There are nearly as many companies making set top boxes as there are TV shows that you swear you're going to get around to watching one of these days. Today, we're examining three of the best: the Apple TV, the Nexus Player and the Roku 4.
For this showdown, we're focusing solely on three popular standalone boxes with their own storage, operating system and remotes. We also didn't cover the Western Digital WD TV, or any video game consoles because, frankly, there are just too many to compare.
Also be aware that some apps and services -- most notably Hulu -- are only available in Australia with a compatible VPN. (You can read up on choosing the right VPN in Australia here.) Here's how the three set-top boxes compare:
For years, Apple's set-top box has been one of the standouts, if only because it was the only player on the block of its calibre. It's still one of the most expensive on our list (excluding some Android TV options), but it's got all the polish you expect from an Apple product.
Unlike the others on this list, Google has a multi-device platform called Android TV that you can get on a variety of devices. I tested the Nexus Player, which was launched in November of 2014. You can find newer, more expensive units but in my testing the old Nexus Player held up just fine, presumably thanks to some much-needed updates since its initial launch.
The Roku 4 is Roku's newest set top box. It's capable of 4K streaming and, as we learned in our streaming stick showdown, Roku is platform agnostic, meaning you don't have to worry about one company (like Apple or Google, cough) pushing their own content library at the expense of others.
The Roku service is also available through Telstra as a re-badged "Telstra TV" set-top box. (However, this is actually the 1080p-only Roku 2, not the 4k-capable Roku 4.)
Getting started with a set top box is easily the hardest part, no matter which platform you're on. You need to enter a Wi-Fi password, log in to several services and all most boxes come with is a tiny remote without a keyboard. It's going to be a bit of a hassle no matter what you do. However, certain boxes make it a little easier than others.
As with most things in the Apple-verse, how easy the setup process for the Apple TV is depends heavily on whether you own other Apple products. Once you connect your box to the TV, you can choose to either set it up with an iOS device (requires iOS 9.1 or later), or do it manually. The former will connect to your phone via Bluetooth and allow you to log in to Wi-Fi as well as each service using your phone or tablet's keyboard. It's pretty handy.
Manual setup, on the other hand, is awful. The current generation of the Apple TV comes with a touchpad remote (as opposed to a D-pad as most other boxes use). While this is nice for gestures, it makes typing harder than usual. Worse yet, the Apple TV's on-screen keyboard has every letter on one line, meaning you have to make broad swipes to get across the alphabet, then precisely choose individual letters with a touchpad. God help you if you have a long, complex password. You'll also need to use this process to log in to your other services like Netflix. Without an iOS device, there's no way to enter logins, which puts the Apple TV at a stark disadvantage for non-Apple households.
The Nexus Player has a similar setup to the Apple TV, but with a bit more flexibility. When you first plug in the device, you'll need to connect to Wi-Fi. You can use the included remote to enter your Wi-Fi password in manually, or you can pair it with your Android phone to connect to Wi-Fi and add a Google account directly.
Once you're connected to the internet, you can visit g.co/AndroidTV to log in to your Google account. You can enter in your login information from the browser on any phone, tablet, or laptop, which is much easier than using an on-screen keyboard. Once your Google account is connected, if you use Google's Smart Lock password manager, certain apps will login automatically, so you don't need to enter account information manually. Unfortunately, support for Smart Lock has to be added by each app developer. In my testing, only Netflix found my password. Fortunately, other apps like Plex had their own web-based login system, but any service that doesn't build its own easy login solution or use Google's Smart Lock will require that you use the tedious on-screen keyboard.
Unlike the other two players, you can't use your phone to connect the Roku 4 to your Wi-Fi network. You'll have to use the directional pad and on-screen keyboard to enter your password manually when you first start it up to connect to the internet. Fortunately, the process gets considerably easier after that.
Much like with the Nexus Player, you can connect to Roku Link to login to your Roku account. However, you can use your Roku account to log in to nearly any service that Roku has an app for. From your laptop, you can log in to a bunch of services. Your account is then synced to the Roku 4 on your TV.
Every set top box in the world has a basic interface with an array of boxes on screen and a directional pad on the remote. How different can they really be? Turns out, quite a bit! Between the Apple TV's voice control, the Nexus Player's Google Cast and the Roku's...well actually, the Roku is pretty straightforward. Still, here are some of the big differences.
