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David Poland

By David Poland

Tech Review: The Four Questions That Are Set Top Boxes

Apple TV, Roku, Amazon Fire, Google Chromecast.

Is this worse than Betamax/VHS? Better?

Different. Very different.

This foursome of products, each of which kinda-sorta does the same thing, are not only fighting to become the standard moving forward (for a few years at least), but are also fighting a wide array of other platforms – many already in households with other purposes – to get traction. Comcast and Cablevision and DirecTV and DISH are already working towards making the boxes that customers need to get their services delivered in their homes more flexible, as well as adding online-based services, like Netflix, as added value. Then there are Blu-ray players and game consoles that deliver streaming content. On top of that, there are “Smart” TVs.

Still, at this stage of the game, the four small standalones are the simplest, cleanest route to accessing the streaming universe. The specific variations are too numerous to detail here… details like which ones have access to which content providers via which specific cable or satellite outlets. For instance, HBOGo is available on both Apple TV and Roku, but as a DirecTV subscriber, HBOGo does not work on the Roku while it does on the AppleTV. I am going to stick to the big issues for this exercise.

I also want to clarify going in that I consider the top streaming companies that are most desired by consumers, currently, to be Netflix, HBOGo, Hulu-Plus, Amazon Prime, MLBtv, followed by the Disney networks (ESPN/ABC), YouTube, Pandora, and Crackle. There is a lot of good content after that group of 10, but I will address that as regards each machine. But there is one other major streaming option that doesn’t quite fit as a content streamer, but is a major streaming player, as big as any… iTunes. Apple doesn’t offer free content like the others, but if you buy content, there is a good chance that, at some point, you bought it through iTunes. So it matters. And for that matter, GooglePlay, which is a lot newer, also matters.

Google Chromecast – The child amongst grownups in this equation. This doesn’t mean that it won’t work perfectly for the needs of some. And the price is just $35, about a third of the other three options. But unlike any of the other three machines, Chromecast is not self-contained. Basically, it creates a stream from your smartphone or table or computer to your TV for some content. So you need to have a separate machine that drives the Chromecast, which you pretty much have to dedicate to the Chromecast experience while you are having it. In these days of multi-tasking, that is a downside for some.

To its credit, Chromecast does have 4 of the 5 top providers available – Netflix, Hulu-Plus, HBOGo, and MLBtv – but not Amazon Prime and not iTunes. On the 2nd tier, it offers YouTube access and Pandora. And as a Google product, it not only offers Google Play, but it is the ONLY one of the four machines that offers it. So if you are a committed Chrome person, this may be the product for you. If you are not, I would say that it is not worth the short-term savings of $65.

Amazon Fire – The newest entry in this game (at least until Apple offers whatever variation on the AppleTV it’s been threatening to deliver for years now), the Amazon Fire is clearly the fastest machine in the game. There have been various explanations of this, which I won’t get into, but the bottom line is that you click on things and they start without the delay of 20 seconds or less that we have all become used to with AppleTV and Roku. Also, the remote control experience is more Roku than AppleTV, and that’s a good thing.

The other advantage that Amazon is pushing is that it is also a gaming platform. But to use this, you need to buy another controller. And the quality of the gameplay – not to mention the limited catalog – demands the question about why you would buy this if you are a gamer, as opposed to a game machine.

The first big downside at this point is that the Fire is limited in what it accesses. No HBOGo and no MLBtv. But it has everything from the 2nd tier, including the Disney channels… and more. But of course, no iTunes or Google Play access either. So it is more like the Roku than the AppleTV in some respects, though the interface is not as simple and effective as Roku as you continue to use it. Clearly, there was a lot of thought going into the interface design, but it prioritizes getting you to the places you most recently were, not making it easy to get where you want to go now.

There is one more feature that is a thriller… mostly. You can search by voice. Hold down a button, say what you are looking for, and voila, a list of content connected to that name or person. But here’s the problem… it only searches Amazon and Hulu-Plus. No Netflix. And the interface with the list of material is not well marked to indicate what is “free” with a membership to either content provider or a pay item. Some of the Amazon Prime stuff has a marking in the corner. Some not.

