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Apple's TV app is on Roku, Fire TV and Samsung, but only Apple devices get every feature

The future home of Apple TV Plus is slightly different on every device.

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The Apple TV app on Fire TV (left) and Roku.

David Katzmaier/CNET

Apple has its own app for streaming TV shows and movies, and in typical Apple fashion the name is dead simple: It's called the TV app. But how it works can be surprisingly complex.

One basic thing about the app is the same on every device: You'll need it to stream Apple TV Plus, Apple's Netflix rival that debuts Nov. 1 with exclusive shows such as See, a fantasy epic starring Jason Momoa, The Morning Show, a workplace drama starring Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston, and For All Mankind, an alternate history of NASA. There's no separate Apple TV Plus app -- subscribers have to watch those shows within the Apple TV app itself. But the app offers more than just Apple TV Plus and its paltry nine launch-day shows. And that's where things begin to get complex.

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In addition to Apple devices -- iPhones, iPads, Mac computers and the Apple TV streaming box -- the Apple TV app is also available on Roku and Amazon Fire TV devices as cheap as $30. It's also available on Samsung Smart TVs and, coming "in the future," TVs from LG, Sony and Vizio. 

All of these devices have the app's basic features -- namely the ability to stream shows from Apple TV Plus as well as iTunes TV shows and movies and Apple TV Channels like HBO and Showtime -- but after that they differ. Fire TV users can't actually buy anything through the app. Roku and Fire TV users don't get access to AirPlay. And only Apple devices integrate shows from Hulu, ESPN, Prime video and other apps into the TV app. And only Apple has access to Dolby Atmos and Dolby Vision streams.

Confused? Here's how it all breaks down, in table and Q&A form.

Apple TV app features comparison


Apple TV app with Apple Plus AirPlay Watch iTunes purchased content, Apple TV Channels Buy or rent iTunes movies and TV, subscribe to Apple TV Channels Integrate non-Channels content (Hulu, ESPN, Prime video, etc.) Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos
Apple devices Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Samsung TVs Yes Yes Yes Yes No No
Roku Yes No Yes Yes No No
Amazon Fire TV Yes No Yes No No No

How does the app work on Apple devices?

If you have an iPhone or an Apple TV box, the TV app is basically a big streaming content aggregator. It gathers a bunch of TV services together, including names like HuluAmazon Prime Video, ESPN, PlayStation Vue and Apple's own iTunes. It lets you browse their TV shows and movies in one place, without having to hop from app to app to find what you want. It's a powerful promise, but in practice it doesn't always deliver. 

It's missing Netflix and YouTube, so you'll need to hop to those apps no matter what. And for many major providers like Amazon Prime Video and Hulu, you still need to bounce out of the Apple TV app to actually watch anything. You can browse to Handmaid's Tale from within the Apple TV app, for example, but when you select it the Hulu app will launch to actually play the episode. 

What about iTunes Movies and TV shows?

On every device with the TV app, shows and movies you already own now appear in the top menu as well as the Library section, which breaks out iTunes content by category and includes separate sections for 4K HDR (on the Apple TV 4K) and Downloaded (on iPhones and iPads). iTunes content appears in the TV app's recommendations, curated rows and the Up Next row at the top of the TV app.

On most devices you can also rent and purchase TV shows and movies from iTunes directly within the TV app. The exception is Fire TV, which only lets you watch iTunes content you've already purchased.

So what's this about AirPlay and HomeKit?

In addition to the Apple TV box, select smart TVs from LG, Samsung, Sony and Vizio also support Apple's AirPlay 2 standard, allowing users to control video and music using their iPhone, iPad or Mac devices. 

That's not the case for Roku and Fire TV devices. Those platforms lack AirPlay support.

LG, Sony and Vizio TVs (but not Samsung) also have HomeKit support. The HomeKit integration lets users control the TV and their other smart home products using Apple's Home app or by talking to Apple's Siri digital assistant. Viewers can use their iPhones and iPads to turn their SmartCast TVs on or off from the Home app, change volume and switch inputs, and ask Siri via the iPhone and iPad to play movies, TV shows or music with AirPlay 2.

Wait, only Apple gets Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos?

Yep. Dolby Vision HDR video and Dolby Atmos object-based surround audio, two of the most advanced AV formats, are only available via the Apple TV App if you use an Apple TV 4K.

