[Updated Dec. 28, 2012] — It’s looking like 2012 will go down as a watershed for “cord-cutters” seeking to replace expensive cable TV services with low-cost gadgets that stream movies and TV shows from the Internet via free, subscription, and pay-per-view services. Accordingly, this DeviceGuru “smackdown” pits five popular streaming media player devices against each other, based on their features, functions, specs, and quality of implementation.
This smackdown among five prominent streaming media players is structured in three sections. We begin with brief overviews of all five devices, and make note of the most noteworthy advantages and disadvantages of each. Next, come a pair of tables comparing the key features, functions, and specifications of all five devices. After that, we’ll finish up with some general comments and an attempt at a bottom-line rating of each device.
Throughout this smackdown, there are links to DeviceGuru’s in-depth reviews of all five devices. The reviews provide lots more detail on each device’s unique capabilities, strengths, and weaknesses, and also include comprehensive screenshot tours that demonstrate the device’s user interface and operation.
Although the Roku 2 series media players are smaller and cost less than their predecessors, they’re jam-packed with multimedia apps, offer multiple A/V outputs along with microSD and USB expansion, and are significantly less power-thirsty.
Roku 2’s homescreen
Pros and cons…
- Over 300 content channels and growing, including all four top VOD sources: Netflix, Amazon, Vudu, and Hulu Plus.
- Extremely easy to setup and use.
- Rock-solid stability.
- Low power consumption, fanless, and silent.
- Extremely compact.
- The presence of composite video lets this device support older TVs.
- Top-end model includes “casual gaming” capabilities.
- Top-end models have non-directional RF remote option.
- Lacks support for playing media from Windows (samba) and UPnP shares; the third-party apps tend to require proprietary servers (or in one case a webserver) to be installed on the PC or Mac side.
- Roku’s 1D menu system can’t provide quick-and-easy access to more than a handful of the 300+ available channels; Netgear’s NeoTV approach, though still simple, works far better.
- Lacks AirPlay rendering.
- Lacks web browsing, whereby users could stream specific URLs or view web pages.
For lots more information about the Roku 2 streaming media player, refer to the tables of features and specs below and read our in-depth review of the device.
Although it’s exceptionally well constructed and excels at doing what Apple wants it to do, Apple’s third-generation Apple TV streaming media player still trails the competition in several significant respects. We had hoped gen 3 would provide more default multimedia channels and add functionality for installing third-party channels through Apple’s App Store — but the main enhancement gen 3 is the increased video output resolution of 1080p. On the other hand, future firmware updates certainly could provide the missing capabilities.
Apple TV’s homescreen
Pros and cons…
- iTunes integration is, as you’d expect, as good as it gets; plus, it has excellent apps for Netflix, Hulu Plus, YouTube, Vimeo, and major league sports.
- AirPlay music and video rendering from iDevices or iTunes on a PC or Mac enables endless possibilities; plus, it works beautifully!
- Rock-solid stability.
- Ultra-low power consumption, fanless, and silent.
- Extremely compact.
- Awesome quality.
- Internal 8GB of flash memory for media caching ensures silky-smooth streaming.
- Too few Internet content channels; many desirable sources are sorely lacking — see Roku’s extensive list.
- Lacks a third-party apps and channels ecosystem — you know, like the Apple App Store…?
- Playing files from iTunes shared media on a PC or Mac is too restrictive; Apple TV needs to allow access to Windows (samba) and UPnP shares, too.
- Could use a web browser function, enabling users stream from a specific URL or view a web page.
- Lacks ability to play from USB, despite the presence of an available microUSB port.
- The needlessly sleek remote control encourages button-pressing errors; also, would prefer an RF remote to eliminate need to point the remote at the player.
For lots more information about the third-generation Apple TV streaming media player, refer to the tables of features and specs below and read our in-depth review.
