The market for streaming media devices has, quite favorably, become somewhat crowded in the past year. Apple TV, Roku’s lineup, Amazon Fire TV, Chromecast, and Google’s new Nexus Player all vie for the dollars of both cord cutters and cable subscribers alike.
Macworld UK reviewed the now $69 Apple TV in the summer of 2014. It’s biggest criticism: “Not much content.” When I first purchased my two Apple TV units in the spring of 2013, the service offered roughly 25 streaming services—some requiring subscriptions (like Netflix and Hulu Plus), some requiring a cable or satellite TV account (the Disney channels, for example), and some free (Sony’s ad-supported Crackle, among others).
Today, Apple TV offers 74 channels—including Google’s YouTube, Vimeo, the new HBO NOW, and more specialized stuff like Bloomberg TV for financial news, Vevo for music videos, and even Yahoo’s Flickr for crowdsourced photos (which can even serve as a source for Apple TV’s screen saver, a very groovy feature indeed).
If you don’t own an Apple TV, but checked out the channel lineup a year or two ago, you’ll be pleased to know that it now provides several channels from mainstream TV that were previously absent. These include ABC, CNBC, Smithsonian Channel, Fox Now, and Britain’s Sky News—all of which require no cable/sat TV subscription (but you’re also getting canned episodes and segments, not a live stream). Many channels, however, require old school TV service and a login to watch on Apple’s venerable streaming box. These include Disney’s multiple offerings, PBS and PBS Kids, FX Now (famous for featuring every episode of The Simpsons), reality-leaning A&E, and grandpa’s favorite, the History channel.
There’s also access to top-tier “premium” services from the cable/sat TV world, including HBO GO, Showtime Anytime, and Disney’s ESPN. Even with basic cable, these avenues for high-quality entertainment will serve only to taunt you from Apple TV’s navigation menu. Slowly, but surely—in its own very purposeful fashion—Apple continues to offer more channels and expand the offerings of its industry-leading set-top streamer.
And then there’s the other big ecosystem-driven box: Amazon Fire TV. Like Apple’s offering, this same-price ($99) media streamer caters to people who subscribe to Amazon Prime and utilize the company’s Prime Instant Video (one of the best options for folks who don’t want Netflix, or to supplement it, and have no desire to watch stuff from iTunes). Fire TV offers some features absent from Apple TV, like a more intelligent remote, but also continually pushes users into Amazon’s ecosystem for rentals and purchases of music, movies, and TV episodes.
Roku’s various streaming devices—it sells four (priced at $49-99); more than any competitor—are the agnostic “do everything” media muscle residing in the middle. Roku’s website legitimately boasts “Over 1000 more channels than Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV, or Chromecast.” Roku has definitely differentiated itself from Apple’s minimalist channel lineup. For those who watch a ton of TV (especially cord cutters) and want the widest selection of channels available—including a boatload of obscure, arguably crappy, and fringy foreign language programming—Roku is the hands-down winner in the streaming media box wars.
One of the most appealing features of Apple TV is support for AirPlay, Apple’s wi-fi-enabled media casting tech. Built into all of the company’s mobile gadgets and computers, AirPlay allows you to send music and video to your TV or home theater with the tap of an icon (said CNET in August: “AirPlay is just awesome”). Some AV receivers, like many from Yamaha, Denon, and Pioneer Elite, already have AirPlay built into them. For most consumers, however, Apple TV is a great way to AirPlay-enable your display panel and surround sound speakers. But, again, this will be appealing only for those with multiple iOS and OS X devices already in use.
And let’s not forget Apple TV’s slim and sleek aluminum remote control. While it might sound trivial, the remote is a critical element of any media streamer. It’s the part you touch, toss on the ottoman, and sometimes curse. But Apple has some work to do in this department. Its remote supports only infrared (IR; a beam of light), not a radio frequency like Bluetooth or wi-fi. This means you have to point it at the small black Apple TV puck sitting next to your TV or AV receiver. This is a huge pain for many, like me, who have a TV mounted on a wall opposite their home theater gear and must point the remote behind them. Both the top shelf Roku 3 and Amazon Fire TV feature radio frequency-based remotes. Unlike Fire TV’s offering, the Apple TV remote also doesn’t support voice navigation and search.
The “match” between a consumer’s lifestyle or preferences and a media streaming device should depend most on one’s existing (or planned) digital ecosystem. If you have several of Apple’s iOS mobile devices floating around your home, Apple TV makes sense. If you don’t—and enjoy Amazon’s Prime Instant Video, for example—it probably doesn’t. Apple is obviously catering to its huge installed base of tablets, smartphones, and computers.
Who gains the most from Apple TV? Consumers who use iTunes to consume music, movies, and TV episodes, people who love to groove to Beats Music for on-demand songs or enjoy iTunes Radio for Pandora-like music discovery, and those who can’t do without their beloved iPads, iPhones, and other iDevices.
Quite honestly, those who simply suck down tons of Netflix and Hulu Plus, and own few or no Apple devices, can gain equal benefit from nearly any streaming media box. Personally, I’d recommend the Roku 3, unless you’re really into Amazon’s ecosystem and you’re a lightweight gamer, in which case the Fire TV is probably most appealing.
Don’t make the mistake of pigeonholing Apple TV into a corner appropriate only for fanboys. I’m an Apple fan, but not a fanboy. With two iPads, a Mac Mini, and several iPod Touches floating around my house, Apple TV simply works. The intuitive navigation, slick interface, and Apple’s minimalistic DNA shine through. If you’re a fan of Apple’s design and approach to all things digital, you’ll feel right at home with this premium media streaming device.
Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:
- Home Theater for the Internet Age ($9.95)
- Understanding Personal Data Security ($4.99)
- Understanding Home Theater ($4.99)
- Understanding Cutting the Cord ($4.99)
- Understanding Digital Music ($4.99)