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Apple TV 4K vs. Roku Ultra: Which high-end streamer is best in 2021?

Both premium devices offer extras like Dolby Vision, fast processors, tricked-out remotes and Ethernet, but one is a much better value than the other.

At CNET we've reviewed nearly all of the best streaming devices and when it comes to the most powerful, our favorites are the Roku Ultra and the Apple TV 4K. Both are internet-connected boxes that take TV shows and movies from NetflixAmazon Prime VideoDisney Plus, HBO Max and Hulu and send them to any TV -- and both are packed with features.

One of the reasons they cost more than streamers like the Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K MaxRoku Express 4K Plus and Google's Chromecast with Google TV is because of additional perks like faster processors and wired Ethernet ports. For most people we'd still recommend choosing a more affordable option -- particularly the $40 Express 4K Plus or $50 Chromecast -- but some folks want a flagship device with all the bells and whistles. If that's you, read on.

To see how Apple's and Roku's best streamers stack up against one another, let's start with a few key areas: interface, features and remote. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

Roku's 2020 update to its high-end Ultra doesn't change much compared to past years, not that this is a bad thing. It keeps the remote finder feature, excellent interface and adds support for Apple AirPlay 2 and Dolby Vision HDR. The Roku Ultra retails for $100, although it's often on sale for less.

Read our Roku Ultra (2020) review.

 

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The Apple TV 4K was updated in 2021. The box design rand general experience remains the same but a new Siri Remote and faster processor are welcome upgrades. Apple's TVOS software still works well with plenty of app support, but its starting price remains at a very high $180. 

Read our Apple TV 4K (2021) review.

 

Best interface: Tie

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The Roku interface is clean and simple, with large tiles for apps arranged in a grid. 

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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 

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The Apple TV 4K can run apps from all the major streaming platforms. 

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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. 

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?", "What are the NBA standings?" and "What's the weather?" Not game-changing features, but nice to have nonetheless. 

Both companies get points for supporting their devices with constant software updates. Roku's addition of AirPlay to older TVs and boxes with Roku OS 10 and Apple's rollout of TVOS 14 the latest examples that both still care about their users even years after they purchase the devices. 

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 Roku's controller a lot more than Apple's new remote.

Roku hasn't done much to change up what was already was a good thing. Volume and TV power control are both here (though there isn't any TV input control), with rubberized buttons for navigation, media playback and quick control to Netflix, Disney Plus, Hulu and Sling (new Roku remotes are actually swapping the Sling button for -- ironically for this comparison -- a button for Apple TV Plus). A microphone and dedicated mic button are also here. 

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The remote for the Roku Ultra will look very familiar to Roku users.

Roku

Apple, to its credit, greatly improved the remote as mentioned above. The new Siri Remote doesn't just look more sophisticated than Roku's, but is now actually easier to use. 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. 

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You still need to use Lightning to charge the remote, but the addition of dedicated mute, back and power buttons also really help with 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 in the ability to easily find a lost remote. The Roku Ultra features the best perk on any streaming device: a dedicated button on the side of the box for finding the remote. Press it and your remote will start pinging, making it a lot easier to find when it's lost inside the couch. Splurging for the $30 Roku Voice Remote Pro upgrade will get you a rechargeable battery and the ability to find the remote by simply saying "Hey Roku, find my remote." 

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For whatever reason Apple didn't integrate the U1 chip or AirTags into its new remote. That lack of functionality is why I'm giving this category to Roku. 

Winner: Roku Ultra

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The Roku Ultra wins this battle with the Apple TV 4K. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

Both devices are excellent options and do a fantastic job covering all the bases of what you would want from a streamer in 2021. 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 still the issue of cost. Roku's newest Ultra box is normally listed at $100 while Apple's box still starts at $179 on Apple's site for the 32GB version (it's $199 for the 64GB model). 

Even if you love living in Apple's walled garden it's hard to justify paying nearly twice the price for the Apple TV 4K when both support nearly all the major streaming services you'd want to watch on your TV.