Apple TV 4K vs. Roku Ultra: Where Does Roku Stick Plus Fit?
After over a year of testing, I found Apple TV 4K to be the best overall streaming device because of its brilliant interface. However, as a budget-friendly alternative, I recommend Roku Stick Plus because it’s essentially the same as Roku Ultra for half the price.
Now, let’s find out how I reached my conclusion, by comparing two 4K streaming devices (Apple TV 4K vs. Roku Ultra) while evaluating four categories: content, interface, smarts, and remote.
Apple TV 4K
- Interface: It's smooth, ad-free, and takes your content from your apps and organizes it into one list. iPhone users will feel at home.
- Content: A few niche apps are missing, but it has everything most people will need. YouTube isn't available in 4K.
- Smarts: Siri works well for finding content and performing smart home tasks.
- Remote: The remote is hard to grip and swiping the trackpad is more difficult than pressing directional buttons.
Best for you if...
You want an iPhone-like interface without ads. Apple TV 4K is the best streaming device on the market (even for Android users) because it organizes your content better.
For $30 less, Apple TV HD is better and faster than Roku, but it can't play 4K content and it is slightly slower than Apple TV 4K.
Roku Ultra (2019)
- Interface: The interface is dated, clunky and has a giant advertisement. Roku just provides your apps without organizing content.
- Content: Roku has every content app you’ll ever need. YouTube works in 4K, while it doesn't on Apple TV.
- Smarts: Voice control is only useful for searching for content.
- Remote: The remote is thick and provides a great grip with easy-to-use buttons. There are dedicated streaming service buttons too.
Best for you if...
You want a great experience for less. You'll get tons of content and unbiased search, but you're stuck with an old-school interface and advertisements.
Roku Stick+ has the same speed and interface. The difference is a remote finder and extra ports that most people won't need.
Things to Know
- Smart TVs provide access to streaming apps in the same way that dedicated streaming devices do, but smart TVs are notorious for having slow and clunky interfaces. Manufacturers throw in smart features as an add-on feature and they don’t get updated often. There are solid smart TVs on the market, but the only one that I can vouch for is TCL’s Roku TV because you get a full-fledged Roku experience.
- While I prefer a dedicated device, there’s no need to upgrade to a streaming device if you’re happy with your current smart TV’s streaming apps and functionality.
- Over the last three years, I’ve tested ten streaming devices. Apple TV 4K is my favorite and what I use daily.
- Roku is my second favorite platform and what I recommend to most people because it’s a better value than Apple TV.
- I don’t recommend Fire TV devices, but I’ve tried them all. View my Power Rankings to see my tested streaming devices and sticks ranked in order.
- Two requirements for streaming devices:
- You need a TV with an open HDMI port.
- You need solid internet:
- If you plan to cut out cable completely, your internet needs to be even stronger because you’ll be more reliant on it.
- Assuming you have no connected devices in the background, I recommend at least 10/mbps per concurrent stream. Want to stream on three devices at once? You’ll need at least 30/mbps or more if you have other devices (e.g., tablets and phones) idle on your network.
- You don’t always get the internet speed that you pay for. False advertising from your ISP, your router type, and the distance from your device to the router are a few reasons why you’re not getting what you pay for.
- Check your internet speed from the position you plan to place your device. I wrote about mesh routers if you need to beef up your network.
- You’ll need one streaming device per TV unless you plan to bring the device with you as you switch rooms.
- Ways to use a streaming device:
- You can supplement your cable subscription. You can change the HDMI inputs on your TV when you want to switch between your streaming device and cable box.
- You can supplement the free local TV channels picked up with an antenna. Don’t bank on getting channels with an antenna, but some people have great luck with it.
- You can rely on streaming for all your content needs.
- Cord-cutting is a huge trend, but it’s not a smart move for everyone.
- Streaming devices don’t provide enough free content. Even the content that’s advertised as “free” is usually only free if you have a cable subscription. You may occasionally find decent ad-supported movies, but consider it a bonus.
- You’ll need to pay for streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, HBO NOW, Showtime, Starz for around $10-15/month to get content of value.