On the other hand no other current devices that support Dolby Vision and Atmos -- including Roku TVs like the TCL 6-Series, certain Amazon Fire TV Edition sets from Toshiba and the 2019 Amazon Fire TV Cube and the Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K -- will stream content, including iTunes movies, in those formats via the Apple TV app. Other apps on those devices, for example Vudu or Movies Anywhere, might stream the same content in Dolby Vision or Atmos however. It depends on the device and the app.

Meanwhile Samsung TVs don't support Dolby Vision at all. Whether forthcoming Dolby Vision-capable smart TVs from Sony, Vizio and LG will get that support in the Apple TV app is an open question. And Dolby Vision support might be added to non-Apple devices in the future.

What are Apple TV channels?

Available on every device with the TV app, this feature allows users to watch content from a variety of partners, including HBO, Starz, Showtime, Cinemax, Epix, Smithsonian Channel, Sundance Now, Lifetime Movie Club, Urban Movie Channel and Tastemade.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

You watch from within the TV app itself, with no additional apps, accounts or passwords required. Instead of being bounced out to the HBO Now app, for example, you can watch your Succession episode within the Apple TV app itself. Up to six family members can also share Apple TV channels subscriptions via Apple's Family Sharing feature using their Apple ID and password. You can also download TV shows and movies from channels to an iPhone or iPad.

All of the devices with the Apple TV app also let you subscribe to and pay for channels from directly within the TV app. The exception once again is Fire TV, which only lets you watch channels you've subscribed to elsewhere.

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Except for Fire TV, you can subscribe to channels directly within the TV app, and after a free one-week trial, the monthly subscription price is the same as elsewhere. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

Any discounts for subscribing to a channel?

Nope, sorry. All of the Apple TV channels cost the same as they would if you'd subscribed via a separate app, like HBO Now ($15 per month), Showtime ($12 per month) or Tastemade ($3 per month). All of the available Apple TV channels also cost the same as their counterparts from competing subscription aggregators, namely Amazon Prime Video Channels and The Roku Channel.

How do offline downloads work?

Downloads within the Apple TV app are available only for Apple TV channels and Apple TV Plus. Browsing to the channel and selecting a show on an iPad or iPhone will display a download icon. Clicking on it will download the episode or movie, where it will be available for viewing (no Wi-Fi or cellular connection required) in the Library section of the TV app.

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Downloads via an iPad or iPhone work like they do on other apps: Just tap the cloud icon (left) and the download starts (right).

Sarah Tew/CNET

What about other apps that aren't channels, like Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, ESPN and PlayStation Vue?

On Apple devices, for the 90-odd services and apps that aren't channels, the Apple TV app only lets you browse those services and apps' TV shows and movies, not play them. Clicking on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel from within the Apple TV app will bounce you out to the Amazon Prime Video app to watch, for example.

And for these apps that aren't channels, the TV app doesn't provide any way to download shows and movies for offline viewing -- for that you'll have to use the individual apps, which may or may not offer downloads. The Amazon Prime app has offered downloads for years, for example, and the Hulu app is finally enabling downloads in late 2019.

On non-Apple devices, content from these apps doesn't appear inside the Apple TV app at all. To browse content from those apps on Samsung TVs and using Roku and Fire TV devices, you'll need to use their standalone apps.

Does the Apple TV app have Netflix yet?

No. Netflix does not participate in the TV app in any way. It's not available as an Apple TV channel, and unlike Hulu, Amazon and others, TV shows and movies from Netflix do not show up inside the Apple TV app on Apple devices. Instead you'll browse and watch them using the standard Netflix app.

I already subscribe to HBO. Do I need to resubscribe to the HBO channel to get downloads?

Yes. A subscription to HBO, via HBO Now for example, doesn't "translate" to a subscription to the HBO channel on the Apple TV app. To get downloads of HBO shows on your iPad, you'll need to subscribe separately to the HBO channel on the TV app, and use the TV app (not the HBO Now app) to watch HBO content.

The same goes for other Apple TV channels.

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The Library tab is home to your iTunes TV show and movie purchases.

Sarah Tew/CNET

When is the TV app coming to other devices?

We don't know for sure. Apple says the TV app will be available "in the future" on  LGSony and Vizio smart TV platforms. It has not announced more specific timing for these rollouts, nor has it mentioned any other platforms such as Chromecast or Android TV (aside from Sony TVs, which run the Android TV operating system).

Originally published May 13. Regularly updated as developments occur.