Unlike products such as Apple TV or Roku’s media-streaming devices, Google TV is an Android-based software stack that runs on devices made by a variety of consumer electronics manufacturers. First-generation Google TV products included the Logitech Revue TV companion box and HDTVs from Sony. Our detailed Google TV 2.0 review was based on its operation on the now discontinued Logitech Revue box. Second-generation Google TV products include HDTVs from LG and Vizio, and Blu-ray disc players or TV companion boxes from Vizio (pictured above) and Sony.
Google TV 2.0 homescreen following customization (on Logitech Revue)
DeviceGuru.com will soon publish a detailed review of the latest Google TV software running on Vizio’s Co-star Google TV companion box, after which this post will be updated. Meanwhile, the lists below reflect our assessment of Google TV 2.0 running on the now-discontinued Logitech Revue.
Pros and cons…
- Powerful and flexible Android software platform allows installing third-party apps from the Android Market.
- Full-featured Chrome web browser works quite well for reading web pages and accessing streamable content, with the result that dedicated apps are not always required.
- The Home screen can easily customized to organize apps and browser bookmarks in folders, as discussed extensively in our in-depth review, resulting in quick-and-easy navigation and operation tailored to the user’s preferences and priorities.
- The Logitech Revue’s full-sized qwerty RF keyboard/remote works extremely well.
- Not many Google TV-compatible apps have shown up in the Android App Market thus far.
- The Logitech Revue’s Flash plugin is unreliable and keeps crashing; at this point, it’s not clear whether or how soon Google plans to fix this via a firmware update (see this post on Logitech’s user forum).
- The Logitech Revue lacks a deep-sleep mode or even a power switch means the Revue sucks approximately 11 Watts of power 24×7 — for shame!
Based on the Flash player crash problem noted above, DeviceGuru can’t recommend the Logitech Revue to any but our most adventurous readers. On the other hand, as mentioned previously, DeviceGuru is currently testing a Vizio Co-star Google TV companion box, and we can already report that it seems to be working fairly well; so stay tuned for our in-depth review of the Vizio Co-star, which will be accompanied by an update to this comparison article.
For lots more information about Google TV 2.0, refer to the tables of features and specs below and read our in-depth Google TV 2.0 review. And watch for our upcoming review of the Vizio Co-star Google TV box.
Netgear recently introduced the NeoTV NTV300, a compact, low power, highly integrated, streaming media player that’s quite similar to Roku’s latest devices. The product is clearly an attempt to capture a slice of the rapidly growing streaming media player market, currently dominated by Apple and Roku. While the device currently only has a third to half the number of content apps as Roku provides, it does implement a more user-friendly menu system and also undercuts Roku’s pricing.
(click image to enlarge)
Pros and cons…
- Over 160 content channels and more on the way; device provides one of the most complete sets of VOD movie and TV show services: Netflix, HuluPlus, Vudu, and YouTube, with only Amazon VOD absent.
- Extremely easy to setup and use
- The NTV300’s 2D menu system is better suited than Roku’s 1D UI for browsing a large library of channels and customizing the homescreen with favorite channels.
- Rock-solid stability.
- Low power operation with ultra-low power deep-sleep mode; fanless and silent.
- Extremely compact.
- Ethernet and 1080p are standard on all models, despite competing price-wise with Roku’s low-end models.
- Top model plays media from USB files and DLNA network shares
- Top two models offer Intel WiDi screen mirroring
- Top model’s remote control includes QWERTY keys
- Really could use AirPlay streams rendering, this is an another area where Netgear could leapfrog Roku’s devices.
- We wish the remote control used RF wireless, especially since the device’s IR remote seems more directionally sensitive than Roku’s.
- Could use a web browser function, enabling users to stream from a specific URL or view a web page.
For lots more information about the Netgear NTV300 streaming media player, refer to the tables of features and specs below and read our in-depth review.
