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 … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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15 responses to “Apple TV vs. Roku: Battle of the Set-Top Boxes”

  1. Edgar says:

    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 :)

  2. Wade RoushWade Roush says:

    @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.

  3. Matt says:

    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.

  4. David L says:

    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.

  5. Chris R. says:

    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

  6. joe says:

    Now I’d like to know how the new Google TV adds up….

  7. Jeff Whiting says:

    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

  8. 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!

  9. Dave says:

    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.

  10. 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 –

  11. Rick says:

    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..