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.
The best home theater system is the one you plan with help from the experts. Get premium advice for FREE in our expert guide, Planning the Best Home Theater System: Choosing the Best Home Theater Projector, Best Home Theater Speakers, Best Home Theater Receiver, Best Home Theater Screens & More.
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.
As long as a user knows the Wi-Fi password and the box is within range of a Wi-Fi signal, each box takes less than 10 minutes to set up. I have seen many in the industry debate which box has better Wi-Fi strength, but I have yet to see any testing of the two that has shown conclusive results. A lot of factors go into how well Wi-Fi works including the type of Wi-Fi router, the position of the router and the type of Wi-Fi protocol (a/b/g/n) being used. Every home has its own unique setting that determines how strong and how far the Wi-Fi signal works, so it’s very individual. That said, both boxes have what I would consider to be identical Wi-Fi strength and of all the testing and use of the boxes I have done over the years, I’ve never encountered any Wi-Fi differences between the two.
When it comes to the remotes, both work very well and are very responsive. One of the things you need to be aware of about the Apple TV remote is that it doesn’t take standard sized batteries. It’s not a huge deal breaker, but you probably have a lot more AAA batteries lying around for the Roku remote, as opposed to the watch batteries (CR2032 or BR2032) that the Apple TV remote takes.
The Roku 2 XS comes with a Bluetooth game remote with motion sensing for playing games and supports what Roku calls “instant replay,” which allows the viewer to skip back in 10-second increments while a video is playing without having to re-buffer the stream. Apple’s remote is smaller and much thinner than Roku’s, but personally, I like how Roku’s works better than the Apple TV remote. Apple’s remote design is all about less is more, but I tend to find the few additional buttons on the Roku remote are there for a reason and are used often. All of this aside, no one is picking one box over another based solely on the remote and both remotes work very well and work from 30-feet away.
In addition to the physical remotes that come with these boxes, you can download the remote control apps for your iPad/iPhone that will control the Roku 2 XS or Apple TV.
As for the content available on both devices, this is really where the Roku 2 is the box to beat. Apple TV supports content from Netflix, Hulu Plus, MLB.TV, NHL GameCenter, NBA, Flickr and YouTube as well as the ability to purchase and rent content from iTunes. It also supports some free Internet content from folks like Revision3, WSJ and others, but all of that content is lumped in under the Podcast heading in Apple TV, so most folks probably don’t see it. The Apple TV used to support $0.99 rentals from ABC, Disney, Fox, and the BBC via iTunes, but Apple has since discontinued that option and shows now have to be purchased for $2.99. For people who want XBMC support on the Apple TV, it’s possible, but only works if someone is willing to jailbreak the device.
The Roku 2 has channels for Netflix, Hulu Plus, Vudu, Amazon Instant Video, HBO GO, Epix, MLB.TV, NHL GameCenter, NBA, Major League Soccer, UFC TV, CNBC, FOX News, NBC News, AOL HD, TED, Pandora, Crackle, Flickr and has support for PLEX. Roku has more than 250 public content channels listed on its website (though claims to offer 600), has an open SDK and as a result, has a lot of content partners working to bring more channels to Roku devices. In addition, users can browse over 1,000 “private” channels available for the Roku and add them if they know the correct code. Compare that to the Apple TV which today, has no SDK and doesn’t run any apps from the box.
While Roku has support for nearly every content channel around, it does NOT have support for YouTube. For more than a year now, Roku has said it is working on an official channel, but the company won’t give any estimate on when it will arrive. Some have been speculating for over 18 months now that the Apple TV will run apps in the future since internally it has 8GB of Flash storage, but none of that has yet to happen. So when deciding which box to buy, don’t listen to rumors of what the box may or may not do down the road, evaluate the boxes in the market based on what they can do today.
If you want the most content choices available, the Roku 2 beats the Apple TV hands-down. But if support for YouTube is a requirement, then the Apple TV is the only choice. I should also mention that neither the Apple TV or Roku 2 XS are DLNA compliant, so if that is a requirement for the system, then pick the $99 Vizio Co-Star or the $99 Western Digital WD TV Live box.
Neither box has any kind of web browser built in, so you can’t browse the web with the Roku 2 or Apple TV.
The Roku user interface is not as polished as the Apple TV interface, but it’s simple, easy to navigate and you can customize the layout of the channels. The browsing experience on the Apple TV is great for picking movies and TV shows in iTunes, with large cover art, straightforward navigation and Rotten Tomatoes ratings. Both the Roku 2 XS and Apple TV have simple interfaces, and while they look different, they both perform well and do exactly what they should, with dead-simple navigation. In addition to streaming content, the Roku 2 XS also allows users to play nearly 30 games, with the most popular being Angry Birds. Roku’s regular remote doubles as a gaming remote and works really well for simple gaming. And if Angry Birds is something you are really into, Roku even has a limited edition version of the console that comes in red.
