Why I switched from Apple TV to Roku
An all-Apple owner makes the case for the competition
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Cord-cutting isn't simple or done in haste. It's more like quitting smoking. Cable has been a part of your life for so long, then one day you're looking at the taxes, fees, and rental charges on your Comcast bill and you think "Jesus, these things are gonna kill me."
My wife and I made the switch after careful deliberation nearly a year ago. We're an all-Apple house: two Macbooks, two iPhones, an iPad, and an Apple Airport Extreme router. Not that we're superfans—I gave up on the "it just works" myth long ago—but an Apple TV was the obvious choice for a streaming box.
The option of using the TV on its own was eliminated right away. Our LG UB8500, purchased in 2015 and already a year-old at that point, was "smart" but not smart enough for my tastes. The interface was clever but sluggish. The apps crashed with no warning. The absence of HBO Now sealed the deal. This was also a 4K TV, and for the right reasons or not, that factored into my final decision. But that's later in the story.
If we were truly doing away with the cable box, I needed something more robust. Being the editor at a tech review website has its benefits, because we had a 3rd-generation Apple TV kicking around the office that I was able to borrow. If, after a month or so, I was satisfied, I'd be more than happy to buy one for myself.
At home with the Apple TV
Apple is great at first dates. With those simple, elegant lines and smooth Cupertino style, you're just inclined to go along for the ride. "Boy, this thing's slick!" It's only later that you can admit to yourself that you never liked his inflexibility or the fact that he didn't like your old friends from Seattle.
The remote control for the Apple TV says it all. If there were far too many buttons on the typical remote control—particularly Comcast remotes—there were far too few on the Apple remote. Jony, buddy, would it have killed you to have separate play, pause, and enter buttons? As it was, I was constantly nudging the wrong buttons and ending up back at the home screen.
The current 4th-gen Apple TV has resolved some of these problems with a touchpad at the top of the remote and voice control, but by the time it came to market, my ship had sailed.
Then there was the Amazon issue. Amazon Video is not my first, second, or even third choice for streaming services, but I do use it once in a while. The fact that Apple can't bring itself to simply add the app is yet another strike against it in the "bad boyfriend" category.
Upgrading from Apple to Roku
To be honest, the impetus to switch to the Roku had little to do with my Apple TV gripes. Rather, it came out of a frustrated and potentially pointless desire to get that ever-elusive "perfect picture."
My LG UB8500 wasn't any old TV, you see. It was a 4K TV—something of a novelty in 2015. Because the Apple TV didn't support 4K (and still doesn't) I felt I was being denied my true potential. Sure, I'd seen stuff below up in standard def and high def, but had I ever really, really seen stuff below up? I had to know. So I bought the Roku 4, which was highly rated and supported 4K content.
Only afterwards did I realize that a 49-inch 4K TV simply wasn't large enough to appreciate the extra pixels, at least not from the distance of my couch. I'd dispensed similar advice a dozen times in articles to TV buyers, but clearly this doctor made a terrible patient.
In purchasing the Roku 4, I solved none of the problems I'd set out to solve and all of the problems with Apple I couldn't articulate.
The remote control is everything Apple is not. It's ugly, with the hodge-podge of colors and useless fabric label hanging out of the bottom like an errant shirt tag. And yet it feels absolutely perfect in your hand. The logical relationship between any button and its adjacent buttons, the perfect key travel and click-feedback when you push—they clearly have a mad scientist in a basement somewhere with a unique but useful obsession.
Roku's onscreen interface isn't necessarily better or worse, but because the remote was less prone to fat-finger errors, I was able to fly through the options more quickly and efficiently.
The fact that it supports for 4K didn't end up making much difference for me, but many people have bigger TVs and will appreciate the difference. But regardless, I love the fact that it's simply a better device than the Apple TV in every way that matters to me.
My pick for now: Roku Premiere+
My whole ordeal took place in 2015 through 2016, a dog's age in the world of gadgets. The 3rd-gen Apple TV has since been replaced by the 4th-gen Apple TV ($149 at Best Buy). It's solved some, but not all, of my issues with it. 4K and Amazon Video are still not supported. The new remote has also integrated Siri for voice commands. Sunil Doshi, our head of product and reluctant Apple fanboy, loves this feature but admits that Apple TV is still not a perfect product.
My beloved Roku 4 has been replaced by the nearly identical Roku Premiere (around $80 on Amazon). However, our top-pick is the Premiere+ (about $93 on Amazon), which adds an ethernet input and support for HDR content for just a few more bucks.