There are more and more reasons to cut Cable TV thanks to the influx and growing popularity of smart TVs and streaming devices. The number of people cutting the cable TV cord and streaming their favorite movies and TV shows instead is continuously increasing. To do so, most people are either replacing their old TVs with smart TVs or turning their non-smart TVs into a TV with connected devices such as a Roku streaming device.
The difference between a smart TV and a Roku is that a smart TV is a regular TV with the innate ability to connect to the Internet. A Roku plugs into your TV (smart or traditional) via HDMI. Though used to make a non-smart TV “smart,” a Roku pairs with smart TVs too.
If this sounds intriguing and you’d like to know more about the similarities and differences between a smart TV and Roku in much more detail, keep reading. If you are out in the market to buy a new smart TV or a Roku, read this before spending your cash.
What Is a Smart TV?
A smart television, or “connected TV,” connects to the Internet and streams online content from various streaming services such as Disney+, Netflix, Hulu, etc. With its built-in processor, operating system (OS), Internet connectivity, app store, and preinstalled apps, a smart TV is more like your smartphone or tablet computer and less like traditional TVs. At its core, it is a walled garden and won’t replace your other smart devices or computers.
A smart TV opens up multiple entertainment options – from streaming videos to playing games, browsing the web, checking social media, etc. You can also use the TV to control all connected gadgets in your house.
The TV can also connect to different smart or wireless devices in the house. If, for example, the TV’s built-in speakers are not to your liking or do not sound great, you can boost the TV’s audio by hooking it up with a wireless speaker or soundbar.
An increasing number of smart TVs now come with voice recognition, such as Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa, built into their remotes to help users switch channels and search for different programs through voice commands.
What Is a Roku?
Roku is a streaming device that transforms any dumb, old TV into a smart television. It usually plugs into the HDMI port of your TV to offer smart TV-like functionality.
Besides offering access to a host of popular streaming services and their content, Roku also provides free channels such as The Roku Channel, Crackle, The CW, etc. A Roku can be powered by the USB port of the TV or the AC power adapter included in the box.
Media streaming boxes generally plug into the HDMI port of your TV, and Roku is no different. But if your TV is a bit too old and doesn’t have the required port, most streaming devices won’t connect to your television. Roku, however, has a workaround for this as its media streamers, Roku Express+, for instance, offers analog video audio connectivity options.
If a smart TV can be likened to an all-in-one PC, a Roku is like those workstations connected to an external monitor.
The Roku Hardware Line-Up
Roku offers a range of products. With prices starting at $30 and hovering around $100 at the high end, Roku has devices to cater to all kinds of users and budgets as you can see below:
- Roku Express: The Roku Express lets you stream HD online content, offering free access to more than 100 channels. It comes with a high-speed HDMI cable to get you started.
- Roku Premiere: This device lets you stream in HD and 4K and supports high dynamic range (HDR) picture quality. It packs in a premium HDMI cable.
- Roku Streaming Stick: This streaming stick is a super-charged, wireless receiver that offers an extended wireless range to enable smooth streaming from any part of the house.
- Roku Streambar: If you are not content with your smart TV’s streaming features and functions, upgrade it with a Roku Streamer. The device boasts powerful streaming and also offers a premium audio experience.
Why Smart TV Is Not as “Smart” as a Roku
A smart TV is ideal if you want a device that can readily connect to the Internet without any paraphernalia – and stream online content. However, when stacked up against a Roku, it trails the streaming device in pretty much all departments.
Sub-Par Hardware and Bad Software Integration
Smart TVs are slowly becoming the standard – which unfortunately also means a deluge of sub-par TVs in the market. Smart televisions are now available at varied price points, but not all are made to work the same. The more premium smart televisions may not have any component issues, but the way the software works in conjunction with the hardware could cripple the experience.
On the other hand, inexpensive smart TVs can be a real pain in the rear as the companies are notorious for using cheap and previous-gen hardware to keep their TV prices down. Such poor hardware choices translate to slow loading times, laggy menus, etc. And the non-intuitive interface only makes matters worse.
Most budget and mid-tier smart televisions contain relatively weak processors that struggle to match the growing demands of various, constantly updating streaming service apps. Though high-end smart TVs fare better, their performance also degrades over a period fairly quickly.
Average Streaming Service Support
A smart TV OS fails to perform, and a Roku is not entirely the fault of underpowered components or poor integration OS-hardware integration. Streaming services’ step-motherly treatment toward native TV OSes can also be the cause at times.
Online streaming services primarily devote their time and resources to develop and update their apps for streaming devices such as Roku, Google Chromecast, Amazon Fire TV Stick, etc. They do make apps for native smart TV OSes, but those are not as polished or finished as the version Roku, for instance, gets.
As a result, smart TV users tend to run into many issues when using native TV OS apps. In other words, the streaming apps for built-in OSes are more likely to freeze randomly, go unresponsive without any exact cause or warning, etc. than Roku OS apps.
Also, the smart TV variants of Hulu, Netflix, Disney+, etc. are likely to be a generation or two behind the version available for Roku.
However, to streaming service providers’ defense, there are just too many native TV OSes out there to dedicate quality resources and concerted effort to each one of them. Moreover, no native TV platform is established per se or is as relevant as Roku, Google, or Apple in the TV streaming software war.
Therefore, streaming services have no option but to focus more on their apps for Roku and other streaming devices.
Too Many Smart TVs to Choose From
Another thing that could put off some potential buyers is the plethora of smart TV models to choose from. Options are great, but too many of them could be overwhelming.
Not to mention, certain features such as HDR support may not be available in all smart TV models.
For the general consumer, as a result, it could be daunting to find out which TV model is compatible with the latest versions of their favorite streaming apps.
Smart TVs Are Expensive
A budget or the lowest end smart TV costs more than the most premium Roku. And if you’re looking to buy a smart TV from a renowned brand, the price gap only widens.
Moreover, at the lower end of the smart TV segment, you come across lesser-known brands or names you may not have heard of before. Spending your hard-earned dough on companies you are not familiar with is not easy – regardless of how good your market research skills are.
The Good Side of Roku
The following are the reasons why Roku reigns supreme and still has a stranglehold on the market despite the competition within its niche and the growing footprint of smart TVs:
Superior Streaming and Software Experience
For starters, Roku OS offers a much superior streaming experience compared to any current-gen smart TV OS.
And if you thought a smart TV would pack better performance than a streaming stick, think again. A Roku device has dedicated computing resources built-in and regularly updated software and components tuned explicitly for streaming purposes.
Smart TVs, on the other hand, are the jack of all trades. They do not specifically focus on their TVs’ smart features or overall user experience. As they are “TV manufacturers” first and not TV OS makers, CPU processors, software, operating systems, etc. are not their forte or not things they primarily focus on. Smart TVs are usually optimized to offer the best visuals.
Thanks to Roku’s tremendous focus on their software experience, TVs running Roku OS are not likely to freeze when streaming high-resolution videos. And if the TV is expensive or has solid hardware to boot, expect even better streaming performance.
A Lot More Affordable
Though smart TVs are coming down in price over the years (albeit at the expense of sub-par components), Roku streaming devices are still the more economical option. Roku streaming player prices begin at $29.99 only. The most expensive streaming device would always be considerably cheaper than most inexpensive smart TVs.
In other words, if a newer Roku comes to the market, it would be easier or more feasible to replace an existing Roku with the latest version. Smart TVs are used for at least 3 to 4 years. Upgrading smart TVs every other year, therefore, is not as simple and cost-effective.
Significantly More Portable
With a Roku, you can carry your smart TV with you. It’s a light and compact device that could easily fit in your backpack or even your pant pockets (not your jeans, perhaps).
If you’re visiting a friend and would like to test your Roku’s performance on your friend’s brand-new TV, you can do that.
If you’re traveling and your hotel room TV is not smart, you could make it so in an instant with a Roku. Therefore, it’s not rare to see frequent travelers putting their laptops, noise-canceling headphones, and their Roku sticks all in a backpack.
A smart TV is bulky, fragile, and cannot be moved around at will in your house – let alone lugging it around while you’re on the road.
To learn how to set up a Roku on any TV, watch this video:
A (Major) Roku OS Drawback: Streaming App Deadlock
Streaming device makers have issues with streaming service apps, but their issue differs from what smart TVs are grappling with. This has nothing to do with the quality of the streaming but the absence of certain streaming services on Roku instead.
Roku may not provide certain streaming service apps. For instance, NBC’s Peacock and HBO Max apps are not available on Roku – due to differences between the companies over customer data, advertising inventory, and revenue share. Currently, Roku offers access to the less premium HBO Now app that does not offer all HBO Max titles.
Some Roku TV Drawbacks
Though the following could be considered nit-picking, these Roku TV annoyances still need to be mentioned as they could be deal breakers for some potential buyers.
Signing Into a Roku Account
You must sign in to your Roku account to use the OS and install apps. Though signing in or creating a Roku account is not complicated or a lengthy process by itself, the fact that there is one other thing to do could annoy some users. With a non-Roku smart TV, such signing-in is not needed.
Moreover, after you log into the OS, the apps would start updating. Depending on the number of apps and your Internet connection speed and reliability, the update process could take some serious time.
Roku Interface Is Set as Default
When you first switch on your Roku TV, the Roku OS screen shows up as default – which could be a minor annoyance for some. This, however, can be changed to a “live TV” interface when you first set up the TV.
Limited TV Controls
With certain Roku TV sets (not Roku streaming devices), image-setting controls such as gamma correction and noise reduction could be limited, particularly compared to what most regular TVs offer.
Gamma correction lets you adjust your TV’s brightness to show much better shadow details in darker shots without altering the display’s black levels. Gamma is usually adjusted when watching television in a brightly-lit room.
Moreover, the noise reduction feature could be turned on by default on a Roku TV, and the option to turn it off may not be available in some models – particularly the inexpensive ones.
The Remote Has a Slight Learning Curve
The Roku remote is unlike your traditional TV remote. For instance, it doesn’t have a dedicated up/down button to select channels. Instead, you get a four-direction navigation pad. Also, the volume buttons reside on the remote’s side and not on the front.
Roku TV Displays Aren’t the Best
When Roku TVs were first launched, they were not available as 4K TVs. And when 4K finally arrived on Roku TVs, the TVs lacked the display technology other 4K TVs boasted. They lacked both wider color gamuts and HDR. The latest Roku 4K televisions, however, support these picture-enhancing technologies. They support both Dolby Vision and HDR10.
Do You Need a Roku When You Have a Smart TV?
Generally, it’s believed that smart TV doesn’t need a Roku. Though that’s true to an extent, one cannot ignore the rising trend wherein an increasing number of people are buying a Roku to pair with their smart TV.
The following are the reasons why people are feeling the need to buy a Roku even when there is a smart TV in tow:
Native Smart TV OSes Are Average at Best
Generally, integrated smart TV software is inferior and less intuitive compared to Roku OS. Most smart TV makers bundle in weird, difficult-to-navigate software into their televisions. The built-in streaming functionality also tends to be filled with bugs and can be frustratingly slow and clunky. And this could be due to both the software and hardware, as mentioned earlier.
Roku OS is not just more user-friendly, but it has also been around for years. This longevity means the OS has continuously been updated and is a lot more mature. And even if you’re buying a Roku for the first time, the OS is intuitive and straightforward enough to learn and get acquainted with quickly.
Roku Hardware Is “Smarter”
Roku OS is intuitive, snappy, and user-friendly – and the hardware is designed to complement that. For instance, Roku remotes are designed to keep various smart services in mind. Roku has mastered the art of making smart remote controls – thanks again to its experience.
Unlike a regular TV remote, a Roku remote is not populated with many buttons. And most of the buttons that do show up are dedicated to certain services. Also, a Roku remote comes with a headphone jack, which means you can plug in your wired headphones into the remote and listen to your TV audio semi-wirelessly.
Smart TV manufacturers don’t focus much on the “smart” features of their TV. Their focus is primarily on the hardware. Though quite a few big-name companies show signs of improvement, they are still way behind Roku and most other streaming devices.
Smart TVs May Be Devoid of Certain Streaming Services
Another issue with some smart TV brands could be the absence of specific streaming services from their platform – this is mainly the issue with smart TVs of lesser-known companies. If you like streaming HBO Now, WatchESPN, Hallmark Movies Now, etc., ensure the smart TV you’ve narrowed down on has those streaming apps on board.
Though a Roku doesn’t guarantee you all streaming apps, it’s certainly not missing out on the big players.
