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

What's the best way for you to get Internet video to your TV? It depends.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

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 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.

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