As Apple enthusiasts and customers, we tend to be very aware of the Apple TV. We also know a little bit about the competition, like Google TV as well as other major services like Hulu+ and Netflix. But when it comes right down to a head to head comparison, we often overlook direct competitors — perhaps because of our immersion in the Apple world. In this case, it’s the the Roku system that often gets overlooked, and that’s odd because the newest Rokus have a similar size, price, and functionality compared to the Apple TV. This in-depth review will help you decide.
Note that in this review I am comparing the high-end Roku XD|S model to the Apple TV (2G). These two are closest in capabilities. Roku also sells the HD and XD models with fewer features. Their Website has a comparison page to help you pick the one right for you.
You’ll need either a Wi-Fi base station or a home router that can deliver, via Ethernet, an Internet connection to either device. For 720p HDTV video, you’ll need at least 1.5 Mbps broadband, and 5 to 6 Mbps is preferable. (You can test your Internet connection speed at speedtest.net.) There will be compression of the video that depends on your bandwidth; both devices will check your Internet connection and adjust the compression accordingly. The picture won’t be as good as provided by a Blu-ray disc, but in many cases, in casual use, you could be hard pressed to see the difference. At other times, you will.
Out of Box Experience
One would expect that two products with roughly similar sizes and ports would be direct competitors, and that is exactly right. The Roku shipping box is a little bigger but only because the remote is larger, the user manual size is more conventional, and there is some minimal package protection/insulation designed to protect during shipping.
First blush look at opening
Each product shows a different philosophy here. The Apple TV tries to be small, cuddly, simple and friendly. The suggestion is that nothing that small with those few ports could possibly be complicated and hard to use. The manual is at the bottom which forces the user to handle the Apple TV a bit, size it up, and appreciate its excellent design before the worrisome part starts — plugging it in.
The Roku reverses that process by including a greeting card over the cover of the manual to enthusiastically say “Hi!” to the customer. The suggestion is to open the manual, see the simple, clear pictures, and feel at ease — even though the Roku box itself is a bit larger in order to accommodate more ports and, thereby, a broader customer base.
The Apple TV box includes the Apple TV itself, the remote with battery installed, the power cord, the manual, decals, the manual and product information. There is no HDMI cable included even though that’s the sole connection mode. Fortunately, Apple retail stores sell modestly priced (but not the cheapest) HDMI cables, and an Apple salesperson is unlikely to let you out of the store without making sure you have one if you need it.
The Roku system includes the unit, a remote, AAA batteries for the remote, the power adapater and cord, a set of red/yellow/white RCA cables for Composite video/analog audio, the Geting Started Guide and product information.
Here, Roku takes a different approach: included are RCA (Composite: red, white, yellow) cables because the box boots up in 480i for the greatest commonality for home systems. Once the user sees the video feed and is confident the unit is working, then alternate outputs and cables can be chosen. Like the Apple TV, no HDMI cable is supplied. When adding a Roku system to your shopping cart, Roku makes a very clear offer to supply an HDMI cable for US$9.99 if you need one, or you can buy a “Cable Value Pack” that adds the digital optical audio and a special Component cable that Roku uses for the XD|S. (A one into three cable.)
Side by Side
After you’re done admiring the Apple TV and the remote, you can dig out the miniature instruction booklet. Just where the Apple TV succeeds by being small and non-threatening, the small booklet fails. The print is too small for just about anyone. Also, it cannot be like an iPod leaflet that simply points to a few things, then directs the user to the Internet because these devices need more hand holding at setup. That would be an even bigger mistake in this case, so Apple supplies the necessary instruction, derived from the knowledge of all the things that typically go wrong with this kind of product. The obsession with small and unthreatening diminishes Apple penchant for great documentation.
That said, the Apple booklet thoroughly covers everything the customer needs to know — in typical Apple minimalist fashion.
User Guides (Apple remote shown for scale)
The Roku instruction book also nicely avoids diagrammatic nightmares (from the realm of Japanese stereo receivers) and simply, cleanly shows the user how to set things up. There’s lots of room to go wrong here: poor choice of whitespace, confusing colors, bad captioning, confusing callouts and so on. The Roku booklet makes none of those classic mistakes. Also, it uses the well-conceived “good, better, best” concept when guiding the user towards a Composite, Component or HDMI connection.
In order to use each system, you’ll need an online account. With Apple, it’s your Apple ID for iTunes. The Roku unit will, during setup, require you to create an account online and register the device, but the registration is easy and short. Basically, all they want is your e-mail address. I was impressed by Roku’s restraint.
Note that even though the Roku XD|S is slightly larger than the Apple TV 2G, it weighs about 2 oz. less. Some people have experienced cable torque on some small devices that keeps it from laying flat. I didn’t have that problem with either unit, but the Apple TV does have a more satisfying heft to it.
Neither system has an on/off switch, so if you can plug it into a power strip or an A/V receiver with a managed power outlet, that would be good. The Apple TV has a small white LED visible from the front, and it goes out when the Apple TV goes to sleep. (The sleep time can be set in the Settings). The Roku has an internal red LED that shines through the heat vent on the top, but isn’t very easy to see from the front.
