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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  • http://twitter.com/y0himba y0himba™

    As the proud owner of every high end Roku box since the original Roku HD-XR, I must say that they are the best investments I have made for my entertainment system.

    Now, let’s see a comparison of GoogleTV against the Roku.

    • http://twitter.com/Harold Harold

      Perhaps I’ll take that challenge. Thanks for the suggestion, y0himba™!

    • http://twitter.com/Harold Harold

      Perhaps I’ll take that challenge. Thanks for the suggestion, y0himba™!

  • TheCyberMars

    Wdtv is the way to go PERIOD!!! Not only does it support wifi but also ethernet. It has two USB ports and will support up to a 2 terabyte hard drive on both USB’s . If your a geek then you are probably into modding. Well the WDTV has custom firmware called B’RADS that will allow YouTube in HD, Samba servers, Network Shares, Media Fly, Pandora, and of course, NetFlix. It plays all formats including MKV. Only downside is that through wifi it does not like to stream .MKV. So it does put you back at the point where you have to stream Mp4 files but that’s only over wifi. If you are connected through ethernet then all files play perfectly. The custom firmware is a piece of cake to install and all you do is stick a thumb drive in and wait about 3 minutes and your up and playing and streaming content. It’s really the only hardware that I’ve come across that has no limitations. Lastly it’s 1080p with HDMI and Optical cable supported. Plays DTS and Dolby Digital and can downstream to stereo if you don’t have a surround sound system.

  • michael weiler

    I have a WD HD live and like it for all its content also…I also have the ability to connect to my network and stream any ISO images I may have of my movie collection….does Roku allow similar use?

  • michael weiler

    I have a WD HD live and like it for all its content also…I also have the ability to connect to my network and stream any ISO images I may have of my movie collection….does Roku allow similar use?

  • michael weiler

    I have a WD HD live and like it for all its content also…I also have the ability to connect to my network and stream any ISO images I may have of my movie collection….does Roku allow similar use?

    • http://twitter.com/Harold Harold

      I’ll have to look into that, Michael. I was comparing Roku with Apple TV in the article — they’re both at the same price point (though as I mentioned in the article Roku offers models that are much less expensive than Apple’s device). I’ve been watching news about the WD HD Live, and though a bit more expensive than Roku boxes it appears to be a really excellent device. MaximumPC recently is as being one to seriously consider. It offers Vudu too, doesn’t it? That’s one thing the Roku does not offer the ability to access at this time. (YouTube is another, though the service was once available on Roku and the company is apparently working on making it available again.)

  • Lreed1999

    I now have 3 of them in my house and they rock. There is a lot of junk, in my opinion, but it’s easy to remove them from your setup after you try them out. Pandora is my favorite and you don’t even have to have the TV on to use it.  

  • Holly

    ive owned a Roku player for about 2 yrs, love it and since my daugter has ‘Borrowed’ it, im ordering another one!

  • http://kennethlawson.blogspot.com/ Kenneth Lawson

    I got the Roku  for Christmas and Love it. It makes a nice addition to my Dish Sat . I was  impressed by the number channels and the variety of content both general, and especially  niche, everything from classic movies and tv shows from the 20’s 30’s even up to the ’60’s & ’70’s on different channels. and instructional channels from Photoshop, and other content. With a simple switch box I can switch between the sat and the Roku at the click of a button. This is one future of the web and content distribution. Much of the content on boxes like Roku and Boxee is content the mainstream  media don’t want to mess with because the numbers are big enough form them to  make money off from, but the market is there.

  • http://kennethlawson.blogspot.com/ Kenneth Lawson

    I got the Roku  for Christmas and Love it. It makes a nice addition to my Dish Sat . I was  impressed by the number channels and the variety of content both general, and especially  niche, everything from classic movies and tv shows from the 20’s 30’s even up to the ’60’s & ’70’s on different channels. and instructional channels from Photoshop, and other content. With a simple switch box I can switch between the sat and the Roku at the click of a button. This is one future of the web and content distribution. Much of the content on boxes like Roku and Boxee is content the mainstream  media don’t want to mess with because the numbers are big enough form them to  make money off from, but the market is there.

    • http://twitter.com/Harold Harold

      I love the additional channels; I was just yesterday watching a tech one, Microsoft’s Channel 9. Perhaps LockerGnome should be made available on the device.

