Apple TV vs. Google TV vs. Roku: 3 streaming media boxes duke it out

With the deluge of streaming and downloadable video options the Internet has to offer, it’s become obvious that computer and iPod screens can’t hold a candle to the wall-size HD monster in your living room.

To plug this gap, a burgeoning market of streaming set-top boxes has cropped up. Google recently made a well-publicized entrance into this market, while Apple and an up-and-coming company called Roku have been lighting up TVs for a couple of years now.

For this review, I looked at three offerings: the recently updated Apple TV ($99), Roku’s like-priced XD|S model, and the first Google TV offering from Logitech, the $299 Revue.

All these boxes tap into your Wi-Fi network or wired Ethernet to stream Net-based video and radio services to your TV. They all use the HDMI interface, though Roku also provides composite and RCA jacks for older TVs or video projectors. And they all provide access to a combination of free and fee-based video sources.

To a certain extent, these devices duplicate services you may already have. Your cable company offers on-demand shows and movie rentals, and some Blu-ray players and games machines such as the Xbox 360 and Wii provide Netflix subscribers with access to on-demand movies. What this new wave of set-top streamers brings to the show is a greater pool of video and radio from online sources—the iTunes Store, Flickr and podcasts from the Apple TV; Pandora and Amazon Video On Demand from Roku’s XD line; and almost everything on the Web from the Google TV-based Logitech Revue.

How I tested

To evaluate these three devices, I installed them on two separate Wi-Fi networks: a cable-based home network and a load-balanced corporate network. I fed the results through several different models of LCD and plasma televisions and gathered a small jury of photography students to evaluate the results for clarity, color and audio fidelity by switching between HDMI inputs.

I configured each machine to connect to Netflix and (where possible) Amazon Video On Demand (or, in the case of the Apple TV, iTunes) to gain access to identical HD television shows for ease of comparison. I also spent several days getting a feel for the usability and entertainment value of each device.

Apple TV

The new Apple TV will be the immediate choice of anyone with a taste for Apple’s products, and with good reason. It swiftly ushers you to free and premium online TV shows, movies and trailers; with minimal setup, it can play the contents of your personal media library using iTunes’ Home Sharing feature.

Setting up: The Apple TV is a slick, square little hockey puck that comes with a minimal amount of packaging and cabling: You get a long power cord, a remote control, a little paperwork and a nice box. You don’t get an HDMI cable.

The Apple TV’s anodized aluminum remote is not much larger than a stick of Laffy Taffy. The remote should prove instantly accessible to anyone familiar with iPods, though its size can be a bit of a drawback. It’s easily mislaid, and its little wheel-based navigation makes it easy for large thumbs to press the Enter button when they don’t mean to. Its slim form is also prone to getting nicks and dents, so my test model didn’t remain pristine for long. (IPhone users can download an app that lets them use the phone as a remote.)

The Apple TV can be used with either Wi-Fi or wired Ethernet; I used the former. After plugging in power and HDMI cables, the Apple TV sprang to life fast.

Despite Apple’s much-vaunted flair for making things simple, the company could have taken a leaf out of Roku’s book when it comes to registering Apple TVs with subscription sites such as Netflix or even its own iTunes. To set up each service on an Apple TV, you enter your e-mail address and password by using Apple’s slimline remote to scroll around an on-screen keyboard. For those who prefer typing on a real keyboard, this will be time-consuming.

I found setting up premium content went a lot faster on the Roku: When you go to register a new service on a Roku box, a five-digit code and a URL appear on your TV screen, and you clinch the deal on your computer rather than on the media box—though, to be fair, it means you have to keep a laptop at the ready.

After blasting through a few quick configuration menus, I was ready to find what I wanted from the four main menus: Movies, TV, Internet and Computers. Navigating menus was swift, with very little delay, and although all Wi-Fi based video takes some time to cache on a receiver, my video choices started playing more quickly than I expected.

Content: For someone wanting to sit back and channel-hop, the free movie and TV choices were pretty sparse. All the easy-to-find movie options were fresh titles for rent at $4.99, with a few older ones at $2.99, and even though there’s a menu for free TV, there were very few whole programs. (One 46-minute episode of Lie to Me seems fair enough; a nine-minute preview of The IT Crowd and 81 seconds of Raising Hope, less so.)