Powered by Boxee’s popular media streaming software platform, D-Link’s now discontinued DSM-380 Boxee Box delivered movies, show episodes, and other A/V content in numerous formats from Internet sites, LAN shares, and attached media to TVs and audio systems. It also had an optional Live TV adapter with which users could watch broadcast digital TV or unencrypted cable stations using the box.
Boxee Box’s homescreen (v1.5 firmware)
Boxee and D-Link have now discontinued the original Boxee Box and recently began rolling out a second generation product, known as Boxee TV (pictured on the right), which has a substantially different set of features — fewer, but more polished, content channels combined with Live TV and DVR functions. DeviceGuru.com will soon publish a detailed review of the new Boxee TV box, after which this post will be updated. Meanwhile, the lists below reflect our assessment of the original Boxee Box.
Pros and cons…
- Over 250 content channels available, including excellent Netflix, Vudu, and YouTube channels, plus numerous sources of free and ad-supported TV episodes and movies.
- “Watch later” function lets you queue up videos on the Boxee Box from your PC, Mac, or mobile device using a browser bookmarklet
- Can play AirPlay streams, though doesn’t support AirPlay screen mirroring feature.
- Includes a browser, so you can navigate to arbitrary URLs to either view or stream content (although the ability to stream content that way can be a hit or miss affair).
- Plays multimedia from devices plugged into its SD and USB ports.
- Plays multimedia from a handful of network file-sharing protocols including Windows shares (samba), UPnP/DLNA, NFS, and AFP (iTunes).
- Built-in samba server provides access to files on its attached media.
- The RF remote is reliable and easy to use, although the tiny qwerty keys on the back side are difficult to decipher in dim light.
- Many users will appreciate the social networking aspects of the Boxee Box’s user interface.
- Optional “Boxee Live TV” adapter enables watching basic cable or broadcast TV though the Boxee Box.
- Due to its wide range of capabilities, the Boxee Box is more complex — and hence less user friendly — than that of simpler devices such as the Roku players.
- The device continues to have unresolved functional issues, most likely due to an overly-optimistic set of target features.
- Boxee’s down-rev Flash plugin has become incapable of playing videos from sites that have switched to the latest Adobe Flash revision (e.g Comedy Central); unfortunately, it’s unclear whether Boxee can solve this problem other than waiting for the coming transition to HTML5 (see this post on Boxee’s user forum).
- Biggest con of all: the product has been discontinued, as mentioned above.
For lots more information about the original Boxee Box streaming media player, refer to the tables of features and specs below and read our in-depth Boxee Box review. And watch for our upcoming review of the new Boxee TV box.
Key features and specs of each of the five streaming media players are summarized in the table below. Google TV is represented by the Logitech Revue.
|Roku 2 series||Netgear NTV300||Apple TV||Boxee Box||Google TV 2.0|
|Other major source of movie & TV show rentals||—||—||iTunes Store||—||Android Market|
|TV-formatted channels||> 300||> 160||17||> 250||> 50|
|Web access||no||no||no||Boxee browser||Chrome|
|Plays from USB||yes (top model)||yes (top model)||no||yes||yes|
|Plays from LAN shares||iTunes, other (via 3rd-party apps)||DLNA (top model)||iTunes||SMB, UPnP, NFS, AFP, BMM||SMB, UPnP|
|Media rendering svcs||none||DLNA (top model)||AirPlay||AirPlay||AirPlay, DLNA|
|Max resolution||1080p (top models)||1080p||1080p||1080p||1080p|
|A/V outputs||HDMI, composite video, stereo audio||HDMI, composite video, stereo audio||HDMI, S/PDIF||HDMI, S/PDIF, stereo audio||HDMI, S/PDIF|
|Ethernet||yes (top model)||yes||yes||yes||yes|
|Remote interface||IR or RF (top model)||IR||IR||RF||RF|
|Text entry||pick from list||mini qwerty (top model)||pick from list||mini qwerty||full qwerty|
|Active power||1W||4W||1-2W (*)||12W||11W|
|Standby power||1W||< 1W||< 1W||< 1W||11W|
|Price:||$50 – $100||$50 – $80||$100||$180||$100|
(* Note: The third-generation Apple TV’s active power consumption is an estimate based on our measurement of the second-generation Apple TV’s active power, which was approx. 1W)
Supported multimedia formats
A major constraint on how many content sources can be supported by a streaming media player is the range of multimedia formats it can render. The table below details the formats currently supported by each of the devices we’re looking at in this smackdown. The data comes from each device or software platform vendor’s published documentation.
