There are more ways to stream Internet video--Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and the like--than ever before. On that subject, I've laid out my hardware recommendations for a variety of consumers in an earlier blog post ("Which streaming-media device is right for you?"). But looming large in the marketplace these days are the two $99 offerings: Apple TV and Roku 2. It's enough of a horse race that it's worth a separate discussion.
Before we start, a few key points apply to both units:
Both are great for Netflix--and several other overlapping services. If you just want a cheap and easy Netflix box, both Apple TV and Roku will fit the bill. They also both offer Vimeo, MLB.TV, NBA League Pass, Flickr, and general Internet radio. And, while the Apple TV doesn't specifically support Mediafly (a podcast aggregator available on Roku), it does offer access to nearly any mainstream audio and video podcast. So your favorite CNET (and other) podcasts are accessible on both units.
The $99 is just the price of entry. To be clear: you can get through the checkout of Best Buy, Amazon.com, or your retailer of choice for about $100 plus tax (if applicable) with an Apple TV or a Roku 2 XS. (Or you can opt for the slightly less feature-rich Roku 2 HD for just $69.) And both units offer some degree of free online content: Vimeo and Internet audio on both, YouTube on Apple TV, Crackle on Roku. But to fully enjoy either of these products, you'll need to be shelling out for subscription (Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Prime, MLB.TV, NHL GameCenter, NBA Game Time) or pay-per-view video services (iTunes, Amazon Instant). That will run you at least $7.99 per month for Netflix, and more--much more--depending on your desire for recent TV shows and movies and the aforementioned sports services.
Speedy broadband is essential. This sounds obvious--until you see all of the 1-star user reviews for these products and their competitors, with lines like, "Doesn't stream on DSL." The faster your broadband is, the better. We recommend having at least a 10Mbps connection, which probably means cable.
Cord cutters take note. Apple TV and the Roku 2 XS are both very cool boxes that offer a lot of additional programming options beyond cable and satellite. But if you think you can buy either--or both--of these and then ditch your existing TV subscription, you're almost certainly bound to be disappointed--unless you also plan for over-the-air antenna reception. Without that free TV lifeline, you'll be sacrificing nearly all live local programming, including local sports and local news. And while ordering shows a la carte (Amazon or iTunes) or by subscription (Hulu Plus on Roku) is a start, you'll may well find that you're racking up a bill that's equal to or greater than that of the cable or satellite subscription you want to cut. Bottom line: these boxes can be part of a cord-cutting solution, but they're not the total solution. Your mileage may vary: we've had cord-cutting successes and failures among our colleagues, so just be sure to plan ahead before you cut the cord.
Most of this is U.S.-only. Apologies in advance to our international readers. While the hardware (Apple TV) may be available in other countries, most of the services we discuss here are likely to be available only in the United States. Please feel free to add your local suggestions for hardware or online viewing options in the comments, however.
These aren't the only two options. If you can spend more than $99--and if you want to be able to play DVDs or Blu-ray movies--there are plenty of competing options for streaming video. If you want to stay at $99 or under, we'll address some competitors below.
Roku 2 XS
New for 2011, the $99 Roku 2 XS box is our Editors' Choice in the category, and one of the most affordable Internet streaming-media options out there. It offers the the most programming choices, and the new model even includes games such as Angry Birds.
To our eyes, Roku offers the best of both subscription and pay-per-view. You can opt for Netflix, Hulu Plus, or both, for $7.99 per month each, and augment that with a la carte programming options from Amazon. Crackle offers lots of free (ad-supported) programming, and sports fans can get out-of-market games for Major League Baseball and NBA basketball (also available on Apple TV), plus MLS soccer and NHL hockey. There are dozens of niche channels for all manner of political and religious views as well.
Key Roku services not on Apple TV: Amazon, Hulu Plus, Crackle, MLS MatchDay Live, UFC, Al Jazeera English, FoxNews.com, Pandora, Rdio, Tune In Radio, Shoutcast, MOG, Break.com, Blip.tv, MediaFly, Facebook photos, Angry Birds, and dozens of others.
Pros: Roku offers far more diverse programming options than you'll find on Apple TV. And, unlike Apple TV, Roku will work with non-HD TVs. Netflix now offers closed captioning on supported titles.
Cons: Roku's ho-hum interface lacks the refined polish found on Apple TV. And, though there are a variety of basic control apps for Android and iOS, Roku doesn't offer AirPlay support. Similarly, there's no easy way to stream audio or video files from your networked PC or Mac to the Roku.
Thanks to some recent software updates, Apple TV is more competitive than when it was first released in the fall of 2010. If you've already built up a library of iTunes content, Apple TV is the only home video product on the market that will be able to access it.
Apple has recently killed off TV show rentals and moved back to a purchase model. That's actually something of an improvement, since rentals were only available for a small subset of programming. Now, your purchases are stored "in the cloud," and you can stream them on demand.