Playing Videos From Local Computer
If you are already into Apple devices and have an iPad, iPhone or Mac or if you are planning an Apple-based control system for your home, then it makes a lot of sense to pick the Apple TV over the Roku due to how all the devices work together in Apple’s ecosystem. You will have less content choices than the Roku 2 XS, but all the devices talk to one another and sharing content among all the devices is very easy. Any movies or TV shows purchased in iTunes via the Apple TV are stored in the cloud and will be available for download to an iPad or iPhone. Enabling an Apple TV to see the home’s local computer allows you to stream just about any media you have on the computer that is running iTunes including their music collection, any video that iTunes can play and their photo collection.
And with Apple’s Airplay technology, you can start watching a video on an iPhone, iPod or iPad and then move that content over to the Apple TV in real-time, for content rented or purchased via iTunes. Airplay also supports the streaming of video from third-party apps on the iPad and iPhone to the TV set with Apple TV in the middle, but only if the app developer enables Airplay functionality. For instance, Airplay works with TNT’s iPhone app, but is disabled in TNT’s iPad app. Also, Airplay does not allow customers to play back any DVD images from your computer.
While most people aren’t aware of it, the Roku 2 XS can be used to play back content from a local computer, but it is not as easy or seamless as Apple’s solution to use and it is not built in to the Roku. Installing a third-party channel on the Roku, like Roksbox, or using PlayOn or PLEX will turn a computer into a media server that can stream movies, pictures, and music from a computer, wirelessly to the Roku device. That said, the Roku 2 XS will NOT play back iTunes content that has been protected via Apple’s DRM. Even with PLEX, the Roku 2 XS can’t play back Apple’s copy protected content. So while you can play back content that is in their iTunes library, it just can’t be content you purchased from iTunes that is protected via Digital Rights Management (DRM). I’ve also experienced cases where the Roku will play back some music tracks but not others depending on how it was encoded. Content purchased via the Roku 2 XS through Amazon Instant Video can be downloaded to an iPad via the new Amazon Instant iPad app.
Replacing Cable TV (Cord-cutting)
Despite all the hype about cord-cutting, the Apple TV and Roku 2 XS alone will NOT allow the average person to drop their cable TV package. Neither box has an internal hard drive for storage, has no DVR functionality and has no support for picking up live TV stations via an over-the-air antenna. In addition, many of the content services available for the devices don’t won’t have every piece of content you want, at the quality you want and in the business model (rent/purchase/subscription) that you want. Even a great subscription service like MLB.TV has local blackout restrictions, so these $99 streamers are not a replacement for cable TV for 99 percent of consumers.
While many people are always willing to give their two cents on which device you should buy, everyone has different tastes when it comes to the type of content they want to watch, how they watch it and whether they rent it, buy it, or play it back from a local computer. Do your research and figure out what you want the box to do as opposed to what others are using it for. Picking the best box is pretty easy if you can answer the following questions:
• Does the TV you plan to hook it up to have support for HDMI?
• What specific content do you want to watch?
• How do you want to get your content? Via subscription, purchase or both?
• Do you want the ability to play back content (MP4, MKV) via a USB drive?
• Do you want to use the streaming box for casual gaming?
• Do you already own other Apple devices and want to use Apple’s ecosystem?
• Do you plan to play back a lot of content via iTunes?
Keep in mind that these boxes are cheap at only $99 and getting them via Amazon means you can take advantage of their great return policy. The Roku 2 XS and Apple TV are only two of the SEVEN streaming boxes currently priced at under $100. (If you are looking for a box that streams Netflix and other subscription services and also has the Google TV platform built-in, the Vizio Co-Star box is an another option.)
When it comes to deciding which $99 streaming box to get, there are a lot of choices in the market. I’ve created a chart that shows the hardware specs of each device and also lists which content choices are available on them. You can check out the chart and compare a total of 13 different boxes by visiting www.StreamingMediaDevices.com.
Dan Rayburn is EVP for StreamingMedia.com and is recognized by many as the voice for the streaming and online video industry. He is a sought after analyst, speaker, writer and consultant who’s work has been featured in thousands of articles by nearly every major media outlet over the past seventeen years. He co-founded one of the industry’s first webcasting companies acquired for $70 million and has his own line of books with eight titles available. He is a regular analyst to the investment community, has his own blog at StreamingMediaBlog.com and is a principal analyst at Frost & Sullivan.