|Roku 2 series||MP4/M4V (H.264); MKV||AAC; MP3||JPEG; PNG|
|Apple TV||H.264 and MPEG-4 with AAC-LC audio (M4V, MP4, MOV); Motion-JPEG (AVI)||HE-AAC, AAC, Protected AAC; Audible; Apple Lossless; AIFF; MP3, MP3 VBR; WAV||JPEG; GIF; TIFF|
|Boxee Box||Flash 10.1; FLV/On2 VP6 (FLV, FV4, M4V); H.264 (AVC, TS, AVI, MKV, MOV, M2TS, MP4); VC-1 (TS, AVI, MKV, WMV); MPEG1/2/4; DivX 3/4/5/6; Xvid (AVI, MKV)||MP3; WAV/PCM/LPCM; WMA; AIF/AIFF; AC3/AAC; OGG; FLAC; DTS||JPEG; PNG; GIF; BMP; TIFF|
|Google TV 2.0||H.264 (MP4, MKV, MOV, AVCHD, 3GP); MPEG4 part 2 (MP4, DIVX, AVI, 3GP); WMV (ASF, AVI)||MP3; AAC; OGG; MIDI; PCM/WAV; WMA; FLAC||JPEG; GIF; PNG; BMP|
(Note: For further details on each device’s A/V specs, refer to each of our in-depth reviews of each device, listed below.)
Well, that depends on what you want it to do, and a few other factors.
In general there are three kinds of activity that matter most, once you start hooking your TV up to your a local network and the Internet:
- Accessing Internet-based content via “canned” channels
- Playing your own multimedia files from USB or SD cards, or by accessing local network shares
- Using a browser to visit to check email, see what’s new on Facebook or Twitter, read the news, shop, or stream audio or video content from sites that aren’t supported by canned channels.
Other important considerations are ease of use (“Can the babysitter use this gadget?”); quality and reliability (smoothness of streaming and freedom from bugs and crashes); physical characteristics like size, power consumption, and fan noise; and cost.
Taking all these factors into consideration, the table below attempts to provide a bottom-line assessment all five media streaming players that we’re covering in this smackdown. You’ll probably want to adjust our ratings according to your personal preferences and priorities.
Note: the value in the rightmost column of each line of the table (labeled “max.” at the column’s top) indicates the maximum score we’ve allowed for that particular line. We add up all the values in each column, and normalize the totals to a maximum of 5 — have a look; you’ll figure it out!
|Roku 2||Netgear NTV300||Apple TV||Boxee Box||Google TV||max.|
|Top-tier VOD vendors||4||3||3||2||3||5|
|Numerous content channels||5||4||2||5||3||5|
|User friendly operation||5||5||5||4||3||5|
|Free of bugs & crashes||5||5||5||3||2||5|
|Low power sleep||1||1||1||1||0||1|
|Playing from attached media||1||1||0||3||2||3|
|Playing from network shares||1||1||2||3||2||3|
|Media renderer services||0||1||2||1||2||3|
So there you have it. If you don’t care about playing multimedia from network shares or attached media or rendering content to your TV from some other device (e.g. via AirPlay, DLNA, etc.), then you should pay attention to the “Basic rating” line. If, on the other hand, you want those advanced features, you’ll care more about the “Aggregate rating” line at the bottom of the chart.
For further details on the devices covered by this smackdown, read our in-depth review on each: