Beyond Netflix: What Roku Offers That Apple TV Doesn’t

Roku HD streaming media playerThis winter I finally picked up a Roku box — er, digital media streaming device. Roku is a US company that’s in the business of delivering streaming media to televisions and home theater (or audio) setups. For years I’d been interested in picking up one of the company’s SoundBridge devices, but never took the plunge — in part, because I already own a similar device, a Philips Streamium. Yet Roku seemed to be the top contender in the market for these devices, so its SoundBridge devices always remained in my mind.

In 2008, Roku announced the first streaming media receiver device for Netflix. Since then a ton of companies have brought similar devices to the market; there are now even a few expensive televisions that have the ability to connect to the Internet and stream Netflix video built-in. Still, Roku’s devices remain — by many opinions — to be the go-to devices for Netflix streaming, and they even beat Apple Inc. in the “Smart TV” space. But what does the Roku (from here on out, whenever I mention “Roku” I’ll be referring to the latest generation of its streaming media devices rather than the company) offer that devices like the Apple TV don’t? In this article I’ll list some of the things Roku can deliver that Apple TV and other devices cannot.

So you’ve got your Roku box sitting there next to your television. You’ve enjoyed streaming Netflix films and television shows via the device; you’ve enjoyed listening to your Pandora music, your Live365 stations, your Hulu Plus and Amazon Instant videos… now what? (Apparently you get bored easily.) Movies and TV shows are great and all, but what else can you do with the Roku?

For one thing, you can easily add more channels to the device. Straight out of the box, any of the latest generation of Roku devices will display a limited number of the most-popular streaming media channels (as Roku refers to them), including Netflix, Hulu Plus, Pandora, HBO Go, Crackle, and Epix. There’s no doubt you can have a lot of fun with these channels, but there are a couple of ways you can add a greater number of channels to be accessible to the device. One way is by simply entering the Channel Store. Roku’s Channel Store is its own channel, available by default along with all of the previously mentioned channels. By simply accessing the channel store you will discover a much greater choice of media offerings, from the largest media companies (CNN, FOX News, etc.) to podcast communities such as Blubrry.

Of course, Apple offers a spectacle of content for its own device and arguably makes it just as easy (though sometimes more expensive) to add this content to Apple TV. That said, the Roku offers the widest variety of content by providing its users with the ability to “go outside the box” by adding channels discovered on the Internet (including “adult” channels). There is an ever-growing list of Roku channels curated and distributed by users around the world that can be easily added to your Roku and streamed to your television. In fact, one of my neighbors, Monica Antonio, bought her family’s Roku box primarily for this “outside” content. Noticing the device feeding content to my television, she inquired about it and I showed off its ability to include international content. Ms. Antonio explains: “One main reason why I had to have it was the Filipino Channel (Nuod Tayo). Unfortunately, Alabama — or I should say Comcast in AL — doesn’t have The Filipino Channel in its channels line up. I like it. It could be better, but it’s better than not being able to see my Filipino shows on TV/bigger screen.”

And if that list of channels is not endowed enough to meet your needs, Roku includes the ability to add content via USB. (This feature is available on the Roku models equivalent in price to Apple TV.) Video, audio, and images stored on an external USB drive can be fed to your Roku and enjoyed through your television or home theater system. This past weekend I helped care for my neighbor’s child and recorded the event with my Flip HD video camera; when my neighbor arrived to collect her child, we watched the video via my Roku box. I’ve tested the device with other videos and music I’ve downloaded on the Internet as well; Roku has made its device able to access a decent number of media formats — certainly enough to enjoy the most commonly available audio, video, and image types in your collection.

Another feature included with Roku boxes is the ability to play games. Though all Roku models include this feature, the higher-end (again, equivalent in price to Apple TV) Roku models include a Wii-like remote control. Playing Angry Birds with this remote is just about as fun as playing the game using a touch screen device — and though I’ve only played that one game through my Roku boxes, I’ve probably spent more time doing so via Roku than on any other platform. (I’ll admit I’m not much of a gamer.) Of course, owners of Apple TVs can similarly use their iPhones or iPads to control games. However, those devices are awfully expensive to risk abusing through treating like game controllers. I’d much rather replace a Roku remote than go through the expense of replacing an iPhone.

Roku’s higher-end models also provide a higher resolution than Apple TV. Apple has yet to deliver 1080p high definition resolution to its devices, while today we are enjoying 1080p content via our Roku boxes. Though some experts say that most consumers can’t really tell the difference between 720p and 1080p resolution, wouldn’t you prefer the very best resolution for your 1080p HDTV just in case you can tell the difference? Would you feed the most expensive BMW the lowest-price gas?

Last, Roku has another thing Apple TV doesn’t: half the price. The lowest-priced Roku model is priced at about $50.00, which is half the price of an Apple TV. Though this particular Roku box is missing the USB port and game remote, it still offers all of the channels (and the ability to add channels) mentioned in this article.

Unless you’re stuck in Apple’s media ecosystem, I recommend trying out a Roku box for your streaming media needs. Even the entry-level Roku box has a lot to offer that Apple TV doesn’t, particularly if you want more variety delivered to your television.

Comments, opinions, and concerns are welcomed!

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