Roku Ultra and Apple TV 4K

Why, in the name of all things tech, would someone buy an Apple TV 4K over a Roku Ultra? Both stream videos. Both do 4K resolution. Both can handle (some) of that newfangled HDR. Both have access to pretty much all the content you could possibly watch, be it live TV or huge repositories of movies and shows.

Oh, and one costs twice as much as the other.

Well, there are reasons to get one over the other. And they're good reasons. With lots of dollar signs attached.

Let's talk.

See also: Roku Ultra vs. Amazon Fire TV Cube
And: Roku Ultra vs. NVIDIA Shield TV

Roku Ultra vs. Apple TV — specs and hardware

Category Apple TV 4K Roku Ultra
Apple TV 4K Roku Ultra
Price $179/199 $89
Max resolution 2160p (4K) 2160p (4K)
Operating system tvOS 12.0 Roku OS
Processor Apple A10X Fusion ARM Coretex A53
GPU Apple A10X Fusion n/a
Storage 32GB/64GBGB 512MB
RAM 3GB 1GB
External storage None USB-A/microSD
Bluetooth BT 4.0 No
Wifi 802.11ac 802.11ac
Ethernet Ethernet port Ethernet port
Dolby Atmos Coming Yes
Dolby Vision Yes No
HDR 10 Yes Yes
CEC control Yes Yes
Audio out HDMI Optical/HDMI
Voice remote Yes Yes
Private listening Via Bluetooth Via voice remote
See at Amazon $179/$199 $89

The specs don't lie. In fact, they basically scream at you. Apple TV 4K is a more powerful device than Roku Ultra. There are no two ways around that. Better processor. More RAM. Is it an (excuse me) apples to apples comparison? No. And both devices sport an Ethernet port, so you can plug directly into your router and ensure the best connection possible. And both devices also output at 4K resolutions just fine.

So why does it matter?

Roku Ultra and Apple TV 4KRoku Ultra and Apple TV 4K.

In a word, performance. Apple TV is faster. Faster to boot up. (On the rare occasion that you have to restart one of these things.) It's faster to load applications. And applications tend to run faster on Apple TV once they're loaded.

So maybe let's chance that word from "performance" to "experience." Apple TV 4K, in my book (and I use both of these devices every day) is a better overall experience.

Look at it like this: Streaming TV already is more of a headache than an old cable box, right? Instead of a single, siloed experience, we've got multiple streaming services coded by multiple developers, to varying degrees of success. Streaming video just isn't as easy, and so we tend to be less tolerant of added headaches. I want a cable-like experience, without the cable-like prices.

Apple TV 4K gets you closest to that. (Which is why it's also our pick for the streaming best box you can buy, period.)

There is the issue of remote controls, though. I'm no fan of the Apple TV remote. (Excuse me, the "Siri Remote." It's functional enough, I guess, though it's not what I'd call fun to use. The trackpad is a nice idea but not exactly ergonomic. The weird menu/home/back hybrid button thing is a mess. The remote itself is too skinny and flat and tiny and will absolutely get lost in a couch. You should buy one of these sleeve things to make it a little better.

But, hey. At least it has volume buttons, right?

The Roku Ultra Voice Remote almost hits the other extreme. It's simple. It's intuitive. It's made like it's something you'd give to your grandparents without them having to ask questions later. And it's got an integrated 3.5mm headphone jack for private listening, which is cool. It's not sleek. It's not sexy. But it works, and it works really well.

Roku Ultra vs. Apple TV 4K — software

There's perhaps and even bigger gulf when it comes to the software experience on Apple TV 4K and Roku Ultra.

Apple is, of course, all about sparseness. The home screen is — as always — just a sea of icons. That's not horrible in a big-screen context, actually. The fewer menus, the better. Navigating through levels is never fun.

And Roku OS isn't exactly devoid of icons, either. Its apps — Roku calls them "channels" are in their own grid, with settings and options and other menus in a more traditional hierarchy off on the side.

Roku OS absolutely is the busier operating system here. You're more likely to find yourself down some sort of content rabbit hole — at least initially — with various options for movies and shows and rentals and apps. Apple tends to keep things a little neater, save for its "TV" app, which messily attempts to aggregate all sorts of content from all sorts of sources in one place. It's still clunky, though.

Which is better? I'd still argue the experience is still completely governed by the speed at which it performs. I'm more willing to put up with a lesser interface — provided that its faster.

But in this case? Apple is simpler. Apple is faster. Apple is better.

Apple TV 4K also handles MPEG-2 videos, which is lacking on Roku. That means no HDHomerun, if that's your over-the-air network box of choice. And for a good many of us, that could be a deal-breaker.

And, of course, there are the screensavers. Apple sports some of the most beautiful 4K aerial displays you've ever seen Roku — has cartoons.

Apple TV 4K or Roku Ultra — which should you buy?

The question, as it always does, comes down to this: How much are you willing to pay for performance?

Apple TV works better, and it has access to just about anything you could want to watch. Roku is slower, has access to just about anything you want to watch, provided it's not HDHomerun. (That's a big thing for, though it's admittedly not huge for everybody, especially if you just run an antenna straight into your TV.)

But Apple TV costs twice as much as Roku Ultra. (And you should just go ahead and get the 64GB Apple TV model for $199.) There's no denying that it's an expensive box. You get what you pay for, to be clear.

But Roku Ultra also brings a lot of game, at half the cost.

Apple TV 4K

Apple TV is currently our pick for the best streaming box you can buy — regardless of whether you're an iPhone person or an Android person. It's got the best mix of performance and storage options (you can get it with either 32 or 64 gigabytes of space for apps and movies and music and stuff), and it has nearly every service you could think of at its disposal. (Google Play Movies & TV is the notable exception, though it's not like you can't get that content elsewhere.)

The one low mark is for the Siri remote — it's just not fun to use, and it's small and easy to lose.

Regardless, if you want something that just works, and works really well, this is what you want to look at.

$179/$199 at Amazon

Roku Ultra

Roku Ultra was released in October 2017 as the top-of-the-line box from the streaming company. It handles 4K resolution and HDR10, with private listening available through the remote control.

It's the pinnacle of Roku products and provides a simple user interface meant for making streaming video easy, without a lot of cruft getting in the way.

$89 at Amazon