While it's premature to say the end of cable TV is nigh, there are many new ways to enjoy on-demand media on your television — be it TV shows, movies, sporting events, concerts, photo galleries, music or podcasts.
Online video sites have grown in popularity over the years (YouTube, Hulu, and so forth). Before, you had to be in front of your computer to watch these clips. Now, with the improvement of "media hub" devices, you can navigate and watch content on the big screen in the family room. You will need a broadband Internet connection (and, of course, a television) to use the hubs in this review.
That said, consider these increasingly popular media hubs a complement to — rather than a replacement for — your cable or satellite TV service, as these devices don't offer the same selection you're accustomed to from your TV provider. But you'd be surprised how much these magical boxes can enhance your entertainment experience.
A tad bigger than a deck of cards, Apple TV is a small black box you connect to your television; it lets you do one of three things: rent commercial-free TV shows and movies; access various online video services (some for free, such as YouTube, while others are subscription-based, such as Netflix); or stream media from your home computer, such as music and video, as long as they're in the iTunes folder on your computer.
Apple TV has built-in wireless connectivity (802.11n), so it can join your home's Wi-Fi network; use the remote to first punch in the password, if any (this is required only once). Alternatively, you can use a wired (Ethernet) cable to access the Internet.
This second-generation product is 80 percent smaller than its white predecessor and does away with the hard drive as you're only streaming (not saving) content. The video quality is excellent — 720p high-definition TV shows (for 99 cents apiece) or rented HD movies ($4.99 each) — plus, speeds are fast, with video that starts mere seconds after clicking on it. You have 30 days to start watching a rented TV show or movie; once you click to start, you have 48 hours in which to finish it (or you can watch it as many times as you like within this period).
Navigating through menu screens via the silver remote (or free Remote app on an iPhone, iPod touch or iPad) is quite intuitive. The user interface is very clean, with a minimalist design, which is one of Apple's hallmarks across all of its gadgets.
One shortcoming with Apple TV, however, is a lack of selection when it comes to TV shows. While ABC and Fox are onboard, CBS and NBC are not. Other providers include the Disney Channel and BBC America. There are many thousands of movies, however, including ones available the same day as the DVD.
Another potential issue is that you need an HDMI connection to connect it to a television. This should be fine for televisions bought in the past couple of years, but some users might prefer to have a choice of other connection types, such as composite (RCA), S-Video or component — especially those with older televisions.
Overall, Apple TV is a delicious way to access a world of online video and liberate all the media stored on your computer's hard drive.
While there are three different Roku devices to choose from (from $59.99), the top-of-the-line Roku XD|S model ($99.99) features 1080p high-definition streaming, dual-band Wireless N (802.11n) speeds and other benefits, such as multiple connectivity options and other features (more on this in a moment).
More so than Apple TV, Roku media players are a conduit to a huge collection of streaming entertainment — including more than 100,000 movies and TV shows from Netflix, Amazon Video On Demand and Hulu Plus (the latter of which features many ABC, FOX and NBC series); live and on-demand major league baseball, NHL hockey and Ultimate Fighting Championship matches; music from Pandora and other services; photo and video sharing from Flickr and Facebook; and much more.
Another advantage over Apple TV is multiple output options, including HDMI, component, composite and digital (optical) audio. But setup wasn't quite as simple as the plug-and-play Apple TV.
Oh, and a few other observations: YouTube isn't available, and you can't access your own PC media. But if you have a USB thumb drive packed with video, photos and music, it can be played on this box via a free downloadable upgrade (due out by the time you read this).
An "Instant Replay" button, represented by a small arrow, skips back the video seven seconds — in case you missed some soft-spoken dialogue or a subtle joke — not unlike what's available on your digital video recorder (DVR).
The similarly priced Apple TV and Roku XD|S products each have their own merits.
If you're already comfortable with iTunes and have used your computer to buy movies, TV shows and music over the years, then Apple TV is a good pick. It lets you enjoy it all in your home theater — plus, it gives you access to rentable TV shows and movies and other online services. Setup is a breeze and the interface is, in a word, elegant.
Roku, however, offers a lot more online content — a lot more (oddly, except for YouTube) — plus, it offers additional connectivity options and other bells and whistles, such as the handy "Instant Replay" button and USB playback. But it doesn't let you access content on your computer, a very convenient feature found on Apple TV.
There isn't a clear winner in this battle of the boxes. Rather, you need to decide which one best meets your needs and preferences.
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