Apple TV vs. Roku: Battle of the Set-Top Boxes

Hi, my name is Wade, and it’s been 20 months since I paid for premium cable TV.

As longtime Xconomy readers know, I canceled all but my basic cable channels in March 2009. Back then, it was a fairly radical thing to do, but nowadays I run into people all the time who’ve realized that they can find most of the shows they like online. When I moved to San Francisco this summer and told the local Comcast rep that I only wanted voice and broadband in my new place, she seemed wholly unsurprised, if a little sad.

Two advances gave me the courage to go totally cableless. One was the Roku Player. I got this nifty little box, made by Saratoga, CA-based Roku, back in mid-2009 for $99 (today’s starter version is just $60). Plugging the Wi-Fi-enabled gadget into my 32-inch HDTV allowed me to tap into the thousands of TV shows and movies that Netflix has made available through its Watch Instantly program, which is available free to any Netflix user who subscribes at $8.99 per month level or higher. It also connected me to Amazon’s video-on-demand service. The upshot was that I was never at a loss for programs to watch. When I finally discovered Showtime’s award-winning series Weeds, for example, it turned out all six seasons were available on Watch Instantly. Score!

The second advance was that more and more of the first-run TV shows I liked—the kind of stuff that doesn’t turn up on Netflix until long after a season is over—-were available at Hulu or the networks’ own websites for free, or on iTunes for a buck or two per episode.

So, my old TV-viewing cost structure: about $90 per month, payable mostly to Comca$t. New cost structure: about $20 per month, for Netflix plus a few iTunes shows plus the Roku box amortized across 18 months. This kind of spending dropoff, multiplied across hundreds of thousands of households, must have cable and network executives weeping inside, even as they continue to insist publicly that the cord-cutting trend is “purely fiction.”

Netflix on the Roku PlayerThe Roku was the king of my entertainment center for a good long time. But as soon as Steve Jobs unveiled the rebooted version of Apple TV this September, I knew the Roku’s reign would eventually be put to the test. This week I finally made a pilgrimage to the San Francisco Apple Store, where I steeled myself to walk right past the luscious new MacBook Airs and ask for an Apple TV. I’ve spent the last few nights testing it out (such are the labors of the technology writer!) and I’m now ready to share a few thoughts that may assist other cord-cutters wondering how to choose between Roku and Apple.

Before we get to the core issue—which is, of course, the selection of content on the two devices—a few hardware notes. If it were round instead of square, the $99 Apple TV would pass for a hockey puck. It’s less than half the size of my Roku and about a quarter as large as the previous version of Apple TV. (Not that space is really at a premium in our increasingly barren entertainment centers and TV stands.) A power cord is included, but you have to buy a separate cable to connect to your TV’s HDMI port. It’s $20, annoyingly. (Apple’s overpriced accessories must be one of the big reasons it has $51 billion in the bank.)

Like the Roku, the Apple TV runs silently—there’s no hard drive or fan—and it pulls video data from your home network via Wi-Fi. Both devices, in other words, are small, unobtrusive, and functional. My only real complaint about the Apple hardware has to do with the … Next Page »

Single PageCurrently on Page: 1 2 3

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

Trending on Xconomy