The ports on each device reflect each company’s philosophies. Apple moves us relentlessly into the future, so if you’re not using HDMI, forget it. Of course, that also conveniently allows Apple to sidestep complexity and flexibility. On the other hand, the Roku system recognizes that they have serious competition, so Composite and Component connections are offered. However, multiple resolution outputs demands good set up management, and the Roku system does that nicely. You can connect to any TV and get things set up — even if you change TVs later. Both offer digital optical out, also called TosLink (a registered trademark of Toshiba.) This is so that, if you don’t have a full blown A/V receiver (with HDMI-in) driving a speaker system, you can send the audio to a basic system with better sound than the HDTV alone. After all, what good is it to send Dolby 5.1 over HDMI directly into a TV only to have it come out of two tiny speakers as simple stereo?
Ports (Apple TV on bottom)
The Apple TV mini USB port is declared by Apple for maintenance only. The Roku standard USB port, near the front for easy access, will be enabled in December 2010 and can be used for uploading photos, music and videos.
The remotes of each device also reflect different philosophies. The Apple aluminum remote we’ve come to know is solid, simple and classy. The battery (CR2032) comes preinstalled. In contrast, the Roku remote seems to reflect a kind of Asian, low cost, commodity remote that’s a litle bigger, clunky, and uses two AAA batteries. I must add that the one I received was a little flaky and didn’t always want to respond to the “OK” button correctly. I was offered a replacement. Alternatively, one can use the “DVPRemote” for iPhone or iPod touch. It’s priced at US$2.99.
The Roku XD and XD|S remotes support an “instant replay” feature that will skip content back several seconds. That’s not supported on the Apple TV. I also liked the small fabric tab that allows for easy removal of the cover plate for a battery change.
The Roku unit has a smallish power converter that could cause a problem getting squeezed into a power strip. Worse, the plug is in that awkward orientation that takes up extra room on a power strip. The Apple TV has an internal power converter, probably thanks to the low power A4, and has a simple plug two-prong and power cord.
Roku power converter
The Apple TV uses the physical presence of an Ethernet cable to dictate the communication mode. If no cable is connected, it searches for a local Wi-Fi network. After you specify the language of choice and logon to the Wi-Fi network, you’re done. It doesn’t need to be paired, right off the top, with a Mac or PC, and the geeky authentication codes to the computer are gone. It can be used, by default, only on the Internet. Nothing could be simpler. (See the recent TMO review for some additional details on Apple TV setup.
The Roku system is a bit more elaborate for the sake of customer control. You’ll have a chance to explicitly select Ethernet or Wi-Fi. If you’re using HDMI into an HDTV, you’ll want to leave the default boot mode and switch to 16:9 and 720p most likely. You’ll be able to set simple stereo or Dolby Digital 5.1 sound if your system supports that decoding. The options are very well thought out: text at the top and unambiguous options at the bottom of the screen. The photo below shows the home page after setup is complete.
Roku Main (L-R: Settings, Channel Store, Netflix, Amazon TV, Hulu Plus, Newscaster)
Software & Services
The key differentiator between the two devices is the channel concept of the Roku box. Roku offers a boatload of Internet services, each as a named channel, that you can subscribe to. It’s called the Channel Store. Some are installed by default, like Netflix and Amazon, and others must be added to your channel list. Some of these channels are free and some require a user account and logon. Some require a credit card account. Here’s the list of available channels on the Roku box:
Channel Store (wealth of choice)
50 Speeches You Must See, 50 Places To See Before You Die, Accent Radio Network, AlloyTV, Amazon Video On Demand, BIGSTAR, Blastro, blip.tv, Blubrry Podcast Community, Break.com, CDNTwo, Chaneru, ChannelLive.TV, Chow, Christian Video Pix, CLOC, Cowboy Classics, DreamTV, Drive-In Classics, Dyyno, Eulive, EZTakes, Facebook Photos, FilmFun5, Flickr, Flixster, FrameChannel, Frightology, FunSaver, Gabby, GandK KidPaint, Heading Outdoors, Hulu Plus, Jaman, Khan Academy, Kidlet, Kung-Fu Theater, Last.FM, Liberty News Radio, MainSqueeze, Mediafly, MHz On Demand, Midwest Cage Championship, MLB.TV, MobileTribe, MOG, Moonlight Movies, MP3tunes, NASA TV, Netflix, NFL Stats 2010, Northland Church, Nuclear Blast, Pandora, Picasa Web Albums Screensaver, Picasa Web Albums, ProMed Network, Proud Television, Pub-D-Hub, Radio Paradise, RateRix, Revision3, Roku Newscaster, Roxwel, SermonAudio.com, SHOUTcast Internet Radio, SiriusXM Internet Radio, SmugMug, SocialKast, Spacevidcast, SUNIMI, Tech Podcasts Network, The Highway Girl, TheGymbox, Trigger Talk TV, TuneIn Radio, TWiT.TV, UFC Channel, USB Screen Saver, Vibesworkshop.com on Roku, Video Poker, Vimeo, Warriors of War, Weiss Money Network, Whiskey Media, Yallwire, YB Games, YuppTV
Clearly, if you subscribe to a lot of these services that require a login, you’ll need a hefty cheat sheet. I should note here that connecting to Netflix for the first time is similar to how you’ll do it on a Blu-ray player that’s Netflix enabled: the first time, you’ll see a code on your TV screen that must be entered over at http://www.netflix.com/activate. However, on my LG Blu-ray player, that code times-out if not used for a few months. Roku says this won’t happen with their system.
