This holiday season, one of the big items I keep hearing people talk about are "media players." Not just your normal iPods, but home media streamers. Those of you with an Xbox 360 or PS3 have seen the add-ons they have for media streaming like Vudu, Netflix, and Hulu. So I thought I would do a comparison to shed a little light on two of the best streamers available to help you find the right one for you.
Both devices are small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, and they both hook up easily. Although the cable's you'll need to hook them up are the the first difference. You have to have an HDMI capable TV to run the Apple TV as that is the only output for video. Those of you rocking old school tv's will need to use the standard (red, white, and yellow) video cables that the Roku comes with to connect to most other TV's.
Now that you have the video cables set up, you are already half-way there as the only other connections are a power cable and a high speed internet connection. With the Apple TV you have the option to do either Wi-Fi or a standard Cat5 cable (the plug-in kind). The Roku is all wi-fi though, so make sure you place it in an area where you can get a good signal from your router.
Apple has only one version of their device while Roku has 3 which are all under $100 with varying degrees of add-ons, which in most cases you probably don't need. For example, the Roku 2 XS has a built-in network connection if you don't want to use your wi-fi. The older Roku XDS has a connection for an optical cable that is not necessary in most modern home theater systems, but might be necessary if you have an older setup. Most current home theatre receivers have HDMI connections. Take my set up for example: I have my DVR, PS3, and Xbox all on HDMI cables and hooked into my Yamaha receiver with only one HDMI cable running to my TV. All the switching is done straight through the stereo receiver. The media streamers are set up the exact same way. (While testing I'm just switching the HDMI input from one to the other).
The Apple TV: even though I admit to being an Apple "fan boy," I am nowhere near set in my ways enough that I would say that the Apple TV is the only choice. My Apple TV has served me well, and the UI for the Netflix app is the best I've seen. The same goes with the MLB TV and NHL apps, and I love how I can have my iTunes playlists coming through my home system along with all of my podcasts. It's convenient that if I have something on my iPad or iPhone playing, I can send the music or video to the TV just by tapping the Air Play icon. And anytime I want to watch a movie or show I bought in iTunes, it's right there ready to go.
So for all of you in the Apple fandom world it's another great way to share all the same items across your multiple i-devices. However... you knew there had to be a but coming right?
Apple TV problems: for all of that iTunes sharing I mentioned, your computer must be running and iTunes has to be loaded as well (unless you have iTunes Match for your music). And like any device, the Apple TV must do updates and they take forever. For example, my last Apple TV update took over 90 minutes.
Now onto the Roku: which was just as easy to set up. I had to start out by creating a Roku account and then I could start adding channels. Unlike the Apple TV where you are at Apples mercy for what is being provided, Roku lets you add channels as you wish. There are a lot of private channels that you can find on your computer and then add via a code in your online account. Netflix works just as well as on the Apple TV, however I'm not a fan of the user interface here - they rely too heavily on browsing to find movies. It is nice to have options like Amazon Instant Video and Vudu, both who give you credits for setting up accounts with them. All told, Roku claims to offer over 600 channels. You will have to try them for yourself to see if they match up with your own standards and taste though. For instance I only have tried the free ones. In on ecase, I tried a highly rated sports streaming service and I found nowhere near the content that was promised. The supposedly "live" NFL games that were promised were non-existent. And the movie channel I tried included very poor quality copies ripped from internet sources that were almost unwatchable.
What good is an HD LCD TV if you are getting 70's picture-tube quality? I was impressed with one channel though, and it's an iTunes podcast channel. I'm a huge fan of podcasting, and listen to a handful regularly. It's nice to have them all there without my iTunes account, and I have my choice of audio podcasts or video. And for music lovers, you have Pandora and plenty of others. But Pandora is the cream of the crop as once you link your Pandora account any Pandora app you have will mirror each other.
Also, I can say this: after using Netflix and Vudu on multiple devices now, those two popular apps are of great quality video and sound wise. And the load times are almost non-existent as well. And if you have Vudu, the Roku will give you access to your ultraviolet collection if you're using that. The Amazon Instant Video works great as well, and you can even deposit promo codes and funds online into your Amazon account and then add movies to your watch list so you don't have to search the Roku for each movie.
Now the Roku downsides: the primary one is the lack of "quality" channels amongst the free ones. Also, I found a lot of the sports options like CBS Sports and the SEC Network are all just short videos you can find on their web sites and not actual streaming of the live broadcasts. Also, having to create an account for a lot of the "pay for access" channels is tiresome. I have too many accounts, for too many different things and it's too hard to keep track of all my log-ins and passwords already.
Also, as a DirecTV subscriber I can use my HBOGO app on my iOS devices and even my Xbox 360, however DirecTV has decided not support Roku. So, my hope of having one device do all of my media streaming took a big hit. DirecTV is also at the heart of the next issue: one of the highest rated and recommended channels on Roku is Epix, and you get access to it if you are a subscriber to the TV version as well. Since DirecTV doesn't offer Epix I'm out of luck there too.
The Conclusion: all in all, both have their advantages and drawbacks. If you're already tied into the Apple eco-system, then you're probably better off sticking another Apple product in your entertainment center and buying the Apple TV. If you're looking for the most free channels, and a wider range of support the Roku 2 XD may be your best option.
Either way, I don't see the devices being a complete substitute for cable or satellite so I'll be sticking with using both...for now.