Before we begin, let’s summarize the Apple TV. Similar to Roku’s familiar small black boxes, Apple’s new design gives a sleek yet powerful form factor for media viewing. Content is primarily rental based: $3.99 for HD movies and $0.99 for TV episodes. Netflix and YouTube also make an appearance. It also streams from your existing iTunes library, though local USB host play is off-limits.
Roku’s players—particularly the equally priced $99 XDS—stack up nicely against the Apple TV. It also gives an incredibly small form factor built around streaming content rather than local storage. Key differences include support for 1080p (though Hulu Plus currently offers only 720p) versus Apple TV’s 720p and support in-the-box for viewing content off of local storage devices.
The major content providers are similar—with Netflix being a primary draw for both devices—but Roku’s announcement that Hulu Plus will be coming to its service helps patch a major hole in Netflix’s library. Traditionally Netflix lacks in recent video content, but with a separate $10 a month subscription users will get access to current seasons of many shows, as well as entire seasons of past hits that Netflix lacks via online streaming.
$20 a month in subscriptions between Netflix and Hulu Plus might sound like a lot, but compared to $0.99 per episode rentals, the channels available on Roku make a compelling argument for themselves. Especially given the fact that Roku makes its money off of the hardware only, so it has a strong incentive to bring any and all content provider channels to its devices, whereas Apple also has a vested interest in getting a ‘take’ of the content as well—which means the Apple TV will be inherently less ‘open’ down the road. In fact, Roku makes its SDK for creating custom channels widely available.
Jailbreaking an Apple TV may allow users of underground app sites like Cydia to bring Hulu Plus and local USB host play to the device, but that requires a level of technical hassle which runs contrary to the mission of a set-top box. Perhaps the main feature (besides Apple branding) that Roku can probably never match would be the ability to control an Apple TV with an iPad or iPhone via AirPlay—admittedly a slick feature. That said, bringing Hulu Plus to Roku is a major win for the set-top box maker.
Another argument in favor of Roku is that many of the networks dissatisfied with the pricing structure of Apple TV are onboard with Netflix. Ars Technica rightly observes that this runs contrary to common sense--wouldn't a $0.99 per episode rental make more than a $10 per month subscription? However, there it is: Roku gives access to many of the very same content providers that are at the very least skeptical of the Apple TV.
The Apple TV comes in one ‘flavor’ at $99 and has been recently delayed to October delivery. The recently updated line of Roku players start at $59, with the XDS topping out at $99. Consumers interested in learning which version is best for them can check out Roku’s site here.