Internet TV Shootout: Apple TV, Roku and Sony Blu-Ray DVD Player

Internet TV Shootout: Apple TV, Roku and Sony Blu-Ray DVD Player

Summary: What's the best way for you to get Internet video to your TV? It depends.

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Apple TV

Apple TV

When people talk about Internet TV, I've noticed that they usually talk about either Apple TV or Roku. Both are fine devices, but you may be over-looking that are many other ways to get Internet video to your TV. Many of these are still too complicated for general use and others, like Google TV, are still half-baked. But, besides Apple TV and Roku, many Blu-Ray DVD players now come with Internet video built-in. If what you want this holiday season is a Blu-Ray DVD player and Internet streaming, one of these all-in-one players may be just what you need.

So, which one is right for you? Well, here's what I've found in my years of watching Internet TV on my television. These days I use an Apple TV, a Roku 2 HD and a pair of Internet-enabled Sony Blu-Ray players for my TV watching pleasure. Indeed, a few months ago I cut the cord to my cable company and now the only TV I watch comes up either the Internet or from one of my own network media servers.

First, before you buy into any of these, you're going to need a robust Internet connection. You'll need at least a 3Mbps DSL Internet connection to make watching Internet video worthwhile. I've tried it at slower rates, and you'll only end up getting ticked off at the crappy video.

Most Internet TV's media extenders are pure-streaming devices. That means if there's much more than a 100-milliseconds seconds or so of jitter on your Internet connection, you're going to see the latest episode of Modern Family stutter across the screen. If you have a fast connection, but you're seeing video blip and stagger its way across your PC's screen, first check into your Internet connection's quality before buying any Internet video media-extender.

Personally, I recommend getting at least a 10Mbps connection. I'm currently running with a 60Mbps cable connection and it works well all the way up to 1080p high definition (HD) resolution. The lower your Internet speed, the lower your resolution. For 720p HD I've found you need at least 20Mbps. The lower levels of bandwidth are fine for 420i and 480p standard definition (SD) watching. Before getting too excited about upgrading your Internet to ever higher speeds though you should keep in mind that there's relatively little 1080p video content out there at this time.

In addition, you really need 802.11n, and have it setup properly. You can make do with 802.11g, but in my experience, you're likely to run into video stuttering from time to time even with plain old 480i TV episodes and movies. Back when 802.11g was as fast as you could get, I just ran Fast Ethernet cable between my router and my early model media extenders rather than bother with Wi-Fi.

So, if you have the Internet and network chops for home Internet video, here's what each of the big three choices bring you.

The Mark 2 Apple TV is a tiny, streaming-only device. Unlike the first Apple TV, you can't store content on it because it has no hard drive. It comes with a High-Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI), optical audio output, Ethernet, and Micro-USB ports on the back. Most of us though will end up using 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi networking. Of those choices, 802.11n is the one you want to use. The Apple TV can support up to 720p HD video.

Roku LT

Roku LT

Roku offers four models. These are the Roku LT, $50; Roku 2 HD, $60; Roku 2 XD $60, and the Roku 2 XS which retails for $100. Like the modern Apple TV, they don't have a built-in hard drive. They all include 802.11g/n wireless networking, an HDMI port, and support 720p video. The two higher-end models, Roku 2 XD and 2 XS, also support 1080p video. The 2 XS model also has Ethernet and USB ports. Unless you know you're going to connect your Roku with a cable to a router or switch, the cheapest model, the Roku LT, is all you're really going to need.

Sony BDP-S580 Blu-Ray DVD Player

Sony BDP-S580 Blu-Ray DVD Player

There are many Blu-Ray DVD players that support Wi-Fi and Internet video these days. The model that I use is the Sony BDP-S580. The BDP-S580 is a small--1.4 by 17 by 7.8 inches (HWD)--device. That makes it bigger than the Apple TV and Roku, but it will still fit into any home theater set-up. It comes with a USB port in front. On its back you'll find HDMI, component, and composite video outputs, analog stereo and optical audio outputs, and Ethernet and USB jacks. Like the others, it's purely a streaming device. If you shop around, you should be able to pick up one for about $110.

With all three of them, you can watch some, but not all, Internet video. Of the trio, the Apple TV is the most limited. With it you can stream entertainment content from the iTunes Store, Netflix, YouTube, and Vimeo. It also supports Internet sports networks such as the NBA League Pass, NHL GameCenter, and MLB.TV. The Sony DVD player supports all of these, except for MLB.TV, and numerous other entertainment channels including Amazon Instant Video and Hulu Plus. When it comes to Internet video channel selection though you can't beat Roku. Roku's service includes every Internet channel around including HBO's new entry into on-demand Internet video, HBOGO.