      I find it interested that you said the Roku “makes a nice addition” to your existing television content provider (Dish Satellite). That’s precisely how Roku’s founder sees the device: as an addition to your existing system rather than a replacement for it (which is how Boxee sees their product).

      • http://kennethlawson.blogspot.com/ Kenneth Lawson

        I don’t see any web box like Roku, Boxee being a total replacement for either sat or cable content in the near future, simply because there’s is too much stuff that’s only available on cable or sat. and vise versea .  What they are essentially is a parternership they just don’t know it yet. When content owners learn the simple truth more eyes is better regardless of where they are and stop trying to limit their content to one platform or another, everyone will win. They are slowly figuring this out in the mobile market, However there are still a few holdouts that refuse to let go of their “walled Garden” (Comcast, and TWC) 
        By letter content be available to venues like Netflix Amazon, etc they are opening the possibilities for future growth especially for content they are not using. Charging licensing  fees that are way out of proportion to the orginail value of the content hurts everyone.
         Roku is on the right track providing a venue for niche content to get a start, build a audience  and hopefully the content producer can make a profitable business from their love of their particular  content. And we all benefit .

        • http://twitter.com/Harold Harold

          One thing that I discovered while researching Roku was that the founder is the same fellow who started ReplayTV. I had a ReplayTV some years back and loved the device; it was basically a TiVo but it had the ability to be hacked for personal content to be made available on it (and “broadcast” to others, if one so chose to do). This may seem hyperbole but the founder seems quite visionary. He seems to see the Roku’s relationship with cable and satellite companies to be a partnership.

          What’s happening with Netflix is somewhat troubling; it is losing Disney content and, unless I heard this wrong, Comcast will be now delivering that content via it’s new streaming video service. Will Netflix continue to lose content? I hope not. But at least with our Roku’s we can plug content in and enjoy to our heart’s delight (thought that’s not nearly as easy as simply tuning in to the Netflix channel).

        • http://twitter.com/Harold Harold

          One thing that I discovered while researching Roku was that the founder is the same fellow who started ReplayTV. I had a ReplayTV some years back and loved the device; it was basically a TiVo but it had the ability to be hacked for personal content to be made available on it (and “broadcast” to others, if one so chose to do). This may seem hyperbole but the founder seems quite visionary. He seems to see the Roku’s relationship with cable and satellite companies to be a partnership.

          What’s happening with Netflix is somewhat troubling; it is losing Disney content and, unless I heard this wrong, Comcast will be now delivering that content via it’s new streaming video service. Will Netflix continue to lose content? I hope not. But at least with our Roku’s we can plug content in and enjoy to our heart’s delight (thought that’s not nearly as easy as simply tuning in to the Netflix channel).

        • http://twitter.com/Harold Harold

          One thing that I discovered while researching Roku was that the founder is the same fellow who started ReplayTV. I had a ReplayTV some years back and loved the device; it was basically a TiVo but it had the ability to be hacked for personal content to be made available on it (and “broadcast” to others, if one so chose to do). This may seem hyperbole but the founder seems quite visionary. He seems to see the Roku’s relationship with cable and satellite companies to be a partnership.

          What’s happening with Netflix is somewhat troubling; it is losing Disney content and, unless I heard this wrong, Comcast will be now delivering that content via it’s new streaming video service. Will Netflix continue to lose content? I hope not. But at least with our Roku’s we can plug content in and enjoy to our heart’s delight (thought that’s not nearly as easy as simply tuning in to the Netflix channel).

        • http://twitter.com/Harold Harold

          One thing that I discovered while researching Roku was that the founder is the same fellow who started ReplayTV. I had a ReplayTV some years back and loved the device; it was basically a TiVo but it had the ability to be hacked for personal content to be made available on it (and “broadcast” to others, if one so chose to do). This may seem hyperbole but the founder seems quite visionary. He seems to see the Roku’s relationship with cable and satellite companies to be a partnership.

          What’s happening with Netflix is somewhat troubling; it is losing Disney content and, unless I heard this wrong, Comcast will be now delivering that content via it’s new streaming video service. Will Netflix continue to lose content? I hope not. But at least with our Roku’s we can plug content in and enjoy to our heart’s delight (thought that’s not nearly as easy as simply tuning in to the Netflix channel).

