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Will Apple's TV app on Roku, Fire TV and Samsung kill the Apple TV box?

Or just make it stronger?

Apple TV 4K

The Apple TV box starts at $150 for the HD version and $180 for the 4K version. 4K streamers from Roku and Amazon start at $50.

Sarah Tew/CNET

When Apple CEO Tim Cook introduced the current version of the Apple TV streaming box in 2015, he famously said, "The future of TV is apps." Now an Apple app could make that box obsolete.

Once you get past the credit card and magazine stand, Apple's March 25 event was all about streaming TV. But the company's one piece of streaming TV hardware, the excellent Apple TV box, went virtually unmentioned.

Instead we learned about a triumvirate of services that may or may not prove to be excellent: an overhaul of the Apple TV appApple TV channels and Apple TV Plus. Despite the confusingly similar names, they're all different. Plus is the easiest to understand: It's basically Apple's version of Netflix, but with approximately a million fewer shows and a monthly price that's yet-to-be-announced. We'll know more this fall, but its initial popularity will depend on the devotion of Apple fans.

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Apple's TV app, above, is coming to a bunch of smart TVs and streamers -- many cheaper than the Apple TV itself.

Apple

That leaves the Apple TV app with its new add-on extra, Apple TV channels. The app, which debuted in 2016, lets you browse and resume watching TV shows and movies from services you subscribe to -- including Amazon Prime, Hulu, HBO, Starz, PlayStation Vue and many more -- all one place. With channels, you'll watch without bouncing out (or signing in) to a separate app at all.

Although it doesn't work with Netflix, the TV app is a valiant attempt to simplify the confusing world of streaming. And now, for the first time, it's coming to non-Apple devices.

Later this year Apple's TV app will be available on "Samsung smart TVs beginning this spring and on Amazon Fire TV, LG, Roku, Sony and VIZIO platforms in the future," according to Apple's press release. Previously Apple restricted its TV app to its own devices, namely iPhones, iPads and the Apple TV box itself.

Exactly which non-Apple 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 didn't respond to my request for clarification, and reps for Amazon and Roku referred me to Apple's press release without providing 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 now goes 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.

In addition to aggregating content from numerous services, the new TV app will now become the central place to buy and rent 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).

Meanwhile, Smart TVs from Samsung, LG, Vizio and Sony will also support AirPlay and many will work with HomeKit too -- much of this was already announced back in January. And AirPlay for Roku devices is rumored to be coming soon 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 will be among the first to receive the TV app and AirPlay, with Vizio, Sony and LG to follow.

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.

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 now 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.

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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
Voice remote Siri Alexa Roku
Smart speaker compatibility HomePod Alexa Alexa and Google Home
Apple Photos app Yes No No
Plays iOS games Yes No No

To be sure, the Apple TV box offers more than just iTunes and AirPlay access. My review described it as a "luxurious" 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 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 is tempting even for hardcore Apple fans.

What's next for Apple TV (the box)?

When Apple first made its walled-garden-breaking announcement, I called it a deathknell 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, and it could conceivably hold back some features and reserve them for its own box to maintain a competitive advantage.

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 its streaming services, however, it might be time to make a change to the Apple TV. At an event this fall, timed to coincide with the rollout of Apple TV Plus (or perhaps even sooner) I wouldn't be surprised to see a price drop on the current Apple TV HD -- I'm thinking from $150 to $100, and the Apple TV 4K from $180 to $130. Of course, that's still more than double the competition.

A little more far-fetched, at least this year in my opinion, is an all-new Apple TV with more features and capabilities. Maybe Apple will try its hand at device control, or integrate a Siri speaker, similar to the Fire TV Cube, which effectively doubles as a voice-controlled universal remote. Maybe it will double down on gaming and sell a controller-equipped version that works well with the new Apple Arcade service (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).

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 become its first hardware casualty.