While I’m on the subject, this is a problem through all the graphic design of the Amazon section of the site, as well as the apps, some of which are free and some of which are sold at a price. It’s not life & death, but having to go into any given app to find out what, in anything it costs, is a pain. And some of the games are “free” but have in-app sales… which I hate. I don’t mind spending on some things at some times, but with free by subscription and pay-per-view mixed together, I would prefer clarity.

AppleTV – Apple’s box is simple, sleek, and a bit limited. It can do what none of the others can do… stream video from your iMac, iPhone or iPad to your TV, no muss, no fuss. In this regard, it is a lot like Google’s Chromecast… but for Apple people instead of Google Chrome people. Likewise, as there is no iTunes on Chromecast (or anywhere else but an AppleTV), there is no Google Play on AppleTV… or Amazon Prime, for that matter.

Unlike Chromecast, AppleTV has a set of apps, which include Netflix (the one constant in a universe of variables), HBOGo, Hulu-Plus, and MLBtv. It also has all 5 of the Tier 2 apps. And more.

So what’s the downside of AppleTV? Well, as already noted, no Amazon Prime. And unlike Roku and Amazon Fire, the addition of more apps is controlled by Apple. So unlike Roku, which has been around for a while, there are not dozens and dozens of options for niche programming. There are, as of this writing, 32 non-Apple apps on AppleTV, including 3 additional Disney apps (for family programming, limited to people who have cable/satellite with companies who have done deals with Disney), NBA, NHL, WWE, The Weather Channel, and a number of foreign-language apps. One of Apple’s proprietary apps that I quite like is their trailer app, which makes everything on the Apple Trailer website instantly available for the big TV screen.

Of the 3 remote controls, Apple TV’s is the most simple… which is a double-edged sword. The design and limited apps makes it very easy to navigate. On the other hand, getting from 3 or 4 levels into, say, Netflix, out to the main page, takes 3 or 4 clicks… and then you can start looking for what you want. Both Amazon Fire and Roku have “home” buttons that send you immediately to the start page where you can choose any app to explore.

At this point, I should also note that each of these machines also have rather different navigational quirks within each application. I still find this very surprising. But I guess some things work on some boxes and not on others. I wonder, often, what the best version of the navigation is in the mind of these different companies. For instance, on some Netflix apps, the next episode launches automatically. Others not. Those that do have different mechanisms for doing it. I am particularly aware of this as a parent who might want a show to stop before my kid starts the next episode… or conversely might want him to have easy access to multiple episodes back-to-back without asking me to stop what I am doing to control the remote.)

Roku 3 – I can’t speak to the Roku 1 or 2. Never have used them. But currently, I impulsively think of this as the most complete of the alternate set-tops.

Here is what it is missing… iTunes and Google Play. All of my Top 1o apps are there. (That said, there is some detail work involved. As noted earlier, as a DirecTV customer, the HBOGo, which works on my AppleTV and my “smart” TV, doesn’t work here. If I had TWC or any one of another dozen or so core providers, it would.) And in terms of variety, it far surpasses any other box, both in obscure, seemingly crappy niche channels with very small followings and in some pretty significant new apps, like Warner Archive, Dailymotion, or the new Condé Nast Entertainment channel/app.

And there is a massive number of paid movie channels – some with free content, in part – like Vudu, Popcornflix, Flixter, Snagfilms, IndieFlix, Indie Crush, Cinema Libre, Flixsie, etc, etc, etc. And there are interesting niche plays, like a series of local FOX affiliates or FOX Now or National Geographic Kids. There is some of the same frustration here as on other machines – particularly the Amazon Fire – with the requirements to get an app to work are not all apparent right away. But there is so much available, that the ecosystem is kind of fascinating, as we move forward in all this.

The other unique feature of the Roku is the remote control, which is the largest of the group, but also the only curvy one (and also has a strap), which can make it easier to handle and more difficult to lose. Moreover, it has a headset jack so you can listen to whatever you are watching on the Roku remotely. I can’t say I have actually used this feature in the year or so we have had a Roku, probably because it lives in our living room, not our bedroom… but it’s still cool.

