As Apple has finally launched a model of the new Apple TV 3 with 1080p video streaming, AirPlay Mirroring via Mountain Lion, and a dedicated Hulu Plus app, the e-mails start filling up my inbox: so which media streamer is right for you, the Apple TV 3 or Roku? Over the past week, I’ve had the chance to use both the Apple TV 3 and a Roku 2 HD model and here’s my review on how they stack up in a head-to-head comparison.
Round 1: Models & Price
Comes in a single $99 configuration the new Apple TV has HDMI, an optical audio connection, ethernet, WiFi (802.11a/b/g/n) and a USB port which Apple says is for “service and support” of the unit. The device supports video up to 1080p and also comes with a remote and power cord with no power brick.
Roku offers four models. These are the Roku LT, $50; Roku 2 HD, $60; Roku 2 XD $80, and the Roku 2 XS which retails for $100. Like the modern Apple TV, they don’t have a built-in hard drive. They all include 802.11g/n wireless networking, an HDMI port, and support 720p video. The two higher-end models, Roku 2 XD and 2 XS, also support 1080p video. The 2 XS model also has Ethernet and USB ports. Unless you know you’re going to connect your Roku with a cable to a router or switch, the cheapest model, the Roku LT, is all you’re really going to need.
Round 2: User Interface
The menu system on the Apple TV looks absolutely gorgeous and it’s packed full of neat transitions and smooth animations. Cover art scrolls effortlessly by in the various menus and the lightning-quick interface makes it obvious that the whole system is running on much more powerful hardware — in this case, a single-core A5 processor.
The Roku’s home screen consists of a single banner running across the center of the screen that has large icons for the various ‘Channels’. It’s fairly easy to use, although the more channels you add, the more tedious it becomes to scroll over and back along the long list. The presentation is quite basic as it lacks the graphical flare that marks its rival out from the media streaming pack. Apps like iPlayer also take an age to start up.
Round 3: Software & Content
Apple’s $99 set-top box supports 1080p playback and can access the iTunes store so you can watch movies, play Internet radio, use a handful of services like Netflix and YouTube, and, if you pay $25 per year, access your entire music library including ripped CDs through iTunes Match. If you use an iPad, iPhone, or iPod touch, its most compelling, exclusive feature is Apple’s AirPlay wireless streaming. With AirPlay on the Apple TV, you can stream photos, video, and music stored on your iOS device to your HDTV. During a party, this would allow the host to pump music through a home theater system while changing the music from the iPhone.
Roku trumps the Apple TV by including a BBC iPlayer app that allows you to watch both standard-definition and HD streams. It also has a great Netflix app onboard that’s a cinch to use. There are plenty of other apps that you can install from the Channel Store, including the likes of Crackle, which offers free streaming of older movies and TV shows. It’s also home to a neat version of Angry Birds, which is fun to play with the Roku’s motion-sensing controller.
It then goes and lets its guard down by missing out some critical apps. It’s bewildering that there’s no YouTube app included. Where are you going to go to watch cute videos of cats? Okay, you could use the iFunia YouTube Downloader for Mac to free download these YouTube Videos instead, but it’s not quite the same. While the Roku does have a surprisingly broader selection of apps than the Apple TV, a lot of them offer pretty pedestrian content. It also lacks a premium movie service where you can buy and stream recent titles.
Round 4: Video Playback and Controls
Testing both the Apple TV and the Roku XDS on a 50″ Vizio plasma TV and a 42″ Samsung LCD TV, it was hard to notice any difference in quality. I felt like Netflix streaming started up just a but faster on the Roku, but really could not tell. The video quality on both devices seemed to be identical to me. What’s not identical on the devices is the Netflix application. The Netflix app is much better on Roku than it is on Apple TV. On the Apple TV, you have to choose the program before you get a description of the movie but Roku gives you description of the program on the first screen. There are a lot of little differences in the Netflix experience where Roku has the edge which should be expected since they have been refining the Netflix interface for their device over the past few years.
Round 5: Design
Both players sport a similar design. The Roku is the more compact of the two, measuring a mere 84mm square, which is 14mm smaller than the Apple TV. It’s finished in gloss black with a quirky clothes tag attached to the left-hand side. One problem is that it’s so lightweight it gets pulled around by the cables you attach to it.
The Apple TV, on the other hand, is heavier and feels more solid. In the flesh, the Apple TV’s design has a more premium feel to it.
The Roku uses a Bluetooth remote control, so you can completely hide it out of the way, whereas the Apple TV relies on a traditional infrared zapper that needs line of sight to work. That said, you can download the Remote app, if you’ve got an iPhone or iPad, and control it that way over Wi-Fi.
Which Box Should I Buy?
Our standard advice between these two boxes used to be: if you’re an Apple fan, get the Apple TV; otherwise, get a Roku LT. Half of that advice still stands, since the Apple TV is the easy choice if you have other Apple devices already.