Patrick Stewart is so beloved in his iconic role as former captain of the Starship Enterprise that the recent premiere of Star Trek: Picard drove CBS All Access to a record number of sign-ups. Many of those viewers are undoubtedly giving the service a test drive just for this show (much as many Star Wars fans signed up for Disney+ just to watch The Mandalorian). At the same time, many more may be planning to wait until the first season is finished so they can binge it during a free trial period.
Whatever your own intentions, the question arises of exactly how one should watch Star Trek: Picard. Although the series is carried exclusively by CBS All Access in the United States, there are several ways to subscribe to the service, and somewhat surprisingly, the most direct – the CBS All Access streaming app – isn't necessarily the best way.
Considering how fond the Star Trek franchise is of storylines involving alternate dimensions and alternate timelines, it seems fitting that the CBS All Access service that hosts the latest spinoff would come in a choice of three alternate platforms to… well, to access it.
First, and most obviously, is the CBS All Access app, which is available on just about every streaming device (Roku, Chromecast, Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV 4K, etc.) and even comes installed in many Smart TVs these days. It's easy to find, it has "CBS All Access" right in the name, and most viewers hoping to watch CBS All Access content will intuitively head there first. In its favor, signing up directly with CBS All Access is the only way to use promo codes for extended or reduced-rate trial periods that the service regularly issues.
The downside to this method is that, even six years since the platform's initial release, the CBS All Access app has some design and technical flaws, for those who care about such things. On most devices, video is only available in 1080p Standard Dynamic Range, and streamed at low-ish bit rates that may result in a soft picture with pixelation or other artifacts. Support for 5.1 surround sound is also erratic and buggy. Depending on the device used, some shows (including Picard) don't offer 5.1 at all, and those that do may drop down to plain stereo randomly on some episodes for no reason. These issues may not bother those watching on smaller TVs (not to mention phones or tablets) and listening through the built-in speakers, but those with large screens and home theater audio systems will demand better.
Fortunately, viewers picky about such matters can choose instead to sign up for CBS All Access through the "channel" systems available within either Amazon Prime or Apple TV. To be clear, doing so still requires a paid CBS All Access subscription. It does not automatically come included with a Prime or Apple account. Moreover, each platform has its own dedicated subscription. To watch the CBS All Access channel via Amazon, you must subscribe and pay through Amazon. The same goes for Apple.
If you sign-up through Amazon, you can link your account directly to CBS, which will allow you to watch the service's programming using either the Amazon Prime or CBS All Access apps. Apple can do likewise. However, if you signed up through CBS All Access itself, this linking is not possible and you're forced to use the CBS All Access app.
Both Amazon and Apple charge the standard CBS All Access rate of $9.99/month for a commercial-free subscription, with a one-week free trial to start. Amazon also offers the lesser $5.99/month tier with limited commercials (Apple does not seem to have that option). As referenced above, CBS All Access special offer promo codes typically do not work with the Amazon or Apple channels.
Subscribing to a channel within another existing service is slightly more convoluted than subscribing to CBS All Access directly. However, it allows you to watch the platform's content using an interface and menu system you're likely already familiar with, for better or worse. More importantly to some, both Amazon and Apple stream their video at higher bit rates than CBS All Access does itself, with more consistent delivery of 5.1 audio on programs that are supposed to have it. This should result in better picture or sound quality, although the degree of improvement may vary somewhat by device and by the reliability of your high speed internet service.
Note that Star Trek: Picard is a 1080p resolution program no matter the platform. Any "4K" output you may seem to get from this show is upconverted. One potential edge that Apple offers over Amazon is better support for Dolby Vision High Dynamic Range (HDR) video. Amazon only streams CBS All Access shows in Standard Dynamic Range (SDR), even though some of its own original programming has HDR.
HDR video is available on Star Trek: Picard when using the CBS All Access channel in the Apple TV app. Additionally, viewers who have an Apple TV 4K streaming box can get HDR using the CBS All Access app on that device. At present, only the Apple TV 4K will deliver HDR video from the CBS All Access app, whereas the Apple TV app will output HDR on any device compatible with that format.
I personally use a Roku Premiere+ for all my video streaming. In order to compare the three platforms, I signed up for a 7-day free trial of the CBS All Access channel on both Amazon and Apple, then linked my Amazon account to CBS, allowing me to use all three apps. I watched the premiere episode on each. The results on my home theater screen were not entirely what I expected.
Using the CBS All Access app on Roku, Picard is limited to Dolby Digital 2.0 audio. I see no rational explanation for this given that I was able to get 5.1 sound from Star Trek: Discovery on the same app. That alone rules out the CBS All Access app for me. Both Amazon and Apple consistently provide episodes of Picard in 5.1 format. The SDR video from CBS All Access is also a little softer and noisier than either alternative.
Switching to the Apple TV app, the video on Picard is a bit sharper and kicks my projector into HDR mode. That said, despite its HDR encoding, from what I can tell Star Trek: Picard is not actually graded for any type of High Dynamic Range or Wide Color Gamut video. Peak highlights are limited to well within the SDR range. Compared directly to the Amazon SDR version, I saw no difference in contrast or color. From all appearances, Picard was mastered for SDR and then mapped within an HDR container by Apple for some reason. Although certainly not terrible, any number of other HDR programs on Netflix or Amazon look nicer.
As mentioned, Picard is authored in 1080p resolution. At no point does the show look like it has greater than 1080p detail. However, I found the version streamed from the Apple TV app to be marginally sharper than Amazon in certain scenes. This was most noticeable early in the pilot episode when we're introduced to the Dahj character. One shot in particular from that scene (a close-up of Dahj and her boyfriend) looks quite soft and slightly out of focus when streamed from Amazon. The same shot is a bit sharper through Apple TV, enough that it doesn't stand out as different from the rest of the scene. This could be Apple streaming with a higher bit rate than Amazon, or it could be Apple applying a little digital sharpening. In any case, the difference is pretty minor overall. The majority of the episode looks virtually identical when streamed from either Amazon Prime or Apple TV. The show has strong 5.1 surround audio on both platforms.
The addition of Dolby Vision HDR through Apple TV's CBS All Access channel sounds like a better selling point than it ultimately turns out to be. At the end of the day, the choice of which platform to stream this show and other CBS All Access content from will likely come down to personal preference regarding each interface or overall ecosystem. In actual practice, Star Trek: Picard has comparable quality through either Apple TV or Amazon Prime. Both are better than streaming from the CBS All Access app (with the possible exception of using that app on an Apple TV 4K box, which I wasn't able to test).
One final note: While CBS All Access has exclusive streaming rights to Star Trek: Picard in the United States, the series streams on Crave in Canada or exclusively on Amazon Prime in most other countries.
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Josh Zyber has written about TV, movies, and home theater for the past two decades. Most recently, he spent more than nine years managing a daily blog at High-Def Digest.