The great Internet TV battle royale of 2010 is officially underway, with new boxes from Roku and Apple TV leading the charge. On paper, it's a very even-handed match-up: both are miniscule $99 streaming-media boxes that promise to offer an expanded slate of TV shows, movies, and music for consumers. Other matching features: both offer Netflix streaming, dual-band 802.11n Wi-Fi and Ethernet networking, and HDMI output. So, which is worth your hard-earned Benjamin Franklin?
Unfortunately, it's not a cut-and-dry situation. Both units scored an identical 3.5 stars on our CNET rating scale. But if you look at the sub-ratings (design, features, performance), you'll see that each box has a relative strength and weakness. Right now, it shakes out as follows:
Apple TV: We loved the design and interface on Apple's box. It's easy to use, beautiful to look at, and works like a charm. The problem--especially for a product with the word "TV" in the name--is that there just isn't a whole lot of TV to watch on it. Instant rental choices are limited to shows from Fox, ABC, Disney, and BBC--and even among those providers, the choices aren't comprehensive (no "House," no "Fringe," and no "Modern Family," for instance). There's a workaround--buying shows on iTunes on your PC and Mac, and then streaming them from your computer to your Apple TV--but it's slow, cumbersome, and more expensive than renting. (Netflix is great on Apple TV, as it is most everywhere else, but that service doesn't offer much current-season TV content at this time.)
On the other hand, you can use Apple's free Remote app to control the Apple TV from any iPad, iPod Touch, or iPhone--and it works really well. And if you already have a giant library of iTunes music on your PC's hard drive, accessing it through the Apple TV is dead simple. In other words, Apple TV is currently best for those who value Apple's best-in-class interface and design, and already use other Apple software and hardware products.
Roku XDS: The XDS is Roku's new flagship box, with step-down models available at even cheaper $79 and $59 price points. No one is likely to be blown away by the Roku interface; it's stark and utilitarian, and it lacks the smooth animations and polish of what you'll see on the Apple TV.
What it lacks in style, Roku makes up for in choice. Besides Netflix (also available on Apple TV and nearly every other Internet-connected video product currently on the market), Roku also offers dozens of "channels" that you can choose to add. Key among them is Amazon Video On Demand, which currently offers thousands of pay-per-view movies and TV shows for rent and sale. It's not nearly comprehensive enough to dump your cable or satellite service, but it does offer a better selection of TV shows than that of Apple TV. Beyond Amazon, Roku users can also choose to access Pandora (free music) and sign up for additional pay services like MLB TV (live baseball games) and UFC (live extreme fighting)--to name just a few of the dozens of channels available.
In other words, Roku is a better choice for viewers looking to maximize program choices, and those who don't need tight integration with other Apple products.
Read the review of the Roku XDS
CNET's recommendation: That being said, our current recommendation would be this: Hold off. Don't buy anything. Wait--for at least a few weeks. That recommendation comes for two reasons.
For starters, both of these products are getting major software upgrades in the next few weeks. Apple TV will be getting AirPlay compatibility in November, which will allow any AirPlay-enabled app to send audio, video, or photos from an iPad, iPod Touch, or iPhone to the Apple TV at the flick of the screen. Roku, meanwhile, is slated to get Hulu Plus in October, which opens the current seasons of all ABC, NBC, and Fox shows up for unlimited viewing for just $9.99 per month. Both are potential game-changers, and we think they'll change the value propositions on both units significantly.
The final point is that these aren't the only two fish in the Internet TV sea. In the next two weeks, we'll finally get full details on the Google TV products from Logitech and Sony. Both of them could be major alternatives to the Roku and Apple TV. And that doesn't even include Boxee (coming in November) or less publicized products like the Sony SMP-N100 "Net box." The latter unit is a $130 media player that Sony's released with little fanfare--it already offers Netflix, Amazon, YouTube, Pandora, Slacker, and Qriocity--and it too will be getting a Hulu Plus upgrade in just a few weeks. (We'll have a full review after that upgrade occurs.)
The bottom line is that the choices in the Internet TV arena are expanding like never before. So it's worth holding off for a few weeks to see how things start to shake out.
Looking for more detailed information? Check out CNET's new Quick Guide to Internet TV, which explains the services and hardware offerings in detail.