I've had an Apple TV since the original one was released back in 2007 (when it cost a lot more than $99). Over the years, I have found myself in possession of 4 of the current model. We don't have cable at home, so we use an Apple TV + an OTA antenna/TiVo setup setup for our media needs. The integration with iOS through AirPlay has always worked well and it's just a solid device. A few months back, I found myself starting to use Plex for watching my TV shows/movies on iOS. A few friends of mine have Roku devices and have raved about them. I never considered buying one until I started using Plex. Plex also gives you the ability to share your library over the internet to another Plex user. Both of those friends have shared their media with me and vice-versa. Through the Plex iOS app, you can AirPlay the media that is being shared with you to Apple TV. I had been wanting to try a native interface on the TV, though. I had been looking at a Roku 3 for a while, but never could pull the trigger on it. Thankfully, I was given one as a gift for Christmas. How does a Roku 3 stack up for someone with 4 Apple TVs and is heavily invested into the Apple ecosystem?
The Actual Set Top Box
It's nearly identical to the Apple TV. Both devices have HDMI and ethernet. The Apple TV does include an optical port for surround sound, where the Roku would require having a receiver with a HDMI input.
I'll be honest, I hate the Apple TV remote. It's entirely too small. We lose it at least once a week. Thankfully, we can use the remote app for the iPhone and we have our TV remote programmed to be able to control the Apple TV. The Roku remote is RF based so it doesn't have to be pointed directly at the device. It's also bigger and more functional than the Apple TV remote. The Roku 3 and the newer model of the Roku 2 XS also include a headphone jack that is great for late night movies when the kids are asleep. I'd like to see Apple allow you to use your iOS devices as the headphone input/output device. The Roku headphone jack is only useful if just one person is watching a movie (unless you bought a second remote).
During the setup process, you are given the opportunity to install apps. There are the usual suspects (Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, Pandora, WatchESPN, etc) but there are also a ton of others ones. Some are paid and others are free. I purchased the Plex app ($4.99), but nothing else looked appealing. The Roku 3 has a USB port and there are some apps that allow you to play media from it (Roku even has a free media player app). I'd say that 95% of the apps on Roku's app store are terrible (content wise). What's interesting to see is the difference in the interfaces on the apps that are also on the Apple TV. Apple has template for Apple TV where individual companies get more freedom on the Roku. I have to say that I prefer the Netflix app on Roku, but I think Apple's version of WatchESPN is better. What does all of this mean? Just as on iOS, some apps are great and some are terrible. Apple's control over the app design on Apple TV keeps the bar at an above average level, but it forces all companies to stick to a single template. What would iOS look like with this model?
It's hard to say which device is better. Both are really good. If you are heavily invested into the iTunes ecosystem, then Apple TV is the winner hands down. If you've got a lot of media on a computer that isn't in a format the Apple TV can play, then Roku 3 is the winner. I'm probably right in the middle. I love both devices. When you can buy each of them for $99 or less, I'd say get both (especially if you don't have a paid cable package). There are enough unique qualities of each device to make it worth having both. I love the freedom of Roku, but I also love the Apple TV's integration (AirPlay) with my other iOS devices.
Apple's Next Steps
Would could Apple do to improve the Apple TV?
- Change the remote to a RF based one.
- Open an App Store (Plex is drastically needed on the Apple TV).
- Allow developers to create their own experience with their app design.
- Include an HDMI cord in the box.
I love my Apple TV and I doubt I'll change to a house full of Roku boxes anytime soon, but I'd love to see Apple enhance it with more than just some additional apps every few months.