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Battling media boxes: Apple TV vs. Roku

A tiny $99 box can connect your TV to a wealth of Internet-delivered TV shows, movies, pictures, podcasts and music. But which $99 box should you get?

In one corner, there's Apple's $99 Apple TV, and in other we have Roku's slightly larger $99.99 XD-S--and its slightly less capable $79.99 and $59.99 siblings.


But although these devices may resemble each other, down to setup routines in which the only hard part is typing your WiFi network's password on an on-screen keyboard, they represent different ideals.

Think of the Apple TV as a projector and the Roku as an antenna. Apple's box functions largely as an extension of its iTunes store and the iTunes libraries on any computers in your house. The Roku, meanwhile, has evolved from its 2008 origins as a Netflix-only player to tune into a growing variety of online content sources.

To put this another way, the Apple TV is a fantastic device if you watch only shows on Fox and ABC--the only two U.S. networks to sign up for the 99-cent rentals Apple introduced with this device last month.

Browsing and searching through its listings is easy, although its remote's tightly spaced buttons make it too easy to select something when you meant to navigate. Over a Fios connection, shows appeared in seconds--free of commercials and playing in high definition that actually looked it, unlike the blurry "HD" that airs on many Internet video services.

(If you have a slower connection, Apple says the Apple TV can cache a show or a movie on its hard drive in its flash memory until you can watch it uninterrupted.)

Renting movies, starting at $2.99 for standard-definition titles and $3.99 for high-def fare, is just as easy. But Apple's selection of rentals, like those of every other video-on-demand site, suffers from the limited availability imposed by Hollywood's idiotic "release window" business model. Want to rent "The Hurt Locker" or "The Hangover"? Sorry, too late.

Both TV and movie rentals give you 30 days to start watching; you have 24 hours to finish watching a movie and 48 hours with a TV show.

You can also watch purchased iTunes TV shows and movies--and play back music and view photos--through a copy of iTunes on another computer at home. But you have to remember that the Apple TV doesn't work off the "Sharing" option listed in iTunes' preferences; instead, you need to enable the separate "Home Sharing" option hiding under the Advanced menu.

In addition, you can watch Netflix TV shows and movies, play short clips off YouTube and view photos from Flickr. And that's about it--there's a Web-radio function, but its lack of a search feature makes it useless. Even if you've bookmarked Web-radio stations in iTunes, you can't play them through the Apple TV unless you set up Apple's Remote application on an iPhone, iPod touch or iPad (which also gets around the limits of the Apple TV's own, cramped remote).

The next version of the iOS software in those devices will bring a fascinating feature called AirPlay, which will let you watch video playing in many iPhone or iPad apps on your HDTV. That could make the Apple TV much more interesting. So could updates to the Apple TV's own software ... assuming Apple doesn't neglect this model as it did the original, now-abandoned Apple TV.

Roku's boxes don't have the Apple TV's constraints or all of its elegance. This Saratoga, Calif., company seems to have put more effort into signing up content partners for its Channel Store than to optimizing the experience of browsing that catalogue.

The selection available on Roku's XD-S, XD and HD--plus older versions of its video players--is certainly impressive. Among its 87 channels, you have such name-brand entries as Netflix, Amazon's excellent video-on-demand site (with pricing that often beats Apple's), the Pandora Web-radio service, Flickr and Major League Baseball's, coming later this fall, Hulu's $9.99/month Hulu Plus catalogue of TV shows, a cheaper way to catch up on TV than iTunes rentals.

You can also browse through dozens of quirkier offerings: NASA TV, tech podcasts, church sermons, news broadcasts and more. YouTube, however, goes mysteriously missing; the artsy video-sharing site Vimeo can't really fill its spot.

Even harder to explain: The lack of a search function on either Roku's TV-screen interface or its site, which limits you to browsing through the selection, one channel at a time.

Another puzzler comes from the Roku player's poor connectivity to the media libraries on your own computers. Even though one of Roku's first devices was a wireless music receiver that connected automatically to your shared iTunes libraries, it doesn't provide an equivalent function on its current lineup, leaving users to experiment with third-party solutions listed in the Channel Store.

The XD-S does include a USB port, but this, too, gets poor support by Roku's software. I could barely believe the tech-support note that counseled users to go to the company's site to activate a "private" channel that enables this hardware.

