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

11/19/10Follow @wroush

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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.

Apple TV2. 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 »

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

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  • http://twitter.com/edgarholguin Edgar

    Great article, and I found your commnets very interestings. I’ve been fighting, internally, which device to buy. I was waiting to see the reviews from the Boxee Box to make a decision and now after reading some content about it I agree with you, for me the two strongest devices are the Roku and Apple TV…. What I’m afraid to is that I’ll end buying both :)

  • http://www.xconomy.com/author/wroush/ Wade Roush

    @Edgar: Thanks, glad my comparison was helpful. Choosing just one of these devices is hard, and as I said in the piece, it all depends on what you like to watch. The great thing is that Apple TV and the Roku Player are so cheap that you could buy both and still make your money back several times over by canceling your cable TV service.

  • Matt

    Great synopsis, but I think you left out a critical missing piece of the story. Combining google tv with a Dish Network subscription, while not in the chord cutting realm, provides a vastly superior internet tv product that is at least worthy of mentioning and comparing here.

  • David L

    The majority of my TV watching is sports, so Internet TV unfortunately isn’t really an option for me. I am frustrated at the slow progress of the TV medium in catching up with the technology at our disposal. Waiting for the day when I can purchase any content I want to watch, piecemeal, live or otherwise, from any device, and view it instantly, in HD, on any device.

  • Chris R.

    Not affiliated with it, but I found this site very helpful to keep track of and locate new content on Netflix instant watch, which seems to change by the hour: http://www.instantwatcher.com

    There is also incredible content on Vimeo.com that you can access through an app on the Roku

  • http://www.bendresearch.com joe

    Now I’d like to know how the new Google TV adds up….

  • Jeff Whiting

    Hey Wade,
    Will that thing work in Charlotte, MI or will I get overtaken by overzealous wanna be Hockey nuts looking for a back-up puck? HaHa

  • http://www.wsiinternetworks.com Beth Kahlich

    Wade – We have a ton of DVDs that we’d like to have access to… is that possible with either the Roku or Apple TV. Any suggestions on how to implement that would be greatly appreciated. Terrific review!

  • Dave

    I thought I read you can access free current year tv programs from a providers website and stream with Roku. can you with Apple? Say like last night’s Daily Show for example.

  • http://www.buddyscalera.com Buddy Scalera

    This is really helpful. I ended up getting the Roku, which gives a nice balance of ease-of-use and customization. Looking forward, I think I’ll be getting an Apple TV next for my father, who wants it to play nice with his iMac. Apple TV is good for accessing iTunes/iPhoto content on your TV.

    Buddy – http://wordspicturesweb.com/?p=1349

  • Rick

    Wade…will I be able to hook up both the roku and apple tv to the same television set? I already have apple tv (which I love) but I am now canceling direct tv and am going exclusively streaming…so I wanted to get the roku as well..for hulu plus, news, etc..

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