Apple TV vs. Roku: Battle of the Set-Top Boxes
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included remote control, which has a sleek aluminum unibody design but feels too narrow. My thumb doesn’t go naturally where the remote wants it to go. The Roku’s remote, a chunky plastic affair, feels cheaper but works better.
Next, the on-screen menus. No surprises here. Building simple and elegant interfaces is one of Apple’s specialties—in fact, it’s one of the main reasons the company has any business connecting to your TV—so the Apple TV’s navigation screens look far slicker than the Roku Player’s. They’re all black and silver and space-age, and they make Roku’s graphics seem a bit, well, 1980s and cartoonish by comparison. But that’s mostly cosmetic. The way navigation actually works is much the same on the two devices; to select a show, for example, you use arrow buttons to move horizontally or vertically through a grid of icons. Entering data such as passwords and e-mail addresses is a tedious affair on both gadgets, forcing you to maneuver the selection box across onscreen alphabets, selecting one letter at a time. (If you have an iPhone or an iPad, this all changes: Apple’s Remote app turns these mobile devices into nifty external touchpads and keyboards for the Apple TV.)
Now to the main event: content. I saved this for last because it’s the hardest to summarize. The comparison isn’t apples-to-apples, so to speak. Once you get past Netflix Watch Instantly (which works great on both devices), Apple TV and Roku offer very different slices of the video universe, and will end up costing you different amounts of money. To decide which is the best platform for you, you’ll have to consider your viewing habits and your budget. Let’s break the choices down by content types.
1. TV Shows. Old seasons of many TV shows are available on Netflix, so that’s a wash. For the current seasons of on-air shows, your Apple TV options come down to just one: iTunes rentals, which cost $0.99 per episode. On Roku you have more choices: you can rent from Amazon Video on Demand (also $0.99 per episode), or you can sign up for the new HuluPlus service, which costs $7.99 per month and gives you access to all current-season episodes for about 45 shows. The selection of popular shows on HuluPlus is a bit thin right now, but if you watch at least 9 episodes per month, this route would be cheaper than renting individual shows from iTunes or Amazon.
2. Movies. Always check Netflix first, whether you have an Apple TV or a Roku Player. If the movie you want isn’t available for instant viewing, get out your wallet. Apple TV offers HD rental versions of the same movies available for PCs, iPods, iPhones, and iPads via the iTunes Store for prices that vary between $1.99 and $4.99, depending on how new the movie is. On the Roku Player, you can watch Amazon movie rentals, which all go for $3.99, as far as I can tell.
3. Sports. I hesitate to even mention this category, since if you’re a big sports fan, you’re probably wedded to cable TV, and you’re not looking for Internet viewing options, which are still very sparse. But the Roku Player does have something for you here: an MLB.TV channel. For $24.95, baseball fans can get access to full game archives (but not live games) for the entire season and postseason. Apple TV’s sports options boil down to a big fat nada.
4. Internet video. Both Apple TV and the Roku Player tap free Internet video, but Roku is the clear leader here. On Apple TV, you get access to YouTube, and that’s it. The Roku Channel Store offers Blip.tv, Chow, Koldcast, MediaFly, NASA TV, Revision3, Twit.tv, Vimeo, and many other networks, including specialty channels like Jewelry Television and LifeChurch.TV (but not YouTube, oddly).
5. Music and podcasts. In this area, Apple TV has two big advantages. It’s connected to the iTunes Store, which offers the world’s best collection of podcasts, and you can browse and listen to them right on your Apple TV. On the music side, you can … Next Page »