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.
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.
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.