Roku still trumps Apple, Google, and Boxee for Internet TV

Roku still trumps Apple, Google, and Boxee for Internet TV

Summary: The Internet TV market has gotten very crowded very quickly. For those who want to add an Internet-connected box to their entertainment center, here's a quick rundown of the four main options.

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This has turned into the year of Internet TV, or at least the year of the Internet set-top box. Google has launched its TV play. Apple and Roku have updated their Internet STBs, and Boxee (a cult favorite among techies and hackers) has moved beyond just software and delivered its own hardware box as well.

For those who are ready to take the plunge and add an Internet-connected box to their entertainment center, it's suddenly become a crowded market and a tough choice.

I'm going to help simplify it. Here is a quick summary of what each of these Internet STBs have to offer and who they will appeal to. I have also ranked them from worst to best.

4. Google TV

Of these four, Google TV is by far the most ambitious. Unfortunately, it's also the most complicated, and that's its ultimate undoing. I tested the Logitech Revue ($299) along with its Mini Controller ($129) and TV Cam ($149). Even without the two extra accessories, this is the most expensive option of the four.

For that premium price, you get a system that integrates with your cable or satellite set-top box and gives you the ability to switch back and forth between your traditional TV experience and an Internet interface on your TV. The Google TV interface makes it easy to search the web for video clips (although it's skewed toward YouTube and Google video search) and then play those clips on your big screen. That's its greatest strength.

If you watch a lot of short web video clips from across the web and want to get them up on your flat-panel TV then the Google TV box is now the best and easiest way to find them and watch them. I think it's still easier and a better experience to watch this short stuff on a laptop or the iPad, but some people may disagree.

The most disappointing thing with the Google TV is that it doesn't have many apps yet. Watch out for apps. If big content companies (i.e. TV networks and production companies) start jumping on the app bandwagon they could create super-dynamic apps/channels that mix the power of web and multimedia interactivity with traditional cable channels. Google TV is best-positioned for that revolution if it were to happen.

3. Boxee Box

Boxee could eventually turn out to be the leader in the Internet set-top box space. It has the best UI of any of these devices. It has the best remote, hands down (you flip it over and it has a keyboard on the back). And, it is the only one that successfully integrates social networking into the experience.

The Boxee Box ($199) is easy and pleasant to use, but also attractive and powerful. And, make no mistake, software and UI are huge differentiators in this space. The Boxee user experience is much cleaner, smoother, and more intuitive than Google TV, and the two of them are natural competitors because they are both about bringing video clips from across the web to the TV screen. Boxee has a better UI, but Google makes a little easier to find good stuff. My biggest problem with Boxee is that I just never seem to find that much good content to watch.

Boxee also allows you to access any of your own personal video files or movies and make them part of the experience, which is a plus. But, its killer feature may turn out to be that it effectively integrates a social experience so that you can add your friends and see the videos that they are watching and recommending. That could become even more important in the future since there is likely to be more and more content to sort through.

Another great thing about Boxee is that the software is also available for Windows, Mac, and Linux, so you can download it for free and try it. If you like it you can run it on your own box connected to your TV or you can go out and buy the Boxee Box STB to simplify the process.

2. Apple TV

The new Apple TV update for 2010 ($99) has two things going for it: 1.) It is amazingly small, which makes it easy to add to any TV or entertainment system, and 2.) It has a ton of content available, especially if you're already entrenched in the Apple and iTunes ecosystem.

The new Apple TV also solves a number of the nagging problems from the original Apple TV. It doesn't overheat, it doesn't have the goofy local syncing with a Mac or PC, and it now integrates Netflix (the best Internet-enabled content library). Although Apple claims it has the best Netflix experience of any device, it still doesn't quite match the Roku for speed, navigation, and simplicity.

However, Apple does have a great library of new release movie rentals, easy access to lots of audio and video podcasts, and a great gallery of movie trailers (a feature that I surprisingly have turned out to use a lot). Apple also has an interesting scheme with AirPlay, which it intends to use to allow devices such as the iPhone and iPad to stream content over-the-air to Apple TV. Once this goes live, it will be interesting to see how well it works and how much it gets used.

Apple narrowly edges Boxee for second place for one reason: It is simply more useful, and that's mostly due to the fact that it has more and better content.

