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Vudu comes to Apple TV, but you can't buy on the box

Walmart's Vudu app finally arrives on the Apple TV streaming box, but unlike Apple's own iTunes service, it doesn't allow purchases. We go hands-on.

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The Apple TV streaming box might not be as big a seller as Roku, Chromecast or Amazon Fire TV, but it still has a loyal following, especially among people committed to Apple's ecosystem of iPhones, iPads, Mac computers and software.

Since its streaming box launched, Apple has maintained a jealous hold on purchases of TV shows and movies made through the device: you can only use iTunes to buy or rent individual episodes, seasons and films. Now for the first time, a big iTunes competitor has an app available on the box. 

Vudu, the movie and TV streaming service owned by Walmart, launches on Apple TV Monday. The app allows you to watch stuff from your Vudu library, including UltraViolet movies redeemed from Blu-ray discs and DVDs, and you can browse Vudu's collection of free movies and shows.

What you can't do is rent or buy anything directly from the on-screen app. The only way to do that on an Apple TV is via iTunes. The same restriction applies to Apple's iOS devices like the iPad and iPhone. But you can still buy videos through your browser -- or on other devices, like Roku -- and they'll be accessible from your Vudu collection on the Apple TV almost instantly. 

Apple has also announced that Amazon Video is coming to Apple TV later this year. We don't have any additional details at the moment, but don't be surprised if, like Vudu, the Amazon app doesn't allow purchases. The reason? Doing so would require Vudu and Amazon to give Apple a percentage of each sale. 

I took the new Vudu app for a spin and, aside from the inability to buy anything directly, it's polished and well-executed, with a simpler design than on other streaming services like Roku. Here's a peek.

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David Katzmaier/CNET

Buy elsewhere and import UltraViolet

The most important part of the app is "My Vudu," which contains stuff you already own on the service. Existing Vudu customers will see all of their rented (if they haven't expired) and purchased titles here, and if they've linked their UltraViolet libraries to Vudu, those titles show up too.

You can add more stuff to the library using a Vudu app on another device or your computer. I bought "John Wick: Chapter 2" using the Vudu app on my Android phone and it appeared in the "My Vudu" section of the Apple TV app immediately. I began watching and it worked flawlessly, streaming in high-quality "HDX" (Vudu's highest aside from 4K, which Apple TV doesn't yet support) and Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound.

I was also able to add an UltraViolet title from the "Alien: Covenant" Blu-ray with no issues. I entered the code from the disc into the appropriate website (Foxredeem.com in this case), selected Vudu as my library of choice (not, ahem, iTunes) and it appeared seconds later. Again video and audio quality was as good as any streaming service, and Apple TV's voice/Siri commands like "Skip ahead 10 minutes" and "What did he say?" worked fine.

The biggest advantage of using Vudu (or Amazon) instead of iTunes as a place to build your library of purchased content is the ability to access it on non-Apple devices. I can get to my Vudu library from any computer or any place with a Vudu app. Currently that includes Android and iOS phones and tablets, Roku and Android TV devices like Nvidia Shield, along with most game consoles and Smart TVs. Now that Apple is on board, the only major platform without a Vudu app is Amazon Fire TV and Fire tablets.

The addition of Vudu to Apple TV's stable is the first major alternative to the iTunes monopoly, but without the ability to buy stuff there, it's still wanting. When Amazon arrives later this year it will offer even more content for Prime subscribers, further broadening Apple TV's appeal. The little black box still isn't as open and content neutral as Roku, my favorite streaming platform, but it's getting closer.