Roku HD vs. Apple TV (third generation)
Every time there's a significant update to either product, the e-mails start filling up my inbox: so now which is better, the Apple TV or Roku?
It's an understandable question, and one that only gets harder to answer now that Apple TV has recently added two, significant features: AirPlay Mirroring via Mountain Lion and a dedicated Hulu Plus app. While it used to be easy to give the Roku LT the edge for costing half as much and offering more streaming services, it's a much closer call with the Apple TV's standout features.
Let's take a look at the strengths and weaknesses of both boxes.
All of the content sources are great, but the Roku LT also gets many of the little things right that competing products don't. The user interface may be a little bland, but it's simple and easy to navigate, plus you can customize the layout of the channels. The same goes for the remote, which keeps only the essential buttons. (Roku's remote now includes direct-access buttons for Netflix, Pandora, and Crackle.) The separate Channel Store is also a great way to offer a ton of content from partners without cluttering the main home screen, which is a problem the Sony SMP-N200 runs into.
Roku also offers several pricier models, but we think the Roku LT is easily the best value. (If it's out of stock, which is often the case, check out the Roku HD -- it's $10 more, but basically identical.) The core streaming functionality is what makes Roku great, so most buyers don't need to pay extra for a Bluetooth remote, microSD card slot, USB port, or 1080p video, which won't look better to most viewers. The Roku LT also offers a breakout composite video cable, so it will work with older, non-HDTVs; the Apple TV only has an HDMI output for video.
Apple TV (read the full review)
The Apple TV started out as a 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.
If you're willing to pay for content, the browsing experience on the Apple TV is best-in-class for movies and TV shows, with large cover art, Rotten Tomatoes ratings, and straightforward navigation. (Vudu comes close to matching Apple, but it isn't available on the Roku boxes.) The Apple TV also offers movie and TV show recommendations via the Genius menu, which worked reasonably well in our initial tests.
Another feature that's easy to overlook is content portability. Any movies or TV shows that you purchase (not rent) on the Apple TV are stored in the cloud, so if you buy a season of "The Office" on your Apple TV, you'll be able to download that content to an iPhone or iPad to watch, say, on a long flight. And you can redownload or stream purchased movies and TV shows as many times as you'd like. However, that's no longer an Apple-exclusive benefit, as content purchased on the Roku LT through Amazon Instant can be downloaded to an iPad via the new Amazon Instant iPad app.
And then there's AirPlay, which lets you stream music, photos, and videos directly from an iOS device (iPod Touch, iPad, or iPhone) 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. (Although not all apps support video streaming, like HBO GO.) Even more enticing is 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 music and videos from iTunes. That's a big plus for people who already organize their digital music in iTunes. And if you're willing to pay $25 a year for iTunes Match, you can access all your stored music without having to worry about storage at all. (Roku owners will get a good alternative when the Amazon Cloud Player app, also $25 per year, launches on Roku "soon.")
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 looks better and better.
Which box should I buy?
Our standard advice between these two boxes used to be: if you're an Apple fan, get the Apple TV; otherwise, get a Roku LT. Half of that advice still stands, since the Apple TV is the easy choice if you have other Apple devices already.
If you're not invested in the Apple ecosystem, it's a tougher choice. The Roku LT is considerably cheaper and offers more content options, while the Apple TV is more polished and easier to use, and the recent addition of Hulu Plus has narrowed the content gap. Overall, the Roku LT still has the edge for its overall value for non-Apple fans, but some less tech-savvy may prefer the more approachable Apple TV.
Best choice for existing Apple owners: Apple TV
Best choice for bargain hunters: Roku LT/HD
Best choice for variety of built-in content: Roku LT/HD
Best interface: Apple TV
Best for non-HD TVs: Roku LT/HD
Best for non-techies: Apple TV
Winner of the August 2012 CNET Prizefight: Apple TV, by a nose
Editors' note: This story was originally published November 8, 2011. It has been updated several times as the products have changed, and the recent Prizefight video has now been added.