After I did that, I needed to restart the player before it would recognize any of the flash drives I tested. Photos and music played back without any problems, but video had issues--a copy of "The Matrix," ripped from a DVD using the free HandBrake program, didn't feature more than brief snippets of sound.

The other major advertised step-up feature for the XD-S, playback of 1080p high-definition video, suffers from a severe lack of 1080p content online. So most people will be fine with the $59.99 Roku HD, which connects to the same sites as the XD-S and in a quick test felt like the same device.

Both the Apple TV and the Roku can not only help trim or eliminate a cable or satellite subscription, they can also lower your electric bill. The XD-S drew 6 watts in use and the Apple TV only used a single watt--just a fraction of the juice a cable and satellite receiver can suck down (PDF).

Have you bought either of these gadgets? What do you think of them so far? What's on your wish list for the next software update?

By Rob Pegoraro  | October 7, 2010; 5:45 PM ET
Categories:  Gadgets, Pictures, TV, Video  
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Good article Rob. This helps me to decide which way to go, if any direction, with an online tv player.
The drawback I keep seeing is that all the major services have some kind of hardware TV box. This doesn't help users like me who want to watch from the road on their laptop. The only solution one I've seen mentioned is . I had some trepidations about it because someone said it was a scam. However, the software installed on my laptop and that was it, it worked!
Does anyone know if google tv is going to offer a software only version as well?

Posted by: monicapellar | October 7, 2010 6:36 PM | Report abuse

Very timely article. I was pretty much sold on Apple TV as a way to bring iTunes and photos to my home theater (I already have an '09 vintage Roku there) but when I saw the new Rokus offer 1080p, I set out in search of more info. Lo and behold, I found this article. The dearth of 1080p Roku content pretty much says it all.

Apple TV still looks like a sensible alternative to the equivalently priced Airport Express. Streaming iTunes and so much more for $99. My Roku can move into the den.

Posted by: McPanse | October 7, 2010 7:17 PM | Report abuse

I really want something to watch MLBTV on for next season, and since I am an Apple lover I would love that device to be the AppleTV. But it does not sound promising.

Posted by: jtsw | October 7, 2010 8:18 PM | Report abuse

I'm a pretty satisfied user of the Roku boxes (we have two). You're right that the interface needs work (e.g. search). But it's clearly still an early technology, These boxes are pretty cheap, and the benefit is large. No cable for us!

Posted by: rmcd | October 7, 2010 9:16 PM | Report abuse

The statement about YouTube missing on the Roku box is not completely accurate. You can get channel for YouTube, but it is a private channel requiring you so insert an access code through your Roku account.

Posted by: MikeBinDu | October 7, 2010 9:51 PM | Report abuse

$3/day rental on Apple TV vs just $1 through Redbox? Who thinks up these business models?

Will you also review the new Boxee?

Posted by: mcnultya | October 8, 2010 7:51 AM | Report abuse

Still waiting for my AppleTV.

How easy is it to rent a RedBox DVD from your couch?

Posted by: wiredog | October 8, 2010 8:14 AM | Report abuse

Recently purchased a Roku and returned it under their 30-day return policy.

First and foremost I ordered this device to stream Live Pay-Per-View events to my TV. Despite having advertised the availability of UFC events since May, events are not actually streamed - but the UFC will tell you they are and let you buy them anyway. After over a month of contacting customer support at both Roku and the UFC, they finally admitted that they were having problems with live events and the events haven't been available, but that they were coming soon.

The Good: The best Netflix experience I've seen...but not good enough to justify buying one if you already have one of any number of other Netflix streaming devices.

The Bad: Their customer service is terrible. They only have a script with no ability to help if your problem isn't related to plugging the device in. I was never able to get escalated to a higher level of support; I'm not sure one even exists.

The Ugly: They lie about what they offer. The website lists Live UFC content to this day, but my research suggests they tried to stream 2 matches back in June (and failed) and haven't attempted it since. Based on this alone I'd caution anyone against buying the device unless they only want it for Netflix (or know someone with a good experience with one of the other channels they actually do offer).

