the past 10 months point to something special on the horizon. With Apple stepping into live broadcasts and WWDC 2022 approaching fast, all signs point to an exciting second half of the year. The challenge - as it has always been - is to get third party's to invest in Apple's vision.
tvOS 15.4 is available now for Apple TV HD and Apple TV 4K.
Sigmund is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of ScreenTimes where he began his Apple TV coverage in 2016. With an unwavering passion for Apple, storytelling and storytellers alike, he writes about Apple TV with a focus on the arts, development, tvOS, home theatre and accessibility. Sigmund also co-host’s Magic Rays of Light, a weekly podcast exploring the world of Apple TV and the many talents bringing our screens to life.