Roku 3 vs. Apple TV: How To Pick The Right Box

roku3-appletvNow that the Roku 3 has been announced, consumers have even more choices in the market when it comes to $99 streaming boxes. With Apple TV and Roku being the two most popular, and best selling, how do you pick the right box? While many are quick to call one box better than another, there is no one box in the market that is the “best” because not everyone needs the same features or watches the same type of content.

While I have done many side-by-side reviews of boxes in the past, here’s the latest comparison on how the Roku 3 stacks up to the Apple TV, the pros and cons of each and the factors you should use to determine which $99 streamer you should buy. While Roku currently has four different models of boxes available on the market, ranging in price from $49 to $99, this post will compare the $99 Roku 3 to the $99 Apple TV.

For starters, no Roku box can stream content from your iTunes library. So if you already have other Apple devices and want to continue to live in the Apple ecosystem and stream content from iTunes to your TV, then the Apple box is the only box in the market that can do that. But the Apple TV lacks a lot of the content choices that Roku has, so in many cases, consumers might have to get both boxes to truly accomplish what they want.

Hardware
To date, Apple has sold about 15M of their $99 Apple TV devices and Roku has sold 5M globally. Based on available industry data, they are the number one and number two selling $99 boxes in the market today. It’s no wonder considering both boxes come loaded with features including HDMI out, Wi-Fi, an ethernet jack and support for surround sound and 1080p video. Both boxes are about the same in size and consume very little in the way of power and both have HMDI to support connections to newer TVs. Neither box offers support for older TVs with no HDMI port. Each box comes with a 90-day warranty and a simple power cord with no power brick . (To clarify, the Appe TV has just a regular plug and Roku does have a small power supply, but it is not like a “brick” like you get with the Xbox 360.) You can add an extra one year warranty to the Apple TV for $29 or $15 for the Roku 3. While both are great streamers with very similar hardware, there are some big differences between them.

The Roku 3 has a microSD card slot for additional game and channel storage and a USB port which allows you to play back local content. While the Apple TV has a micro USB port, it cannot be used to playback local content via a USB device as the port is only used by Apple for servicing the unit. Since the first generation of the Apple TV device was released (the 720p model), many have speculated that Apple would enable the mini USB port to allow users to play back local content. However nearly two years later, that has not happened. Roku’s USB port can be used to playback content from a USB hard drive or thumb drive and supports MP4 (H.264) and MKV (H.264) content only. So if you have content in these formats and want the option to playback some local content, the Roku 3 is the box to choose. The Apple TV box has an optical audio port and the Roku 3 doesn’t, so that might be important for those who want to use these boxes for audio content more than video.

Setup/Wi-Fi Strength
Both boxes are super easy to set up, but Roku’s box takes a bit longer to set up than the Apple TV as Roku requires you to go to Roku.com on a computer to enter all of your contact information. As long as you know your Wi-Fi password and the box is within range of your Wi-Fi signal, each box takes less than ten minutes to set up. Previously, there has been a lot of debate whether the older Roku 2 box or Apple TV had better Wi-Fi strength as many users complained of WiFi connectivity issues with their older Roku models. But with the new Roku 3, and their support for dual-band WiFi routers, Roku’s WiFi strength now better than the Apple TV. Everyone has their own unique setting within their house that determines how strong and how far their Wi-Fi signal works, so it’s very individual. But users should have no problems with the new Roku 3 thanks to their dual-band WiFi support.

Remote Control
When it comes to the remotes, both work very well and are very responsive. One of the things I don’t like about the Apple TV remote is that it doesn’t take standard sized batteries. It’s not a huge deal breaker, but I have a lot more triple AAA batteries lying around for the Roku remote, as opposed to the watch batteries (CR2032 or BR2032) that the Apple TV remote takes. The Roku 3 comes with a Bluetooth game remote with motion sensing for playing games and supports what Roku calls “instant replay”, which allows you to skip back in 10 second increments while a video is playing without having to re-buffer the stream. Apple’s remote is smaller and much thinner than Roku’s, but personally, I like how Roku’s works better than the Apple TV remote. Apple’s remote design is all about less is more, but I tend to find the few additional buttons on the Roku remote are there for a reason and are used often.

