Unless you live in a cave, you’ve probably heard of streaming services such as Netflix. More folks than ever are using the power of the Internet to watch movies & television on-demand. But how do you get the content onto your television? The answer is typically a set top box (STB). Today we’ll take a look at the three flagship STB devices from Amazon, Apple, and Roku.
Whether you’re rocking an older TV, or a brand new Ultra HD 4K unit perhaps you just scored for the holidays, there are more options than ever to get Internet-fed content into your home. But why is one brand’s set-top box better than the others? And when shopping the different brands, what are the differences between each product from each of those brands?
If you’re looking for a review that compares EVERY set top box option on the market today, this is NOT that review! Instead, this is a test of only the top offering from each of the three best brands on the market.
In this blog post we’re testing the Amazon Fire TV set top box, but they also offer a smaller Amazon Fire TV Stick. The latter unit is extremely small, cuts the cost in half, but lacks 4K capabilties and has a much weaker processor inside. The same goes for Roku, where we’ve focused this test on their top-of-the-line 4K-capable Roku 4 Streaming Media Player instead of their Roku 3 Streaming Media Player, or even their smaller dongle-style Roku Streaming Stick unit. And we’re testing the 4th generation Apple TV, even though they still have their 3rd generation units for sale at the moment.
If you’re on a budget, the Fire TV, Roku 3 or Roku Stick are all excellent options, not to mention other devices like the Google Chromecast. Without further delay, here is a show-down with no budget limits, looking for the ultimate set top box money can buy. Which will it be?!
Apple TV (4th Generation)
Compared to the other devices we tested, the main menu of the Apple TV feels very open, with a lot of white space used. Icons are placed in a grid pattern, like the prior generation Apple TV. And while the new 4th generation box otherwise feels and looks like a bigger/taller version of the prior version, it’s the specs under the hood that matter most here.
Like the other devices we tested, this unit packs a more poweful processor than prior generations of the same device. In this case Apple’s A8 64-bit core is inside. Gone is the optical audio output on the back, now replaced by a USB-C port for charging accessories. You still get WiFi and Ethernet, the latter which is a nice inclusion for those who prefer a wired connection to their home network.
The two biggest changes we found while testing this device to the prior Apple TV are the remote controller (which adds voice/Siri search) and the fact that Apple has moved to their new tvOS, which allows for an Apple store experience where users can obtain more apps & games.
Navigating around the new App Store is easy, though at this point the selection felt a bit slim when compared to the Fire TV‘s amazing range of games and software. Still, what does exist for the Apple TV Store is easy to find, and if you’re an Apple user already, you may find you can download titles from your existing library of games/software. Be aware that those legacy apps will be limited to only those situations where the developer has created a version that can be used on the big-screen for tvOS.
Missing from the app store are still some of those key applications which you may desire. We were sad to find it lacked Spotify, iHeartRadio, or Sling TV. But the worst offender of the missing options here is Amazon’s Prime streaming service, which is gaining both popularity, and more high-quality exclusive content. If you require any of those services, you’ll need to check out the other two devices we tested. We hope in the future Apple will add some of those apps, to help fill the void we found in the Apple TV‘s app store selection.
Still, the apps we did find & test worked great. From Netflix to PLEX, and everything in between, the experience is smooth, and what you’ve come to expect from Apple. Like your iOS devices, each app carries a conformity that makes navigation easy and similar between most screens. During most videos/shows you can swipe down to see more data provided by that app. Scrubbing (fast forwarding/rewinding) was fast and easy thanks to the new swipe-touch remote, and the interface is always snappy fast!
Speaking of the remote, we’re impressed! Our only complaint is that it remains a bit thin compared to the others, making it awkward to use being so light and tiny. Still, the way you interact with it is unparalleled. First off, the top portion is a glass touch pad, allowing for quick swipes and clicks instead of conventional up/down/left/right navigation. This made scrubbing through videos faster, and easier to control at a more gradual (or quick) speed than the other units with a traditional D-pad that you just tap or hold. On the flip side we have found the swiping is at times a bit too touchy, especially when enterting text, but generally appreciated this novel input method. You can adjust sensitivity, though it is more about mastering the touch response than anything.
What really blew us away with the new Apple TV remote was using Siri. Voice control gives you access to search video-related content with a depth that the others lacked. For example, with the Apple TV you can ask “find movies from 2013” — then once it shows the list, you can again beckon Siri to “limit the search to only comedies” — and/or even by actor, and so forth. While the other devices have voice search, none of them took it this far when looking at video/TV/movies. We tried it to the point where it eventually showed us just a single movie. And of all the devices, Siri was the most willing to work using natural language.