As I mentioned in the last section, I have mixed feelings about Apple's touchpad remote. While touchpads are great for swiping through lists, the TV interface doesn't lend itself to these gestures nearly as often as you'd think. Fortunately, the Apple remote has a handy backup option: the Siri button.
You can press and hold the Siri button and say the name of an app or show and the Apple TV will either launch that app or pull up a landing page for that show. The show page will list several services where you can find that show or movie and, if you scroll down, you can get actor info, related shows, and reviews. If you have the corresponding app installed, you can click the service and jump straight into the show page for the app. For example, if you ask Siri for South Park episodes, it will show you Hulu and iTunes. Click Hulu and the South Park page in Hulu will appear. The Siri button worked flawlessly every time I used it.
The remote still has a couple oddities, though. One of the six buttons on the remote is labelled "Menu" and in some places you can use it to call up some extra options in an app. However, most of the time it's used as a Back button. So, for example, if you navigate to your subscriptions in YouTube and then select a particular channel, pressing "Menu" will go back to your subscriptions page. Pressing "Menu" again will display the navigation menu at the top of the app. It's very confusing at first. Once you get used to it, it's easy enough, but it's disorienting and inconsistent.
The Nexus Player remote is much less confusing than the Apple remote, as it uses a regular D-pad. Though if you like the swiping gesture, you might be missing out. Also like the Apple remote, the remote has a voice button built in that allows you to search for shows, movies, or videos. In my experience, using the voice command was a little more finicky than the Apple remote, but waiting just a second to ensure the Player was ready to listen cleared that up.
The search results on the Nexus Player were mostly similar to Apple's, with a few key differences. For starters (and somewhat bizarrely), Google was more aggressive about pushing its own content store than Apple. While the Apple TV displayed that a show was available on Netflix and iTunes at the same time, Google displayed a show as available on Google Play up at the top of the results, but you had to scroll past actor info and related shows to find it on Hulu or YouTube. Even worse, direct links to a show within Netflix didn't exist at all, but I was able to search my own Plex library. This may be due to Netflix simply not enabling the search functionality in its app, but it's still a glaring omission, no matter who's at fault. Another odd quirk, when you search for a musical artist, you'll find front-and-center suggestions to look them up on apps like YouTube or Hulu, with song and album suggestions below that, usually linking to Google Play Music.
However, I only discovered this when I forced myself to use the voice search function on purpose. In practice, I used Google Cast to play videos on the Nexus Player much more often. The box functions exactly like a Chromecast does, which means you can look up a show in the Netflix app on your phone and send it to the Player immediately. Once it's playing, you can use the physical remote or your phone to control it. For me, this was the ideal Chromecast experience anyway.
The Roku 4 doesn't quite have the same amount of design polish that Apple or Google have put into their boxes, but that doesn't make it less functional. Surprisingly (seriously, I wasn't expecting it), the Roku has a voice search function just like the others. Unfortunately, it's a bit more limited. You can search for movies, directors and actors, but that's about it. Searching for "Comedy" simply returned movies and TV shows with the word "comedy" in them. Musical artists came up with nothing, unless they were also actors.
In addition to the voice search button, the Roku remote has four buttons to quickly launch into popular apps: Netflix, Amazon, Sling and Rdio which rather awkwardly has been shut down. If you don't use one (or any) of these services, you're unfortunately stuck with a permanently useless button on your remote. And as of this writing, the Rdio button is guaranteed to be useless. That's kind of a drag, but not a huge deal. And if you do use any of those other services, it's a super handy shortcut.
The Roku 4 remote also has a god-send of a feature that every remote in the world should have: a headphone jack. If you're watching a show on your Roku, you can plug a pair of headphones in and the TV's audio will be diverted to your ears and your ears alone. While this may not be useful for everyone, it's sure handy when you want to watch TV without disturbing your roommates, kids, or neighbours.
Finding Stuff to Watch
When you sit down on the couch, you may not already know what you want to watch. Ideally, your set top box, with all its grand internet powers, should give you some suggestions. Here's how the three we looked at stack up in that regard.
