Will Apple’s TV app on Roku, Fire TV and Samsung kill the Apple TV box? – CNET

Apple TV 4K

Apple is still selling the same Apple TV HD from 2015 for $150. 4K streamers from Roku and Amazon start at $50.

Sarah Tew/CNET

This story is part of Apple Event, our full coverage of the latest news from Apple headquarters.

When Apple CEO Tim Cook introduced the current HD version of the Apple TV streaming box in 2015, he famously said, “The future of TV is apps.” Now an Apple app on a bunch of other devices could make that box obsolete.

Four years later, at the iPhone 11 event on Sept. 10, Cook and company once again took the stage to show off new phones, an iPad, an Apple Watch and more details on subscription services coming to Apple devices, including Apple TV. Apple Arcade is a gaming service, and Apple TV Plus is a Netflix competitor streaming exclusive shows and movies.

Just like at its March 25 event, however, the excellent Apple TV box itself went virtually unmentioned. 

Instead, we got pricing on those services, including an offer that basically makes Apple TV Plus a free throw-in. The key to that service is Apple’s TV app, which will serve as the home of Apple TV Plus. In other words, Apple TV Plus won’t be a standalone app — instead, its shows will appear in the TV app for subscribers, much like existing “channels” in the TV app, such as HBO and Starz.

Apple TV app 2019: Everything to know about channels, downloads, iTunes and Samsung TVs

Formerly exclusive to Apple phones and tables as well as the Apple TV box, Apple’s TV app is now available on Samsung TVs and on “Amazon Fire TV, LG, Roku, Sony and Vizio platforms in the future,” according to Apple’s press release.

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Apple TV+ shows like Dickinson will live within the TV app.

Apple

Exactly which devices is still unclear. Will the app only come to smart TVs from TCLToshiba and others that run the Roku and Fire TV smart TV operating systems? Will it end up on some or all of the streaming sticks and boxes from Roku and Amazon? Apple and Roku reps haven’t responded to my requests for clarification, while the Fire TV rep did not provide any additional details.

For this article I’m assuming that the Apple TV app will land on all such devices, including gear as cheap as the $30 Roku Express and $40 Amazon Fire TV Stick. I can’t think of any case where a major app released for the Roku or Fire TV platform appeared on some of each platform’s current generation devices but not others.

Just as the arrival of Apple Music on devices like the $50-ish Amazon Echo Dot makes the $350 Apple HomePod a tougher sell, opening up Apple’s TV app to a much lower price point does more to make the Apple TV box less appealing than anything its competitors could have announced.

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When Roku and Amazon gain the TV app and the iTunes TV and movies store, Apple TV loses a major competitive advantage.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Special Apple sauce will soon go with nearly everything

One of the main arguments for buying the Apple TV HD or Apple TV 4K is that it plays nice with Apple’s own stuff. It offers easy access to iTunes TV shows and movies, both for purchase and for rent. It works with Homekit and Siri and can mesh with the Apple HomePod. And of course you can use it to AirPlay music and video from your iPhone, iPad or Mac computer.

The new TV app now lets you buy and rent stuff from iTunes, so soon Roku, Fire TV and other devices will (presumably) offer the same iTunes access via the TV app. Of course you can already watch some iTunes movies on those devices via Movies Anywhere, but actually buying them from iTunes is something new. I for one would be psyched to see iTunes as an option in Roku’s excellent cross-platform, price-based search results (fingers crossed that actually happens).

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Meanwhile, Smart TVs from Samsung, LG, Vizio and Sony also support AirPlay now, and many will work with HomeKit, too — much of this was already announced back in January and has been rolling out this year. And AirPlay for Roku devices was rumored to be coming as well. If it all pans out as expected, you’ll soon be able to control video and music using your iPhone, iPad or Mac on any of those TV devices, while HomeKit support should add compatibility and control via Apple’s HomePod speaker — another arrow in Siri’s quiver as it continues its uphill battle against Alexa and Google Assistant.

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Samsung TVs were the first to receive the Apple TV app and AirPlay.

James Martin/CNET

Take away the Apple TV’s exclusive big-screen access to iTunes and other Apple extras and the device loses a big advantage, especially to Apple fans. It levels the playing field in a way that makes Roku and Fire TV even better bargains.

For example, once the TV app launches on Fire TV, the Apple TV 4K at $180 doesn’t offer any major feature advantage over the (also excellent) Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K at $50. Both offer 4K video with Dolby Vision, Dolby Atmos sound, iTunes (thanks to the Apple TV app on Fire TV) and voice remotes (Alexa for Amazon and Siri for Apple). In many ways (particularly voice control and its ability to work with Echo speakers), the Fire TV Stick is superior to Apple TV 4K, although its cluttered Amazon-centric menus are worse. The Apple TV app on the Fire TV Cube, meanwhile, opens up the possibility of far-field voice control of Apple shows (“Hey Alexa, I want to watch The Morning Show“).  

