Apple TV vs. Roku: Which streaming box should you buy?

The Roku 3 and Apple TV are the two most recommendable streaming-media boxes on the market, but choosing between them can be tough.

If you're in the market for a streaming box, the choice usually comes down to two options: Apple TV or Roku.

There are other boxes on the market, but the Apple TV and Roku 3 remain the most recommendable mainstream devices for adding streaming content to your TV. They're both highly polished products that offer a ton of functionality for just $100, plus they both receive regular software updates, so the box you buy today is likely to be even better a year from now.

Before we get deep into the details, our overall advice for most buyers is pretty straightforward:

If you're heavily invested in the Apple ecosystem, go with the Apple TV. It's the best way to watch iTunes content on the big screen and Apple has slowly added the most important apps (most recently, HBO Go and WatchESPN), so its relatively limited selection of services isn't the hindrance it used to be. AirPlay remains the killer feature for the Apple faithful, letting you wirelessly stream music, photos and videos straight from an iOS device (or iTunes) to your TV. AirPlay even works from the vast majority of third-party apps, such as Spotify or Pandora.

If you're not all-in with Apple, the Roku 3 is the way to go. Historically, Roku gets new apps and services much faster than Apple TV, amassing over 750 channels to date. That admittedly includes a lot of filler content, but there's also some important services the Apple TV doesn't have, most notably Amazon Instant. Roku's new interface is a huge improvement and blazing fast on the Roku 3 hardware. And the remote with the built-in headphone jack is a truly great feature for those times when you want to stream without disturbing anyone else.

Still undecided? Let's take a closer look at both boxes.

Roku 3 (read the full review)

Roku 3
Sarah Tew/CNET

The Roku 3 launched early in 2013 to nearly universal rave reviews, including mine. It's a simple device, but it gets just about everything right and improves on most of the faults of its predecessors.

It sports the redesigned Roku interface (which is also now available on its many older Roku models), which is a huge improvement over the old "film strip" look. The only catch is once you jump inside apps, the experience varies, with some apps, such as HBO Go and Amazon Instant, have a distinctly subpar interface compared with other platforms.

Roku 3 new user interface
Roku

Roku's ace in the hole has always been it's impressive lineup of content, which includes Netflix, Amazon Instant, Hulu Plus, Pandora, HBO Go, MLB.TV, NHL GameCenter, PBS, Crackle, Rdio, TED Talks, Revision3, TWiT.TV, NASA, and CNET. You can see a full list on Roku's site, and the company is aggressive about continually adding more content sources. There's also some neat live TV options like Time Warner Cable's app and Aereo.

Roku 3 new user interface
Roku

With so many channels, it's a relief that Roku also sports cross-platform search and it actually works well. Type in just a few characters of what you're looking for and Roku combs through several major services (Netflix, Vudu, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant, HBO Go, and Crackle) for content. It's great for those moments when you know what you want to watch, but you're not sure where it's available.

Roku's major weakness on the content side is YouTube. For reasons that are unclear (and increasingly baffling), YouTube is still not available on Roku and there are no signs it's coming anytime soon. It's a significant omission, since there's a lot more quality content on YouTube than ever before and nifty features like the "Watch Later" queue make longform viewing more compelling.

Roku 3 remote with earbuds
Sarah Tew/CNET

The box itself is well-designed, with the remote being the standout. It features a headphone jack, letting you listen to your streamed programs while the TV's audio is muted -- perfect for late-night listening without disturbing anyone else.

Apple TV (read the full review)

Apple TV interface
If you're willing to pay for content, the browsing experience on the Apple TV is outstanding for movies and TV shows. Matthew Moskovciak/CNET

The Apple TV started out as a clunky, relatively limited streaming-video box, but consistent updates have transformed it from a glorified Netflix player to one of the best streaming-video boxes you can buy.

Apple TV interface
Sarah Tew/CNET

The longstanding knock against the Apple TV is its limited selection of streaming services, but I think that's largely overblown, especially with the recent addition of HBO Go. Most people only care about a few major services, which the Apple has (Netflix, Hulu Plus, MLB.TV, YouTube), although Amazon Instant is a major missing source. There's also iTunes, which has tons of movies and TV shows and the Apple TV's presentation is arguably the best there is, complete with Rotten Tomatoes scores and detailed production information. And iTunes purchases are stored in the cloud, so you can easily restream whatever you've bought.

Apple TV interface
Matthew Moskovciak/CNET

The Apple TV's truly killer feature is AirPlay, which lets you stream music, photos, and videos directly from an iOS device (iPod Touch, iPad, or iPhone) or iTunes to your Apple TV. So while the Apple TV technically doesn't have Pandora support, it's a cinch to stream Pandora from an iOS device.

There's even AirPlay Mirroring built into the Mountain Lion operating system, which lets you stream anything on your computer's screen -- including Flash video and free Hulu content -- to your TV, wirelessly. It only works with relatively recent Macs, but it's a killer feature if you have a compatible computer.

In addition to AirPlay, the Apple TV also does a solid job of streaming your music collection with iTunes Match. It's a $25-a-year service, but it stores your digital music the cloud and lets you access it all right on the Apple TV. (Roku owners have a good alternative with Amazon's Cloud Player app .)

You've probably noticed the pattern by now: if you're committed to Apple's media ecosystem and own other Apple products, the Apple TV is tough to pass up.

Before you buy
Both boxes are outstanding values, but there are some important caveats to keep in mind before you purchase. Most of the good services require a separate monthly subscription or pay-per-view fee, so you'll need to factor that into the overall cost of ownership of the box. Some services, such as HBO Go, also require authentication, which means you have to prove you're a cable/satellite subscriber before you get access. That sounds straightforward, but it's not: Comcast won't authenticate on Roku, but will on Apple TV. There's little rhyme or reason to these technicalities, so it's worth investigating your favorite services before making the jump.

Editors' note: This story was originally published November 8, 2011, but has been significantly updated since then to account for changes in both products.
 

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