What is the simplest Netflix-ready set-top device?
November 18, 2011 7:48 AM   Subscribe

Apple TV or Roku for my technology-shy father?

My dad watches a lot of TV. As in, he's retired and sits on front of the TV for much of the day and most evenings. He's gotten really into his DVR in the past couple of years and understands how that system works well and is comfortable with it. This is slightly slightly surprising to me as he tends to be a bit technology shy these days. He was an early proponent of Apple and was always the advocate of technology in our house when I was young, but these days he just seems tired of learning anything new and complex. My brother and I finally got him to get a cellphone a little over a year ago, but he doesn't use it much and opted for a dumbphone, and he has a Macbook Pro but only ever uses it for e-mail - anything beyond that he finds too complex to deal with and rarely if ever uses the internet - though he's got a decent DSL connection that comes with his cable package.

I've noticed over the past year or so when I go home for the holidays that he tends to watch more and more crappy movies and TV on his DVR because he can't find enough good content and ends up settling on terrible History Channel conspiracy theory shows.

This Christmas I want to get him Netflix streaming for a year and a set-top box to watch it on. My brother got him a Blu-Ray player last year that has Netflix streaming enabled on it, but I believe he hasn't used it once and he never signed up for a Netflix account. I do, however, think he would love the content that's available on Netflix, and when I brought up last year that he should look into an Apple TV, he seemed open to the idea but never followed up since he doesn't pursue technology on his own. He loves documentaries, historical/informative shows, and indie film and is very open in his taste preferences so I think it would be a great gift.

With all this said, I'm trying to decide between an Apple TV and a Roku for him. Apple TV seems like the obvious choice because of its ease-of-use (I've played around with one for 5 minutes and it seems significantly less complex than a DVR) and the fact that he likes and trusts Apple as a producer of quality products, but from reviews that I've read it seems like it doesn't play well with Netflix on anything other than stellar connections. I think if my dad had to put up with constant load times, he wouldn't bother. When it comes to a Roku box, I know significantly less about it, and I just have no experience with it. Is the user interface friendly enough for a man who doesn't want to bother with a smartphone interface?

The idea is to keep it as simple as possible for him. I'd be setting up his taste preferences for him while I'm home so he doesn't have to touch any of that, and ideally he'd never have to go in and change settings, unplug things on the box, mess with his internet settings, etc.

So which is the better option? Or is there another one out there that fits the bill better like Boxee? Or does it seem like perhaps it's just not the right gift for him and I should just pay to further his HBO/Stars/whatever subscription?
posted by gregoryg to Shopping (25 answers total)
What kind of DVR does he have? Most TiVo boxes are Netflix enabled, and the interface is dead simple, so if you think he might prefer to have only one remote and one device to deal with, I'd get a new TiVo.
posted by decathecting at 7:51 AM on November 18, 2011

Response by poster: I'd definitely prefer to have it all with one remote, but I'm not familiar enough with cable packages to understand the ins and outs of what you can use with what service.

I'm almost positive he has the standard DirecTV HD DVR/Receiver hybrid. Looking around their site I don't see any additional models with Netflix available, and I can't tell whether or not you have to have their proprietary unit or if I could have him downgrade to just an HD Receiver and then purchase a TiVo for him.

I'd also be worried at this point that he wouldn't want to learn the ins and outs of the TiVo system if it's too different from what he has now, but I've never used a TiVo so I couldn't be sure.
posted by gregoryg at 8:01 AM on November 18, 2011

For what it's worth - the Apple TV has a better experience; you can set your 'standard' tv remote to work the Apple TV (one remote = far easier use.)

But yeah, the TiVo Premiere stuff is amazing. I just have an (older) HD TiVo and it's like the crack cocaine of tv - that's how good it is if you sorta know how it works and it's just insane if you really 'get it.' Lots of DVR things thought out and I know the Premiere has NetFlix as well.
posted by filmgeek at 8:07 AM on November 18, 2011

Best answer: Is the [Roku] user interface friendly enough for a man who doesn't want to bother with a smartphone interface?

