Interface and Controls
In general, both Apple and Roku present a neat, clean, on-screen interface that makes it relatively easy to sort through the various online options.
Apple hews especially closely to the interface used on its iPad and iPhone — which works well enough on those smaller screens but looks dated and disorganized on a larger HDTV screen. The listings appear as plain, square icons of identical size, for example, and the blue highlight that's supposed to indicate which app is active is difficult to see.
Within each channel, Apple has a very consistent (some might say rigid) interface that imposes its design on every app. So Netflix looks different here than it does on a PS3 or smart TV, for example. It's not as spiffy, and a bit confusing with a rotating left-hand gallery of movie stills and a vertical menu on the right. It fits with other Apple TV apps — YouTube looks identical — but it will seem alien to anyone who's used Netflix on any other device.
In terms of responsiveness, the Apple TV interface is agile, so you never feel like you're waiting for that interminable download symbol to extinguish. YouTube was quick off the mark here, as it was on the Roku 3 over the same network.
Helping people discover new sources of entertainment is one area that Apple has not figured out yet. The reason may be that the company is so focused on tightly integrating everything into iTunes.
The goal seems to be to sell, rather than entertain, and some prices for readily available shows seem excessive: $2.99 may sound fine for an episode of "Sherlock," but $2.99 for a "Duck Dynasty" episode seems lame. There are some free programs to be found, such as "Cutthroat Kitchen," but you have to dig for them.
So far, Apple also has struggled with the remote-control iPad app. It's not necessary given the adept little remote that comes with Apple TV, but the combination of touch, swipe and button taps is awkward, confusing and frustrating.
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Roku has done an excellent job of combining hundreds of online services into a unified front. Unencumbered by a widespread ecosystem, Roku's interface was updated a couple of months ago. It uses bigger, crisper artwork than Apple's and is easier to follow and find what you want to watch.
For example, Roku allows you to search across a range of entertainment sources — a feat unmatched by the competition. Searching for the movie "Argo" will reveal that it's available for rent from Redbox for $2.99 versus $4.99 on Amazon. Roku will not search broadcast and cable TV listings, but it does now search across the contents of Netflix and Amazon Prime so that you don't inadvertently pay for a movie you could watch on a subscription service you already have.
As with Apple TV, the Roku 3 is quick to respond (the company says it upped the processor speed with the Roku 3). On the remote controls, both Apple and Roku keep it simple. Roku has the edge, however, offering more conventionally marked buttons for neophytes and (wait for it) a headphone jack in the remote control. It's perfect for late-night or private TV watching, turning any set of headphones into wireless headphones. Brilliant.
Google's Chromecast eschews an independent remote control altogether. Instead, it relies on compatible apps running on Android and iOS phones and tablets, or a browser extension for Chrome on the PC. It sounds like an elegant solution but after some testing, some shortcomings become abundantly clear.
First, if your device is out of power, you're out a remote control. Second, using the handset or tablet is a less-than-ideal experience because the smaller screen also acts as the menu display (it doesn't appear on the TV screen); that makes it difficult to do things like search for movies, and scroll through playlists — tasks that are better performed on the big screen.
Thanks to this approach, there is also a lack of uniformity, and users have to puzzle out which apps work with Chromecast (there's a list online) and which don't. You'll also find yourself squinting to find the little "Cast" icon, which appears in a different place in each compatible app (so even that element isn't consistent). Incidentally, the "casting" approach also works with several apps on Roku, so it's not a unique feature.
Winner: Roku. A consistent look and uniform operation are the hallmarks of the Apple ethos, but Roku does a better job of collecting all of its offerings and features in a single interface.