2021 Apple TV 4K has a cleaner and ad-free interface that curates your content. After being a source of complaints in previous versions, the remote is new and improved on the 2021 version. Roku Ultra is more affordable and has a great remote, but it has an old school app-based interface.
Content refers to the channels and apps you can access, along with the formats you have access to. Overall, they are tied in this category, but you might disagree based on your preferences.
Apple TV 4K supports both HDR10 and Dolby Vision, giving you access to the two main HDR formats. Apple TV has an app marketplace much like other iOS devices, giving you access to Prime Video, Hulu, Netflix, Vudu, Showtime, HBO Max, Peacock Disney+, Sling TV, YouTube TV, and much more.
With Roku Ultra, you only get HDR10. While you don’t get Dolby Vision, you can access Dolby Atmos audio. One of Roku’s best features is its unbiased search results. Roku displays all the versions of the content you searched for, in order of price from all your installed channels. On the other hand, Apple TV displays which app it thinks you’re most likely to use, regardless of price. Sometimes Roku’s search can be overwhelming, but it’s nice to have your streaming options shown upfront. And, for most of us, top priority in choosing a streaming service for a particular program is based on price.
Roku has all the same apps like Prime Video, Vudu, Hulu, Netflix, Peacock, Showtime, Sling TV, YouTube TV and much more. While you can access HBO Now and HBO Go, HBO Max isn’t on Roku yet due to standoff with HBO.
Roku gives you access to more apps overall. And The Roku Channel has many free, ad-based shows and movies. Another benefit is that you can connect a USB or microSD card to watch your downloaded movies and shows.
Content winner: Roku
Apple TV easily wins the interface battle because it is smooth and beautiful. Roku’s interface is outdated, has an ad, and can be slower. I’m writing based on the assumption that you’re already paying for streaming services, and this applies to both Android and iPhone users.
Apple TV 4K is the fastest streaming device with its 64-bit A10X Fusion chip. Each app has a consistent interface and layout, and there are no ads anywhere. Not only that, but Apple TV shows a unified list of all your shows and movies regardless of which app it’s on. When new shows are released that you’re watching, they automatically appear in your list. One annoying thing is that auto-playing trailers were introduced with tvOS 13, but you can disable them as of tvOS 13.3.
Apple TV saves your username and password for all your subscribed channels and apps, so you should only enter this info once. You can also make a profile for everyone in the household with ease. You get great screensavers like detailed drone shots of buildings, cities, and oceans. It’s small, but it further enhances the already-great esthetic and usability of the program.
Roku has lots of power too, but it’s noticeably slower than Apple TV. Roku has a big ad on the home screen and tracks your usage without a way to opt-out. However, unlike Fire TV, the ads don’t get in the way. Each version of Roku gets better, but the quality is still significantly below Apple TV.
Unlike Apple TV with the universal interface experience, each Roku app has a different layout and controls. The interface feels outdated and the content curation leaves much to be desired. The Automatic Account Link remembers your username and password, but it only works with a handful of apps like Hulu, Sling, and Philo. There aren’t enough supported apps, so you will still need to manually log in to many services.
The Roku Feed is good for following new shows and movies, but there are problems. It’s hard to unfollow shows, and the feed appears only when new episodes are released. You can’t choose a default app for shows, which can be annoying. The feed is also restricted to Hulu, Prime Video, Showtime, Apple TV, and HBO.
Content winner: Apple TV
This section goes deeper into the ecosystem. Like the above section, Apple TV is better and faster, while Roku is sluggish.
If you’ve used an iPhone or iPad, then Apple TV feels the same. Plus, Apple TV automatically installs content apps from your other devices. The setup is perfect with an iPhone. Place your phone near Apple TV and it collects your Apple ID and WiFi password, making it so you don’t have to enter any of your information.
Entering text from a remote is hard, but you can use your iPhone to enter text with a keypad instead. It also uses any passwords found in your iCloud Keychain, which is convenient. You can even use the iPhone as a remote and command center.
While Apple is great with simplifying technology, the “Apple TV” name brand is confusing.
- Apple TV is the name of the streaming device.
- The Apple TV app is found on the Apple TV device and other devices where your “Up Next” list is.
- Apple TV+ is a paid streaming service for Apple’s original content.
- Apple TV Channels is a platform that lets you subscribe to premium services (i.e., HBO, Showtime, etc.) rather than paying for the services directly or through your cable provider. Apple TV Channels offers 22 streaming services, and all the content stays in the Apple TV layout for consistency, you can play the same content on your iPad and iPhone, and the content is hosted on Apple servers for optimized speed and resolution.
Roku, by comparison, doesn’t offer nearly as much. The Roku Channel lets you subscribe to HBO, Showtime, Cinemax, and Starz, and keep the content inside of one channel. There’s also a limited “Up Next” list that isn’t nearly as robust as Apple TV. Roku doesn’t give you the premium features, and each app has different layouts and features. Apple TV is just better and more consistent.
Ecosystem winner: Apple TV
Neither streaming device has ideal smarts, but Apple TV is slightly better overall.
Siri on iPhone is sometimes problematic, but it’s great on Apple TV. You can ask Siri to find movies, genres, check review scores, open apps, and any HomeKit command. As a fresh extra, Siri will show the words as you’re saying them, which is helpful.
Apple TV can work as your HomeKit hub for your smart home devices to control a thermostat, lights, locks, and other devices while you’re not home. You can also use HomePod to use voice commands for turning on the TV, pausing media, or skipping forward or backward. AirPlay allows you to mirror your iPhone. Lastly, you can connect Bluetooth headphones to Apple TV with ease.
Roku has good voice commands with the remote for finding content, but it can’t handle complex commands like Siri. You can set up Roku to work with your Google and Alexa speakers, but the commands then get wordy, like, “Alexa, open Hulu on Roku.” Plus, it takes too long for the command to get relayed to the Roku for the action to get performed. It’s not ideal.
Roku has a Guest Mode, which is a temporary account for visitors. This is great for AirBnB hosts or guest rooms. You can plug headphones into the remote and listen from the headphones, which is great when others are trying to sleep. There’s no sleep timer, so Roku will show the wallpaper until you turn it off. Roku Stick Plus is a more affordable option with the same interface, but it doesn’t come with the ports for Ethernet, USB, or MicroSD.
Smarts winner: Apple TV
In the initial version of this article, I concluded that the remote of “Roku is significantly better than Apple TV.” However, since then, the 2021 Apple TV 4K has debuted, with a new and greatly-improved remote.
Usability is greatly improved with the new version of the remote. For quite a while, the remote has been the biggest drawback with the Apple TV.
You can use your iPhone as the remote and that makes it easier to enter passwords and other text. You also get playback controls on the iPhone lock screen. You’re given the option to disable the touchpad for directional buttons (in Accessibility settings), and you can go fast-forward or rewind in 10-second increments.
Roku’s remote is molded for your hand and the physical buttons are large, colored, and feel great. Unlike the Siri remote, which gets familiar after weeks, you’ll know where all the buttons are within an hour with the Roku remote.
There are preset streaming buttons (mine had Hulu, Netflix, ESPN, and Sling, but I’ve seen different ones) and there are two open buttons that you can set yourself. You can control the TV’s volume and power with the remote. The phone app makes it easy to open streaming channels and can function as a remote too.
Remote winner: Tie
Roku Ultra has some strong points and a much more convenient remote, but Apple TV is the winner overall. I love how the interface looks and the consistency is amazing. It also has both main HDR formats and better features and voice controls.