In general, 99 cents per episode for popular shows like Glee and BBC TV’s Doctor Who and Top Gear seemed to be par for the course. For free high-quality video, I found that my best bets were YouTube and the Podcast channel under the Internet menu; both are top-level menu items. The Apple TV interface is, if anything, more intuitive than YouTube’s Web site, and the podcasts run the gamut from episodes of Diggnation and Happy Tree Friends cartoon shorts to free drum lessons.

And, of course, if you have a decent iTunes library on your Mac or PC, it’s easy to stream that to an Apple TV box under the Computers menu, where as many as to five computers can show up under a single Apple ID account.

Quality: The HDMI-based audio and video were both clear enough that I soon forgot that I was streaming across an 802.11g wireless network and settled in for a pleasant video-watching experience. In terms of video output, my only disappointment was with my video sources: Some compressed M4V videos on my local computer and many YouTube videos that looked fine on my desktop monitor showed their true (blurry) colors on a full-size HDTV.

In my side-by-side test, switching among HDMI ports on our test plasma TVs as they streamed Netflix movies and purchased content from BBC America, the quality of the HDMI output from the Apple TV, Roku XD|S and Logitech Revue was really too close to call.

Bottom line: When you’ve got $100 in your pocket and a burning desire for video and audio options you just can’t get from your cable station, is the Apple TV the obvious choice? Well, Roku provides more free stuff if you dig around, and for an extra couple of hundred dollars, you can get almost a full Web experience on TV from Logitech’s Revue. The real buying decision depends on whether you favor an iTunes-centric media experience or something a little less slick but with more depth and range.

Logitech Revue with Google TV

Among the three set-top boxes I examined, the Logitech Revue is the largest in size and the most ambitious in scope. Of course, support for these extra capabilities does come at a cost: At $300 for a base configuration, the Logitech Revue is three times the price of the Apple TV and the Roku XD|S.

While the Apple TV and Roku boxes are peripherals that plug into your TV set, the Google TV-based Revue aims to be the main focus of your TV experience. You plug your cable or satellite box and your DVR into the Revue’s HDMI In port and control everything from the Google TV main screen. It will probably feel like the best integrated TV-watching experience you’ve had since before the VCR was introduced, but that’s not to say it’s not quirky and occasionally confusing.

Setup: The Revue is much larger than most set-top boxes—about the same size as a netbook. Logitech clearly realized that this is more space than most entertainment centers have to spare, so it provides a tiny IR receiver so you can tuck the actual box out of the way somewhere and use the receiver to control it.

The remote—which, at 13 x 4.5 x 0.75 in. at its thickest point, is also jumbo-sized—includes a modified QWERTY keyboard. However, the action area you’ll use most is only about the size of an iPhone: It’s a 3.0-x-4.5-in. area at the top right that includes a laptop-style trackpad with mouse buttons at the top, remote-style arrow keys with a central OK button in the middle, and step-back and Home keys squeezed up close to the trackpad.

Setting up the Logitech Revue is slightly more complex than the other two units reviewed here—mostly because it does so much more than they do. It’s designed to sit between the source of your TV signal and your TV set, and also control your DVR machine, so you need to think through which HDMI cable goes where—and supply the second HDMI cable, because the box provides only one along with a laptop-style power brick and cord. On the plus side, there are two USB ports to accommodate external hard drives or memory sticks with movie and audio files.

Once the Revue is plugged in, you’re whisked through setup videos to help you configure everything. This includes steps the other set-top streamers don’t have, such as programming your Revue remote to control your television, DVR and cable box.

That’s not to say the Revue doesn’t have its quirks. For example, one of the first steps required to configure this Android-based set-top box is to enter your Google ID, but that doesn’t mean you’re automatically logged into Google properties like YouTube or Gmail when you visit the YouTube channel or open the bundled Google Chrome browser.

Configuring the Netflix channel was a little odd too: I didn’t like it when the Apple TV made me navigate a virtual on-screen keyboard to enter my credentials, but that approach would have made sense with the Revue’s full-keyboard remote. Instead, the Revue provided a code to plug into a browser. Fair enough—there’s a browser built in to the Revue. However, I then had to figure out how to switch between screens, launch Chrome, log in at Netflix.com and plug in the code—before I’d had a chance to really learn the system. (Keyboard jockeys who automatically switch screens with Alt-Tab or Apple-Tab commands will fast realize that these options are missing from the modified keyboard on the Logitech remote control.)