Yes, definitely. The Roku is dead simple to set up and to use. The second remote is a slight hassle, but it's a very simple remote.

I like Apple's—I have an iPhone and a MacBook Air—but I would definitely get the Roku over the Apple TV at this point in time. On the Roku, you can do Hulu Plus as well at Netflix. He can also view HBO Go content if he has an existing HBO cable subscription—you can watch tons of movies there as well as the entirety of most recent-ish HBO shows, all ad-free.

The only reason to buy an Apple TV over the Roku is if he would be likely to buy a lot of movies/TV off of iTunes.
posted by enn at 8:16 AM on November 18, 2011

I lean towards Roku its dead simple to use, the new one even looks a bit better and its got a massive wealth of content on there. The apps (channels) all use a common UI framework so its super easy to get around. Its not as polished or pretty a UI as Apple TV but its definitely as easy to use. For Roku I'd just go in, get Netflix and a few other "channels" set up (Add Amazon with a Prime Subscription - Prime does free streaming like Netflix, but with Amazon you can also purchase first run shows and movies if you desire to).

Boxee is more geeky and I dont' recommend it for what you're talking about, these two are the right boxes to have in the mix.
posted by bitdamaged at 8:16 AM on November 18, 2011

*I like Apple's products
posted by enn at 8:17 AM on November 18, 2011

The only reason to buy an Apple TV over the Roku is if he would be likely to buy a lot of movies/TV off of iTunes.

Note: Amazon offers all the same stuff as iTunes....
posted by bitdamaged at 8:18 AM on November 18, 2011

I have a Roku that I like alot. I've never tried Apple TV.

The Netflix channel for the Roku is great.
The Amazon channel for the Roku is bad (aka user hostile).
The HuluPlus channel for the Roku is horrible (aka unusable).

If you are getting the Roku for Netflix and (possibly) Amazon it's a good choice.
posted by dgeiser13 at 8:27 AM on November 18, 2011

Roku has excellent customer service (they replaced my parents dead-from-from-old-age roku with a brand new one, well out of warranty, no questions asked. Even cross-shipped it).
My parents see quite happy with it and they aren't the most tech-savvy.

I have an apple tv and it's ok. I've rarely have any problems with netflix on my bog-standard cable internet. I don't use amazon or itunes, so I can't speak to that.
posted by madajb at 8:35 AM on November 18, 2011

I'm not sure what you mean about Hulu Plus. I use it quite a bit to watch Criterion films and it works great. I actually think the streaming works better at times than Netflix.

It is annoying that they have the web only content, like NBC shows.
posted by selfnoise at 8:35 AM on November 18, 2011

"My brother got him a Blu-Ray player last year that has Netflix streaming enabled on it, but I believe he hasn't used it once and he never signed up for a Netflix account."

Why not just set up and config Netflix for him on the Blu-Ray player he already has (and presumably knows how to operate)?
posted by joelhunt at 8:40 AM on November 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: The Roku box is super simple, but it does use a second (small) remote with only a few intuitive buttons. You click on the Netflix channel, and there's a row for your instant queue, a row for last movies watched (like 30-40), one for recommendations, one for new movies, etc. It does not feel like technology.

You can easily add movies to your instant queue from the box, but the Netflix website does offer suggestions after you add a movie while if you add a movie on the box it's just that one step and you see that it's added and then that's it.
posted by mrs. taters at 8:40 AM on November 18, 2011

Response by poster: Why not just set up and config Netflix for him on the Blu-Ray player he already has (and presumably knows how to operate)?

Because he doesn't know how to operate it! I don't know why my brother got it for him, my dad doesn't own a single Blu-Ray and never goes to the video store, so it's been sitting there since he and I watched Sunshine last Christmas.

It sounds like Roku is the way to go, though. I did a quick Google search that says the Roku can work with universal remotes - does anyone have any experience with this working well?

Also, good to know about the different queue experiences. If needed I'd go into the website and fuss with his queue for him every couple of weeks.

I also am not going to mess with Amazon or Hulu at this point - I figure learning one new thing is enough for now. Thanks for the answers so far, everyone.
posted by gregoryg at 8:58 AM on November 18, 2011

Best answer: I run a company that does dev on pretty much all of these boxes (we built the first UFC Roku channel and Seattle's Sounders). We all use universal remotes (usually Logitech Harmony remotes) works fine with Roku.
posted by bitdamaged at 9:02 AM on November 18, 2011

Best answer: I should add that, most likely, the Netflix experience on the Roku is *exactly* the same experience that you'll get on the blu-ray player. I have a blu-ray player with Netflix, and was gifted a Roku, and the interfaces are identical. I believe it's just a Java-based application that they're both running.

Rokus are ridiculously cheap and have lots of great options, but if it's just Netflix you're after I'd say skip the player, get him the Netflix streaming subscription, and also get him a 1-year Netflix-by-mail subscription as well so he can get great movies that are not streamable. And spend some time with him slowly going through the Blu-ray player. Teaching 1 device is easier than teaching 2.
posted by iamscott at 9:03 AM on November 18, 2011

My Harmony universal works fine with the Apple TV.
posted by joelhunt at 9:03 AM on November 18, 2011

Seconding iamscott. I'm a HUGE Roku fan, but Netflix on the blu-ray and Netflix on the Roku are going to be the same experience. So there's very little point in purchasing the former if you've already got the latter. I'd only look at adding the Roku if there are other channels you're looking for, e.g. the MLB network, and they're not available on the blu-ray.
posted by Nahum Tate at 9:05 AM on November 18, 2011

Also, the Harmony 300, the simplest Harmony, is probably a great choice for a gift and at least last time I checked had the most appropriate buttons for controlling a DVR (list, live, etc). It's only 30 bucks, the battery lasts forever, no screen or "Activities" to worry about. It just works, and would probably make his TV/DVD experience easier.
posted by iamscott at 9:05 AM on November 18, 2011

if I could have him downgrade to just an HD Receiver and then purchase a TiVo for him.

Caution: None of the modern HD Tivos will work with DirecTV.
posted by banshee at 9:27 AM on November 18, 2011

If you're not married to the idea of one of those two devices, WDTV works great: Netflix, and works with Harmony. I think it's super easy to understand but can be customized for more advanced users.
posted by getawaysticks at 9:55 AM on November 18, 2011

Best answer: Roku's Netflix looks pretty much the same as my blu ray player's version but the actual experience is WAY better on Roku. Things are smoother, more responsive, and don't freeze up or drop frames the way that the blu ray player does.
posted by The Lamplighter at 11:28 AM on November 18, 2011

I have to chime in on how much we like our Roku. We mostly use it with Netflix, but if he likes old tv and movies, there are several free channels on the system that we watch as well (and news, and weather, etc). It is dead simple to operate and has the least complex remote I've ever used.
posted by lawhound at 12:12 PM on November 18, 2011

My older relative seems to like the Roku we got him last year. Bonus, the tech-leery teen doesn't get impatient with it, either.
posted by dragonplayer at 5:50 PM on November 18, 2011

My parents, who are the farthest from tech - savvy (my mom types one letter at a time, with just one index finger, I always feel bad about how long it must take her to email me!) and they love their Rokus. I would set it up for your dad for sure. The remote is so easy to use, like, maybe 10 buttons on the whole thing. You should also load up his Netflix queue for him too. I love my Roku.

A note on universal programmable remotes. I am mildly tech-savvy. Once I tried a universal remote deal, and it took forever for me to program it. The thing was fickle and finding the codes was not easy. It was also full of buttons I never once touched.--I imagine my parents would find this confusing. And then when I either unplugged the TV/power went out, or I got new remote batteries, I can't remember, but at a few points, it became un-programmed, and that sucked.

So long story short, I would have him stick with the remote he already has for regular tv, and then just tell him what button on that remote he needs to do for Netflix. You could even label with tape, we do that for my mom. I don't think it would be a huge deal to have a Roku and regular remote.
posted by manicure12 at 9:25 PM on November 20, 2011

To revisit this thread Amazon updated their Roku app in the last couple of months and it is much, much better now.
posted by dgeiser13 at 2:28 PM on January 10, 2012

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