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Smart TV vs. Roku: What are the Real Differences?

Cutting the cord and moving to streaming entertainment is a huge trend, with many options for getting all your favorite content online. Two popular choices are Smart TVs and the Roku streaming platform. But what exactly are the differences, and which is better for your needs? This comprehensive guide examines Smart TVs and Roku across all the factors that matter most – price, video quality, apps and content, ease of use, voice features, and more.

Overview: What Are Smart TVs and Roku?

First, a quick rundown of what exactly these technologies refer to.

Smart TVs are internet-connected TVs that have streaming and smart capabilities built right in. This allows you to access apps like Netflix, Hulu, YouTube and more directly through the TV rather than needing to connect an external streaming device. Smart TVs run on proprietary operating systems created by the TV manufacturers. Some popular options are LG webOS, Samsung Tizen OS, Sony Google TV, and more. In addition to streaming, Smart TVs can have features like screen mirroring, voice assistants, and smart home connectivity.

Roku refers to a brand of streaming devices and software that can turn regular "dumb" TVs into Smart TVs. The most popular Roku products are small streaming boxes or sticks that plug into the TV‘s HDMI port, giving you access to the Roku operating system and streaming channels. There are also Roku TVs sold as standalone smart TVs running the Roku OS. Roku devices start as low as $25 for a basic streaming stick, while Roku smart TVs are competitively priced with other smart TV brands.

Video and Audio Quality

One of the top considerations for any TV setup is getting the best possible picture quality for your movies, shows and other video content. Here‘s how Smart TVs and Roku compare.

  • Resolution – When it comes to maximum resolution, Smart TVs have the advantage. High-end models can do up to 8K, going beyond the 4K maximum for Roku devices. However, there is limited 8K content available to consumers right now. Both support full HD 1080p.
  • HDR – High dynamic range (HDR) for enhanced color, brightness and contrast is supported on both Roku and smart TVs. Popular formats like HDR10, HDR10+, and Dolby Vision can be found across many models.
  • Refresh rate – For smooth motion clarity, 120Hz refresh rates are ideal but not always standard. Roku only goes up to 60Hz while Smart TVs can offer 120Hz on high-end models.
  • Audio – Immersive audio formats like Dolby Atmos are supported on both Roku devices and most Smart TVs for an elevated sound experience. Specific audio power will vary by model.

For most users, a 4K HDR Smart TV or Roku will provide amazing video quality with crisp detail and vibrant colors. Smart TVs pull ahead for videophiles wanting those cutting edge 8K and 120Hz specs. But for everyday streaming, your video will shine on either option.

Apps and Content Libraries

A huge factor in choosing any streaming device is getting access to all your favorite apps and content. Let‘s compare how Smart TVs and Roku stack up when it comes to what you can watch.

  • Number of apps – Roku and Smart TVs both provide thousands of streaming channels and apps to choose from. Roku has over 10,000 streaming channels while popular smart TV operating systems like webOS, Tizen and Google TV also have access to thousands of apps.
  • Popular services – From mainstream apps like Netflix and Hulu to niche picks like Shudder and Crunchyroll, you‘ll find virtually every major streaming service on both Roku and Smart TV app stores. Limited exceptions may apply.
  • Search and discovery – Finding new movies or that obscure TV show is easy with universal search features on both platforms. Some Smart TV operating systems organize content better than others. Roku‘s streamlined approach makes browsing apps simple.
  • App interface – Within specific streaming apps, the interface experience can vary between Roku and Smart TV operating systems. But core functionality remains the same.

Roku and Smart TVs are virtually equal when it comes to accessing all the content you love. For any mainstream or popular app, you‘ll almost certainly find it available on both platforms.

User Experience and Ease of Use

Less tech-savvy users often favor Roku over Smart TV operating systems due to its famously simple and straightforward user interface. Let‘s compare how Roku and Smart TVs stack up when it comes to ease of navigation and quality of user experience.