With the Roku 3, the company has added a new headphone jack in the remote, which lets you listen to your content with a pair of headphones. The Roku 3 ships with purple headphones complete with different sized interchangeable rubber earpieces and audio is sent from the Roku 3 to the remote using WiFi, thanks to a WiFi chip inside the remote. This is really a very nice option that can be used by those who want to watch content without bothering others around them or for those who don’t hear well and might have to use subtitles. This is one of the nicest features of the new Roku 3 and one that is extremely practical, considering many consumers have to contend with background noise while trying to watch their favorite shows or movies. In addition to the physical remotes that come with these boxes, you can download remote control apps for your iPad/iPhone that will control your Roku 3 or Apple TV.

Content Choices
As for the content available on both devices, this is really where the Roku 3 is the box to beat. Apple TV only supports content from Netflix, Hulu Plus, MLB.TV, NHL GameCenter, NBA, Flickr and YouTube as well as the ability to purchase and rent content from iTunes. It also supports some free Internet content from folks like Revision3, WSJ and others. For those that want XBMC support on the Apple TV, it’s possible, but only works if you are willing to jailbreak the device.

The Roku 3 has channels for Netflix, Hulu Plus, MLB.TV, NBA, NHL Game Center, EPIX, HBO Go, Amazon Instant Video, Vudu, Major League Soccer, UFC TV, CNBC, FOX News, NBC News, AOL HD, TED, Pandora, Crackle, Flickr and has support for PLEX. Roku has more than 750 public content channels listed on their website, has an open SDK and as a result, has a lot of content partners working to bring more channels to Roku devices. In addition, you can browse over 1,000 “private” channels available for the Roku and add them if you know the correct code. (see the list of private channels here) Compare that to the Apple TV which today, has no SDK and doesn’t run any apps on the box. In addition to streaming content, the Roku 3 also allows you to play nearly 30 games, with the most popular being Angry Birds. Roku’s regular remote doubles as a gaming remote and works really well for simple gaming. And if Angry Birds is something you’re really into, Roku even has a limited edition version of the console that comes in red.

While the Roku 3 has support for nearly every content channel around, it does NOT have support for YouTube. For more than two years now, Roku has said they are working on an official channel, but they won’t give any estimate on when it will arrive. With the launch of the new Roku 3, which contains a new A9 chip inside, this may finally allow for an official YouTube channel, something you get more details on here. Some have been speculating for over two years now that the Apple TV will run apps in the future since internally it has 8GB of Flash storage, but none of that has yet to happen either.

So when deciding which box to buy, don’t listen to rumors of what the box may or may not do down the road, evaluate the boxes in the market based on what they can do today. If you want the most content choices available, the Roku 3 beats the Apple TV hands-down. But if support for YouTube is a requirement, then the Apple TV is the one to pick. I should also mention that neither the Apple TV or Roku 3 are DLNA compliant, so if that is a requirement for you, then pick the $99 Vizio Co-Star or the $99 Western Digital WD TV Live box. Neither box has any kind of we browser built in, so you can’t browse the web with the Roku 3 or Apple TV.

User Interface
Fans of the most current Roku models will be happy to know that the new and improved user interface that comes with the Roku 3 will also roll out to many older Roku models as well, specifically the Roku LT, Roku HD (model 2500R), Roku 2 HD, Roku 2 XD, Roku 2 XS and the Roku Streaming Stick. The new user interface is nice, very clean, easy to navigate and retains the simple and straight-forward approach users have always loved about the Roku. Many times when a new UI is released, it can be sluggish and buggy but the new UI I got to use on the Roku 3 was very fast, much faster than the current UI on the Roku 2 models.

In addition to the new navigation, Roku also has a new search function which lets you search amongst all content channels and returns results for both subscription and PPV services. It’s a universal search option with predictable results that reminds me of the look and feel to the search function when using TiVo. The browsing experience on the Apple TV is great for picking movies and TV shows in iTunes, with large cover art, straightforward navigation and Rotten Tomatoes ratings. Both the Roku 3 and Apple TV have simple interfaces and while they look different, they both perform well and do exactly what they should, with dead-simple navigation.