With the Sony DVD player, other high-end Blu-Ray DVD players, and other Internet media-streaming devices like the Boxee, you can also watch video directly from Web pages with a built-in Web browser.

Which video services you can get on any device is subject to change. New Internet video services are constantly coming and going. And, as most of you know, the terms of service for each video service, like Netflix, can change quickly.

In addition, most of these services come with their own charges. Hulu Plus, for example, which is good for many, but far from all, major network TV shows costs $7.99 a month and a Netflix streaming only subscription will currently cost you $7.99.

So, which is best? For Internet video channel watching, it's the Roku boxes. But, if you want to upgrade your DVD player to Blu-Ray anyway you can get most of the major Internet TV channels with the Sony player.

But, say you want to access content from your own media server as well? Then, Apple TV, partnered with iTunes, is your best choice. You can also stream video from your iPad or iPhone with AirPlay, but frankly I've found this to be more of a stunt than really useful. You cannot, at this time, stream video from Apple's iCloud. I strongly suspect that will change sometime soon.

You can also stream video to Roku boxes and the Sony DVD player, but it's not easy. ITunes whatever its other vices, does a fair, but not great, job of streaming video. For example, my new Mac Mini that I use as my media server falls asleep at times and I have to "wake" it up from the keyboard before I can stream videos from it. With the Roku and Sony, I have to carefully match up my media server and movie video formats with my devices' specific specifications. It's not easy.

I convert video all the time for use on my media-extenders with HandBrake, but it's usually requires manual tuning for the best results. Frankly, it's just easier to get playable content into iTunes than it is any of the media servers such as TVeristy or Windows Home Server 2011.

You can also attach a USB drive that you've already loaded with compatible video to either the Roku 2 XS or the Sony BDP-S580. To do this, though, you must, of course, first convert your video into a format they can understand. Again, that's not easy. At this point, using a USB drive or running your own media server, even if it's iTunes, is really something that only tech. enthusiasts will find worthwhile.

So, in short, if you do have a local media collection, the Apple TV is your best buy with a tie between Roku and the Sony player. Again, though, if you want to upgrade to Blu-Ray anyway and you find fiddling with video formats and media servers interesting, the Sony BDP-S580 is a worthwhile investment for your home theater or living room.

Related Stories:

Roku announces the Roku LT, a $50 streamer

If Siri is the key to an Apple TV, what will Google do about it?

Logitech's Google TV debacle: What went wrong (everything)

Will Netflix emerge from its big collapse a long-term winner?

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54 comments
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  • RE: Internet TV Shootout: Apple TV, Roku and Sony Blu-Ray DVD Player

    You completely missed the WD media players, all of which do more than the players you've mentioned. Was there a reason for this oversight?
    palavering
    • Agree 100%

      @palavering I own a WD TV Live Plus and my neighbor owns an Apple TV and a Roku. My WD player has more features and can play more formats than the AppleTV and Roku combined. This is why my neighbor is getting one after seen how mine works.

      The Sony BD player is that ... a BD player. Sure it has a few extra features, but it is still mainly a BD player.

      One more thing ... based on my neighbor, the Roku was a huge waste of his money ... and he go it at a bargain price. That actually surprised me ... until he show me how crappy it really is.
      wackoae
    • RE: Internet TV Shootout: Apple TV, Roku and Sony Blu-Ray DVD Player

      @palavering

      I have no idea how they missed the WD line. I own a Netgear EVA2000, ROKU2 XS and WD TV Live Streaming Media Player and hands down - the WD is the best. The ROKU I disliked so much, I gave it away this past weekend. The Netgear - while it has not let me down - is just old and essentially unsupported - otherwise - it is fine.

      I did have some issues with the WD at first - turned out to be a networking issue, not necessarily just a WD issue. I have a lot of local media content (movies & television in various file formats on Network attached Storage and on my computers; photos also in various formats; music in all sorts of formats) and the ROKU2 XS - pitiful. I actually installed a Plex server on my Synology box just to gain access to it from that box before giving it away. The netgear worked with most of the media and the Western Digital - plugged it in and it just found and worked with everything!
      ShenanStanley
      • RE: Internet TV Shootout: Apple TV, Roku and Sony Blu-Ray DVD Player

        @ShenanStanley
        What makes the WD so bitchin? I looked at their web site and I only see Netflix and HuluPlus listed. (I don't count Facebook or YouTube, as I'm looking for commercial entertainment content.) Where is Vudu? HuluPlus looks soft and I wouldn't think of paying actual money to watch stuff there that looks better recorded on my Media Center PC for nothing. The big three are Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, and Vudu. Not only does this looser box only have ONE of those, it has absolutely no useful information on their web site. WD isn't putting any effort into this thing. No wonder it wasn't included in the article.

