Roku vs Apple TV: Which streaming device rules them all?

Roku

Before you start shopping, here’s everything you need to know.

When it comes to streaming devices, it often comes down to cost and features. No two companies better exemplify this dichotomy better than Apple and Roku. On one end, there’s Apple TV, a shimmering example of luxury technology with a price to match. On the other is Roku, which offers a range of affordable options to fit any budget. Before you start shopping, here’s everything you need to know about Roku vs Apple TV.

Roku vs Apple TV

Thanks to a flood of smart devices on the market, it’s easier than ever to start streaming. But from video game systems to smart TVs, the options for cord-cutting can be overwhelming. Luckily, when it comes to the Roku or Apple TV, you can start streaming by plugging the device into your existing setup.

What is Roku?

In the world of streaming, Roku represents choice and access, offering a range of affordable options for almost everyone’s needs. Whether you want a budget-friendly streaming stick or a 4K smart TV, Roku has something for you. This flexibility has helped the company amass a reported 27 million active accounts as of January 2019.

Part of Roku’s success is its simple interface and remote. Roku sorts all of your streaming apps in one simple main menu. The large app icons make it easy to understand for users of all ages. Each device comes preloaded with popular streaming services including Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu to get you started. But those channels are just a fraction of what Roku offers. There are over 1,000 official Roku channels, with thousands more private channels if you’re willing to dig. Roku helpfully breaks down its options during the setup process.

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Most popular streaming services, like Amazon and Netflix, require a subscription, but that doesn’t mean you need to pay for entertainment. Roku has a massive number of ad-supported free channels. These Roku free channels feature a mix of mainstream movies, sports, horror, cartoons, and local news. If you get bored with the free content, you can play with Roku hacks to enhance your experience.   

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Roku devices

Each Roku device comes with a remote control and support for the Roku app. Roku’s mobile app is one of its biggest strengths, working as a secondary remote and a Private Listening device. Just plug in your headphones to your mobile device to listen to your TV without disturbing anyone else.

Roku’s models start with the HD Roku Express at $29.99. If you’re using an older TV without an HDMI port, you’ll need the Roku Express+, a $35 model that supports composite cables. The final mid-range device is the Roku Premiere, which supports 4K picture, for just $39.99. Each of these devices is a small box that sits next to your TV. If portability is a concern, we suggest looking at the Stick line.

Roku’s Streaming Stick and Streaming Stick Plus are the most compact options Roku offers, plugging directly into your TV’s HDMI port. Streaming Sticks also come with an enhanced Roku remote, adding voice search along with volume and power controls for your TV. These units are perfect for wall-mounted TVs and travelers who want a small Roku for the road. The Roku Streaming Stick supports HD video and costs $49.99, while the 4K Streaming Stick Plus runs $59.99.

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If you have a bigger budget, you can consider the high-end Roku Ultra and Roku TV. At $99.99, the Roku Ultra isn’t cheap, but it offers the fastest Wi-Fi reception of the line, along with a USB port for streaming your own media. In addition to volume and power buttons, the Ultra’s remote has a headphone port for private listening. All of these features are in addition to its 4K Ultra HD output and support for HDR.

Roku TV is perfect for people looking to make the jump to 4K without going broke. While a number of companies work with Roku, you can get the most for your money with TCL. TCL’s 4K smart TVs support HDR and come with a built-in Roku for streaming. With models starting at $350 for a 43-inch Ultra HD 4K TV, TCL offers one of the best deals in 4K.  

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What is Apple TV?

In the debate between Roku vs Apple TV, Roku represents choice, and Apple TV represents simplicity. With two models on the market, the only thing you need to know before buying an Apple TV is if you want 4K or not. Both models come with a Siri Remote that lets you control the volume of your TV and use voice search. Each Apple TV is a physical box that you connect your TV via HDMI.

Apple TV explains how to navigate its menus during setup, it can take some practice. The top of your menu is made up of your Apple content: movies, music, app store, settings, etc. Below these options, you’ll find your streaming apps. During setup, you’ll need to go to the App Store to download services like Netflix and Amazon Prime.

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There are hundreds of Apple TV apps to discover, including one for every popular streaming service. You’ll find live TV and movie streaming service options from Netflix to HBO Now to Hulu. And Apple TV supports some free streaming services like Crackle—but it doesn’t have such vast free options as Roku.

Apple TV sets itself apart with is its beautiful, yet tiny, Siri remote. Users control the TV using the glass touch surface on top of the remote. Sliding your finger up, down, left, or right moves the cursor, while pressing the glass selects your choice. This remote is charged using the same Lightning cables as iPhones, saving you money on batteries in the long run.