Playing Videos From Local Computer
If you’re into Apple devices and already have an iPad, iPhone or Mac, then it makes a lot of sense to pick the Apple TV over the Roku due to how all the devices work together in Apple’s ecosystem. You’ll have less content choices than the Roku 3, but all the devices talk to one another and sharing content amongst all the devices is very easy. Any movies or TV shows that you purchase in iTunes via the Apple TV are stored in the cloud and will be available for download to an iPad or iPhone. Enabling your Apple TV to see your local computer allows you to stream just about any media you have on your computer that is running iTunes including your music collection, any video that iTunes can play and your photo collection.

And with Apple’s Airplay technology, you can start watching a video on an iPhone, iPod or iPad and then move that content over to the Apple TV in realtime, for content rented or purchased via iTunes. Airplay also supports the streaming of video from third-party apps on the iPad and iPhone to your TV set with Apple TV in the middle, but only if the app developer enables Airplay functionality. For instance, Airplay works with TNT’s iPhone app, but is disabled in TNT’s iPad app. Also, Airplay does not allow you to play back any DVD images from your computer.

While most people aren’t aware of it, the Roku 3 can be used to playback content from your local computer, but it is not as easy or seamless as Apple’s solution to use and it is not built-in to the Roku. Installing a third-party channel on the Roku, like Roksbox, or using PlayOn or PLEX will turn your computer into a media server that can stream movies, pictures, and music from you computer, wirelessly to your Roku device. That said, the Roku 3 will NOT play back iTunes content that has been protected via Apple’s DRM. Even with PLEX, the Roku 3 can’t playback Apple’s copy protected content. So while you can play back content that is in your iTunes library, it just can’t be content you purchased from iTunes that is protected via Digital Rights Management (DRM). I’ve also experienced cases where the Roku will play back some music tracks but not others depending on how it was encoded. Content purchased via the Roku 3 through Amazon Instant Video can be downloaded to an iPad via the new Amazon Instant iPad app.

Replacing Your Cable TV (cord-cutting)
Despite all the hype about cord-cutting, the Apple TV and Roku 3 will NOT allow the average person to drop their cable TV package. Neither box has an internal hard drive for storage, has no DVR functionality and has no support for picking up live TV stations via an over-the-air antenna. In addition, many of the content services available for the devices won’t have every piece of content you want, at the quality you want and in the business model (rent/purchase/subscription) that you want. Even a great subscription service like MLB.TV has local blackout restrictions, so these $99 streamers are not a replacement for cable TV for most consumers.

Conclusions
While many people are always willing to give their two cents on which device you should buy, everyone has different tastes when it comes to the type of content they want to watch, how they watch it and whether they rent it, buy it, or play it back from a local computer. Do your research and figure out what YOU want the box to do as opposed to what others are using it for. Picking the best box is pretty easy if you can answer the following questions:

  • Does the TV you plan to hook it up to have support for HDMI?
  • What specific content do you want to watch?
  • How do you want to get your content? Via subscription, purchase or both?
  • Do you want the ability to play back content (MP4, MKV) via a USB drive?
  • Do you want to use the streaming box for casual gaming?
  • Do you already own other Apple devices and want to use Apple’s ecosystem?
  • Do you plan to play back a lot of content via iTunes?

Keep in mind that these boxes are cheap at only $99 and getting them via Amazon means you can take advantage of their great return policy. If you pick one up and it doesn’t work the way you had hoped, return it and try a different one. At $99 each, with free shipping from Amazon, and an easy return process, you really can’t go wrong by trying them out. That said, the Roku 3 and Apple TV are only two of the eleven different streaming boxes currently priced at under $100.

