Apple's service found a breakout hit in Ted Lasso, but without a back catalog it feels more like a luxury than Hulu or Netflix.
Over a year after the launch of Apple TV Plus, the tech giant's entry into the streaming wars remains a bit of an anomaly. At $5 a month, Apple TV Plus is the lowest-priced premium, ad-free streaming service around, but still packs high-end features like 4K resolution, HDR and mobile downloads. After a slow start it now has more than 50 exclusive, big-budget shows and movies with stars like Jennifer Aniston, Oprah Winfrey and Tom Hanks. That number is tiny compared to Netflix, Amazon Prime or HBO Max, however, in part because Apple TV Plus has almost no back catalog of shows and movies to scroll through.
Whether the service is worth $5 a month for you -- or less, depending on whether you get it for free after buying an Apple device or a discount as part of Apple's new Apple One bundle -- depends on how excited you are to watch those originals. Its biggest (and perhaps most unexpected) breakout hit so far has been Ted Lasso, the Jason Sudeikis dramedy about an American football coach who gets hired to coach a British Premier League soccer team, which recently won several awards. Shows like The Morning Show, Mythic Quest, Dickinson and Little America have also garnered some critical praise, but few have made cultural waves the way that, say, The Mandalorian did for Disney Plus.
Read more: Apple TV Plus: Best movies to watch right now
Apple TV Plus has made strides in the last year or so and will continue to improve in the future, with more star-studded originals on the way. But until it adds a catalog of familiar shows or a buzzy original (Foundation in 2021, perhaps?) it will remain a secondary streaming choice at best for most people.
|Apple TV Plus||Netflix||Amazon Prime Video||Hulu||Disney Plus|
|Monthly price||$5||Starts at $9||$9 (or included with $120/year Prime membership)||Basic $6 with ads, ad-free Premium for $12, Live TV for $65||$7|
|Top titles||Ted Lasso, The Morning Show, Dickinson, For All Mankind||Stranger Things, The Queen's Gambit, Breaking Bad, Tiger King||Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Hunters, Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan, The Big Sick||Handmaid's Tale, Catch-22, Lost, Bob's Burgers||The Mandalorian, WandaVision, Avengers Endgame, Toy Story, The Simpsons|
|4K HDR available||Yes||Yes (on Premium plan)||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Number of streams:||6||1 (2 for Standard, 4 on Premium)||2||2 (Unlimited with Live TV $10 add-on)||4|
Apple's current slate of nearly 60 original shows and movies includes comedies, dramas, documentaries and talk shows. At launch in Nov. 2019 it only had 9 titles on the whole platform, with a strategy that seemed to be focused on keeping the platform small and high-quality. Its marquee drama, The Morning Show, which stars Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Aniston and Steve Carrell, had a huge $300 million reported budget.
For a while, that was the closest the platform had to a real breakout -- until Ted Lasso premiered in August 2020 and became the world's midwestern sweetheart. Though Apple does not report viewership data, Deadline reported that Ted Lasso became the most-watched show on the platform last year across all top 50 countries and greatly increased subscriptions. It's since been renewed for three seasons.
Other originals at launch included the book-focused Oprah Winfrey talk show Oprah's Book Club; the post-apocalyptic thriller See starring Jason Momoa, the alternative retelling of the space program For All Mankind and the Hailee Steinfeld-starring comedy Dickinson about poet Emily Dickinson.
Over the past year or so, additions include the immigration anthology series Little America, the thriller miniseries Defending Jacob and the comedy series Mythic Quest. The service also grabbed the Tom Hanks World War II thriller Greyhound after the coronavirus pandemic forced the film to skip theaters. You'll find a few shows for kids, like Snoopy in Space and Helpsters, but the catalog is definitely more adult-oriented.
Apple TV Plus may have another moment later this year, when it drops the original series Foundation, an adaptation of Isaac Asimov's award-winning sci-fi novels. From the amount of buzz the trailer got when it dropped last June, I'd guess that it draws many new subscribers to the service, at least while it airs.
Read more: Foundation on Apple TV Plus probably won't stick to the books, and that's good
Most Apple TV Plus series initially premiere a few episodes at once, followed by one new episode each week to keep you hooked. But sometimes the service drops a full season all at once.
Ultimately the platform is hurt by its lack of a back catalog -- especially compared to NBC's streaming newcomer Peacock, which has a free tier with 13,000 hours of shows that include bingeable favorites like Parks and Recreation and 30 Rock. Apple doesn't share subscriber numbers, but Statista estimates that by the end of 2020, Apple TV Plus had about 40 million subscribers. But that number may be misleading: In January, Variety reported that more than 62% of those on the platform have a free subscriber through one of Apple's hardware promotions, which Apple keeps extending.