It's a little hard to say that the Apple TV really does much to help content discovery at all. Most content on the Apple TV is siloed in various apps. If you search for a particular show or movie, Apple will tell you various places you can find it, but there's no place you can browse multiple services at once.
On the home screen of the Apple TV, if you hover your cursor of the iTunes Movies or TV Shows apps, you'll see a selection of Top Movies or Top Shows at the top of the screen. This is helpful if you want to check out the latest popular movies and shows, but it doesn't go very deep. Performing a voice search for a genre doesn't even go very far. In my tests, the "Comedy" search simply showed me the same movies and TV shows from the list of Top shows I already saw, with all the non-comedies filtered out. If I wanted to really browse around, you had to enter an app. While this isn't a huge inconvenience, it also means the Apple TV does almost nothing to stand out, since Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube usually have the same browsing experience across platforms.
The Nexus Player did a bit more than Apple to give me suggestions on what to watch if I didn't already know. At the very top of the home screen, you'll see a feed of TV shows, movies, and videos sourced from the apps you have installed. I found suggestions for shows I'd added to my Plex library right next to YouTube videos that Google thought I might be interested in. While it's fairly limited -- the feed only shows around 25 items and doesn't add new suggestions when you get to the end of the list -- it's still better than nothing.
Voice search was also a bit more useful in this regard. Searching for a genre like "Comedy" would show me some of the same recent top movies I've already seen (hello for the millionth time, Ant-Man). However, it also showed me videos from YouTube and shows on Hulu that were categorized as "comedy." This isn't a super great discovery tool, but it's something.
The Roku platform has a unique feature called My Feed. With this, you can put movies that aren't out on streaming services yet on a watchlist. When that movie becomes available, My Feed will show you where you can find it and how much it costs. It's a handy feature for those who want to want to watch a movie, but then promptly forget about it. Unfortunately, you can add TV shows.
Outside of this, though, the Roku 4 suffers from a similar problem as the Apple TV. Without going into apps, there's not much you can do to get suggestions for content, and the experience within the apps is controlled entirely by third-party developers, so there's really no major advantage to one box or the other. Netflix and Hulu are going to suggest the same things, no matter which box you're viewing it on. Also, the search function is a little less robust than even Apple's, since it can't browse genres, so there's not much in the way of suggestions.
OK, this is a simple one: Roku wins. If there's one thing the Roku has going for it (and there's certainly more than just one thing), it's that it is platform agnostic. When you buy a set top box from Apple or Google, you're mostly only going to get recommendations for the service that company provides. Apple pushes iTunes. Google pushes Google Play. Fortunately, Roku doesn't have to deal with any of that, so you can have the best of most worlds. Each box has most streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, YouTube and Plex. But as for the primary stores where you can buy or rent movies, only Roku has more than one option.
On the Roku 4, you can rent or buy movies from Google Play and the M-GO store, which, while not exclusive to Roku, is not available on any of the other set top boxes we looked at. This means that only Roku allows you to shop around at different stores to get a better price on a movie rental. There's not always a lot of variation between services, but there's enough to make shopping around worthwhile.
Of course, that's just the officially sanctioned stuff. Unlike the Apple TV and Nexus Player, the Roku 4 also has a huge library of private channels that you can install if you do a little legwork. Private channels can include adult content or content from services that don't have official apps. In short, with the exception of iTunes on the Apple TV, the Roku 4 has everything all the other boxes have, plus a whole lot more.
Bottom Line: Pick Your Favourite Ecosystem, or Pick Roku
The Nexus Player is just slightly better than average at suggesting content, and its built-in Google Cast functionality makes it stand out. The Apple TV is the exclusive home of iTunes on your TV and it likely fits in perfectly in an Apple-centric home. While I didn't care for the touchpad remote, your mileage may vary.
The Roku 4 isn't necessarily superior, but it remains your best, only option for a set top box that doesn't play favourites or try to shoehorn you into one particular ecosystem. It doesn't have some of the polish the other platforms have, and it's not as good at helping you sift through the mountain of stuff to watch, but it excels at making that mountain bigger.
Ultimately, if you really like Apple or Google's ecosystem, you'll probably like their respective set top boxes better. However, if you want something that gives you the most options, the Roku 4 stands out from the rest.