May 15 Update: This story is updated per a new channel Apple added after the immediate launch: Shudder.
Apple has a new à la carte streaming TV and movie service in the works, targeting cord-cutters who also happened to own any one of Apple's many devices. Called Channels, the service lives inside of Apple’s revamped TV app, and just came out as a part of iOS 12.3, and launched offering one-stop access to 15 different content providers such as HBO, Showtime and PBS Living to Epix, MTV Hits and Comedy Central Now.
This should sound familiar. Amazon, through its Prime Video subscription, has offered a similar choose-your-own-channels platform for years — and it's called Amazon Channels.
So, if you've come to the conclusion that pre-made cord-cutter TV bundles like DirecTV Now and Sling TV aren't your thing, you now have a couple of popular options for building your own custom collection of channels. And though you might think choosing between Apple and Amazon's à la carte options is as simple as looking to see whether you have an Apple TV or a Fire TV in your living room, there's more to the decision than that.
Here's everything you need to know to figure out how Apple's new Channels service matches up against Amazon's.
Where Can You Stream?
Apple Channels is in Apple's TV app, after an update released on May 13. The app is also available on Apple TV smart-TV boxes and iPhones and iPads, and it'll be coming to Mac computers this fall. Apple says it's also releasing the new version of its TV app on third-party smart-TV companies, first for Samsung TVs "this spring," followed "future" launches on TVs from Sony, Vizio, LG and smart-TV boxes from Amazon and Roku.
After you update to iOS 12.3 or tvOS 12.3, you'll get the revamped TV app with a Channels section that lets you subscribe to Showtime, Starz and a handful of other pay services directly from within the app.
As for Amazon's Prime Video Channels, you can watch nearly anywhere. Amazon's Fire TV Sticks, Fire TV Cubes and all-in-one Fire TV sets are supported, as you would expect, but so are plenty of other third-party smart TVs; set-top boxes such as Apple TV, Android TV and Roku devices; Chromecast; and any iOS or Android mobile devices or desktop web browsers.
Is It Free to Get Started?
Before you can start shopping for channels with Apple or Amazon, you'll need a membership to their services. Access to Apple's TV app requires only a free Apple ID account, but you'll need to have an Amazon Prime membership to access Amazon's Prime Video and its selection of channels.
Amazon Prime costs $119 a year, and adds other benefits like free two-day shipping, same-day delivery on some things, deals and discounts and access to services like Prime Video and Prime Music.
What Channels Are Available and How Much Are They?
Apple's initial Channel offering is smaller than Amazon’s. Here’s Apple's list — we've bolded the channels that duplicate Amazon's offering. After the Days after iOS 12.3 added Channels to the TV app, we noticed Shudder (also on Amazon Channels) was also available.
- Acorn TV
- Comedy Central Now
- Curiosity Stream
- Lifetime Movie Club
- MTV Hits
- PBS Living
- Smithsonian Channel Plus
- Sundance Now
- Urban Movie Channel
Amazon, in contrast, offers 100-plus channels. Along with the bolded ones above, Amazon also includes the following channels, none of which you'll find in Apple's version.
- Sports Illustrated TV
- Comic Con HQ
- History Vault
- IndiePix Unlimited
- Smithsonian Earth
- Daily Burn
- PBS Kids
As far as the price of each channel, Amazon offers some lesser-known offerings for as low as $2.99 a month, with premium channels from HBO, Showtime and Cinemax topping out at $14.99, $8.99 and $9.99 a month, respectively.
Apple's pricing is similar, with HBO costing $14.99 per month and Cinemax costing $9.99 per month, but Showtime costs $2 more at $10.99 per month. Its lesser-known channels, such as Curiosity Stream, start at $2.99, just like on Amazon Prime Channels.
Amazon's billing for Prime Channels is handled monthly through the same billing method that you use for your Prime membership. Apple will use Apple ID/Apple Pay to handle its Channel billing the same kind of way.
What TV Are You Not Getting with These Channel Offerings?
Neither Amazon Prime Channels nor Apple TV Channels include Netflix and Hulu. The two biggest names in streaming video services are so far staying out of third-party à la carte platforms.
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There's also not much live TV among these on-demand services, either. Though CBS All Access provides a livestream of your local CBS affiliate through either Apple TV or Amazon Prime, the majority of channels from both services skew toward on-demand viewing. That said, Amazon does include some live sports through Prime Channels, though you'll have to hunt for them. Scroll about halfway down the Amazon Prime Channels page and you'll find a section called Your Live and Upcoming Events. That will include a mix of programming included with Amazon Prime membership, such as AVP Pro Beach Volleyball tournaments and selected holes at PGA tour events, and separate channels you'll need to subscribe to like MLB.TV.
What Special Features Do I Get from Apple and Amazon?
Apple's TV app launched more than two years ago as a hub for discovering and consuming almost all of your streaming TV. Besides the Channels feature coming in May, Apple's TV app can also connect to your cable or satellite subscriptions for live TV or to your Netflix and Hulu accounts for more on-demand video to tell you what’s available and redirect you to those apps for streaming.
Though Amazon's Fire TV platform packs the same kind of TV guide functionality, it's separate from the Prime Video app that's accessible on multiple devices.
Amazon Prime does, however, offer in-app access to Amazon original TV shows and movies, like The Man in the High Castle, Manchester by the Sea and NFL Thursday Night Football. Apple is planning to launch another section in its Apple TV app this fall, called Apple TV+, that brings similar Apple-original programming to its platform.
Which Is Right for You?
With Amazon offering more channels than Apple TV will at the start, your decision on which platform to choose could come down to whether you absolutely need, say, Hallmark Movies Now (offered only on Prime Channels now).
Of course, the annual fee that it takes to get you into the Prime membership that's needed to receive Amazon's Channels could be a dealbreaker if you're one of the few Americans left who already doesn't subscribe to Amazon's service.
Apple’s TV app looks like it's growing into a powerful and ubiquitous piece of software. And with the company still likely to add more channels and content to the app in the future, there's no doubt that the Amazon Prime Channels versus Apple TV Channels choice will get more and more interesting over time.