The second generation Apple TV takes a different approach to content. It tends to focus on Movies and TV shows that you can stream from Apple because, of course, that makes money for Apple. However, that also probably reflects a certain preference on the part of some Apple customers. For example, there’s a group of DIY geek types who want everything and, in contrast, there’s a group of people who just want to sit down, press a few buttons, and catch up with Gregory House. The Apple TV caters to this second group.
Apple TV Main Menu (elegant simplicity)
Apple takes a different approach to logins. You’ll need, of course, your iTunes account and password to rent movies and TV shows. Chances are, you’ll know that from app store purchases. If you’re a Netflix customer, the Apple TV asks for your Netflix user (e-mail) and password. You’re much more likely to know that, and it avoids the hassle of those geeky screen codes that Apple worked so hard to avoid in the second generation Apple TV.
The real sleeper menu item on the Apple TV 2G, not to be overlooked, is the Internet -> Podcast entry. This is where you’ll find a boatload of video content. Here’s a list of the providers:
1UP, ABC News, American Public Media, BBC, BusinessWeek, CBC, CBS News, CNBC, CNET, CNN, Comedy Central, Discovery, Disney Online, ESLPod, ESPN, FOX News, G4, HBO (limited), Indiefeed, KCRW, LearnOutLoud, Mondo Mini Shows, MTV, NASA, National Geographhics, NBC News (R. Maddow and K. Olberman found here), Next New Networks, ON Networks, The New Yorker, The New New York Times, Nickelodeon, The Onion, NPR, PBS, PRI, Quick and Dirty Tips, Radio Lingua, Revision 3, Scientific American, Slate, TPN, TWit TV (with Leo LaPorte amongst others), VH1, The Wall Street Journal, Wizzard Media, WYNC.
That’s a pretty impressive list and has the capacity to overwhelm you with daily programming, innocently labelled as podcasts. While the Apple TV doesn’t include some of the lesser known “channels” that the Roku system offers, the podcast list above is awfully impressive.
There’s a lot of overlap in content, but most importantly, the Roku includes Major League Baseball and Hulu Plus while Apple does not. The NHL is coming soon, and Roku says, “we are adding significant new partners in the areas of live sports…” Live sports are something we’ve yet to see on Apple TV.
For those more interested in Netflix, the Apple TV provides a far better Netflix experience that includes a nicer presentation and more functions: Suggestions, Recent Arrivals, TV Genres, Movie Genres, Instant Queue, and Search. [UPDATE: it was pointed out to me that Netflix on Roku, in addition to the Instant Queue, also has Search, Recents, Top Picks, and some suggestions from major genres. One just needs to hit the down button on the remote several times to see all this. Seems like a UI failure, however.]
Netflix on Apple TV is fabulous
I think the Roku system appeals to people who:
- want a lot of choice and are a bit more technical
- want to see ongoing additions to channels
- are in search of specific, obscure Internet content
- aren’t married to Apple products
- are wary of Apple’s penchant for oversimplification
- want a formal 1080p capability for growth*
- may have an older TV that has Composite or Component inputs
- aren’t overly impressed with style or design
- are cable cutters and looking for prospects in the area of live sports
- welcome the prospect of plugging in a USB Flash drive with local, personal content*
With the Roku system, the major source of TV and movie content will be Amazon TV, Netflix and Hulu Plus. Purchases at Amazon are stored for you in their cloud.
The Apple TV appeals to people who:
- want to be just a little less intimidated by technology
- want to be in the Apple fold
- are more focused on simplifying their lives rather than delving into a lot of channels, many with its own account and login
- want to give a gift to a parent or someone who is not technically deep
- are anticipating the possibility of some iOS apps becoming available
- have an iPad and are anticipating the AirPlay feature.
- want the best possible Netflix experience
- want to be able to stream purchased content from a Mac or PC via iTunes
With the Apple TV, the major source of TV and movie content will be what’s available in the iTunes store plus Netflix. Don’t forget, however, that you can purchase content in iTunes on a PC or Mac and later stream it to the Apple TV with Home Sharing via Wi-Fi or Ethernet.
There are modest hardware differences between the two devices, and the prices are almost identical. I can’t see that the diferences in offerings, while subject to individual preferences, should cause the market to swing sharply to one or the other. However, as we know, Apple does have that special brand and marketing muscle that can sway customers, but now you know the details in this close look at both.
Where to Buy
* While the XD|S has the capability for 1080p output, very, very little 1080p content is now sent over the Internet because of the bandwidth requirements. Vimeo is one that does, and at least 5 Mbps bandwidth is recommended. Also, 1080p content is also supported form the USB port, “side loaded,” once Roku activates the port. (Dec, 2010)