Apple TV also supports gaming, letting users download titles from the iTunes store and play them on the TV with a Bluetooth remote. While these titles are still limited, you can find classics like Grand Theft Auto 3 and Chrono Trigger in the store.    

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Apple TV devices

There are only two models of Apple TV available on the market, the Apple TV and Apple TV 4K. The standard Apple TV costs $149, with a 1080p video output, 802.11ac Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth 4.0. This model also comes with 32GB of storage for saving games and your library.

Ultra HD TV owners will need the Apple TV 4K, available in a $179 32GB version or a $199 65GB model. The picture on the Apple TV 4K is truly beautiful, and the device supports Dolby Vision and HDR10. You won’t fret about picture quality on this model, thanks to the simultaneous (2.4 GHz and 5GHz) dual-band 802.11ac Wi-Fi. Finally, Apple TV 4K features Bluetooth 5.0.

Neither Apple TV model includes a USB port for connecting an external hard drive to stream your own content. Each Apple TV is the same size, about 4×4 inches and 1-inch thick. It’s an unobtrusive addition to any entertainment system if minimalism matters to you.

roku vs apple tv - interface Apple BUY APPLE TV ON AMAZON

What do Roku and Apple TV have in common?

If all you care about is watching Netflix, streaming live TV, and catching Game of Thrones, both Roku and Apple TV will meet your needs. If you’re not looking for particularly niché content, both Apple TV and Roku will have almost every app you could ever want. While Roku has an easier to understand system out of the box, but both Roku and Apple TV are simple enough to learn.

Each system offers voice search, though not every Roku model supports the feature. Both companies also include a remote and let you use your smartphone to control your device if (or when) you lose said remote. Both Roku and Apple TV also allow users to cast content from their smartphone to the TV using an app. At the base level, free of considerations like price, both Apple TV and Roku have a lot to offer.

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What features set Roku and Apple TV apart?

While both Apple TV and Roku support casting, Apple TV is superior in that arena. Roku’s mobile app only allows you to cast movie, music, and photo files stored directly on your phone. Apple TV users, on the other hand, can easily cast any content from their MacBook or iOS device directly to the Apple TV.

From accessing media to screen mirroring your phone to your TV, Apple’s casting is much more advanced than Roku’s. This makes Apple TV better for office environments. Casting from a computer to a Roku is a nightmare that involves frustrating third-party apps. This is one category in the toss-up between Roku vs. Apple TV where Apple excels.

Roku, meanwhile, has way more content to watch. The service has the largest number of official streaming apps of any device on the market before you even look at private channels. Most of the private channels are a mess of abandoned content, but the gems are worth exploring.

Apple TV 4K automatically upgrades any existing movies you have in your iTunes library to 4K if available. If you’ve already spent a ton of money in the iTunes store buying digital movies, it’s nice to not have to rebuy them to upgrade.  

Traditionally, we wouldn’t consider pricing a feature. However, when you’re talking about a $120 dollar price difference between starter models, price becomes a feature. For the cost of a standard definition Apple TV, you could buy a 4K Roku Ultra and still have $40 left over after taxes.   

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Final verdict: Roku

Apple TV is an incredible device. It’s feature-packed, beautiful—and frustratingly overpriced. While the sheer number of options Roku offers may feel daunting, its starting price of $29.99 is comforting. Roku’s gigantic collection of streaming channels and easy-to-use interface makes it the best basic streaming device on the market.

The best part? If you’re choosing between Apple TV vs. Roku, almost every Roku model—no matter how luxurious—is a deal. We recommend the $59.99 4K Roku Streaming Stick+ for its picture quality and voice remote. If you need private listening, you can easily access the feature using the Roku app. But even if you splurge for the $99.99 4K Roku Ultra, you’re saving money over a standard-definition Apple TV.

If money is no object, and you’re heavily invested in the iTunes store, Apple TV is a great streaming option. But in a head-to-head street fight for which box deserves to play you Netflix, Apple TV can’t dodge the punches Roku throws when it comes to pricing.

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John-Michael Bond

John-Michael Bond

John-Michael Bond is a tech reporter and culture writer for Daily Dot. A longtime cord-cutter and early adopter, he's an expert on streaming services (Hulu with Live TV), devices (Roku, Amazon Fire), and anime. A former staff writer for TUAW, he's knowledgeable on all things Apple and Android. You can also also find him regularly performing standup comedy in Los Angeles.