Roku TV also offers certain other benefits, like renting movies directly from its online movie store. Smart TVs are highly unlikely to offer such provisions.
Little to No Junkware on Roku
Most smart televisions are loaded with junkware. For example, LG smart TVs have rows of additional settings and features in their menus that you most likely won’t need. On the other hand, with Roku, the focus is primarily on apps you’ll require and frequently use. You can manually install additional features or services on a Roku. The OS will never come with pre-installed apps.
Upgrading to the Latest and Greatest Roku Is Easier
As mentioned earlier, conventional TVs are usually upgraded once every five or more years. However, a smart TV has a shorter shelf life and would usually show its age within a year or two – thanks to the tech built-in and how quickly it could lose relevance.
Though the TVs remain usable, they are no longer the cutting-edge products they once were. Not to mention the temptation to move to the next-gen smart TV after your existing smart TV shows signs of aging.
This shorter lifespan of smart TVs can also be attributed to manufacturers not updating all TVs in their line-up. The ones that do get the latest features and functions are likely to be the existing models or the ones that are a generation older. Smart TVs that were released a couple of years or more ago are likely to be shunned.
In comparison, Roku devices last longer. Though not indefinitely, they indeed remain more than just usable for quite a few years. And when they become obsolete or cease to be robust performers anymore, upgrading them is relatively easy and light on the pocket.
It’s not just the cost, but there’s also not much research or product comparisons to delve into when looking to buy the next Roku. However, with smart TVs, you may have to go back to the drawing board and look at the hundreds of new TV options at your disposal.
Long story short, if Roku’s advantages over smart TVs seem significant to you, buying a Roku is a no-brainer – whether you’re upgrading to a new TV or sticking with your existing television.
What About Smart TVs With Built-In Roku?
Thanks to Roku’s increasing popularity, there are smart TVs that employ Roku OS as their native OS. These Roku TVs are not drastically different from a regular smart TV. Still, Roku’s excellent software offering access to more than 1,000 channels, a clean and straightforward user interface, cross-platform searchability, etc. make the Roku TVs better than regular smart TVs – on the software front, at least.
The first set of smart TVs with Roku OS were from sub-tier brands. Though the implementation was good, the overall streaming experience wasn’t that great, as the TV hardware wasn’t the best. Thankfully, things have changed significantly over the years – with brands such as TCL and Hisense adopting Roku.
The marriage between Roku and smart TV makers is still far from perfect as top-tier brands such as Samsung, LG, and Sony are not on board. Samsung and LG have their TV platforms: WebOS (LG) and Tizen Smart Hub (Samsung). They are highly unlikely to ditch their TV platforms and adopt a third-party operating system.
Here are some smart TV brands and their app platforms:
- Roku TV: Insignia, Hisense, Philips, TCL, Hitachi, Element.
- Amazon Fire TV: Element, Westinghouse, Toshiba.
- Android TV: Sony, Sharp, LeECO, Toshiba, Element, Westinghouse.
- Chromecast: JVC, Haier, Philips, LeECO, Sharp, Polaroid, Soniq, Skyworth, Toshiba, Sony.
Until bigger TV manufacturers wholeheartedly welcome Roku OS (which seems very unlikely), Roku TVs won’t have the best hardware and viewing experience. But if your budget for a smart TV is relatively small and you like the thought of smart televisions coming with Roku OS, the options are pretty decent.
A Roku TV is also recommended for people who don’t want to play around with a TV remote and a separate Roku player remote. With a Roku television, you get a universal remote to control TV functions (such as volume and power) and manage your streaming services.
Internet-connected TV sets or smart TVs with built-in streaming service applications are getting cheaper, making them an attractive proposition to an increasing number of buyers. Good-quality smart TVs, such as the TCL 32S325, sell for as low as $130. During sale periods, the prices may come down further.
If smart TVs happen to exit the market, streaming devices such as Roku can still fill in the gap. But if Roku disappears from the scene, the end consumer will feel the pinch more than anyone.
To make a long story short, if you choose between a smart TV and a Roku, check what you currently have. If you have an old TV, upgrading to a smart TV is a natural transition. However, if the TV is fine and you just need smart or “better” smart TV features and performance, don’t splurge on a new TV – get a Roku instead.