- If you want to watch live TV, you’ll need YouTube TV, Sling, Hulu Live, AT&T TV, Philo, or fuboTV. Live TV services start at $30/month, but to get an experience close to cable, it’s usually closer to $50/month. I wrote about three live TV services, and YouTube TV is my favorite.
- In the end, you’ll pay multiple companies, instead of one, to acquire the same set of content you had with cable. If you’re not willing to make channel sacrifices, you could pay more than you were.
- Don’t cut the cord if you don’t have a basic understanding of technology. You’ll use many apps that each have a different interface. Streaming may create more headaches than you already have with cable.
- Once you pay for a streaming service, you can use it on all of your devices without paying again, but most services only allow a certain number of simultaneous streams.
Apple TV 4K
- Apple TV 4K supports both HDR formats: HDR10 and Dolby Vision. Dolby Vision audio is supported too.
- Apple TV has an app store like the one on iOS. The App Store has every popular video streaming app, including Prime Video, Vudu, Hulu, Netflix, Showtime, HBO, Disney+, Sling TV, AT&T TV, and YouTube TV.
- Netflix, Prime Video, Epix, Vudu, FandangoNOW, and Apple TV (app) have 4K HDR content available.
- The only major missing service is Spotify, but you can AirPlay Spotify to Apple TV from your phone.
- YouTube has a substantial 4K content library, but because it uses the VP9 video format, which isn’t supported, the content only plays in 1080p.
Interface Basics (A+):
- This section is written with the assumption that you pay for streaming services through your cable provider or directly, and my notes apply to Android and iPhone users.
- Apple TV 4K is the fastest streaming device I’ve ever tested because it uses Apple’s 64-bit A10X Fusion chip (the same chip in the first generation iPad Pro).
- The design is the most polished of any streaming device and stays consistent throughout each app.
- There aren’t any advertisements anywhere.
- The “Up Next” feature is a queue of everything you’re watching, across all your apps (e.g., Showtime, Hulu, HBO, Amazon, etc.). When you tap on a show, it plays in the correct app to which you have a subscription and starts the next-in-line episode.
- When new episodes become available it puts them at the front of your list.
- You can mark episodes as played.
- You can view previous episodes from the list.
- Netflix is the only major streaming service that doesn’t show up on the list.
- Apple made a mistake in the latest software update (tvOS 13) by adding autoplay trailers on the home screen while you’re hovering over the Apple TV app. Luckily, they have listened to the criticism because you can disable the trailers and get the “Top Shelf” back in tvOS 13.3.
- Typing in emails and passwords for every service isn’t fun. Apple gets around this with “Single Sign-On.” You sign in with your cable provider, and all of your apps will work without signing in again. Not all cable providers are available, but even if yours isn’t, Apple saves your default email and makes it easy to sign into your apps.
- You can create accounts for different people in your household and switch with ease. Using a different account will keep your “Up Next” list clean with just your shows. Having multiple accounts is a gamechanger for people who have kids and don’t want both types of content mixed together.
- Apple TV has stunning screensavers. They’re drone shots that move slowly through different cities, oceans, or space for four minutes. My friends and I have spent hours looking at these. This is trivial, but it shows Apple’s attention to detail.
Ecosystem Interface (A+):
- Apple TV’s experience improves as you go deeper into Apple’s ecosystem.
- If you’ve used an iPhone or iPad, Apple TV will feel second nature. The interface looks similar and Apple TV automatically downloads your content apps from your phone.
- Apple TV 4K’s setup is perfect if you have an iPhone. When you place the phone next to the Apple TV, it collects your Apple ID and WiFi information, so you don’t have to log in.
- Whenever a text field appears on Apple TV, you’ll get a notification on your iPhone prompting you to enter text via your iOS device’s keyboard.
- It can pull your passwords from your iPhone, iPad, and Mac if you have them saved in your iCloud Keychain.
- If you’re an iPhone user, you can control your Apple TV from your phone’s command center (swiping from the top right corner).
- Apple’s biggest strength as a company is its ability to simplify technology, but they’ve done a terrible job with Apple TV’s branding.