Then there’s Roku, the most popular streaming platform in the US. Its $60 Streaming Stick Plus, our current Editors’ Choice overall among streamers, has almost as many features as Apple TV 4K (the big omission is Dolby Vision), includes a 4K capable YouTube app (unlike Fire TV or Apple TV 4K) and also works with more smart speakers (Google Home and Alexa). The Roku interface is our favorite — as good or better than Apple TV’s in my opinion — and Apple has nothing like Roku’s exclusive Roku Channel, which has a bunch of free, ad-supported video.

Heck, both Roku and Amazon Fire TV recently announced their own sound bars with built-in streaming. Is the Apple TV app coming to those too? 

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Will these inexpensive streaming sticks cut into Apple TV’s sales?

Sarah Tew/CNET

4K streamers: Current features compared

Apple TV 4K Amazon Fire TV 4K Roku Streaming Stick Plus
Price $180 $50 $60
CNET Rating 8.7 8.9 9.6
4K Yes Yes Yes
HDR Yes Yes Yes
Dolby Vision Yes Yes No
Dolby Atmos Yes Yes No
Voice remote Siri Alexa Roku
Smart speaker compatibility HomePod Alexa Alexa and Google Home
Apple Photos app Yes No No
Plays iOS/Apple Arcade games Yes No No

To be sure, the Apple TV box offers more than just iTunes and AirPlay access. I awarded it CNET’s Editors’ Choice for providing the best overall streaming experience. Its touchpad remote is slick and innovative (although lots of people also hate its small size and confusing design), Siri voice search and commands are well-integrated, and its username and password sign-in are best-in-class. Audiophiles will appreciate that it’s still the only streamer to support Dolby Atmos from Netflix. And Apple fans can point to the fact that it’s the only streamer with iOS games as well as Arcade, complete with PS4 and Xbox One controller support and Apple’s Photos app on the TV. Plus its mesmerizing screensavers are top-notch.

But how much is that worth to you, especially on a secondary TV? Buying a cheap Roku or Amazon stick for those sets, or a cheap TV with Roku or Fire TV built in, is tempting — even for hardcore Apple fans.

What’s next for Apple TV (the box)?

When Apple first made its walled-garden-breaking announcement in March, I called it a death knell for the Apple TV. Maybe that was an overstatement. Apple is ultimately the one in control of how the TV app’s features are implemented on Roku, Fire TV and other devices. 

In fact, it already limits the capability of the TV app on Samsung TVs, where the app only includes iTunes TV shows and movies as well as any Apple TV channels (including, presumably, Apple TV Plus) to which you’ve subscribed. It doesn’t integrate any content from Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, ESPN and other apps that are part of the TV app on Apple TV. I’m guessing the TV app on other non-Apple devices will be similarly restricted, when it arrives.

And as I mentioned, Apple could omit the TV app from some devices in those third-party ecosystems, perhaps for a different reason. Maybe the app won’t perform well on the lowest-end devices like the $30 Roku Express, for example. 

And of course there’s always a market for devices “designed by Apple in Cupertino.” Certain Apple owners will always want the genuine TV hardware to accompany their phones, tablets and computers, and maybe that’s enough to keep sales of the box brisk enough for Apple’s hobby. If nothing else, Apple could use some hardware to line its store shelves.

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Without exclusive access to Apple’s special sauce, how will the Apple TV stand out?

Sarah Tew/CNET

If Apple wants to really jump-start Apple TV Plus, however, an all-new Apple TV could help. The service launches on Nov. 1, so launching a new flagship 4K box before then isn’t out of the question. As rumored for the September event, it could have HDMI 2.1, a new A12 (or even A13) processor or other extras to make enthusiasts want to step up.

Maybe Apple will try its hand at device control, or integrate a Siri speaker, similar to the Fire TV Cube. Maybe it will double down on gaming and sell a controller-equipped version that works well with Apple Arcade. (see also: Nvidia Shield). And maybe it will overhaul the remote (again), adding Touch ID for sign-in or a slick remote finder (the latter as seen on Roku Ultra).

Barring new hardware, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a price drop on the current Apple TV. A discount of $50 sounds about right to me, which would make the price $100 for the HD version and $130 for the Apple TV 4K. Of course, that’s still more than double the competition.

Or in a distinctly un-Apple move, maybe we’ll see a cheaper Apple TV, say a $50 streaming stick, that does most of the same things as the boxes. After all, an earlier incarnation of the Apple TV once sold for just $69.

Apple’s decision to open its TV app and iTunes access to devices that cost a lot less than Apple TV, and to smart TVs that make external devices like Apple TV less necessary, point toward the Apple TV itself eventually becoming superfluous. If Apple wants to move toward services and away from hardware, the little black box could (still) become its first hardware casualty.

This article originally appeared March 28 and has been updated extensively with new developments since then.

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