Apple's strategy appears to be shifting. Last year, Apple started acquiring older movies and TV shows to round out the service, but this remains very limited. So far, all we have is the 1980s Jim Henson TV series Fraggle Rock, as a complement to its own new series of shorts based on the show. But there hasn't been any other news about what an expanded back catalog will look like, or how it will compare to those of competitors.
You can't really beat Apple TV Plus in terms of the features. Its originals are available in 4K, HDR, Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos sound. Like Netflix, it's completely ad-free. You can share your subscription with up to five other people on your Apple Family plan and stream on up to six devices at once. You can download all shows to your mobile device to watch offline as well. It's available in 100 countries.
You can watch Apple TV Plus on any Apple device (iPhone, iPad, Apple TV or Mac), or via AirPlay. You can also watch on your PC, Roku devices, Amazon Fire TV devices, Samsung, LG and Vizio smart TVs, as well as on the web at https://tv.apple.com/.
Device support is narrower than most other major services, however. Apple TV Plus isn't available on any mobile devices except for iPhones and iPads, so owners of Android phones and tablets are out of luck. Since launch, Apple has added support for the PlayStation and Xbox -- and it does support Android-powered TV devices, namely Chromecast with Google TV and Sony smart TVs, with more Android and Google TV devices promised in the future.
Read more: Paramount Plus vs. Netflix vs. HBO Max vs. Disney Plus vs. Discovery Plus: How the streamers stack up
Apple TV Plus differs from other streaming services in that it doesn't live in its own app. Instead, you'll find the service inside the Apple TV app, alongside programming from other video subscriptions, as well as Apple iTunes movie and TV rentals and purchases.
In practice I found this arrangement confusing. When you enter the Apple TV app, the format is similar to other streaming services, letting you search by movies, TV shows, sports or kids. You'll see Apple TV originals mixed in with a ton of content available a la carte to buy, as well as stuff from other streaming services. At first glance, it looks like Apple TV comes with all of these shows and movies -- until you click on them and are taken to a purchase page.
To see only Apple TV Plus content, you'll have to scroll to the Channels section of the app and click Apple TV Plus, which you'll find alongside others like Showtime, Starz and many others.
Within the channel, you'll see every show, but navigation isn't perfect. You'll find the following categories: latest releases, Emmy nominees, drama and comedy series, feature films, nonfiction series, family fun... and that's it. No search bar, and no bar across the top where you can scroll between TV shows, movies and kids' programs, as you typically see.
At the bottom of the screen, you'll find the latest available trailers in the Coming Soon section, which is nice to give you an idea of what to look forward to. You'll also see a section called Meet the Stars of Apple TV Plus, with black-and-white tiles of some of the big names on the platform (like Tom Hanks and Chris Evans). Clicking one of those will take you to the Apple TV Plus show you can watch them in, as well as all of their other shows and movies on other platforms. Sort of handy, but ultimately not doing much more than IMDB in terms of connecting you to someone's body of work -- and then asking you to pay for it.
Once you select a show you'll see a large photo and the option to play the first episode or add it to your list. But you have to scroll down to another page to see all of the episodes listed -- a nested menu design that isn't super intuitive.
The Apple TV Plus voice experience worked best on Apple TV and Roku. When on the homescreen of either streaming box, I could say something like "Watch Defending Jacob," and the device would automatically open the Apple TV app and start the pilot episode, no second action needed. On the Amazon Fire TV stick, the voice command took me to another menu, where I'd have to manually select the show to watch. Otherwise, the experience was very similar across platforms.
Being a part of the Apple ecosystem can enhance your experience with the iPhone version: Under a More to Explore tab, you'll find show soundtracks and playlists in Apple Music and related books in Apple Books.
If you've purchased an Apple device over the past year, or plan to do so once the rumored iPhone 13 is released this fall, you're eligible for the free trial of Apple TV Plus -- and you should definitely take advantage of it. You (or your family) will likely find something you'd like to watch among the original shows and movies.
If you aren't in the market for an Apple device, you can still try the service free for seven days before deciding to pay $5 a month, or watch the first episode of many shows for free. If you sign up for the Apple One subscription bundle, you can try Apple TV Plus and several other services free for 30 days. And if none of those options appeal to you, find a friend who subscribes and get their login information, or arrange to share an account -- with six simultaneous streams available, you shouldn't have a problem.
I'd recommend the free trial to see if any of Apple's originals strike your interest. (I can confirm that seven days is long enough to finish the first season of Ted Lasso.) If they do, $5 a month really isn't much to pay for high-quality content -- especially after we've all been streaming more than ever this year due to the pandemic and you may want some fresh, new shows outside of Netflix and Hulu.