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 the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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  • 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 :)

  • @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:

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

  • 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

  • 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.

  • 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 –

  • 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..