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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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.

Logitech Revue
Logitech Revue

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.

Logitech Revue
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.

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