- Apple TV is a streaming device.
- Apple TV is also the name of an app that’s available on Apple TV, iPhone, iPad, Mac, Roku, and Fire TV. The Apple TV app is where your “Up Next” list is stored and where you can subscribe to new content services.
- Apple TV+ is a $50/year streaming service that features Apple’s original shows (The Morning Show, See, For All Mankind, etc.) that play inside the Apple TV app.
- While the branding is confusing, Apple TV (the device) gets better when you subscribe to premium services (e.g., HBO and Showtime) via Apple TV Channels inside the Apple TV app, rather than from your cable provider or directly.
- There are 22 streaming services available through Apple TV Channels.
- You’ll stay inside one app (Apple TV) which makes the interface feel smoother because you don’t leave the app to watch content. Plus, the interface is more streamlined than with third-party apps.
- You can play content from your Apple TV Channels inside the Apple TV app on iPhone and iPad. It’s the only way to download Showtime and HBO for offline view.
- Apple hosts the content on their servers and the video quality is better because it’s optimized perfectly and has a higher bitrate than when you subscribe to services outside of Apple TV Channels.
- Siri on iPhone gets deservedly criticized, but Siri on Apple TV is brilliant. You can hold the button and ask it to find certain movies, genres, open apps, check the score of a game, or perform any of HomeKit activity. Siri’s the only thing that I need to bring up movies or shows that aren’t in my “Up Next” list yet.
- Siri shows the words you’re saying as you say them. It’s a small detail, but it makes for a more polished product.
- HomeKit works with Apple TV and it can be used as your home’s “hub.” This means you can control your lights, thermostat, and other devices while you’re not home.
- You can ask Siri to do basic commands hands-free if you own HomePod or have “Hey Siri” enabled on your phone.
- “Hey Siri, turn on/off the TV.”
- “Hey Siri, pause/play the TV.”
- “Hey Siri, skip 10 minutes on the TV.”
- AirPlay with your iOS device is great. Swipe down on your iPhone and tap the AirPlay button and then you’re mirroring your phone’s screen.
- You can connect Bluetooth headphones with a swipe down and a button press.
- Siri Remote has a touchpad instead of directional buttons like Roku.
- The remote is made of glass and aluminum and feels like a premium product. Unfortunately, they made too many usability sacrifices.
- The touchpad isn’t as responsive to your swipes as a phone screen, so it’s choppier.
- It doesn’t fit well in your hand because it’s thin and not curved. It’s hard to tell which part in the front.
- elago sells a remote case that makes Apple’s remote thicker and improves the grip.
- It needs charging once a month via the iPhone lightning cable.
- It doesn’t have a dedicated TV power button, but when you turn off the Apple TV from the control center, it should turn off your TV.
- It has volume buttons.
- If you swipe down from the top right corner of your iPhone, you get a software remote from iOS’s control center.
- When you need to enter a password on your TV, your iPhone’s keyboard will automatically appear.
- You get playback controls from your iPhone’s lock screen.
- You can disable the touchpad in favor of directional buttons in the Accessibility settings.
- It has buttons that let you fast forward or rewind in 10 second increments.
- Dolby Vision and HDR10 are the two competing HDR standards. My eye isn’t tuned enough to tell the difference, but critics say Dolby Vision looks better. Roku only supports HDR10.
- It supports Dolby Atmos audio.
- There are no biases in the search. When searching for a movie or show, it displays results from your installed channels from lowest to highest price. Apple guesses on which apps it thinks you’ll want to use, while Roku shows the entire list.
- Prime Video, Google Play Video, Vudu, Hulu, Netflix, Showtime, HBO, Disney+, Sling TV, AT&T TV, YouTube TV, fuboTV, Philo, Apple TV, Spotify, and Pandora are available. Roku has every streaming service I’ve ever heard of. They claim to have 500,000 movies and shows.
- Roku’s 4K content selection is vast. You get 4K content from Netflix, Prime Video, YouTube, Vudu, Apple TV, FandangoNOW, CuriosityStream, Smithsonian Earth, and others.
- The Roku Channel has solid ad-based free content in it as well.
