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 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, Chow, Koldcast, MediaFly, NASA TV, Revision3,, 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 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.

*  *  *

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.

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..