1. Roku Player

The thing about Roku is that its mission is simple: Take high-quality video content that is published over the Internet and deliver it to your HDTV in an ridiculously simple way. And, it absolutely nails that goal.

And, it's inexpensive. It offers three versions: the HD ($59), XD ($79), and XD|S ($99). For most buyers, the XD will make the most sense. You can even get the Roku XD through retail channels such as Best Buy now for $89, since Netgear sells it as the NTV250 (pictured above).

Roku started out primarily as a streaming box for Netflix on Demand -- a library of catalog movie titles and complete seasons of past TV shows that Netflix originally made available for streaming to PCs. In bringing this to the TV, Netflix has brought us closer than anyone else to the goal of eventually having the whole history of movies and television shows available on demand over the Internet and playable on any screen. And, as I mentioned above, Netflix still has the best and simplest Netflix experience of any of these STBs.

Roku has now expanded its content and offers lots of different channels and content options, from Amazon Video (which offers virtually all of the same movie rentals as Apple TV) to Major League Baseball to This Week in Tech (TWiT) to Revision3, and much more.

Roku does not have the ability to access web clips from across the Web the way you can with Google TV and Boxee. So, if you're looking for a box that will allow you to watch that 7-minute clip from historychannel.com on your big screen TV, then Roku is not the best choice.

However, I never have a hard time finding good stuff to watch on Roku and that -- combined with its simple setup and ease of use -- is why I rank it number one, even over its much larger competitors.

What's your vote?

[poll id="148"]

Topics: Hardware, Apple, Google, Mobility

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49 comments
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  • Another option

    For those of us of the Geek persuasion, adding a Media PC to our TVs makes more sense. A PC can do everything that the boxes you mentioned above can, plus a lot more. For less than the price of the Google box you can have a full featured PC running Windows 7 or Ubuntu. Yes, it is a bit more complicated, but few do not know how to run a system like that, and many of us will appreciate the extra capabilities.

    I am also surprised you did not mention the gaming consoles, as they also provide similar services plus gaming, or the many internet capable BluRay players or TVs.
    itpro_z
    • RE: Roku still trumps Apple, Google, and Boxee for Internet TV

      @itpro_z

      For us true geeks, we have it all. I have a pc on my TV, Apple TV for Itunes, Asus O Play for my movie collection...
      hfsma
      • RE: Roku still trumps Apple, Google, and Boxee for Internet TV

        @hfsma --not too techie, was going to go to the XBOX360 like you mentioned, but seems expensive- would love to talk/type to you and get more info and/or set-up my laptop its an Acer 6930 and I upgraded to windows 7 after some issues.....any thoughts or ideas?
        stevew407
    • RE: Roku still trumps Apple, Google, and Boxee for Internet TV

      @itpro_z Well said. Nothing beats a PC and you can get one very cheap to be your Internet TV box.
      statuskwo5
    • RE: Roku still trumps Apple, Google, and Boxee for Internet TV

      @itpro_z

      I've done different HTPC (Windows Media, Mythbuntu, Mac Mini running FrontRow and Boxee) and I would say my Boxee Box is the best experience yet.

      I'm Canadian and I've canceled cable and get all my content by streaming it from its source (i.e. GlobalTv, CityTV, CBC). More sources are to come (including Netflix). My non-techy wife has no problems using the box and we don't have ugly wireless keyboard lying around.

      Since neither of us play video games we don't have a game console and their lack of flash support is a turn off. In fact I watched my brother try to navigate the internet the other day on his PS3 and put me down as not impressed.
      maskman01
      • "Ugly wireless keyboard"

        @maskman01, you do realize that there are HTPC keyboards that are about the size of a smartphone keyboard? I opted for something slightly bigger, getting one that is about the size of a netbook keyboard, including a pointing device.