Content: Once set up, the Revue’s Google TV interface shows an easy-to-navigate system with a left-side menu that includes applications such as NBA Game Time, Google Chrome and a media player that plays video from locally networked computers or USB sticks plugged into either of the Revue’s two USB ports. You can queue up or bookmark videos, get to Web sites and other video sources you access most frequently, and even browse what’s on live television, all from top-level menus.

Once set up, the Revue’s Google TV interface shows an easy-to-navigate system with a left-side menu that includes applications such as Google Chrome and a media player that plays video from locally networked computers.

The Revue provides several neat features that neither the Apple TV nor Roku can. For example, there’s a picture-in-picture selection that streams live TV in a small window while you browse online. The product is extensible, too: There’s an HD videoconferencing module you can buy for an extra $150 that enables you to conduct big-screen videoconferences.

As you’d expect from a Google-based product, the video search option is excellent. You can call it up from a looking-glass button on the keyboard remote. When you’re searching from the main menu, you can find a movie or game on your DVR, TV or online by typing in only a few letters. But if you’re in, say, the media player, you’ll get results only from your PC or Mac library.

There are other occasionally frustrating limitations. For example, while you get Flash video, some sites, such as Hulu and the ABC, NBC and CBS TV networks, aren’t available—the result of a series of negotiation snafus.

The trackpad’s mouse button is also perilously close to the Back and Home buttons—on a number of occasions, I ended up a page back when I was trying to select a video. The OK button sometimes operates like a mouse click, sometimes not. And while the picture-in-picture mode is great for keeping, say, a sports game running while you do something else, it only works for live TV streams. For example, you can’t minimize a Netflix on-demand movie or show while you go to the Internet Movie Database to figure out where you’ve seen an actor before.

Quality: The odd thing about the video quality of this first entry into the world of Google TV is that it varied. Most of the time, it was as good as the streams from the Roku and Apple TV. However, on my home Wi-Fi network (which tends to get a bit busy from time to time), I would occasionally notice a few seconds of HDTV that were, frankly, far from HD. Then it would suddenly resolve into something as clear and brilliant as—if not better than—the Roku and Apple TV streams.

I took this to be a function of the box’s ability to adapt to varying signal strength, and as compromises go, it was better than having the video just pause while the buffer filled again.

Bottom line: Google TV is an ambitious project that spans the worlds of computing and television. It’s inevitable that occasionally you’ll need to stop and wonder whether the Logitech Revue is going to behave like a computer or a television, or not quite like either. But if your budget stretches to three times the price of an Apple TV or Roku XD|S, it’s more likely to transform your TV-watching experience than any other product in this roundup.

Roku XD|S

If Apple TV and Google TV feel like slick corporate TV networks, Roku is more like a 1980s local cable station: It gives you access to network feeds, sure, but there’s a real enthusiast’s feel to it. You need to root around a bit to get to the good stuff—even visit a couple of Roku fan sites to see what they have done with Roku’s open API architecture. But if you like that home-brew club feel, Roku’s a rewarding product.

Setup: Roku’s XD|S box is, at $100, the most expensive of its newly released line (there’s also a $60 HD model that does 720p HD, and an $80 1080p XD model that lacks some of the output ports of the XD|S). But since the XD|S is priced like the Apple TV and throws in some features that Apple left out, it seemed like an obvious choice for comparison.

To begin with, in addition to an HDMI port, the Roku comes with composite and RCA video/audio outputs, so you can plug it into older televisions or video projectors. It even ships with a yellow, red and white RCA cable.

The XD|S also has a USB port, into which you can plug a USB hard drive or memory stick. As of November (when the application will be ready), you will be able to play MP4 or M4V videos at up to 1080p-resolution HD, MP3 audio, and slideshows of JPG and PNG files. Until then, there’s a USB screensaver channel that can display the JPG content of your USB stick, which improves on the rather limited built-in screensaver options.

The box itself is chunkier than the Apple TV: a 5-in.-square, 1-in.-deep black box sporting a blue fabric tag with the word Roku on it. The chunky little remote has a matching tag and only a few basic buttons: an arrow pad with central OK button, and Back, Menu, Home, Skip and Play/Pause keys. Next to the stylish Apple remote and the great keyboard that comes with the Logitech device, it looks almost funny, but it does the job, and its well-spaced layout resulted in fewer mistaken commands than the others’.