There are other cool commands, such as “what did he/she say?” that will rewind the show you are watching a few seconds and turn on closed captioning. Or you can use the show you’re observing as context, and have Siri answer questions related to the actors within. The only downside here is that while this worked nicely within Apple’s own apps, it doesn’t seem to (always) work in third party applications. Still, the contextual level search, distinct to your current view, was impressive. It can even check sports scores, or show you team roster information.
But then when it came to search other content, Siri let us down. None of these devices can send text messages, so don’t expect that from any set top box just yet. Yet Siri was also unable to do other simple tasks like check traffic, or tell you how old an actor/actress is right now. And even though the 4th generation Apple TV works great with Apple’s HomeKit ecosystem, allowing for remote access to your smart home devices, you can’t actually control those devices with the Apple TV remote. If you want to ask Siri to set a HomeKit scene active, or turn on/off the Philips Hue lights, you’ll need to reach for your iPhone/Apple Watch. All in all this is Siri from your phone, but still with certain restrictions.
When you search for media on the Apple TV, be it by voice or using the on screen keyboard, they always list their iTunes content first when it is available. However, they will show you options for other providers, even if you don’t have the app installed. Hence when you search for “Orange is the New Black” it shows you both the downloadable (at a cost) option from Apple, or the free (with subscription) Netflix option. This was similar to Roku, but unlike the Fire TV that we’ll talk about later. Apple sits squarely in the middle of Fire/Roku, offering access to their content and others, but also pushing theirs to the first icon.
All three of the units we tested here can play games, and all of them offer this feature with just the included remotes if you want. However, only two of the three offer optional gaming controllers that link up via Bluetooth to the little black boxes. In the case of the Apple TV we ended up buying our gaming controller as part of a Disney Infinity bundle. If you prefer you can spend half as much as we did and purchase just the SteelSeries Nimbus game controller if you don’t want the Disney bundle.
It is a fairly big deal that the Disney Infinity platform is offerd here, as it was previously limited to full-scale gaming consoles like the Wii U, PS4, or XBOX. Having a chance to add this experience to the Apple TV should be a great push to get other game developers to support the Apple TV as a solid light-gaming console. And the overall game play experience with the Infinity system mimics the bigger hardware, too!
Overall we enjoyed playing games, using titles such as Asphalt 8 racing since it was available across platforms for comparison purposes. We started off playing with the included remote, which was sufficient for basic game play. But as you might expect, using an optional gaming controller made for a far more enjoyable adventure. There was the occasional delay/lag on the Apple TV (which didn’t seem occur on the Fire TV), still the speed and performance is adquate. If you’re trying to bridge the gap from streaming device to game console, the 4th generation Apple TV will do that amazingly well. As more games come out, the Apple TV will have more a chance to prove itself, perhaps even luring customers away from a simpler full-size console like the Nintendo Wii U. During our testing all four adults (and one child) who helped me with this blog post all agreed that they loved the ability to play some basic games on the big screen.
In the end we found the Apple TV is quite competent as a media player, with the simplest user inteface of the bunch. If you are already invested into the Apple ecosystem, you have a solid option here to play your existing videos, music, and other content. It works wonderfully with their cloud, or your local devices, able to stream from your iTunes powered computer and the like.
But oddly the Apple TV lacks 4K, and where the other two devices include this, I can’t help but wonder if no UHD will become a bane to the 4th gen Apple TV’s existence. Especially when I observe that many if not most of the TVs that are advertised at the big box stores these days support 4K, and at very reasoanble costs. They also need to acquire more content providers, more apps, and more games. But this is Apple after all, so we can only assume that will come, and quickly.
The 4th generation Apple TV is also the most expensive of the bunch here, and will set you back $149 for the entrly level 32GB unit; more if you opt to get a gaming controller, or more on-board storage. Unless you need the HomeKit function for your Apple-based home, or you’re like me and just love all things Apple, there are cheaper options that actually have more content choices. But this is Apple, and that will only get better. Fire TV might have more games, and Roku more channels, but the Apple TV is still worth considering for some users.
Roku Streaming Media Player (4th Generation)
Streaming services have been around for a minute, and it seems like Roku is a brand that has been producing hardware as long as Netflix has been pumping out content. Like the Apple we just talked about, Roku is now in their fourth iteration of their box hardware. But what remains interesting is that in addition to their new Roku 4 Streaming Media Player, Roku still offers their 3 lower-tier models at a price savings, plus their Roku Streaming Stick.
Prices for the Roku devices run anywhere from $50 to $130, but key features like voice search and motion control (for games) require the Roku 3 or higher at $99 or more. And if you want optical digital audio out, or more importantly 4K UHD streaming, you’ll need to focus on just the $129 Roku 4 we tested here.