        My wife is also non-techy, but runs Windows just fine. I expect that she will use the media PC for a lot of her surfing instead of her laptop, at least when she is on the couch.
        itpro_z
    • RE: Roku still trumps Apple, Google, and Boxee for Internet TV

      @itpro_z

      What's interesting is that AppleTV already outsells the three other boxes combined. The new AppleTV sold 250,000 in the first six weeks and is projected to sell one million per quarter. The competition doesn't even come close.
      studentrightsx
      • RE: Roku still trumps Apple, Google, and Boxee for Internet TV

        @studentrightsx

        The funny thing about Apple is that can make anything profitable. Mostly because their consumers are a bunch of Lemmings that believe whatever Steve Jobs tells them. A phone the drops calls all the time? Its awesome because Steve Jobs says it is! MP3's of a band that pretty much any fan already has MP3's of already? Its awesome because Steve Jobs says it is!. A $99 Internet TV box that only streams proprietary media? Its awesome because Steve Jobs says it is! A steaming pile of Steve Job's poop put in a little white box and called the iPoop? Its awesome because Steve Jobs says it is!
        pcon
      • @pcon - way to spread the FUD like butter!

        iTunes/iPod/iPhone/iPad/AppleTV isn't as closed as everyone makes it out to be. Sure, there's not a web browser on the AppleTV and you can't download apps from the web to your iPhone without Jailbreaking it. That's not the point. The point is that for those of us with tremendous collections of media on our computers, the Apple media ecosystem makes it about as easy as it can get.

        I personally have a 2 TB collection of TV shows, movies, and music in my iTunes Library, almost none of it purchased through Apple. My HD movies (720p counts as HD) play fine on my AppleTV with Dolby Digital audio and stereo AAC audio on my iPad, my massive collection of lossless audio and high-bitrate MP3 files play without issue on my iPod and iPhone. Making it all work together is also ridiculously easy. I can't say that for DLNA or Windows Media Connect, and I've set up several of those devices for friends.
        nix_hed
    • RE: Roku still trumps Apple, Google, and Boxee for Internet TV

      @itpro_z
      for those of us with wives who are not of the Geek persuasion, Roku is great. I didn't even have to be there for her to set it up!
      letranger66
  • How About None of the Above

    Why isn't there "none of the above" option for this poll? Or are you assuming all people will like at least one of the options?
    statuskwo5
    • agreed

      @statuskwo5
      and what is it with the netflix love of the tech pundits? netflix streaming offers by far the worst selection of any kind. a handful of alibi recent movies and shows, the rest: thousands of obscure c and d movies from the 80s. talk about a totaly useless "feature".
      banned from zdnet
      • RE: Roku still trumps Apple, Google, and Boxee for Internet TV

        @banned from zdnet
        Can you tell me where else you can get LEGAL streaming video on a subscription basis for such a bargain price? Plus you get one physical current release DVD. Lighten up, Francis.
        smartin684
    • RE: Roku still trumps Apple, Google, and Boxee for Internet TV

      @statuskwo5

      What's interesting is that AppleTV already outsells the three other boxes combined. The new AppleTV sold 250,000 in the first six weeks and is projected to sell one million per quarter. The competition doesn't even come close.
      studentrightsx
      • What are the sales figures for the other three you mentioned

        studentrightsx. Without that, you can not make your claim and call it accurate.
        :|
        Tim Cook
      • RE: Roku still trumps Apple, Google, and Boxee for Internet TV

        @studentrightsx

        Stop spamming with your reply fanboy!
        pcon
  • RE: Roku still trumps Apple, Google, and Boxee for Internet TV

    For us these devices aren't really needed. These are more of a "typical consumer" product. Someone that just wants to plug it in and play. Personally a combination of Xbox & TVersity does it for me. Stream Hulu, rss video, home music, videos, and pics.
    Anti Fanboy
    • RE: Roku still trumps Apple, Google, and Boxee for Internet TV

      @Anti Fanboy... Agreed I use win7 laptop and Playon works great...
      jacjar1
  • Apple's iTV is by far the #1 seller now due to unique *iTunes integratiion*

    Roku's quantitative advantages are not unique in terms of qualitative improvement. Only iTV offers qualitative advantages.
    DDERSSS
    • RE: Roku still trumps Apple, Google, and Boxee for Internet TV

      @denisrs

      I really hope you are joking! The Apple TV is a complete joke, even for $99 with its extremely limited media availability, and iTunes is one of the worst pieces of software ever written for Windows.

      For another $40 on top of your $99 investment in Apple TV you can get an XBOX 360 arcade edition and use it as a media center extender and get all stuff on Apple TV, plus a world class gaming console.

      Take your Kool Aid elsewhere please....
      omdguy