        Actually, my TV set comes with all of these apps built in, so I don't need an external box of any kind to use all three services. And most new TVs (as well as BD players) are like that now, so the need to buy one of these boxes will pass very quickly. The advice to get a DB player like the Sony is about the best, unless you are in the market for a new TV.
        JoeFoerster
    • RE: Internet TV Shootout: Apple TV, Roku and Sony Blu-Ray DVD Player

      @palavering Google TV is by far the best option now. It has everything you could possibly dream of. The connectivity between devices (iPod, iPad, Android based devices/tablets) is outstanding. You can access all of your media on your PC on your tv + so much more. I could go on for a good hour talking about all of the things available on the Google TV. IT's freakin' amazing.
      amawesdude
    • I second that emotion !

      100% Agree Western Digital media boxes outperform all three of these examples together. You need a player that will "Stream" internet media AND play HD format video from your hard drive library.
      I guess everyone is SO afraid of stating that consumers have a right to legally copy any media they own and put it in a smaller compressed audio/video package to store on a hard drive. That includes user recorded broadcast TV. I can't sell it, but I can share it. Missed your favorite TV show last night and forgot to DVR it? P2P it. I record from my TV and save it to my hard drive...to share it with you the next day. Like passing around an old VCR tape. It is not copyright infringement. It's called - public domain.
      firebase
  • RE: Internet TV Shootout: Apple TV, Roku and Sony Blu-Ray DVD Player

    I own the previous generation to that Sony Player and the biggest issues is that the Netflix App has no support for Closed Captioning and the second biggest part was having to use Sony's service to login and stream from the other services including the Netflix and Hulu Service.

    Beyond the issues mentioned above the player seens very functional.
    slickjim
    • RE: Internet TV Shootout: Apple TV, Roku and Sony Blu-Ray DVD Player

      What about the ps3 or Xbox 360. both are much better tv devices than google tv, roku or apple tv.
      gomigomijunk
      • RE: Internet TV Shootout: Apple TV, Roku and Sony Blu-Ray DVD Player

        @gomigomijunk If you have one but what about if you don't, are you going to go out and spend that kind of money just to get internet TV when you can go with a much cheaper option?
        non-biased
      • RE: Internet TV Shootout: Apple TV, Roku and Sony Blu-Ray DVD Player

        @gomigomijunk Actually you can get the 4Gb Xboxes for less than $200. Media Center plays almost anything but requires a strong connection to work well for all your media. Last time I checked Apple is a pain for content, you have to convert everything.

        The XBox is limited for content other than Netflix, but, the new interface could change all that and allow for a lot more "apps"
        stano360
  • RE: Internet TV Shootout: Apple TV, Roku and Sony Blu-Ray DVD Player

    I hang a EEE Box on the back of my TV running XBMC. I've never had any problems with playable formats of anything, and if I did I can install any codec I wish. If I want to watch something like youtube I just open it in a browser, but I can also use one of the plugins available directly in XBMC. I am in Australia so to watch ABC iView I install the iView plugin. Works great.

    This is possibly a bit more fiddly to set up than appleTV or Roku (and more expensive I guess), but honestly it's not really much harder than plugging it into your TV and installing a program, and much more extensible.
    mgk69
    • RE: Internet TV Shootout: Apple TV, Roku and Sony Blu-Ray DVD Player

      @mgk69 <br><br>I have one EEE Box & 2 Dell Studio Hybrids that I use in similar fashion (except I don't hang them on the TVs, but the TVs hang on the wall), as well as a server which is connected to external storage for movies. I use a modified Ubuntu 10.04 LTS. I'm exploring XBMC as A front end but want to switch the internal player out for VLC. I explored LinuxMCE, but it was too monolithic (actually, the developers were too monolithic). So too was MythTV... I want more choice & flexibility.
      JasePow
  • RE: Internet TV Shootout: Apple TV, Roku and Sony Blu-Ray DVD Player

    Is it time to talk about the elephant in the room?

