This is shaping up to be an important year for the future of TV.
Networks like HBO, CBS, and Nickelodeon are launching new streaming services that let you watch all the shows you want over the internet. Then there are services like Dish Network’s Sling TV and Sony’s Vue that let you stream live TV from a handful of popular cable channels at a fraction of the cost of a normal cable subscription.
Things are still messy and evolving, and it will be a few more years before we’re able to stream any show we want, when we want it. But networks are slowly waking up to the reality that lots of people are sick of cable.
To get all that great streaming content on your TV, you’ll need a set-top box. The two best boxes on the market are the Roku 3 and Apple TV. Both are great choices, but I think the Roku 3, which just got a new update, is the best.
Let’s break it down.
When it comes to what most people want to stream, Roku and Apple TV have you covered. Both boxes offer the Big Three: Netflix, Hulu, and HBO GO, which is where you’ll likely be spending a lot of your time. Roku also offers Amazon Instant, which is missing from the Apple TV, though you can download the Amazon app to your iPhone or iPad and watch content on your Apple TV through AirPlay.
Beyond those staples, Apple and Roku have a lot of other channels to choose from, but Roku has the most.
Both boxes continue to add new channels all the time, but Roku has done so at a much faster clip. There are currently about 2,000 channels on Roku, versus the 61 you get with Apple TV. Most people will probably ignore a lot of that content, but it’s nice that Roku gives you more options if want them.
If you want to rent or own a TV show or movie, Apple TV forces you to use iTunes, which only works on Apple gadgets. Roku gives you access to Amazon, Vudu, M-GO, and Google Play, which all have pretty much the same selection but let you watch what you buy on just about any device. This is a good way to future proof the content you buy in case you end up switching hardware one day.
Roku’s latest software update also lets you follow movies and TV shows you want to watch and get alerts when one of them goes on sale, so you’re more likely to find the best prices through Roku versus Apple TV.
All of that gives Roku an edge over the Apple TV when it comes to content.
Apple may have a history of creating excellent user interfaces, but that doesn’t apply to Apple TV.
The Apple TV’s main menu is very similar to the look and feel of the home screen on your iPhone or iPad: A bunch of static app icons that launch the various streaming services. That may work well for a handheld device like a smartphone or tablet, but it’s difficult to navigate on a TV using Apple’s remote.
Whenever Apple adds a new channel, you’re stuck with it even if you never want to watch. You can arrange the icons any way you’d like, but there will still be a lot of junk you don’t want on your home screen.
Finding what you want on Apple TV is also tough. If you know you want to watch a movie but don’t know where to find it, you have to click into each individual app and search for it. iTunes may have just about anything you’re looking for, but there’s no way to check quickly if a subscription service like Netflix or Hulu has what you want first.
Roku has a much better interface.
Menus flow left to right, which feels much more natural to navigate. You also have full control over which apps appear on your main menu, so you’re not forced to slog through a bunch of app icons to find what you want.
But the real reason why Roku wins is its search feature, which lets you find any actor, movie, TV show, director, etc. right from the home screen without having to launch an individual app.
For example, if you search for “Martin Scorsese,” Roku will display a full list of his movies and all the sources you can watch them on. If “Goodfellas” is playing on Netflix, you can jump in and start streaming. Or if you’d rather buy or rent it, the Roku will give you the option to do so from any of the digital video stores.
The newest Roku 3 also includes voice search, similar to what Amazon introduced with its Fire TV box last year. You press a button on the remote and speak your query into the built-in microphone. Voice search also works if you have the Roku app on your smartphone. It worked perfectly in my tests.
Roku also outdid Apple when it comes to the remote.
The Apple TV remote looks great, but it’s too small and its button layout isn’t suited well for the interface.
It’s especially frustrating when you have to navigate an on-screen keyboard to perform a search. Using the Remote app on the iPhone helps, but it’s annoying to have to unlock your phone, launch an app, and wait for it to connect just so you can control your TV.
Regular TV remotes tend to be way too complicated, but I think Apple went too far by over simplifying its TV remote.
Roku proves that you can have an easy-to-use remote with plenty of functionality. There’s a directional control pad, an “OK” button, volume, and a few buttons that automatically launch key apps like Netflix and Amazon Instant.
But the most clever feature is the headphone jack on the side. When you plug in headphones, the TV mutes itself automatically and the sound pipes through the remote instead. It’s perfect if you want to watch something without bothering someone else in the room. Genius. I’m shocked this hasn’t been adopted by more TV remotes.
There are only two reasons to choose an Apple TV over the Roku
The Roku beats Apple TV in just about every way except for one: AirPlay.
There are a few apps like Netflix and Hulu that will let you send content from your phone to your Roku, but most apps don’t support that feature.
Just about every major video or music app on iPhone works with AirPlay, so even if Apple TV doesn’t have the channel you want, you can still beam content from an app on your phone to your TV. AirPlay also lets you mirror your iPhone or iPad’s screen, which is good for demonstrations or presentations.
If you think you’ll want to beam a lot of content from your phone to your TV, then you’re better off with Apple TV. Roku can’t compete there.
The only other reason I’d suggest picking Apple TV over Roku is if you already own a lot of content through iTunes. Apple TV will let you sign into your iTunes account and get all that content right away. If you go with Roku, you’ll have to buy all that content again through one of the other online stores like Vudu or Google Play.
Roku 2 is actually the best value
The Roku comes in three models: 1, 2, and 3. The Roku 3 may be Roku’s best box, but I’d recommend getting the cheaper Roku 2 instead. Both boxes are identical, but the Roku 2 costs $US69, $US30 cheaper than the Roku 3; the only thing missing in the Roku 2 is the special remote that lets you search with your voice or use headphones. It’s also the same price as the Apple TV.
Unless you really want voice search and the headphone jack, I think you’re better off saving the $US30. Plus you can always use the Roku smartphone app to voice search for free.
But wait, isn’t Apple working on something new?
According to reports from publications like The Wall Street Journal, Re/code, BuzzFeed, and more, Apple will launch a new Apple TV box this year, possibly as early as this summer.
John Paczkowski of BuzzFeed reports that the new box will have Siri, which will likely be used for voice search. It could also have an app store for adding new channels, faster internal hardware, more storage, and act as a “hub” for home automation devices.
Apple is also planning to launch a streaming live TV service similar to Sling TV this fall,according to Peter Kafka of Re/codeand others. The service will let you watch live TV streamed over the internet from a handful of networks like ABC, Disney, and CBS. It will cost between $US20 and $US40 per month and launch this fall, according to those reports.
Some people might want to hold off a few months to see what Apple launches, but if you want to buy a new streaming TV box today, Roku is your best choice.
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