- Roku Ultra has a USB port and Micro SD card reader, making it the only legitimate option to watch your ripped movies or shows via external storage. The interface for it is brutal, but at least it’s an option.
Interface Basics (C):
- It has enough power for apps to open and operate correctly, but it’s not as snappy as Apple TV.
- Roku makes money by collecting your user data and showing you targeted advertising. Interestingly, Roku made more money from advertising than selling hardware. There’s no way to opt-out of ads, but there’s only one big ad on the home screen that stays out of the way. Unlike Fire TV, the ads don’t compromise the experience.
- The latest Roku OS 9.1 software is an improvement, but Roku is still getting over the app quality issues from previous years.
- You don’t get a universal experience. Each app is set up differently and has different playback controls.
- The interface feels dated because Roku only provides the streaming apps and doesn’t offer much content curation or try anything ambitious. Roku lets each app developer create the experience, rather than trying to streamline the experience.
- Hulu, Sling, Philo, and Pandora use a feature called Automatic Account Link that automatically logs you into your streaming apps on each new Roku device after the first one. Typing logins with a remote is a pain, so this could be a huge feature for Roku if they can add more services.
- Roku’s “feed” lets you follow movies and shows to get updated when they become available, but it doesn’t work as well as it should.
- You can’t easily unfollow shows.
- Content appears on the feed only when new episodes are released, so you can’t see your entire list.
- You can’t pick a default app for your shows. If you always watch Silicon Valley with the HBO NOW app, Roku should just open it in HBO NOW each time. Interestingly, sometimes my preferred app doesn’t appear inside the feed.
- It’s limited to Hulu, Prime Video, Showtime, Apple TV, and HBO content.
- You can’t mark episodes as played or see other episodes in the series.
Interface Ecosystem (C):
- If you don’t want to subscribe to HBO, Showtime, Cinemax, or Starz through your cable provider, you can subscribe through Roku.
- Your subscriptions’ content stays in one app, The Roku Channel. For example, you won’t need to use the HBO app anymore because it’ll stream inside The Roku Channel.
- You get a limited “Up Next” list that is missing basic functionality compared to Apple TV.
- The Roku Channel is fine, but you’re better off bringing your subscriptions to Roku with you. If you want to keep your streaming services in one app and get premium features, Apple TV Channels is an exponentially better experience.
- Roku’s voice search finds the content that you ask for and shows all the apps that it can be streamed in. Roku can’t handle complex questions or tasks, but their voice system does what it’s supposed to do.
- You can ask your Google and Alexa devices to control Roku. These are solid workarounds for the lackluster smarts in the remote, but the integration doesn’t work perfectly and the commands get wordy. For instance, if you say “Alexa, open Netflix on Roku,” you’ll have to wait a while for it to happen.
- You can put your Roku in “Guest Mode” if you have a TV regularly used by visitors. It lets your guests use their credentials to their streaming services and automatically signs them out on their chosen “leave date,” so Roku is ready for the next guest. It’s a great feature for guest rooms or AirBnB places.
- Private listening mode is a cool feature if you have roommates or if you’re just trying to be quiet. You plug your headphones into the remote, and the volume is turned off on the TV and is played in your headphones.
- There isn’t a sleep timer on Roku, so it’ll just show your wallpaper until you turn it off manually.
- Roku Stick Plus has the same interface and works the same as Roku Ultra, but you won’t get an Ethernet and USB port, Micro SD card reader, remote finder, or a headphone jack in the remote.
- Roku’s remote is molded to your hand and feels great. The buttons are large, colored, and have lots of give. After a couple of hours, you’ll know where the buttons are without looking.
- It has preset streaming buttons (mine came with Netflix, Hulu, ESPN+ and Sling) that bring you to the app with one push. It would be cool if you were a member of all those services, but most people will be left with useless buttons. Fortunately, on Roku Ultra you get two additional buttons labeled “1” and “2” that you can map to your preferred streaming apps.
- You can control your TV’s volume and power with the remote.
- Roku’s phone app is great for opening streaming channels. When you tap on services in the app, it shows on the TV. You can use the app as a remote too.