  • Apple TV
  • ASUS Qube with Google TV (coming March 2013)
  • Boxee TV
  • D-Link MovieNite Plus
  • Hisense Pulse with Google TV
  • Netgear NeoTV (3 models)
  • Netgear NeoTV PRIME with Google TV
  • RCA Streaming Media Player DSB772E
  • Roku (4 models + Roku Streaming Stick)
  • Sony SMP-N200
  • Vizio Co-Star with Google TV
  • Western Digital WD TV (3 models)

When it comes to deciding which $99 streaming box to get, there are a lot of choices in the market. I’ve created a chart that shows the hardware specs of each device and also lists which content choices are available on them. You can check out the chart and compare a total of 13 different boxes by visiting www.StreamingMediaDevices.com (The chart is being updated to account for all of the recently released devices)

If you still don’t know which box to get or have additional questions, put them in the comments section or send me an email and I’ll be glad to help you try to pick the right one, based on your needs. And if you want a shot at winning a free Roku 3, I’m giving one away to one lucky reader of my blog. You can enter the drawing here.

  • Donald Kichline

    I like my older Roku before you had to submit a credit card number to activate it. I like my Apple TV so that I can access my local and cloud iTunes music/movies/tv shows.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Brian-Smith/100000730996391 Brian Smith

      You don’t need a credit card – they either have a ‘skip’ link on the page, or you can ask customer service to waive the initial credit card requirement. If you don’t like those options you can enter a credit card and remove it when setup is completed.

  • EnTerr

    Roku 3 has a “power brick” just like all the other Roku models! How come you are writing review for something you have not seen? Observe: http://wwwimg.roku.com/Roku3-QSG.pdf

    • danrayburn

      I define power brick as the kind you get with an Xbox. But I get your point, it’s not the same power cable as the Apple TV, so I will update that. I’ve done more than “seen” the Roku 3, I took mine apart to show off the insides:
      http://blog.streamingmedia.com/the_business_of_online_vi/2013/03/roku-3-teardown-a-look-inside-the-new-box.html

      • EnTerr

        Well yes, technically Roku comes with “wall-wart” and not “power brick” but i was mislead/objected for the part “Each box comes with … a simple power cord “. Roku comes with a wall-wart, an AC/DC adapter bulge at the outlet. AppleTV has that integrated inside, for which i give them extra credit – you almost never see device that small with integrated power (another example is Airport Express but that’s still Apple).

        Great publishing internal photos, hardware hackers will enjoy ogling that. Btw if there are any chips on the board bottom, snap one there too. What makes the box 2oz heavier, i thought there must be radiator for the cpu?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Brian-Smith/100000730996391 Brian Smith

    AppleTV sales in 2012 were 5.3 million. Roku’s total sales in 2012 was 1.5 million. So I think your scale comparison is wrong since Roku seems ‘closer’ by taking the sum total of all boxes sold since inception. Rather than a 1:3 ratio in Apple’s favor, it becomes more a 1:4+ ratio in Apple’s favor.

    • danrayburn

      My numbers are how many units have been sold to date, not for 2012.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Brian-Smith/100000730996391 Brian Smith

    Another correction for Roku3′s local file support –
    Video Support: MP4 (H.264),MOV (H.264),MKV (H.264),ASF/WMV (WMV9/VC-1)
    Audio Support:MP3,AAC,Dolby Digital (MP4, MOV and MKV pass through only),DTS (MKV pass through only)
    Image Support:JPG,PNG

    Source: Roku product page: http://www.roku.com/roku-products Click the very bottom fine print where it says: *** See specs for list of file formats supported via USB.

    • danrayburn

      One page says: MP4 (H.264), MKV (H.264)

      Another page says: MP4 (H.264), MOV (H.264), MKV (H.264), ASF/WMV (WMV9/VC-1)

      They have conflicting info. I will check with them again and update this when I find out.

    • danrayburn

      Roku has confirmed for me that they only support MP4 (H.264), MKV (H.264). The page that listed support for other formats was not accurate.

  • Alan

    Do either of these support viewing of websites that stream movies? In other words, if there’s a website that streams movies but there’s no specific channel in Roku/Apple TV for that website, can it play that movie? For example, my wife watches Korean dramas from viki.com, but I don’t think Roku or Apple have a channel for it. For the Apple TV, can I just play it on an iPad from the browser and use Airplay to play it on a TV? Thanks for any information you can provide.

