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

How to choose between the Apple TV, Google TV's Logitech Revue and Roku

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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.

Apple TV
Apple TV

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.


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.)

Apple TV
For free high-quality video, Apple TV's best bets are YouTube and the Podcast channel under the Internet menu, both top-level menu items.

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.


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.

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