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

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tap Apple TV’s vast list of streaming radio stations, and if you have a Mac at home, you can set up “home sharing,” which lets you stream music stored on your Mac over your home Wi-Fi network. After an impending update to the iOS operating system on the iPhone and the iPad, you’ll also be able to stream music and video stored on those devices. I like all of that immensely, since I don’t have a separate sound system, and my TV basically doubles as my home stereo. But Roku has one big music service that Apple TV doesn’t: Pandora, which I use constantly. Roku also offers music-related channels like Baeblemusic, MOG, and TuneIn Radio.

6. Photos. Apple TV connects to Flickr, and it turns your photos (or those of any of your Flickr contacts) into full-screen slide shows with beautiful Ken Burns effects and animated transitions. Roku connects to more photo sources—including Facebook Photos, Flickr, Framechannel, Picasa, and Smugmug—but its slide shows are basic, with no special effects.

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If I had to sum all of this up into a single sentence, I’d say that the content offerings on the Roku Player are broad but shallow, and on Apple TV they’re narrow and deep. The Apple TV is somewhat more expensive to buy, and if you choose to get a lot of your content from Apple, it’s also more expensive to use. The Roku Player is probably better for people who enjoy variety, including lots of eclectic Internet programming; Apple TV is better for people who just want mainstream movies and TV shows. Apple TV is also the logical choice for households that are already Apple-rich, since Macs, iPhones, iPads, and Apple TV all work together.

The truth is that I’m glad that I have both gadgets. Of course, there are other Internet-connected set-top boxes on the market, such as the new Boxee Box ($199), but to my mind Roku and Apple TV are today’s leading options. For the slightly more adventurous, there’s always been another option for watching Internet TV on your big screen, and it doesn’t involve any new electronics at all: simply connecting your laptop directly to your TV. That’s what I did for a few months before getting the Roku, and it works fine—assuming you have the patience to scare up the special cables you’ll need and to deal with screen resolution adjustments and the like.

But devices that give your TV an Internet boost are getting simpler, cheaper, and more powerful so fast that I think most people with wireless broadband networks at home will have them within a few years. Both the Apple TV and the Roku Player are strong products that will give you a good taste of the riches to come.

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

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