Setting up channels to watch through a Roku box works differently than with the other set-top streamers in this review. When you click through Roku’s on-screen Channel Shop and select a channel like Netflix, Pandora or Amazon Video On Demand, a five- or six-digit code and an URL (such as www.netflix.com/roku) pops up. You type this into your computer’s Web browser, log in and enter the code.

On the plus side, this cuts down on clicking through on-screen keyboards on your TV; on the minus side, you need a computer handy in your living room during setup.

Content: The Roku platform is extensible, so its channel store (the menu where you pick top-level channels to watch) features premium online video providers, such as Netflix, Amazon Video On Demand, MLB.tv and the Weiss Money Network, alongside the work of more rough-and-ready video sources like Vimeo and Blip.tv.

Roku’s interface suffers somewhat from having so many channels to choose from. It’s a little bewildering to see a premium financial network in the same menu as a more amateurish offering like “Fifty Great Speeches,” a collection of inspiring audio clips sometimes set to very low-resolution still photographs.

Some online channels you’d really like to see, such as YouTube, don’t appear on the menu at all. That’s not to say Roku doesn’t support them—it just hasn’t turned them on. You can add such channels by visiting the sites of Roku developers—after a few clicks at one such site, TheNowhereMan.com, I was enjoying YouTube and Archive.org movies on the big screen.

Streaming media from your computer is a little less satisfying on a Roku box than streaming from the Internet. You need to add the Gabby Personal Media Server channel to your Roku, and download and install the server software on your PC (yes, it’s a PC-only server). After a few rocky restarts on my test system, the local media server kicked in, but there was a noticeable latency when scrolling through to find files I wanted to watch. In short, I had to wait too long for menus to respond and files to load.

To play an iTunes library on a Roku box, you need to jump through another hoop: Register and set up a locker at MP3tunes.com, where you can store up to 10GB of MP3, AAC and other iTunes-friendly audio files for free. The plus side: You get 10GB of your iTunes library to play on any Web-ready device. The downside: You have to set it up.

Quality: In terms of video output, the HDMI video and audio output from the Roku XD|S matched that of Apple TV and Logitech’s Revue when I played comparable Netflix videos and downloaded HD footage from BBC America. The video output from Roku’s composite and RCA jacks was of lower quality, but that’s because RCA and composite are always grainier than HDMI—and kudos to Roku for providing some backward-compatible options in its streaming boxes.

On a couple of occasions, it seemed to take the Roku box a while longer to buffer up a good stream before playing than the Apple and Logitech boxes on the home network tests, though that wasn’t apparent in the load-balanced corporate network testing.

Bottom line: As a platform, Roku feels like the world of home-brew computer enthusiasts in the 1980s. There’s a lot of professional-grade stuff there; there’s a lot of clever amateur stuff, too. For a consumer, it means that there’s plenty of choice, much of it free, but you may find a few channels are clunkers before you design your dream menu of video options. The plus side is that you can do that more readily with Roku than you can with Apple.

Of course, if your budget spreads to three or more times the cost of a Roku box, you can expand your viewing options with Logitech’s Google TV box, the Revue. But for a low-budget device, especially for those with older-component TVs or projectors, the Roku XD line is an obvious choice.

Conclusions: All three of the set-top streamers in this review provide viewing choices that you just don’t get from regular television, but each has a different flavor.

Apple TV is great for tapping into your iTunes library and the iTunes Store, and has a slick interface. But beyond YouTube and some great podcasts, most of its emphasis seems to be on pay-to-view content.

The Roku XD|S and its sister products offer current standards like Netflix and Amazon Video On Demand, but also let you delve into an online videophile community that is sometimes amateurish but occasionally turns up a gem like Archive.org’s Prelinger collection.

At three times the price, Logitech’s Google TV-based Revue is much more ambitious: It sets out to be the focal point of your TV viewing. It snakes its way between your DVR, cable box and TV and controls them all with a remote that’s halfway between the worlds of online computing and couch-potatodom.

Of the three, I suspect I’ll be using the Apple TV just to screen my own video-editing projects on the big screen (its integration with iTunes is just too convenient not to), and the funky lumber room of public videos that Roku provides for my general viewing.

Matt Lake is a technology journalist who provides videographic support at a high school. When his reading-dimmed eyes failed to pick up artifacting on HD video streaming, the eyes of the honors photography class did not.

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