by Dan Rayburn
About 10 different $99 streaming boxes are in the market today, with the two most popular being the Roku 2 and Apple TV. Here’s a comparison on how the boxes stack up, the pros and cons of each and the factors you should consider when picking the $99 streamer to add to your home.
While Roku currently has four different models available on the market, ranging in price from $49 to $99, this post will compare the $99 Roku 2 XS to the $99 Apple TV.
To date (as of September 2012), Apple has sold over 6 million of its $99 Apple TV devices and Roku has sold more than 3 million globally. Based on available industry data, they are the No. 1 and No. 2 selling $99 boxes in the market today. It’s no wonder considering both boxes come loaded with features including HDMI out, 802.11n Wi-Fi, an Ethernet jack and support for 5.1 surround sound and 1080p video.
Related: Roku adds universal search function.
Both boxes are about the same in size (Roku 2: 0.9 x 3.3 x 3.3 inches vs. Apple TV: 0.9 x 3.9 x 3.9 inches) and consume very little in the way of power (Roku 2W, Apple TV 6W). Each box comes with a 90-day warranty and a simple power cord with no power brick. You can add an extra one-year warranty to the Apple TV for $29 or $15 for the Roku 2. While both are great streamers with very similar hardware, there is one big compatibility difference between the two that may be important to you (or your home theater integrator).
If you plan to hook the box up to a newer TV with built-in HDMI, then both boxes are a great choice. But if you are connecting to an older TV without HDMI, the Roku is your only option. Unlike the Roku 2, the Apple TV has no support for older TVs. The Roku 2 XS supports older TVs and provides 480i video quality via composite video and has support for analog stereo via left/right/composite video RCA, thanks to a mini-jack. So if you have an older TV with no support for HDMI, the Roku 2 is the box to get. Two other hardware advantages the Roku 2 has over the Apple TV are a microSD card slot for additional game and channel storage and a USB port.
While the Apple TV has a micro USB port, it cannot be used to play back local content via a USB device. 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 play back 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 play back some local content, the Roku 2 is the box to choose. The Apple TV box has an optical audio port and the Roku 2 XS doesn’t, so that might be important for those who want to use these boxes for audio content more than video.
Both boxes are easy to set up, passing my “mom test,” which involved me giving her each of these boxes to set up on her own. Roku’s box takes a bit longer to set up than the Apple TV as Roku requires users to go to Roku.com on a computer to enter all of the contact information and credit card details. While Roku only collects credit card data to have it on file in case the owner makes any content purchases via the Roku Channel Store, many have voiced their complaints that it is an unnecessary step in the setup process. Currently, there is no way to skip entering the credit card details in the setup process, so if this is a problem, stick with the Apple TV, which doesn’t require any credit card details during setup.
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