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Roku Ultra vs. Apple TV 4K: Battle of the high-end streaming boxes

Both premium devices offer extras like Dolby Vision, fast processors, tricked-out remotes and Ethernet, but which one is best for you?

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Eli BlumenthalNov. 20, 2020 4:00 a.m. PT

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CNET has reviewed nearly all of the major streaming devices, and when it comes to the most powerful boxes our two favorites are Roku’s Ultra and Apple’s Apple TV 4K. Both devices, as well as Amazon’s Fire TV Cube, are internet-connected boxes that take TV shows and movies from NetflixAmazon Prime VideoDisney Plus and Hulu to any TV

They all, however, are pricier than the $50 or less streaming sticks like the Roku Streaming Stick PlusAmazon Fire TV Stick 4K and Google’s Chromecast with Google TV. But the large profile and extra cash get you some additional perks including faster processors and Ethernet ports. While for most people we’d recommend choosing a streaming stick — and we recently compared the Streaming Stick Plus and latest Chromecast — there are some people looking for a box, which is why we’re here.

To see how Apple’s and Roku’s respective boxes stack up against one another, let’s take a look at a few key areas: interface, features and remote. Roku Ultra (2020)Excellent value, if nothing radically new

Sarah Tew/CNET

Roku’s 2020 update to its high-end Ultra doesn’t change much compared to past years, not that this is a bad thing. It keeps the remote finder feature, excellent interface and adds support for AirPlay 2 and Dolby Vision and generally retails for $100 — although it’s on sale for $70 during Black Friday. Read our Roku Ultra (2020) review.$99 AT AMAZON$70 AT BEST BUY$100 AT CRUTCHFIELDApple TV 4KApple’s box has new software and is still a capable streamer

Sarah Tew/CNET

The Apple TV 4K is still the same box and remote from 2017, but new TVOS software has kept the already capable device fresh in 2020. Its starting price, however, remains at a very high $180.  Read our Apple TV 4K review.$180 AT BEST BUY$179 AT ADORAMA$179 AT APPLE

Best interface: Tie

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The Roku interface is clean and simple, with large tiles for apps arranged in a grid. David Katzmaier/CNET

Roku’s interface is as easy to use as it gets. A colorful array of app tiles are arranged in a grid that you can arrange to taste. As with its Streaming Stick Plus, responses on the Ultra are super-quick, and within seconds I was inside services like Netflix, Disney Plus, Hulu or Sling TV. There are no big recommendation tabs of what to watch, or posters of shows or movies cluttering the tiles (though there are some ads on the right side when scrolling through the grid). The app store, found in the left-hand section labeled Streaming Channels, is just as quick and easy to navigate as the main menu.

The Apple TV 4K has a similarly pretty and colorful menu that is filled with tiles. Navigation is often fine with the Apple TV remote (which we’ll get to in a moment), and the A10X processor inside is still snappy despite being several years old. The Apple TV features recommendations from a variety of services, not just Apple’s own TV Plus subscription service, but if you don’t want to use it you won’t need to. 

Both are easy and straightforward, making this a tie. 

Best features: Apple TV 4K 

Peacock: NBC streaming service with original content
The Apple TV 4K can run apps from all the major streaming platforms. Sarah Tew/CNET

Apple wins the best features category, but it’s pretty close.

Both boxes support 4K HDR streaming, as well as Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos. The two also each now support Apple’s AirPlay 2 for casting content from an iPhone, iPad or Mac to your TV and HomeKit for controlling the box with Siri. Apple wins, however, in-app support. It has an HBO Max app — something Roku still lacks as of press time — and integrates with other Apple services including Apple Arcade and Fitness Plus. Sure, you can cast all of those onto a TV with the Roku’s AirPlay addition, but the ease and integration of having the apps directly integrated into the box is a nice touch.

Of the major platforms, only Roku now lacks the HBO Max app. 

MAJOR NEW APPS BY PLATFORM SUPPORT

DeviceHBO MaxPeacockApple TV Plus
RokuNoYesYes
Fire TVYesNoYes
Chromecast with Google TVYesYesNo
Apple TVYesYesYes

The built-in support for Siri is also a lot better than Roku’s unnamed voice assistant. It is quick and responsive when asking to play movies like Avengers Endgame and even knows to go right into Disney Plus (so long as you have the app installed). You can also ask it questions like when is the next New York Giants game, what the NFL standings are or what the weather is outside. Not game-changing features, but nice to have nonetheless. 

Both companies get points for supporting their devices, with Roku’s addition of AirPlay to older TVs and boxes and Apple’s rollout of TVOS 14 the latest example that both still care about their users even years after they purchase the devices. 

As with the interface, the differences here are small. But Siri and the integration of apps like HBO Max give Apple the edge. 

Best remote: Roku Ultra

Whereas interface and features were close, Roku handily beats Apple when it comes to remotes. 

Roku’s remote, well, looks like a Roku remote. The company hasn’t done much to change up what admittedly already was a good thing. Volume and TV power control are both here (though there isn’t any input control), with rubberized buttons for navigation, media playback and quick control to Netflix, Disney Plus, Hulu and Sling. A microphone and dedicated mic button are also here. 

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The remote for the Streaming Stick Plus is similar to most other Roku remotes. Roku

Apple, on the other hand — well, you either love or hate the remote. The Apple remote looks nicer, but functionally it is much worse to use. 

There is no directional pad, with Apple going with a glass trackpad that looks sleek but can at times result in you overshooting what you are aiming to press. There are no quick shortcuts to apps like Netflix or Disney Plus, or controls for rewinding or fast-forwarding. It also lacks a dedicated mute button, requires Lightning to charge and has no private listening feature (though you can pair AirPods to the Apple TV 4K to stream to Bluetooth headphones). Both Apple and Roku let you control their respective boxes from a mobile device, though Apple’s feature is only available on its mobile products. 

The Roku Ultra also features the best perk on any streaming device: a dedicated button on the side of the box for finding the remote. Press it and your remote will start pinging, making it a lot easier to find when it’s lost inside the couch. Here’s hoping Apple adds similar functionality in its long-rumored Apple TV refresh

In the meantime, Roku wins this category hands down. 

Winner: Roku Ultra

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The Roku Ultra wins this battle with the Apple TV 4K. Sarah Tew/CNET

Both devices are excellent options and do a fantastic job covering all the bases of what you would want from a streamer in 2020. Apple’s box, despite being older, is slightly more capable thanks to TVOS being a richer operating system. It gets points for support Apple Arcade, Fitness Plus and having a dedicated app for HBO Max but loses big on the remote. When it comes to a streaming device, having a good remote is key. 

There also is the issue of cost. Roku’s newest Ultra box is normally listed at $100 but dropped $70 for Black Friday. Apple’s box, despite being released in September 2017, still starts at $179 on Apple’s site for the 32GB version (it’s $199 for the 64GB model). With plenty of rumors that Apple will finally give the box an upgrade in 2021, even if you love living in Apple’s walled garden it’s hard to justify paying over twice the price for the Apple TV 4K when you can just AirPlay everything you’re missing on the Roku Ultra. Or even a Roku Streaming Stick Plus.

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