Meanwhile, AirPlay is a big differentiator for Apple TV. AirPlay lets users stream audio, photos, and--in some cases--video from Apple handhelds to the TV screen. So, if you're listening to, say, Pandora on your iPad, you can touch an onscreen button and hear the music through the Apple TV. Once iOS 5 is rolled out this fall, Apple TV will also support screen mirroring, in which whatever you see on your iPad will be visible on your TV (though whether all apps will work with this remains to be seen).
Recent firmware upgrades have added Vimeo, MLB, and NBA channels, prompting pundits to envision that Apple could eventually bring the App Store model to Apple TV, allowing users to pick and choose the sort of entertainment options available on the iPad and iPhone; think HBO Go, SlingPlayer, Comcast Xfinity, Pandora, Spotify, and the like. While it sounds perfectly feasible, it's still just a fanboy dream--though minor and major improvements are always just a software update away.
Key Apple TV services not on Roku: iTunes, AirPlay, YouTube, Mobile Me (photos).
Pros: The onscreen interface is gorgeous--exactly the sort of smooth animations and easy user interface you'd expect from the designers of the Mac, iPhone, and iPad. AirPlay compatibility lets you stream anything you can hear (and, in some cases, see) on your iPad, iPhone, or iPod Touch. And any audio, video, or photos you have in iTunes can be streamed to your TV.
Cons: Apple TV offers far fewer content "channels" than Roku, though this is somewhat mitigated if you use AirPlay. Apple TV only works on HDTVs equipped with an HDMI input. To get the full value out of it, you need to be committed to the entire Apple "ecosystem": running iTunes, purchasing video via the iTunes Store, and possibly using an iPad, iPhone, or iPod Touch as a remote.
Other options for $99 and below
Are you one of those people who use Linux instead of Mac or Windows? Drink RC instead of Coke or Pepsi? We get it--you want other options. If neither the Roku 2 XS nor Apple TV strikes your fancy, there are alternatives, even in the sub-$100 range:
Roku 2 HD ($69): To expand on what we stated above, the Roku 2 HD drops the USB port, gaming remote, Ethernet port, and 1080p video support, but it's otherwise identical to the Roku 2 XS, for $30 less.
Logitech Revue ($99): Logitech recently slashed the price of the debut Google TV device to just $99. While it got off to a rocky start--it has a full Flash browser, but most premium content providers blocked this box from accessing their sites--Google and Logitech are still promising a big fall 2011 software update that will add a full Android Market. In the meantime, mainstays like Netflix and Pandora are onboard. (We're withholding judgment until we get a look at the Revue post-software upgrade.)
Sony SMP-N100 ($79 or less): This Sony streaming box has flown under the radar since its 2010 release, but it offers Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon, Pandora, and Slacker--plus it can stream audio, video, and photo files via DLNA network or USB. Now that it's marked down to below $80, it's not a bad option for bargain hunters--though they should check out the Roku 2 HD as well.
WD TV Live Plus ($89): In addition to offering Netflix, CinemaNow, Blockbuster, YouTube, Pandora, Shoutcast, Mediafly, and other online services, the WD TV Live Plus plays nearly any file format you can throw at it via USB drive or DLNA network streaming. The big caveat: there's no built-in Wi-Fi.
Veebeam HD (laptop + $99): Connect the Veebeam box to your TV's HDMI input, plug the USB dongle into your PC or Mac, install the Veebeam software, and you're pretty much good to go: whatever you watch on your PC screen--including Flash video--is mirrored on your TV a few seconds later. Compatible files can also be sent directly to the Veebeam box using the built-in software. Originally offered for $149, this product now seems to be available for $99.
Intel Wireless Display (WiDi laptop + $99 Push 2TV box): If you already have a laptop with Intel Wireless Display technology built in, skip the Veebeam and get a Netgear Push2TV box. It does the same thing, but you don't need the USB dongle--the technology is built into the laptop.
HDMI cable ($6 cable + laptop): Want a "quick and dirty" way to stream video on your TV? If you've got an HDTV and your laptop has an HDMI output, just get a long cable and call it a day. (This will also work with most DVI and DisplayPort/Thunderbolt outputs, if you have the correct adapters or cables.) And remember: a cheap HDMI cable will work fine--no reason to pay for so-called premium HDMI cables. While the gadgets listed above will cost you $70 minimum, this approach can cost you as little as $6--assuming, of course, that you already have the laptop and the HDTV.
Which one should you buy?
So, back to the original question: Apple TV or Roku 2? Or should you go with one of those "door No. 3" options?
As usual, there's no definitive answer, but here's our rule of thumb:
If you want the widest variety of content, go with Roku.
If you're already committed to the Apple platform--iTunes, iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad--you'll probably be more comfortable with an Apple TV.
If you're a hard-core geek--you need to stream various files with a variety of codecs, or you like tinkering with cutting-edge technology--you may enjoy one of those rival options we listed above.
Have a favorite sub-$100 media-streaming option? Agree or disagree with anything I've said above? Share your comments and feedback below.
Updated at 12:40 p.m. PT on 8/30 to clarify streaming podcast availability and over-the-air antenna reception issues in response to several user comments.