The Best Smart TV Box: Apple TV, Fire TV and Roku Player

4th Generation Apple TV
The Apple TV offers a big library of apps and games. image credit: Apple Inc.
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Last Updated: Oct. 21, 2015

There are all kinds of devices, including Apple TV and most recently Amazon Fire TV, available to deliver web-based content to our living room TVs. And that's a good thing: The Internet is increasingly becoming the main way that we enjoy music, video, and games.

These Internet-connected set-top boxes offer a number of advantages: interfaces designed to be seen from across the room, TV-style remote controls, and being able to finally give up lying on the couch with a laptop on your stomach in favor of reclining and enjoying your big HDTV.

Three of the most popular such devices are the Apple TV, Amazon's Fire TV, and Roku's line of players. All three set-top boxes connect to large, web-based media libraries, and some even allow users to install their own apps and games. While all three work with Netflix, Hulu, HBO, and other common services, they have some key differences, too.

Apple TV vs. Amazon Fire TV vs. Roku Player

This chart shows how the boxes stack up against each other in key categories.

 Amazon
Fire TV
4th Gen.
Apple TV
Roku 2Roku 3Roku 4
PriceUS$99$149
$199
$69$99$129
Capacity

8 GB
(expandable
to 128 GB)

32 GB
64 GB
N/A
(expandable)
N/A
(expandable)
N/A
(expandable)
Wi-Fi802.11ac
MIMO
802.11ac
MIMO
802.11
a/b/g/n
802.11
a/b/g/n
802.11ac
MIMO
Bluetooth4.14.0No4.04.0
USBUSB 2.0USB-CYesYesYes
Standard-def
TV Support
NoNoNoNoNo
HD4K1080p1080p1080p4K
Optical AudioYesNoNoNoYes
iTunes SupportNoYesNoNoNo
Netflix SupportYesYesYesYesYes
Hulu Plus SupportYesYesYesYesYes
Amazon Prime
Support
YesNoYesYesYes
HBO Go/Now
Support
YesYesYesYesYes
Cloud StorageFree for
Amazon
content
iCloud
(free up to
5 GB,
50GB for
$0.99/yr )
NoNoNo
Music/PodcastYesYesYesYesYes
Streaming MusicPrime MusicApple MusicSpotifySpotifySpotify
Photo SlideshowYesYesNoNoNo
GamesYesYesYesYesYes
Third Party
Apps
YesYesYesYesYes
Voice ControlSearch only;
Alexa
Yes;
Siri
NoYesYes
Universal
Search
YesYesYesYesYes
Private
Listening
NoNoNoYesYes
Dimensions
(in inches)
4.5 x
4.5 x
0.7
3.9 x
3.9 x
1.3
3.5 x
3.5 x
1
3.5 x
3.5 x
1
6.5 x
6.5 x
0.8

Features Explained

In order to truly understand what differentiates these three devices, you need to understand what some of the features listed in the chart above are and how they work across the devices.

  • Wi-Fi—We all know Wi-Fi. It's the wireless way for devices to connect to the Internet. But what you may not know is that there are different kinds of Wi-Fi, and each one has a different maximum speed. The 802.11ac MIMO Wi-Fi standard is the fastest current version. It shows up on the Fire TV and Apple TV.
  • Voice Control—Voice control is what it sounds like: The ability to control your TV by speaking to it. The extent of that control differs across devices. The Fire TV supports voice for search only, while the Apple TV integrates Siri throughout to search, refine searches, get information, launch apps and more.
  • Private Listening—This neat feature exists only on Roku Players. You've probably been watching a show when someone near you—perhaps in bed or on the couch with you—is doing something else and doesn't want to be bothered. Plug headphones into a remote that supports Private Listening and you'll see the picture on your TV, but all audio goes to your headphones. Everyone's happy.
  • Third-Party Apps—Just like on the iPhone and iPad, these are apps that the user can install themselves. All of the boxes support games, but the Apple TV has the largest selection of non-game apps for users to install.