So… The Roku is pretty clearly the most versatile, rangiest $99 spend you can buy as of today. However, there are some potential deal-breakers. If I had the choice of owning only one of these devices, I would probably prioritize HBOGo to a degree that would lead me to the AppleTV. Also, in that case, I can stream from my iPad or iPhone to the TV. I could, if I felt so inclined, still access my Amazon Prime using that AppleTV and my iPad or iPhone, overcoming the biggest hole in the AppleTV game for me personally.

However… I can also access HBOGo AND Amazon Prime via my PS3… so maybe I would prefer having a Roku and then using the PS3 as a workaround for those two streaming apps.

But what if Amazon Fire makes deals with HBO and MLBtv in the next months? Well, then the technical smoothness of that device might make it a frontrunner.

And there is still the threat that Apple will roll out a new, improved AppleTV.

The tricky part is that you don’t really know what you will want/like/NEED until you are already invested in one of these products. If all you want is your Netflix, they all work. But then again, if all you want is your Netflix, a Blu-ray player or video game console or even your “smart” TV may do the job without you having to buy another piece of equipment. (I will say… the streaming speed on my “smart” TV, connected to the same ethernet connection as the other devices, is inferior.)

What we need is one company to deliver all of the Top 10 apps and more with the fastest delivery system possible. but they are all too busy competing for that to happen. This is another good part about the Roku… it is the only one not owned by a company playing the content field, so it is agnostic. There is even a DISH app for international programming at a price, as well as a TWC app, and the aforementioned FOX local apps.

One last note… all of these companies are building products that force consolidation. I will write about it after some more time playing with it, but I recently got Google Glass and that too is invested in the user using all the Google products, from automatic uploads to YouTube to transferring your contacts to Google to interacting with Google+. If you buy an AppleTV, you have a vested interest in buying from iTunes. Amazon Fire, and you’re likely to buy all your movies, TV, and music on Amazon. Chromecast connects to Google Play.

No one is doing better for consumers in this regard than the other. As noted before, Roku is slightly advantaged by being unaffiliated. But if you want to find the gamechanger, it would be the company embracing their competitors and letting the best device win. Interestingly, Apple does it with the iPhone and iPad. Want the app for Amzon’s Kindle or Amazon Prime… no problem. But on the AppleTV, no.

To my eye, this is the biggest issue we face with content moving forward… how all these diverse companies with varying opinions will come together and agree to sell on the same competitive turf, allowing themselves to both serve the consumer better than they ever have before and to be extremely profitable. It’s not as easy as it sounds… even if it doesn’t sound that easy. It worked in the cable era because the world got chopped up by municipalities and regions, making universality in everyone’s interest. With a less well defined barrier to entry on every level, we have to count more weightily on the sanity of all the players. Not easy. But the longer the industry drags its collective heels, the harder it gets.

We are at the very beginning of this journey. And we already have a lot more content access than we’ve ever had. But it will get better. It will not be the panacea of everything for almost no money. But it will get better. In the meantime, buyer beware and enjoy what we’ve got.

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5 Responses to “Tech Review: The Four Questions That Are Set Top Boxes”

  1. Geoffrey says:

    I have a Roku player and watch HBOGO with a Direct TV subscription log in. Works great. Roku is really perfect for me.

  2. Marc says:

    Actually the Chromecast is great for multitasking…. I often start streaming Netflix on my phone then I can turn it off and continue using my tablet as the remote control. Chromecast streams directly from the internet not from my phone.

  3. Joe Leydon says:

    I have been told the only way I can view Vimeo screeners on my hi-def TV is through Apple TV. (Sure can’t do it with my Roku.) True?

  4. Mostly Lurking says:

    Not a comment about which device is better, as I only have Apple TVs, but just for your own convenience, if you hold down the menu button, it takes you back to the home screen.

  5. brack says:

    My Xbox One has all the important streaming services, outside of music unfortunately. I have my AV receiver that’s connected to the internet for that. I don’t need HBO Go because I have DirecTV, but I can watch it via Chromecast or my PS3. My Roku died, and the Fire isn’t all that appealing given my options I already own. I’m glad there are all these options, but it’s annoying to have to have multiple devices for everything.

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