Skip to main content

Roku vs. Apple TV vs. Chromecast: Which Device Wins?

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.

MORE: TV Buying Guide

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.

  • ssalim
    Lol, Roku wins all. Yea, alright.
    Reply
  • blackmagnum
    I'm gonna buy me and my unborn son some Roku shares.
    Reply
  • Uwbecks
    I expected each one to win at least one category. However, I do own two Roku's and they really are fantastic. All the features and benefits mentioned in the article are true, so maybe they really are that much better than the competition.
    Reply
  • NaughtyLuvJungle
    I own both Roku and Chromecast. Agree on every point except the interface and controls, which Chromecast is way better at. Very much disagree that Chromecast is in any way difficult to use, and in fact in my house I find myself using Chromecast whenever possible over Roku (which is only about half the time due to the lack of compatible apps). I very much dislike trying to enter text into search boxes one painful letter at a time using Roku's remote, and fast forward/rewind on a Roku is like using the DVD player I had in 1999 as opposed to Chromecast where I can just touch the progress slide bar my tablet to jump to any point in the show/movie instantly. Finally the blurb about the cast button not being exclusive to Chromecast is misleading. With Roku I have to pair each device manually to each app to enable casting. With Chromecast it magically appears on every compatible app on every device instantly. If a friend visits they can instantly cast to my Chromecast with their smartphone as soon as they connect to my Wi-Fi without having to do anything. Actually it's enjoyable watching the reaction when a guest wants to show me a YouTube video on their phone and I tell them to play it on my TV. Seeing their amazement when they realize that their phone YouTube app already has detected Chromecast and the cast button magically appeared there, and they just press it to play to my TV, is quite fun. I think when Chromecast gets support for a wide array of content Roku will either have to adopt the same interface or it will go out of business.
    Reply
  • NaughtyLuvJungle
    I own both Roku and Chromecast. Agree on every point except the interface and controls, which Chromecast is way better at. Very much disagree that Chromecast is in any way difficult to use, and in fact in my house I find myself using Chromecast whenever possible over Roku (which is only about half the time due to the lack of compatible apps). I very much dislike trying to enter text into search boxes one painful letter at a time using Roku's remote, and fast forward/rewind on a Roku is like using the DVD player I had in 1999 as opposed to Chromecast where I can just touch the progress slide bar my tablet to jump to any point in the show/movie instantly. Finally the blurb about the cast button not being exclusive to Chromecast is misleading. With Roku I have to pair each device manually to each app to enable casting. With Chromecast it magically appears on every compatible app on every device instantly. If a friend visits they can instantly cast to my Chromecast with their smartphone as soon as they connect to my Wi-Fi without having to do anything. Actually it's enjoyable watching the reaction when a guest wants to show me a YouTube video on their phone and I tell them to play it on my TV. Seeing their amazement when they realize that their phone YouTube app already has detected Chromecast and the cast button magically appeared there, and they just press it to play to my TV, is quite fun. I think when Chromecast gets support for a wide array of content Roku will either have to adopt the same interface or it will go out of business.
    Reply
  • Hugh Janus
    I have all 3 and for me Apple is my go to box. It's got the best interface. Easy to use and with airplay from my iPad and Mac I watch just about anything I want. Just sayin.
    Reply
  • YourBiased
    I too own a chromecast and a roku. Roku wins on price? Someone needs to go back to school. You lose power on your device operating the chromecast? That is one of the lamest things I have ever heard. Ok, so you can't put batteries in it, how about plug it in?? What if my roku remote batteries die and I don't have any replacements? I have to run to the store. That argument makes just about as much sense as yours (in other words, none). Seems you are very slanted towards roku. While I have both, I much prefer the chromecast because it is easier, faster and doesn't start off with a blurry picture like the roku.
    Reply
  • Terminatah Xray
    I have the Roku3 and couldn't be happier. I purchased it primarily for streaming my own movies to my big screen, but the channels were a nice added surprise. I have a VM that holds my movies and streams to the Roku3 via Plex. IQ and performance is amazing. I can also get to Netflix, Youtube and Amazone Prime with exceptional quality and performance. Didin't like Apple because Apple has too many restrictions, I have tons and tons of my own movies. Apple also doesn't have the choices that Roku has. Chromecast lacks the performance and configurability of Roku and can't be connected to most of my TVs dude to the size of the device. The Roku Android app is amazing as well. Roku all the way, its not even a fair fight.
    Reply
  • AlexL8102
    I have the Roku, the Chromecast and the WD TV Live which I think should have also been compared because of it's ability to play pretty much any file type. Depending on your needs and what entertainment you prefer each has their clear strength. Roku is a clear winner when it comes to variety of content and channels. It has a great interface and works with it's own remote or a Logitech universal remote that could work with all your other streaming devices as well so you don't have 10 remotes to juggle.Chromecast is great for casting videos, data, music or whatever to your TV but requires other Apps to provide the interface. This isn't so bad depending on the device you are using. If you are using your computer screen it's not that bad, but its also better to see the TV screen at the same time if you can. If you are using your phone then your screen on your remote is still a bit small for browsing through videos. If you have a tablet to use in front of your TV you are in good shape I would say.The WD TV Live is one of my favorites because It has all your basic channels like Pandora, Hulu, Netflix, but it's claim to fame is that any data you have on a hard drive can be played on your WD to your TV no matter the file type. No other streaming device has the drivers to play all the different file types that WD can. Also each WD TV Live can stream to the next one in your house so if you have data connected to one of them it is essentially connected to all of them to play on any TV in the house. Plus if you have a video on your computer you can simply right click on it and cast or play it on any TV in your house that has a WD TV Live connected to it. I have found that the WD has a very sensitive WiFi connection and rarely have any issues at all using this device for streaming. I have an Itunes account, but with all the other streaming devices I currently have, I see no reason to get Apple TV.
    Reply