      • http://kennethlawson.blogspot.com/ Kenneth Lawson

        I don’t see any web box like Roku, Boxee being a total replacement for either sat or cable content in the near future, simply because there’s is too much stuff that’s only available on cable or sat. and vise versea .  What they are essentially is a parternership they just don’t know it yet. When content owners learn the simple truth more eyes is better regardless of where they are and stop trying to limit their content to one platform or another, everyone will win. They are slowly figuring this out in the mobile market, However there are still a few holdouts that refuse to let go of their “walled Garden” (Comcast, and TWC) 
        By letter content be available to venues like Netflix Amazon, etc they are opening the possibilities for future growth especially for content they are not using. Charging licensing  fees that are way out of proportion to the orginail value of the content hurts everyone.
         Roku is on the right track providing a venue for niche content to get a start, build a audience  and hopefully the content producer can make a profitable business from their love of their particular  content. And we all benefit .

  • http://twitter.com/Harold Harold

    Yes, and it’s a bit more expensive than a Roku. By the way, three minutes sounds like a long time to wait; Roku is always on (eating up less energy than a night light) so it plays audio and video and displays images nearly instantly from a thumb drive more or less instantly. 

  • http://twitter.com/Harold Harold

    Yes, and it’s a bit more expensive than a Roku. By the way, three minutes sounds like a long time to wait; Roku is always on (eating up less energy than a night light) so it plays audio and video and displays images nearly instantly from a thumb drive more or less instantly. 

  • http://twitter.com/Harold Harold

    You don’t have to have the TV on? Is that because of the audio out? I forgot all about that…Thank you! The only reason I haven’t been falling asleep to Pandora radio is because I thought I had to have the television on. This is great news — sorry if I sound so enthusiastic but I’m really excited about this!

  • http://twitter.com/Harold Harold

    You don’t have to have the TV on? Is that because of the audio out? I forgot all about that…Thank you! The only reason I haven’t been falling asleep to Pandora radio is because I thought I had to have the television on. This is great news — sorry if I sound so enthusiastic but I’m really excited about this!

  • http://twitter.com/Harold Harold

    Everyone wants one once they see on in action!

  • http://twitter.com/Harold Harold

    Everyone wants one once they see on in action!

  • Ryan Peters

    Great comparison! I got a Roku for Christmas and love the selection of content and easy to use interface. Its been a great investment that has more than paid for itself!

  • http://twitter.com/ronknights Ron Knights

    I’ve been bored with Netflix for years now. Their DVD service never had any “new” movies that interested me. Their streaming service was even worse. Now that Netflix is moving away from the DVD service, I won’t use them.

    I have a Roku 2 HD box. It offers more than the Apple TV that I own. But that isn’t saying much. I didn’t find much of anything in the Roku channel store. I don’t know how you found more than I did?!

    i’ve gone for 2-3 years without cable tv. I really miss the ability to just turn on the TV, and watch current TV shows now, without any hassle.

    • http://twitter.com/Harold Harold

      The Roku channel store is only the beginning, Ron! Open up your preferred search engine and search for “roku channels”. You’ll find other databases full of additional channels you can add to your Roku. 

  • http://twitter.com/ronknights Ron Knights

    I’ve been bored with Netflix for years now. Their DVD service never had any “new” movies that interested me. Their streaming service was even worse. Now that Netflix is moving away from the DVD service, I won’t use them.

    I have a Roku 2 HD box. It offers more than the Apple TV that I own. But that isn’t saying much. I didn’t find much of anything in the Roku channel store. I don’t know how you found more than I did?!

    i’ve gone for 2-3 years without cable tv. I really miss the ability to just turn on the TV, and watch current TV shows now, without any hassle.

  • http://twitter.com/Harold Harold

    The Roku is one of the best investments I have made in technology is recent years. I don’t even consider myself a “TV person” — but I’m sure watching a lot of “TV” because of the Roku, that’s for sure. I’d really like to see LockerGnome get on the box.

  • http://twitter.com/Harold Harold

    The Roku is one of the best investments I have made in technology is recent years. I don’t even consider myself a “TV person” — but I’m sure watching a lot of “TV” because of the Roku, that’s for sure. I’d really like to see LockerGnome get on the box.

  • Flailingdown

    that video was shaky bro

  • http://twitter.com/Harold Harold

    Since publishing this article Apple Inc. has announced it’s next Apple TV, which will finally sport 1080p. That’s great but a contributor to Slashdot noted the “third-generation Apple TV doesn’t add much to its predecessor beyond a truly-HD 1080p video output mode”.

  • Team Ditty

    Great comparison – We just launched our new Roku channel, DittyTV, focused on independent music. It’s great that small content providers have a platform like Roku.

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