First thing we noted during testing was the size of the box. This thing is huge! It is the largest of the bunch here, though it is also very flat and clean looking. We love that Roku still has their purple tag on the devices and remotes. Like the Fire TV, the Roku 4 has an SD card port, in contrast to the Apple TV that will force you to choose a 32 or 64 GB fixed storage option. And the Roku 4 also provides the coveted digital optical output. We expect the 4K service is the main reason for the extra size of this big black box, as the Roku 4 is quite larger than the Roku 3 which lacks UHD streaming.
Still we doubt anyone will care about the girth of the unit, which still manages to look great and fit nicely next to most televisions. In truth it remains smaller than your old DVD player, assuming you still even own one of those anymore; I don’t! If you’ve ever used a Roku device in the past, the Roku 4 improves upon the original, with the same easy to use interface, which is clean and simple. It isn’t quite as open and modern looking as the Apple TV, but gosh if it isn’t still the best of the bunch in many ways. It is just clean and simple to navigate, though not as colorful as Apple, and not as chock full of data as Amazon. We found the quad-core processor more than capable of keeping up with us, with fast scrubbing, wicked fast menu navigation, and streaming content came up lightning fast.
Both the Roku 4 and the Roku 3 offer voice search, though these units have the least amount of function of this trifecta. All you can do is search content, no asking the weather, or controlling lights. The Roku is a streaming box, and not much more beyond. Unlike the others that required you to continue holding the voice search buttons, the Roku just takes a single tap-and-release of the magnification glass button, and knows when you’re done talking. We had about an 85% success rate with voice searches, and wished it displayed the text on-screen like the others after a voice clip is recorded. Unlike the others where you can say things like “find movies starring X” — the Roku wants only the name of the show, actor, etc. This means it is a bit less natural to talk into, but it does the job well enough. And the Roku 4 also lacks their own proprietary content, so they play to all the services equally. Anybody who offers the content you want will be listed, in an equal and fair fashion.
Roku’s streaming services are the most robust, and the Roku 4 adds to that with 4K content. They also make finding UHD content easier than any other device here. Finding 4K goodies on the Fire TV was a chore, but the Roku 4 has it nicely placed in it’s own little bucket of content for you. They have also added a feature to this unit that lets you find your lost remote between the couch cushions by pressing a small black button on top of the STB. There is no arguing that as an STB, Roku is still the gold standard.
But once you consider the price at $129, this oversized Roku 4 is the second most expensive unit here, and yet lacks a proper gaming controller option. It also has a paltry 121 games you can download, which may be more than the Apple TV for a moment, but that wont last. (Roku was the only device that listed a number, but at a mere 121, we aren’t impressed) Where the Fire TV has probably thousands of game titles, the Roku has barely triple-digits. If you want to get gaming out of your STB, the Roku 4 is likely your worst choice. But if you want 4K content, or optical output, it is surely better than the Apple TV.
We expected to love the Roku 4, since one of our test team has been a Roku user for years. And in truth we do still love the interface, appreciated the 4K content, and didn’t really mind the size or the price. But with the gaming aspect being limited, and the voice search being sort of basic, we couldn’t help but wonder if most people wouldn’t be better off with a less expensive Roku 3. But at that point, for the same money, you may want to get the Fire TV. It does everything the Roku does, and does some of it even better! Don’t believe us? See the next section.
Amazon Fire TV (4K)
This blog maintains no bias by purchasing our own devices and using our own money. This allows us to remain impartial to all the hardware that we review. So when it was time for us to purchase our Amazon Fire TV we opted to pick up first the main Fire TV box, since we wanted to test the voice remote that comes with it. From there we then added on the Amazon Fire Game Controller as well as an SD card for added game storage. (Sidebar: it took loading just one or two apps before it prompted us to install the SD card, so you should definitely add one to your list!)
However, if you know you’ll want to use the device for gaming we’d actually suggest going right for the Amazon Fire TV Gaming Edition unit. It starts off as the same unit, with identical 2GB RAM and 8GB internal storage, sporting the same quad-core processor. But then in additional you’ll get the Game Controller, plus it comes pre-loaded with a 32 GB SD card, and even entitles you to download two free games! If you decide down the road you want voice control, or the basic remote, you’ll have to buy that separately.
Right off the bat we found that the Fire TV has a user interface that isn’t quite as intuitive as the other two. Which isn’t to say it was difficult to use, simply that it just packs in more data on screen at one time. The Fire TV reminds us much of Amazon.com — chock full of data, only 80% of what you want, and 20% of which they THINK you should see. There were even advertisements as shown in the Fitbit add image below.
