Ryan Michael Downey
A year ago it was quite easy to differentiate between the third generation Apple TV and the Roku line of products. Both offered users a way to watch Internet content on TV but there were notable differences between the approach of the competitors.
Its flagship product The Roku XS featured, like other Roku models do now, about 1000 channels/apps including Netflix, Hulu Plus, HBO Go, Crackle, Amazon Instant Video and Pandora as a well as a
motion controller that allowed users to play the original version of Angry Birds which came pre-loaded as well as other casual games.The system had a carousel style menu a channel store and numerous options for HD Playback. Every review of the item touted a strong lineup of channels but also pointed out without fail that the Roku did not offer a channel for YouTube.
Apple TV at the time had a selection of 14-16 Apps including industry leading apps like Netflix and YouTube along with lesser known fair such as Vimeo along with iTunes Radio stations, iTunes
Podcasts, the ability to rent and buy movies and television shows from the iTunes Store along with its ability to mirror compatible IOS devices through its AirPlay and mirroring capabilities. Notable apps lacking Apple TV support included Cackle, Hulu Plus, HBO Go and Pandora.
Both devices also offered live sports by providing access to the Internet offerings from the NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball. Neither set top box featured an ESPN app
One Year Later Things have Changed
Roku has a new flagship product, the Roku 3. In the past year Roku has partnered with ESPN to offer the Watch ESPN App, added an official PBS Station and has continued to add niche based stations. Roku has an integrated on demand movie and TV service through a partnership with M-Go allowing movie and current TV show rental and purchases, revamped its menu from the carousel to a grid system displaying 9 channels at a time added YouTube and limited DIAL support, which could lead to screen mirroring in the same fashion as the Google Chromecast.
Apple TV has added Hulu Plus, HBO Go a Watch ESPN app, PBS Crackle and iTunes Radio, which is a new service from Apple that competes with Pandora and others including niche channels like Japanese animation service Crunchy Roll. Apple essentially expanded its app options to include all of the most popular apps that Roku offered while still maintaining its ability to handle Airplay and Mirroring.
With the software and app upgrades that the Apple TV and Roku 3 have made in the past year it can be difficult to tell the difference between the two set top boxes. When it comes to apps the biggest difference between the two is that Roku offers Amazon Instant videos and a number of other similar on demand services and Apple does not. This is logical of course considering that the other services would compete with the iTunes offerings that the Apple TV is built around. Roku still offers many more channels than Apple TV but for the average consumer Netflix, Hulu Plus and YouTube make up the vast majority of online based viewing. Once the lack of YouTube may have been a deciding factor between the two items but now that the app selection is nearly identical where it counts, what can one look at to decide one over the other? There are two big differences.
Apple TV: AirPlay
The most unique feature of Apple TV is the ability to communicate with its family of devices through AirPlay and Mirroring. AirPlay and Mirroring allow Apple laptop and Apple IOS device owners to “sling” video from their devices to the Apple TV and view them on television. This means that any video source that can be accessed online becomes TV viewing. This means that a user with a compatible Apple laptop can go to Hulu’s free website and send the service to their TV screen free of charge bypassing a $7.99 monthly charge Mobile devices do not have this option with Hulu. This is an incredible value for owners of compatible devices making the Apple TV one of the best add-ons for owners of both IOS devices and compatible computers.
Roku 3: DLNA Support
DLNA, which stands for (Digital Living Network Alliance) is a feature that allows devices like the Roku 3, WIFI enabled Blue Ray Computers and even some smart TV’s to communicate with computers and other devices. This allows the Roku 3 and other Roku models to work with certain computer programs to greatly expand the Roku’s channel lineup. Popular DLNA enabled programs include the Windows based PlayOn and Plex, which can operate on multiple operating systems including Apple’s OS. Both programs can access third party channels that provide entertainment that is unavailable on any channel offered by Roku or Apple TV. Neither Plex nor PlayOn is available for the Apple TV. Both PlayOn and Plex provide CBS video channels which to this point are unavailable on Roku and Apple TV. PlayOn can also provide Roku owners with Hulu without the need to sign up for the Hulu Plus pay service.
How To Choose
DLNA may not be a deal maker for those looking for a simple entertainment option but for those who are more technically inclined or enjoy tinkering, the two programs can be a real value added for Roku. Many people have taken advantage of Plex as it is one of the Top Ten most downloaded channels in Roku’s lineup.
If you have devices that are capable of AirPlay already and are not interested in seeing what Roku rolls out as the year progresses then the choice might be very easy. For those who don’t own Apple products then the question is about whether you are looking for an item that offers all of the most popular streaming options outside of the iTunes store and is infinitely customizable (Roku) or an item that is stable, sleek and will do everything it meant to do as well as possible (Apple TV). If Roku adds full screen mirroring in the near future the lines will continue to blur.