Posted by: egradcli | October 8, 2010 9:14 AM | Report abuse

Purchased the Roku HD unit a couple of weeks back and am impressed with the quality of the Netflix streaming, but frustrated with how it works with the Netflix parental controls system (or doesn't work.) We bought it in large part to enjoy old movies, really old ones. But most of them are rated NR because there was no rating system then, but that's the same rating R movies get when all the trash is put back in for the DVD. With 2 teens, we need the parental controls (we set it to PG13), but the Roku box doesn't allow watching anything worse than your allowed rating because there's no on-screen keyboard for the we can't watch the old Shirley Temple movies because they're rated NR. We're enjoying the movies we can get, but still thinking of sending it back just for the principle of it!

Posted by: dennyn | October 8, 2010 10:57 AM | Report abuse

Good article. Have been Roku user for about a year. It was very leading edge and impressive. However, as you note, other devices providing better feature and better service on the market now. Roku not seemingly able to keep up with the bigger names on features/functions. Seeing the new 1080 capability on 'new' devices without any comment on their commitment to upgrading existing users is discouraging and a sign of a stress fracture.

Posted by: link390 | October 8, 2010 11:24 AM | Report abuse

Here in Canada we have Rogers on Demand and now Bell on Demand, plus Netflix is accepting subscriptions. All are badly configured (Netflix still wants a "zip code") and Rogers service goes up and down, with some shows allowing fast-forward and others with "VCR controls disabled". Both Rogers and Bell have basic services with limited channel availability unless you buy expensive add-on "theme" packages, plus their internet services have slow speeds and usage caps.

When will some brilliant company simply other a total package, with all TV content and released movies, commercial free, on demand, for a monthly subscription? I'd sign-up in a heartbeat.

Posted by: panamacanuck | October 8, 2010 11:29 AM | Report abuse

@RobPegoraro You can buy those same Fox and ABC TV shows from Amazon's Video service for $0.99, so it is on par with AppleTV. Check out Amazon for more info.

Posted by: bwparker1 | October 8, 2010 1:15 PM | Report abuse

We've had a Roku HD for a year now, and love it. We can watch NetFlix movies without even having to deal with transferring DVDs through the mail, and it doesn't cost us any more than the NetFlix subscription we've always had. One of the best tech purchases we've ever made.

Posted by: thomasmc1957 | October 8, 2010 2:10 PM | Report abuse

My daughter bought me a ROKU box about a year and a half ago. I've been using it for NetFlix movies all of this time with no problems at all. I just decided to buy another one for the other TV and kill my Dish Network service too. I'll save money and not have to deal with Dish's predatory prices anymore. Win-Win.

Posted by: realneil | October 8, 2010 3:04 PM | Report abuse

Rob, good commentary, but the early part of your review creates a serious misimpression--that Apple's only good for Fox and ABC and that Roku gets you more, including Netflix!! Here's how you put it.

"The Roku, meanwhile, has evolved from its 2008 origins as a Netflix-only player to tune into a growing variety of online content sources.

To put this another way, the Apple TV is a fantastic device if you watch only shows on Fox and ABC"

For people who browse the openings of articles, they're going to have a really negative impression of Apple TV. You should have put the Netflix capability right there with Fox and ABC. You've buried the lead!

We have a Roku for streaming Netflix. Fantastic! The always on biz, though, is a downer, so we plug it in only when we're about to watch. Also, there aren't that many channels on it, many are pretty low level (odd tech and Indian shows) and it suffers the same problem as the net-- too much stuff and little way to find the good.

We're going to get another device for another room & TV-- and had been planning on getting another Roku. Instead, we're getting Apple TV that will almost assuredly open up other possibilities down the road, and in the meantime will give us Netflix--and at much less power draw!

Go green, go Apple! :-)

Posted by: RaindropSky | October 8, 2010 5:07 PM | Report abuse

I don't know. I'm thinking about buying something like this:

It costs a little more, but it gets Netflix, Hulu, iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, and something called "the Internet." I'm not sure what that is, but it sounds interesting ...

Posted by: rcjhawk1 | October 8, 2010 9:19 PM | Report abuse

The ROKUs are great little devices. We have two and love them. Content is improving all the time. While 1080p content is almost non-existent today, I like that ROKU are adding the capability. Therefore, the box is ready to go when the providers start streaming 1080p.

@ link390
ROKU have not been silent on upgrades. They continue to fully support the older models and currently all have the same software. ROKU have also stated that they would upgrade the existing HD-XR model to 1080p:

Roku Support:

Roku will be enabling the Roku HD-XR to playback 1080p video content via a software upgrade in a future release.

Posted by: gbertenshaw | October 9, 2010 8:19 AM | Report abuse

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