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Set-Top Smackdown: Apple TV and iTunes vs. Roku and Netflix

Set-Top Smackdown: Apple TV and iTunes vs. Roku and Netflix

Apple TV and the Netflix Player by Roku both give you movies on demand via the Internet; they just go about it in very different ways. The Netflix box wins on price and sheer catalog size; Apple TV wins in terms of overall quality. In the end it depends on whether you want fine dining or a buffet meal.

Comparing the Apple TV to the Netflix Player by Roku is like comparing two wildly different kinds of automobiles -- like a Chevrolet Camaro vs. a Ford F-150 pickup.

Sure, the Camaro and F-150 are both automobiles, and they can take you places you've never been before, but it's their differences that define them more than their similarities.

So it is with the Apple TV and the Netflix Player by Roku. I've had several weeks to play around with the Netflix Player by Roku, and I've had an Apple TV for months. Both are good solutions for getting digital movies to your television via an Internet connection, yet both have limitations. Both hardware units also require their respective proprietary services from Apple and Netflix, and therein lie most of the issues -- and, of course, the video joy.

The New Kid on the Block

The Netflix Player by Roku is the relative newcomer to the set-top box space. It's about the size of a paperback book and can connect to your TV via standard RCA jacks, S-video, component video, HDMI (high-definition multimedia interface) and optical audio. It'll connect to virtually any TV or home theater system at a resolution of 480p. The Roku box itself will support high-definition (at least 720p) streaming movies, but the Netflix service does not. Netflix says it will deliver HD movies at some undefined future date.

The Netflix Player by Roku costs a reasonable US$99.99, and it comes with a 30-day money back guarantee. To use it, you need to have an account with Netflix, which essentially starts at $8.99 a month and includes the ability to have in your possession one physical DVD at any given moment within the month -- watch the DVD, mail it back, receive another one, watch it, mail it back, etc. For the $8.99 and above plans, you can stream an unlimited amount of Netflix movies and video -- which is one of the sweetest parts of the whole deal. There's one simple fixed cost each month, and you can watch hours and hours without busting your budget.

Setup is fast and pain free -- all you do is connect the box to your TV, connect to your Internet service, jot down a code word and activate your Netflix account for streaming via most any Web browser on a PC or Mac. You then create a queue of movies that you'd like to watch. The Roku player retrieves the queue and gives you an easily navigable, visual menu of your options. You can't browse for movies on the Roku Player on your TV -- you've got to do it via a network-connected computer -- but it's still easy enough.

The video and audio quality is acceptable as long as you have a decent Internet connection. Netflix and Roku recommend at least DSL (digital subscriber line) speeds of 1.5 Mbps (megabits per second), but I wouldn't expect much at this speed. I use a 3 Mbps DSL connection that in reality consistently delivers over 2 Mbps, and I would occasionally get low-quality streams. Netflix rates the video quality of the stream via four little circles. Four solid circles mean you'll get great quality, one solid circle means it's going to be blurry -- you might just give up in frustration. Two is acceptable, but not irritating, and three is what I've usually gotten -- good enough. Netflix says the quality is determined by the Internet connection speed, but I haven't been able to figure out how -- sometimes a movie will show at a two circle and show later at a three with no apparent drop in Internet speed or WiFi network activity. When it hits a single circle for no apparent reason ... that's when the fun stops and the show gets turned off: single circles suck.

10,000-Plus Videos

In sheer number of videos available for watching, Netflix seems like a steal. Upon closer inspection, though, much of the content borders on pathetic. Most of the movies are old, most of them have titles only a devoted cult movie buff would recognize, the cover art doesn't offer good first impressions, and the descriptions tend not to be enticing either. Of the Top 100 DVD titles that Netflix rents traditionally, only two are available for instant viewing.

When it comes to new releases, you're not going to see them in any form on the Netflix Player by Roku with the Netflix service.

The recommendation is easy: Use your computer to first go over the content that's available for watching instantly. If you like what you see, get the box. If not, check back every few months to see if anything has changed.

The Roku player's functionality is good, the service is good, but the catalog of titles is limited despite the impressive "10,000" number Netflix throws around. In case you're wondering, the issue probably lies with Hollywood and getting the rights to stream the movies, legally speaking, nailed down. It's not really Netflix' fault -- more of an unfortunate fact of life right now. Eventually, we'll hopefully be able to stream most any film, and Netflix is positioning itself to deliver it -- in the future.

On to the Apple TV

The Apple TV essentially also delivers movies to your living room, but it uses a different model -- and then ups the ante with more features.

Apple TV is designed to connect to HDTVs using HDMI or component video/audio, and overall it caters to a customer looking for a high level of quality who's also willing to pay for it. The Apple TV box starts at $229 for a 40 GB hard drive version and $329 for a 160 GB version. Where the Roku box is light and simple, the Apple TV is elegant and sophisticated. While the Netflix Player menu is serviceable, the Apple TV menu is slick and cool.

Setup is also easy with Apple TV -- all you have to do is connect it to your TV, connect to the Internet, and create an iTunes account or sign in with your existing iTunes account.

Different Delivery

Where Netflix streams movies on demand, Apple TV and the iTunes store only let you rent or buy the movies via full file downloads. If you buy a movie or TV show, you get it forever. Rentals, on the other hand, must be watched within 30 days, and after you start watching a movie, you've only got 24 hours left before it disappears. If you don't finish before 24 hours, you're out of luck -- you've got to rent and download the entire movie again. It's a total pain.

The 24/30 rule, however, isn't Apple's fault -- it's basically industry-wide. Dish Network, for example, has a very similar set of rules for movies that are recorded via the company's digital video recorders and rented via its pay-per-view channels.

Still, total file downloads let Apple's model deliver consistently better video and audio quality. The system also includes the ability to download HD versions of movies at a $1 extra per movie. Plus, the HD versions come with Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound. Via a 3 Mbps DSL connection, most movies are ready to start viewing within 10 minutes or so, which means the entire file will continue downloading while you watch it -- you just have to give it a head start.

Content at a Cost

The Apple TV and iTunes combination gives you much better content options than Netflix -- the movies are newer, and the older movies tend to be classics or simply really good older movies. For instance, Apple TV owners can buy movies at the same time they come out on DVD ... or wait 30 days and rent them at a much lower cost of $3.99 for the standard version or $4.99 for the HD version.

So, titles like "Drillbit Taylor", "Fool's Gold", "Jumper", and "10,000 BC" are all available for renting or buying via Apple TV, while they don't even exist in the Netflix Player by Roku universe. Still, you can get all of those titles via DVD in the mail through Netflix within a couple of days ... and then watch the DVD repeatedly or hold it for weeks before returning it. So really, the Netflix solution is both DVD rentals by mail and streaming, while Apple TV is downloads only, with some irritating caveats.

Still, potential buyers should be aware that the Apple TV is much more than just a movie and video delivery box. It's also a media extender device that links iTunes and photos to your HDTV for easy song and photo slide show playback. Plus, you can browse photos online via Flickr, Apple's new Me.com service, view YouTube videos, and download tons of free video and HD video podcasts. One more thing: Apple TV has gobs of television shows for sale for $1.99 each.

Fine Dining vs. Buffet

Basically, it comes down to this: If you want fresh HD quality content downloadable for immediate TV viewing, your best choice is the Apple TV, hands down. The only catch is you have to be willing to pay for it each time you rent or buy a movie or TV show.

If you gravitate toward an all-you-can-eat buffet, Netflix, with its mail-order DVDs and bigger streaming library, will at least keep you full.


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