I think there is a clear winner in this, but let us step back a few months because this review actually began last year when I purchased a Roku 2 box to compliment my existing Apple TV. Both Roku and Apple TV are designed to allow watching streaming TV channels such as Hulu Plus and Netflix. Each has gone through several revisions and both have technically progressed well. I’ve used Apple TV for years, starting with the very first one which was huge (compared to the current model) and included an actual hard drive. But I was always curious about Roku, so last year I took a chance and decided to get one. It did not end well.
While the Roku 2 certainly had a leg up over Apple TV with channels, it easily had way more channels and services integrated, it turns out that was about the only thing that I liked about it. I found the Roku 2 box to be a unfriendly mix of bad interface design, unstable software and awkward channel adding. First the software design looked like a web page from the early 90’s, complete with tacky banner ads. The mix of bare bones software and bland presentation did not give me confidence. If the company put this little work into their interface, how is the actual box going to perform? Seemingly not that great. Within the first day the box has locked up and rebooted twice. I am talking about a total takedown. What a sinking feeling to have a new device be this unstable. It really tempers your excitement.
I installed the downloadable updates as instructed, which came pretty often, but still the whole OS seemed a little unsteady and sluggish. But the last straw was adding channels. Unlike Apple TV or other devices (like the Xbox 360 and PS3) where you can merely sign in (or sign up) for a service right on the box, Roku kept grinding me to a halt by popping up a numeric code and directing me to go to my computer to visit a website and activate the channel. Seriously, if the future of my living room entertainment is having me run downstairs to my computer to type in codes, then we’re all in trouble.
Yes I have an iPad, but often with most providers the website was not optimized for mobile, or worse yet, it was optimized for mobile and I still had to go to a real computer. Long story short, I disconnected the Roku 2 and set it aside with some other things in my tech graveyard. I was just put off by the whole experience and happily went back to my current Apple TV 3 (3rd generation).
But then I saw the new Roku 3 had just been announced. Was it better? Was it new and improved? Should I take a chance on it again? Oh what the heck, why not. I ordered it I believe the day it was announced, and since Amazon was not stocking it quite yet, I purchased directly from Roku. The unit was about the same size, but a little heavier. I assume they added weight so it would not slide around as much. Annoying animation on boot up was still there, some things don’t change too much. After the booting, the setup was automatic, and totally wrong.
I have a 1080p TV and surround sound, and yet Roku defaulted to 720p and standard stereo, seemingly not able to ascertain what equipment it was hooked up to. I assumed the unit was properly setting me up, and discovered the wrong settings in the preferences. I also assume many will hook up the Roku and completely miss out as the box sets you to a lower resolution and sets you up with two speaker output. Roku 3’s setup, let’s just say, is not automatic.
Good news though, the updated interface was noticeably more refined. It scrolled better and was more logically laid out. It contained large easy to read boxes and was slightly more Apple TV like. Gone were the cheesy banner ads and simple interface. But this beauty was only skin deep, if that, because once you dove into the apps, it was the same as the Roku 2, only worse. Worse because many apps instead of having bad interfaces, now had totally different interfaces. For example Vevo had a different interface than Vudu which is different than Netflix which is different than Amazon Video which..well you get the point.
It may seem like a good idea to let providers create their own user interface, but the problem is every time you add a new channel, you need to figure out a new layout. Granted this does not take long, but it’s slowly edging into the fractured area that has helped to sink Google TV. Apple TV has one interface and each provider’s materials has been adapted to conform to it. What results is a smooth user experience that anyone in the household can immediately grasp.
Then came the return of the codes. I spent more time on my computer than setting up my Roku 3. Again almost every major channel makes you stop, go to the related website, create an account, go to a specific URL, type the code shown on screen, wait for the activation.
As a user experience, this is just awful.
A geek will have no trouble spending an hour setting up all the channels. But some may give up. Again many sites are not tablet optimized for this kind of account activation, making it more frustrating. Roku is clearly focused more on adding more and more channels from content partners than fine tuning and polishing a consistent interface across all areas of the device’s interface.
After the Roku 3 was set up, it did perform well. It did not crash and the interface did seem snappier than the previous version. Even though Roku 3 supports hundreds of channels, many are ones you would never watch. In fact anyone or any website can create a Roku channel. There is no real quality control gate. The heavyweights are all there (Netflix, Hulu, Vudu, Amazon, Disney, HBOGo, etc) but once you start sifting through the 700 others, there are few true gems to be found.
One app I really did like was the Time Warner app. It allowed you to sign in to your TW account to verify you had Time Warner Cable, but once you activated it, you could watch over 100 live channels and many on demand channels. This is a really cool way to add a Roku 3 to second TV without having to rent a cable box.
Now it may seem odd that with this comparison of Roku 3 vs. Apple TV 3 (3rd Generation) I am saying very little about the other unit. That’s because there is not much to say except I still prefer the Apple TV over Roku 3. Apple’s unit has a beautiful smooth interface that just works. You can purchase or rent thousands of movies and TV shows though iTunes, watch sports, Netflix, Hulu Plus, Vimeo and YouTube. Each channel has a consistent interface and everything just works. I also should mention that I am a big YouTube fan and it’s kind of a deal breaker because Roku has never had YouTube and does not look like it will be getting it anytime soon.
I should additionally disclose that I have an Xbox 360 and PS3 (and hopefully soon a PS4) so I am also stacking Roku up against those units, since many of the channels are the same. While the PS3 is pretty fragmented as far as app user interfaces, Microsoft has done a great job with the Xbox 360 in making all the interfaces of the video apps look and work the same. I much prefer the professional look and feel of the Xbox interface over the Roku 3.
Roku 3 is getting there and each new release is more refined than the last, but honestly, I have more than I can ever watch with Apple TV and iTunes, Hulu, Netflix, Vimeo and YouTube. In fact that is all I need. But the main thing I love about Apple TV is that it has an easy setup, a smooth and speedy interface, lots of features (Flicker, Photo Stream, Airplay, etc) and content looks absolutely stunning on it. Roku 3 has some channels that look great and some not so much, but everything on Apple TV, 720p and 1080p content, looks beautiful.
But one thing I rate above almost all else is usability. Apple gets props for its good looking hardware, such as the iPad, iMac, iPhone and iPod, but really the secret is their user interfaces. Both Mac OS X and iOS are just easy to use and understand. Apple TV is a slick and very usable interface that works and looks great. It’s a joy to use and never a chore.
Now I may do a Roku 4 review when that comes out (someday) because I am impressed with what Roku is doing and certainly all that it has accomplished. And even though Apple TV 3rd gen has dramatically less channel options, it has everything I need and does it with a graceful setup, first class usability, interaction with other Apple devices, a speedy and beautiful interface, full iCloud support and great looking HD output.
I’ll keep an eye on Roku, but for now, I am sticking with Apple TV.
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