Apple TV 4K vs. Roku Ultra: Which High-End Streaming Device Is Worth the Price?
Both streaming devices sell for around $100 and come with 4K capabilities and Dolby Vision, but one has additional features that help justify its cost.
Eli BlumenthalSenior Editor
Eli Blumenthal is a senior editor at CNET with a particular focus on covering the latest in the ever-changing worlds of telecom, streaming and sports. He previously worked as a technology reporter at USA Today.
Expertise5G, mobile networks, wireless carriers, phones, tablets, streaming devices, streaming platforms, mobile and console gaming,
All streaming devices take TV shows and movies from Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Disney Plus, HBO Max and Hulu and send them to any TV, but higher-end models come with additional features that set them apart. This is especially true for the Roku Ultra and the Apple TV 4K. These two devices are some of most powerful -- and expensive -- streaming boxes available, even after recent price cuts.
In May Roku updated the Ultra for 2022 by including the previously separate Voice Remote Pro in the box. While this is a welcome upgrade, the device itself remains unchanged from its 2020 iteration. This means that both the Ultra and the Apple TV 4K continue to offer similar specifications, despite the Ultra's new-for-2022 status.
To see how Apple's and Roku's best streaming devices stack up against one another, let's start with a few key areas: interface, features and remote.
Roku's 2022 update of the Ultra centers on the remote. Now users get the Voice Remote Pro included with the package. The remote, originally released last year as a $30 stand-alone accessory that can be paired with any compatible Roku, adds new features such as a rechargeable battery and a 12-foot midfield microphone. The latter is particularly useful: You can say, "Hey Roku, find my remote," and the device will beep so you can find out whether it's lost under the couch cushions.
However, the Ultra box itself has not been changed since 2020 and the inclusion of the Voice Remote Pro was the only item we received from our Roku Ultra 2022 wish list. That said, the Ultra still sports an excellent interface and supports Apple AirPlay 2 and Dolby Vision HDR. It also retains its previous price of $100.
The Apple TV 4K was updated in 2021. The box's design and interface remain the same, though a new Siri Remote and faster processor are welcome upgrades. Apple's TVOS software works well with plenty of app support, but the starting price, despite some recent reductions, remains high.
Roku's interface is as easy to use as it gets. A colorful array of app tiles are arrayed in a grid that you can arrange to taste. Responses on the Ultra are super-quick -- within seconds I was inside services like Netflix, Disney Plus, Hulu or Sling TV -- but the cheaper Express 4K Plus seemed just as fast. There are no big recommendation tabs of what to watch, or posters of shows or movies cluttering the tiles, though there are some ads on the right side when scrolling through the grid. The app store, found in the left-hand section labeled Streaming Channels, is just as quick and easy to navigate as the main menu.
The Apple TV 4K has a similarly pretty and colorful menu filled with tiles. Navigation is a bit easier thanks to the addition of a directional "clickpad" to the new Siri Remote and the A12 Bionic processor inside keeps things moving quickly. The Apple TV features recommendations from a variety of services, not just Apple's own TV Plus subscription service, but if you don't want to use it you won't need to.
Both menu systems are easy and straightforward, making this a tie.
Best features: Apple TV 4K
Apple wins the best features category, but it's closer than you'd think given the price difference.
Both boxes deliver the best-quality 4K HDR streaming from compatible apps, as well as Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos. Both also work with Apple's AirPlay 2 system for casting content from an iPhone, iPad or Mac to your TV and HomeKit for controlling the box with Siri, as well as Apple TV Plus.
App support, notwithstanding Roku's spat with YouTube TV, is similarly comprehensive between the two, although the Apple TV integrates other Apple services including Apple Music, Arcade and Fitness Plus that Roku lacks. The calibration feature for adjusting your TV's picture quality via an iPhone is a nice, clever bonus.
While Arcade is great, if you're a gamer it's the Apple TV's inclusion of the Steam Link app which gives it an edge over the Roku by enabling you to stream PC games to your TV. The Apple device also enables the connection of four simultaneous Bluetooth controllers for intense couch-based gaming. By comparison, the Roku only enables two audio-only connections at once.
Next, Apple wins for voice because Siri is a lot better than Roku's unnamed voice assistant. It's quick and responsive when asking to play movies like Avengers Endgame and even knows to go right into Disney Plus (so long as you have the app installed). Unlike with Roku, you can also ask Siri questions like "When is the next Yankees game?" or "What are the NBA standings?" and "What's the weather?" Not game-changing features, but nice to have nonetheless.
As with the interface, the differences here are small. But Siri and the picture adjusting tools give Apple the edge.
Best remote: Roku Ultra
Whereas interface and features were close, I like the Roku Voice Remote Pro a lot more than Apple's new remote.
Roku's Voice Remote Pro is the company's biggest update in years to its controller. In typical Roku fashion, it largely keeps the same look and feel of the company's other remotes, but the $30 accessory has some big under-the-hood improvements -- most notably a mid-field mic for voice control and a rechargeable battery.
Both of these features are great additions on paper. The new mic enables the ability to simply say "Hey Roku, find my remote" to make the clicker beep from wherever it is: That's a game-changer for anyone constantly scouring the couch cushions. Roku remotes can chew through batteries quickly, and the ability to recharge instead means you no longer need to keep a stash of AAs on hand. And Roku's other extras, namely the headphone jack for private listening and programmable shortcut keys, are welcome as ever.
Apple, to its credit, has greatly improved the remote. The new Siri Remote doesn't just look more sophisticated than Roku's, it's actually easier to use than before. I love the addition of the directional buttons into the gesture-supported clickpad. I still found myself overshooting what I was aiming to press when using gestures, but the ability to fall back to good, simple buttons (and the option to turn gestures off entirely) doesn't make it a complete experience destroyer.
Watch this: Apple TV's new remote is the upgrade we needed
You need to use Lightning cables to charge the remote, but the addition of dedicated mute, back and power buttons also help the overall experience.
Both Apple and Roku let you control their respective boxes from a mobile device, though Apple's feature is only available on its mobile products.
Where Roku wins, however, is its ability to easily find a lost remote. It offers two ways to find the missing accessory: a voice-activated solution and a dedicated button on the side of the box to search for a lost clicker. Press it and your remote will start pinging, making it a lot easier to find when it's lost inside the couch.
Watch this: Roku Voice Remote Pro review: 'Hey Roku' only goes so far
For whatever reason, Apple didn't integrate the U1 chip or AirTags into its new remote (though you can combine them in a Frankenstein device, if you dare). That lack of functionality is why I'm giving this category to Roku.
Winner: Roku Ultra
Both devices are excellent options and do a fantastic job covering the bases of what you would want from a streaming device. Apple's box is slightly more capable thanks to TVOS being a richer operating system, and it gets points for supporting Apple Music, Arcade and Fitness Plus. The updated processor and improved remote further boost its credentials.
But there is the issue of cost: Roku's newest Ultra box is normally listed at $100, while Apple's box starts at $179 on Apple's site for the 32GB version (it's $199 for the 64GB model). Lately, the Apple TV 4K has been seeing price drops consistently, but is still more expensive than the Ultra, even when it's significantly discounted. Even if you love living in Apple's walled garden, it's hard to justify paying the price for an Apple TV 4K when both support nearly all the major streaming services you'd want to watch.