    • danrayburn

      Hi Alan, no you can’t watch it via the box. If you have an Apple TV and the app supports Airplay, then you could watch it.

  • http://twitter.com/No_12Know YUUP!

    This is a good comparison chart. Very helpful. I would like to see it updated with the roku 3 and if they have a keyboard on the remote.

  • Scott

    Great read! Roku may be the best way to go!

  • Dale

    I have been watching tv through my laptop with an hdmi cable connected to my tv. I watch sites like Hulu, tv-links, and some streaming sites like filmon. I am fairly new to this, so I am still finding sites to watch. My question is this. Would buying one of these boxes improve my picture? I don’t want any subscriptions. I like watching for free.

  • Brandon

    Can I transfer what I am watching on my Ipad directly to my Tv with the Roku 3 or AppleTv? Like you can with an HDMI hookup.

    • Steve

      You can use airview for the Apple TV, which I think requires Wifi, but you can’t connect it directly to either of them, but for sure you can buy an adapter for your iPad to mirror onto your TV, which is the best option anyways.

  • mi

    You’re doing a very good job here. Thank you very much!

  • NewToBox

    I’m looking into purchasing either Roku 3 or Apple TV, I do have an iPad, and iPhone and like the ecosystem. I think the biggest plus for me with Apple TV is the mirroring function. I have a ton of free watching apps (along with xfinity app that plays many channels that I would like to use since I only have one cable box in the house), Also I have a ton of movies on a hard drive which I would like to play on a computer and use the mirroring function if that’s possible on a reg pc? If that is the case does it matter that the Apple TV does not have a USB port to support local files? Lastly, I have read that roku supports many apps, does that include free apps and free channels? And is it things that I could get on my iPad and mirror on TV? Thanks for any info, I like certain features on each.

    • DJ

      Mirroring doesn’t work with all apps.

  • Ken

    So if you already have other Apple devices and want to continue to live
    in the Apple ecosystem and stream content from iTunes to your TV, then
    the Apple box is the only box in the market that can do that.

    This is not true. As I know, a few Android boxes can stream contents from iTunes now, e.g. MINIX NEO X5, but not including the mirroring feature which is really exclusive to Apple TV.

  • Janis

    I went with hdmi cable from my iPad to tv, which is controlled with an Xfinity cable box. But I can’t figure out how to change it so iPad plays instead of tv.

  • Alanxr

    The Roku 3 and Roku 2 can stream some content from iTunes vía Plex App. I have both of them and my Apple TV 3 is gathering dust. Plex and Roku 3 in my opinion are a winning combination. Of course not everyone has the same needs.

    • qsick29

      Can you play iTunes music on the Roku 3?

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  • Walt

    My Old Roku gives me access to my 2 TerraByte Portable Hard Drive and Video & Audio Library. Apple TV Does Not even allow me to Plug a USB Stick of Content. (Micro USB Port Is Basically Useless?) Oh Well, APPLE TOO Complicated & Limited Content, also hard to Access my MP3 & MP4 Files without NAVIGATING iTunes Maze. Years Later I cant use $400 Phone as a simple MP3 Player I buy for $30.

  • RETUSAF1995

    I have both, what i don’t like about Apple TV is that most of the channels Apple has they want you to pay for. Many more free Roku channels. Crunchy roll on Roku is free, on Apple they want you to have account and sign in. Apple does have a few sample CR shows just to give you a taste.

    Roku has private channels that you won’t find on their website.

    http://mkvxstream.blogspot.com/2013/03/roku-private-channels-2013-roku-channel.html

    http://streamfree.tv/apps/roku-private-channels/all/

    I do like Apple TV’s airplay, Kortv, both Apple & Roku have watch ESPN. I like Roku’s remote better. I’ll be buying a Apple TV next for the bedroom (the one i have was a gift) because of Kortv so my wife can watch Korean news. So a Roku in the livingroom, Apple TV in bedroom and guestroom, my sons are into Apple products and when they come to visit, they will be happy.

  • Bertus

    Btw you can watch plex through the apple tv’s trailers app. Without having to jailbreak. You can get the instructions at plex’s website if I am not mistaken.