Streaming Media Choices - AppleTV versus Roku

This is a little bit off topic from what I normally do here, but with the holidays approaching a lot of clients, friends and family have been asking for my opinion on streaming media devices and services. Thus, I thought I'd share my opinions on the subject. Please take this only as a personal opinion of a techie and gadget enthusiast, and note that we do not sell, support or service any of these devices.

Streaming media (e.g. Netflix, Hulu, etc.) are growing in popularity. People who know me personally and follow me on Facebook will know that I'm a huge fan of Internet-based streaming media. I "cut the cord" (cable TV) for several years, relying only on Hulu and Netflix in a grand experiment.

AppleTV vs Roku

There are a number of different devices available for accessing these services, including "smart" TVs (where apps are built right into the TV itself), game consoles such as the PS3, and more.   I do enjoy the app support baked right into my Samsung Smart LED HDTV.   But I'm going to talk about external devices here, specifically the AppleTV and the ROKU boxes, assuming you don't have a Smart TV with app support built-in.

I, personally, have both an AppleTV (downstairs) and a ROKU box (upstairs), as well as one Samsung SmartTV that has apps built-in, and can speak to all three.  I find it fascinating that the apps vary fairly widely among the different platforms, as does the content.  My girlfriend is deaf, so we've seen first hand where the exact same show will be close captioned on one device and not another, and little oddities like that.

All in all, the real critical factor is whether or not you are using the Apple ecosystem (iPhones, Macs, iPads, etc.) and want a device that can play in the sandbox with the others.  I have all my music organized in iTunes on my Mac, and sync with my iPhone and iPad.  Thus, an AppleTV is an absolute requirement for me -- I stream music from my iTunes library to the TV in my living room, and occasionally use AirPlay to project content from my phone or iPad to the TV.   That requires AppleTV.   If you are using the Apple ecosystem and are looking for one box, then game over -- go with the AppleTV.

If you are not an Apple-centric household, OR you have AppleTV already and are looking for a second box for use on a different TV, I have to say that for pure streaming media/apps, the ROKU box beats the AppleTV hands down.   I vastly prefer the ROKU box over AppleTV.  I have the ROKU XS box and love it.  I cannot recommend it more highly.   Although there very small differences between the apps on AppleTV versus Roku (they're mostly "all the same") the interface and usability on the ROKU gets the edge.  To clarify -- there's not a huge difference between, for example, Hulu on the AppleTV and Hulu on the ROKU, but if I had to pick one, I would pick the ROKU.

ROKU also doesn't have an ecosystem to try to contend with or an empire (i.e. iTunes) to deal with, so it has a lot less restrictions put upon it.  In other words, ROKU isn't trying to sell content like Apple is with iTunes.  So where Apple will have funny rules or restrictions so as not to cannibalize sales, or to honor byzantine licensing deals with content partners, ROKU has no such issues. The net result is that instead of 4 or 5 apps, there are dozens and dozens available on the ROKU box. While Apple is tinkering on the side with this "experiment", ROKU devotes 100% of its attention to building the best box it can, and filling up it's offerings with the largest possible variety of apps (i.e. content). While Apple was hemming and hawing over publishing a Hulu app because of business restrictions, ROKU had it up and running a good year or two before AppleTV.

So while I expect to always have an AppleTV in the living room for interaction with my Apple-centric home network, if I have to buy a secondary unit it will definitely be a ROKU.  If you already have an AppleTV or aren't an Apple user, I'd recommend a ROKU, hands down.


Netflix vs Hulu?

The other question I'm often asked is:  "Which should I get, Netflix or Hulu?"    This is analogous to asking "Which do you prefer, an orange or a duck?" They're completely different things. Netflix was born out of the mailorder DVD rental business. It's heavily focused on movies, with some TV content. Most of the TV content is analogous to the DVD rental business were you would find last season's episodes on DVD for rent, but only a year in arrears. So Netflix will carry shows like Flashpoint and Weeds, but they're a year or two (or more) behind, available as full seasons.

Hulu, on the otherhand, was founded as a joint venture by ABC, NBC, Fox and Comcast/GE, and focuses on current TV shows, although they do carry some movies. The TV shows are primarly the current shows that just aired, with about a 24-hour lag.   (CBS decided to go it alone and thus is the one major network that's conspicuously absent).

They're both in the same range, about $7 - $8 per month. Personally, I subscribe to both and use them both about equally. Some content I like is on Netflix, and some is on Hulu. Over time I've found that I might tend to use one service a bit more at a certain period of time, but that later it shifts to the other.   In fact, I seriously considered dropping one at one point, thinking "wow, for the past 2 or 3 months I've only been using X" only to have that shift back. For example, since Hulu is live TV, the content seems to "go dry" in the summer when live TV seasons end and shows go into reruns. Then you get hooked on back episodes of a new series you just discovered over on Netflix (e.g. Flashpoint in my case) and start a marathon of watching 4 seasons of 22 episodes each...   But then just as you start thinking "Gee, I'm not really using Hulu anymore- should I dump it?" the new season starts and you realize you're watching Hulu now, and not as much Netflix. And so it goes.

Personally, I think they offer two differing sets of content, and I enjoy having both.  And they're cheap - both together cost about what one premium movie channel would cost on cable TV.  For $15 total for the two, it's a steal.  I went three years with no cable TV at all -- just $15/month for Hulu and Netflix and an over-the-air HDTV antenna for catching live news/sports on the major networks.  Instead of a $100/month cable bill, I had $15 total.   (caveat: I just added the very very most basic cable package when I moved recently, because I can't catch an over-the-air signal in my new location, and I do like my Sunday football).

The wildcard in all of this is the new Amazon streaming service.  With Hulu and Netflix in-hand, I've been hesitant to pick up yet-another service.  Especially since a lot of the content can overlap with the other two that I already have.  However, if you're an Amazon Prime user, you get it free with the Amazon Prime service, so it becomes a no-brainer.    And Amazon video services are available on the ROKU box.  (not on AppleTV the last I checked).   A word of warning: most content is free with Amazon Prime, but some (like new movie releases) are "premium" content that still have to be separately paid for, akin to cable's "on demand" services.  So pay particular attention to that with the Amazon service -- all of the latest movies and shows aren't necessarily free.