But even with this in mind we realized over time that the Fire TV does a great job in not becoming too overwhelming. We liked the menu of recent items/apps, allowng quick return to the things you use most. Additionally there are recommendations, just like using the Amazon store, which often helped us find what we wanted faster than we might have without the poke and prod. Amazon tends to be second only to Google with their fuzzy logic, and it was definitely nice here.
As you roam around the content offerings in the Fire TV, you’ll always be able to see some sort of Prime content pushed by Amazon. We couldn’t help but feel like this box was a bit of an interactive advertisement for their content, which we understood but didn’t always appreciate. Where Roku pushes nothing at you since they offer no proprietary content, and the Apple TV offered you their products plus other options, the Fire TV only ever dished out their money-making options.
This was most noteable when searching, where the Fire TV never showed you options from other providers, like Netflix. Searching for content that Amazon didn’t have would just come up with no results, even if you had an installed app which contained said data. In a world where Apple is known for being the closed ecosytem, it was surprising to us that it turned out Amazon was actually the most service-centric of this bunch. Sure you can find what you want, but prepare to open up the app where the content lies first, and search in there.
Still, Amazon’s Fire TV offers the channels you want. For example, if you install apps such as iHeartRadio, you can tell it to “play X radio station” and it will live stream for you! Sweet stuff, for sure. Speaking of voice control, the Fire TV might not have the contextual depth of the Apple TV, but it offers other unique features that make it actually the most powerful device here. We loved the ability to check traffic, beyond just weather and such. (see images above). But most amazing is the home automation abilities. If you already have an Amazon Echo controlling your smart home (see more about that in my blog post HERE), this is a great addition to that device. We were able to set scenes, turn on/off lights, and other awesome features, all with our Fire TV remote & voice control.
Another interesting thing about voice control with the Fire TV is where and how it works. You can search for games, shows, or other content anywhere (though again you’re only searching Amazon). In the case of the Apple TV, you actually had to be in their App Store in order to search for apps. This difference helps make quickly moving around the Fire TV a little more streamlined. Also, as we noted prior, the game/app selection on the Fire TV is just amazing– undoubtedly the largest here right now.
Gaming on the Fire TV became the clear winner, not only because of the breadth of options, but also the operating system. It seemed to stumble a bit less than the Apple TV, perhaps due to the controller, but still was quite obviously a low-power game system. None of these are going to replace proper consoles, but the Amazon unit comes closest in making us thing perhaps it could. Our only issue with the controller was that it didn’t feel as nice as the SteelSeries, probably due to the strangely offset thumb-pads. Still we liked that it cost $10 less than the Apple TV controller, and also included Fire TV specific buttons on the face. If they would add a microphone for voice capabilities to the Game Controller it could actually eliminate the need for the regular remote.
For $99 the Fire TV gives you 4K UHD content, though finding it was often a struggle. It provides amazing voice search, though not as natural and deep in ability as the Apple TV. But it added voice features none of the other units did, creating a central experience that turns your media room into a control room for your house, and your life. Add to all this the largest selection of games, apps, and Amazon’s unique new video content, and it becomes clear why Amazon decided to market the Fire TV in the first place. But is it the best option?
With all of the above being said, I can say that these three STB are certainly strong contenders for your home. All three of them deliver strong, amazing content quickly and reliably to your TV with the click of a button or, now, the sound of your voice.
There are clearer winners for certain features. The Apple TV can do contextual voice search that no other STB can do now, and offers HomeKit opportunities. It also has these amazing screen savers, which we loved even if they were trivial in context. But again, it is expensive, and lacks 4K. Like all things Apple, the Apple TV allows mirror, streaming from your iTunes Cloud, and other features that just work, and work great. Apple lovers will yearn for this device, but it is currently missing channels that even the biggest Cupertino-fan might miss out on.
Then you have the Fire TV which offers Echo-like support, and a great array of games and channels. If you’re looking for the best way to get into a light gaming unit at a low cost, the Fire TV is the way to go. If you already have an Echo ruling your smart home, the Fire TV would certainly be your choice. Even if you don’t but you are a big fan of Amazon Prime and it’s media, this is your perfect device.
Finally, the Roku 4 may not have that one feature that makes you say “wow” but don’t exclude it. It offers amazing apps and channels, and delivers it to you in a way that is manageable and streamlined. Still it lacks the gaming experience that the others can provide.
Both Roku 4 and the Fire offer 4K content, so this would be your choice if you are planning to get an UHD TV anytime soon. They all offer content well, and have their pros and cons.
Overall we feel the Amazon Fire TV set top box is likely the best value of this bunch, and our top pick. But in the end all three will make you eager for a night in and certainly deliver the binge watching goods!