Will Apple's TV app on Roku, Fire TV and Samsung kill the Apple TV box?
Another Apple event has come and gone with no mention of new Apple TV hardware, and plenty of talk about TV apps.
David KatzmaierEditorial Director -- Personal Tech
David reviews TVs and leads the Personal Tech team at CNET, covering mobile, software, computing, streaming and home entertainment. We provide helpful, expert reviews, advice and videos on what gadget or service to buy and how to get the most out of it.
ExpertiseA 20-year CNET veteran, David has been reviewing TVs since the days of CRT, rear-projection and plasma. Prior to CNET he worked at Sound & Vision magazine and eTown.com. He is known to two people on Twitter as the Cormac McCarthy of consumer electronics.Credentials
Although still awaiting his Oscar for Best Picture Reviewer, David does hold certifications from the Imaging Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Standards and Technology on display calibration and evaluation.
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.
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.
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.
Exactly which devices is still unclear. Will the app only come to smart TVs from TCL, Toshiba 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.
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).
Watch this: Apple TV app 2019: Everything you need to know
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.
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) 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?
4K streamers: Current features compared
Apple TV 4K
Amazon Fire TV 4K
Roku Streaming Stick Plus
Smart speaker compatibility
Alexa and Google Home
Apple Photos app
Plays iOS/Apple Arcade games
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.
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.
Apple Event: See the iPhone 11 and Apple Watch Series 5