Deeper Dive—Will the world ever get an Apple TV streaming stick?

Apple TV 4K
The Apple TV 4K retails for $180. (Apple)

A common trope maintains that the words “Apple” and “less expensive” don’t belong in the same sentence. But, the company could benefit from putting a cheaper Apple TV out into the world.

The industry was reminded this week that cheaper versions of existing streaming TV hardware are possible, when Dish Network’s AirTV revealed an $80 streaming stick that supports 4K viewing and a user experience that integrates free over-the-air TV signals with popular streaming apps like Sling TV and Netflix.

AirTV is just the latest device maker to join the bargain streaming device market – although the AirTV Mini is priced at the high end. It joins the Amazon Fire TV Stick (priced between $35 and $50), the Roku Streaming Stick (priced between $35 and $50), the Google Chromecast (priced between $35 and $70). Many of these companies also have more expensive options for streaming TV devices (like the Fire TV Cube and the Roku Ultra), but even those devices still undercut Apple TV.

Right now, an Apple TV device will run between $150 and $180 depending on how important 4K compatibility is to you. That's more than some Roku smart TVs.

Alan Wolk, co-founder and lead analyst at the consulting firm TV[R]EV, said that price range only makes less expensive devices from Apple’s competitors more appealing.

“For most people the sticks are fine,” he said, adding that 4K still isn’t that important of a feature given the dearth of content.

Of course, Apple hasn’t been sitting still on TV, but the focus has shifted toward services. The company is launching its own streaming service later this year, and it already has its subscription service aggregation platform Apple Channels up and running. In the interest of getting its services out to a wider addressable market, Apple is breaking down its walled garden, and putting a version of its TV app on smart TVs and connected devices from Samsung, LG, Sony, Vizio, Roku and Amazon.

Amazon and Roku together control a large share of connected TV device market in the U.S., according to eMarketer, so getting the TV app onto those devices is a smart move. But Apple TV still claims a substantial chunk of that market and likely could expand that share even more if it offered a less expensive version of its hardware.

Late last year a report from The Information suggested that Apple was at least considering a lower-priced Apple TV dongle. As CNET pointed out, Apple in the past has priced its Apple TV device as low as $69. And, Apple has a history of introducing smaller, cheaper models of its other hardware like the iPod and iPhone.

With plans to launch its streaming video service in the fall, a new Apple TV rollout during the company’s annual October event would nicely coincide. Wolk said it would be dumb for Apple not to launch any new streaming stick in tandem with the streaming service and hypothesized that the company could make it part of the offer and include a trial subscription with the stick.

But for now, it’s all just speculation. Apple TV 4K is selling well and the company has lots of third-party device partners lined up ahead of its streaming service launch. So, the company may be content without having a less-expensive Apple TV streaming stick to take on Amazon, Roku, Google and now AirTV. But if Apple’s plan is to continue making service revenues a larger part of the big picture, a less-expensive Apple TV device could help Apple TV+ grow its paid subscriber base.