  • Roku interface – The Roku home screen features a simple row of app icons to pick from. Menus feature large text and icons for intuitive navigation using the remote or mobile app. Options are pared down to core streaming functions.
  • Smart TV interfaces – Some Smart TV operating systems like LG webOS and Google TV offer excellent, streamlined interfaces. But other options like Samsung‘s Tizen can sometimes feel more cluttered with menus full of features and customization options.
  • Settings and menus – For adjusting settings and options, Roku provides easy access to key preferences without going overboard. Smart TV settings menus can be more dense with advanced options.
  • Remote controls – Roku remotes are beloved for their compact size and minimalist button layouts. Smart TV remotes vary more in quality, sometimes including many buttons for platform features.
  • New user learning curve – Overall, Roku offers the more gentle learning curve for brand new streamers. Smart TV platforms have a bit steeper of a learning process but are still manageable to pick up.

From setup to browsing for the perfect show, Roku‘s focus on simplicity gives it an edge in core user experience for both beginners and experienced users alike. But many Smart TV operating systems still offer solid designs.

Smart Features and Functionality

With streaming taken care of, what other "smart" features can these devices bring to the table? Here are some key capabilities of Roku devices and Smart TVs beyond just streaming video.

  • Smart home control – Many Smart TV platforms integrate with smart home ecosystems, allowing you to control lights, thermostats, cameras, and other compatible devices right from the TV. Roku also recently introduced Roku Home for controlling devices.
  • Screen mirroring – Wireless screen mirroring from your smartphone to the big screen is convenient for sharing videos, images, and other media from mobile apps. Available on both Roku devices and Smart TVs.
  • Live TV – Optimize the cord cutting experience with live TV options offered in both Roku Channel Store and Smart TV app stores, whether free or paid.
  • Voice assistants – Hands-free voice commands through smart assistants provide an easy interface option. Roku works with Alexa, Google Assistant and Siri. Smart TVs have proprietary assistants or may work with select third parties.
  • Gaming – Most Smart TV operating systems include access to some game apps and streaming services. Roku has more limited gaming options focused on casual mobile game ports.

For the latest smart home integrations and next-gen features, Smart TV operating systems tend to have an edge over Roku. But Roku still delivers on core essential features.

Hardware Options and Variety

When it comes to physical streaming devices, Smart TVs with baked-in operating systems are limited to that specific hardware. But Roku provides many more options to get your preferred hardware setup.

Roku hardware varieties:

  • Streaming sticks – Compact USB-sized sticks plug directly into TV ports
  • Streaming boxes – Set-top boxes wired to TVs for expanded ports
  • Roku TVs – Manufactured smart TVs running the Roku operating system
  • Wireless speakers – For enhanced Roku TV audio without added receivers

Smart TV hardware:

  • TV displays – Self-contained smart TVs from all major manufacturers
  • HDMI sticks – Some manufacturers like LG offer proprietary streaming sticks

With Roku, you can choose the exact hardware capabilities that fit your needs, whether that‘s the simplest streaming stick or a fully-equipped Roku TV model. Smart TV operating systems are a package deal coupled with that specific TV model.

Price and Budgetary Considerations

One of the biggest purchasing factors for many consumers comes down to budget. Here‘s how prices compare between Roku and Smart TV options for every budget range.

Roku pricing

  • Budget – Streaming sticks under $50
  • Midrange – Streaming boxes around $100
  • High-end – Roku smart TVs $300+

Smart TV pricing

  • Budget – Basic HD TVs $200+
  • Midrange – Feature-packed 4K TVs $500+
  • High-end – advanced 8K TVs $1000+

Additional costs:

  • Roku requires purchasing a TV separately if you don‘t already have one
  • Smart TVs bundle streaming into the television price

For buyers on the tightest budgets, Roku provides extremely affordable entry points of $25 to $50 for basic streaming. But Smart TVs can provide better value if you‘re purchasing a new TV anyway, bundling the streaming functionality into a single upfront cost.

Verdict: Which is Better for You?

So when all factors are weighed, is a Smart TV or Roku streaming device the better choice?

For streamers wanting cut-rate entry pricing and foolproof interfaces, Roku is the way to go. Even the cheapest options will be intuitive and easy to set up. Roku also makes the most sense for adding streaming to an existing "dumb" TV rather than upgrading.

But shoppers buying a whole new TV setup will likely get more premium features and all-in-one convenience from a Smart TV. And Smart TV operating systems are catching up with Roku in terms of usability. The baked-in streaming is also one less device to set up.

Understand your budget constraints, how tech-savvy you are, and what level of features you need to determine if Roku or a Smart TV aligns better with your viewing needs. And for the 75% of U.S. households still without a streaming device, either of these options will provide an amazing gateway to all the entertainment possibilities of streaming.