    A large amount of people watch Internet video as torrents. It only requires software and a mid level computer and most hour long TV shows require around .3Gb to watch at reasonable resolution and you may have to go up to 4G for 1080p. Whenever anything of particular interest is broadcast, it will appear on the web in a few hours in a variety of resolutions. It also has another advantage - no advertisements, so an episode or film can be watched without interruption. For those people outside the country of origin it may be the only chance they have to see the show as most broadcast TV is at the whim of program buyers. Another advantage is - it's not streaming , so the vagaries of Internet traffic and server loads, never freeze the picture.

    So what's the catch? - well, it's illegal, but it's not a particular law that's easy to enforce as, if we can see or hear something these days, we can copy it. For all the money spent on DRM, you can still point a camera at a screen (which is how the first copies of films hit the web) or record the video or HDMI output directly.

    So perhaps it's about time development companies thought about other ways to get revenue from their copied products. You could take a percentage of ISP fees or a premium for any accounts greater that 20-40G per month or have a membership card for various networks to protect you from prosecution or ...

    It's never a good idea to make laws you can't enforce.
    tonymcs@...
  • RE: Internet TV Shootout: Apple TV, Roku and Sony Blu-Ray DVD Player

    You say that watching video in a browser is one of AppleTVs limitations... then dismiss airPlay's utility?? but using AirPlay allows you to watch video from websites on your appleTV.. if you use skyfire browser you can even watch flash video from websites on your appleTV..
    doctorSpoc
    • RE: Internet TV Shootout: Apple TV, Roku and Sony Blu-Ray DVD Player

      @doctorSpoc

      I agree completely with your opinions.

      However, it's Steven's prerogative as the blog author, to voice his opinions with or without reasons (or good reasons) to support those beliefs but in this case, I felt he short changed the tremoundous advantages and usefulness of AirPlay technology, especially in conjunction between an Apple TV and a compatible iOS device.

      I believe Steven forgets that video content doesn't have to be sorely based upon commercial movie or tv show content. It can also include games. For example, just over this past holiday, my eleven year old niece brought along their family iPad 2 and I showed them how to stream their "Real Racing 2 HD" game play to my HDTV. In this particular case, the video game content was 1080p. (It's nice to have my extended family support and use Apple products. It comes in handy at times. Although then again, there is my good PC brother who refuses to jump on the bandwagon! Grin.)

      Anyway, my niece and her brother were thrilled to watch their favorite games displayed on my home entertainment system. I even showed them how the iPad can mirror it's content and actions to the HDTV screen. They had never experienced that before.

      As for myself, I love to display home digital photographs using my iPad, Apple TV and the HDTV system.
      kenosha77a
  • You don't need 10mbps

    I have no problem with 720p video on my 6mbit AT&T DSL line... I think you are overstating the need for a fast internet connection. More likely the issue is your router, or some other electromagnetic interference. We stream HDTV just fine on our 6mbit AT&T DSL connection, sometimes we have several devices going at once - ipad, roku, two roku's and an ipad, etc. 1080p Netflix video can sometimes rebuffer on a wifi connection, but works pretty well if the device is connected via Ethernet. I don't think the quality of the DSL line is the issue, as most devices have large streaming buffers to even out "jitter". I think the issues probably boil down to the make and firmware rev of your router, and, if streaming over wifi isn't working as well as you would like, probably has to do with the materials your walls are made of, or some other device in your house causing electrical interference.
    onephatcat@...
  • RE: Internet TV Shootout: Apple TV, Roku and Sony Blu-Ray DVD Player

    Is Apple TV the only way to play itunes movies on a TV? That is, without connecting a computer to the TV. I would love to have a DVD/Blu-ray that would connect to iTunes as well. From what I can find, that isn't an option. I appreciate anybody's input!
    techy_girl
    • No need to use iTunes for streaming

      @techy_girl You can get something like PS3 Media Server and get the same job. It is a free program and so far it works very well.

      BTW, the name may have PS3 in it ... but it is the best media streamer I have used so far ..... and I don't own a PS3.
      wackoae
    • RE: Internet TV Shootout: Apple TV, Roku and Sony Blu-Ray DVD Player

      @techy_girl Any DLNA device, including some TV's should find your songs. Many other media software options will grab your iTunes songs as well (I think even Windows Media Player if you assign it as a library).
      stano360
  • RE: Internet TV Shootout: Apple TV, Roku and Sony Blu-Ray DVD Player

    SJVN articles = cr*p. WD players are the best in the market.
    owlnet