There are so many streaming video devices designed for the home theater market right now that it’s getting difficult to keep up. Roku, Chromecast, Apple TV, WD Play, Slingbox, Netgear Push2TV, TiVo Stream, Vizio Co-Star, etc. Then there’s all the gaming consoles, smart HDTVs and smart Blu-ray players that also offer streaming video access to apps like Netflix, Hulu Plus and YouTube. And don’t forget about HTPCs, a small portion of the home theater market, but one that has an enthusiastic user base.
Out of this hardware fracas, there are three devices that have constantly topped Amazon’s list of streaming media players as well as numerous buyer’s guides, the Google Chromecast, the Roku 3 and the Apple TV. But which one is right for you? We’ve broken down the pros and cons of the three devices into several categories to help you decide.
Price: Google Chromecast (if you own a smartphone / tablet)
The Chromecast is obviously cheaper than both set-top boxes, a $35 MSRP versus a $99 MSRP. Basically, you can purchase three Chromecasts for about the same price as a Roku 3 or Apple TV. It’s even cheaper than Roku’s most basic hardware, the $49 Roku LT. In addition, you can occasionally find sales on the Chromecast at a $30 price point and sales at a $80 price point on both the Apple TV and Roku 3.
However, the Chromecast is not a standalone device. The Chromecast requires a mobile device, like a smartphone or tablet, or a PC in order to watch streaming video. While the vast majority of households likely own one or more of these devices, that’s certainly not the case for everyone. As a standalone device, the Roku 3 or Apple TV would ultimately be a cheaper purchase than a Chromecast / smartphone combo.
Official App Support: Roku 3
After Roku finally added a YouTube application this month, there’s really no contest in regards to volume of available applications and support for the most popular applications. The sheer number of official apps (750+) on the Roku Channel store is absolutely staggering. It’s also the only device of the three that includes official Amazon Instant Video support, ideal for Amazon Prime subscribers.
Chromecast has the weakest lineup of supported third party applications, but it’s growing extremely fast, especially when compared to Apple’s slow crawl on the Apple TV. Google is also working on a Chromecast software development kit, thus app support will likely explode during 2014. However, all three devices support the major video subscription applications like Netflix and Hulu Plus, basically the most popular applications among U.S. consumers.
Web Content Support: Google Chromecast
While the Roku 3 certainly has a breadth of Web video apps and unofficial apps to stream video, it can’t compete with the Chromecast’s ability to imitate a HTPC. Want to watch regular Hulu.com on your HDTV? No problem, just fire up Google Chrome on your PC and stream the current Chrome tab to Chromecast. Want to watch the last episode of the The Big Bang Theory since it’s not available on Hulu? Just pull up CBS.com and stream the tab.
Also similar to a HTPC, you can utilize VPNs and Web proxies to gain access to video that’s restricted by region. This is ideal for anyone that lives in a country different from where the content is produced. Using this method, people outside the U.S. can watch video on Hulu, for instance. It’s also becoming popular to use this type of service inside the U.S. to access popular British shows like Downton Abbey and Sherlock.
Local Content Support: Roku 3 / Google Chromecast
Using an application called Plex that’s available on the Roku 3 and Chromecast, users can stream a local library of content stored on their home network to a HDTV. It’s a fairly simple solution that allows users to take their local content anywhere. While free to stream content on the Roku 3, be aware that Chromecast streaming currently requires a subscription to PlexPass.
However, Google also offers a way to stream content through Google Chrome as well. Including support for popular video formats such as AVI, MP4, M4V and MPEG, Chrome users can open up a video file in the Web browser with the command “Control-O” on a Windows PC and start streaming to the Chromecast. While this method isn’t as user friendly as official local file support with navigation element to queue up content, it’s quite effective.
Regarding the Apple TV, Apple offers no official support for local content streaming, likely because it would undercut sales on iTunes. However, Android users can download an application called AllCast (currently in public beta) to stream local content stored on the mobile device to the Apple TV, an app that Google recently blocked on the Chromecast. You can also jailbreak the Apple TV to make it more compatible for local content support, but that requires a bit of technical expertise.
Content Performance: Roku 3
If there’s something that I absolutely abhor about the early generation of streaming video devices, it was having to wait for video and applications to load. The early Roku devices suffered from this. Even the PS3 and Xbox 360 seem to take an eternity to load streaming video applications when compared to the Roku 3.
With that in mind, here are my loading times to queue up content on all three devices using a few of the most popular video apps. Just for reference, all devices are streaming over Wi-Fi at the same TV using a Netgear WNDR3000 router. In addition, I’m using an iPhone 5 to stream content to the Chromecast. The time measurement starts the instant I hit the final launch button for the video to the instant that the video starts playing on my HDTV screen. I tested this with multiple pieces of content and took an average of each.
- Chromecast: 6.7 seconds
- Roku 3: 4.7 seconds
- Apple TV: 21.2 seconds
- Airplay: 9.6 seconds
- Chromecast: 7.1 seconds
- Roku 3: 3.3 seconds
- Apple TV: 5.4 seconds
- Airplay: 3.5 seconds
- Chromecast: 5.8 seconds
- Roku 3: 4.5 seconds
- Apple TV: 4.9 seconds
- AirPlay: 4.6 seconds
As you can see, the Roku 3 wins out in all three categories for speed. I’ve also noticed that the Roku 3 almost always starts playing the high definition stream of YouTube videos, something that the Chromecast struggles with from time to time. Extremely odd since YouTube is in Google’s wheelhouse. Hulu seems to be fastest on the set-top boxes and Netflix is abysmally slow on the Apple TV. Strange, since the Apple TV doesn’t have any trouble loading up Hulu and YouTube video content fairly quickly. However, AirPlay from my iPhone 5 to the Apple TV was much faster in all three cases.
Regarding video performance, it’s something of a toss up. All three devices support 1080p playback and provide a clear, high definition picture for the home theater. However, the availability of 1080p content is dependent on third party services for the most part. I haven’t noticed any significant quality differences between 1080p content available for purchase on Google Play (Chromecast) or iTunes (Apple TV), but the selection of 1080p content seems to be larger on iTunes. On the Roku 3, I actually prefer the HDX 1080p streams provided by Vudu.
User Interface: Roku 3
While simplicity wins out on the Google Chromecast, it’s really tough to beat the content discovery feature of the Roku 3. Utilizing a custom search function within the Roku 3 UI, I can search for one specific piece of content and see results listed for multiple apps. It’s ideal for finding video that’s listed on a subscription service like Netflix in order to avoid a separate purchase on a service like Vudu. That’s something that’s impossible with the Chromecast or Apple TV. Basically, you have to launch multiple apps to search for the same content over and over.
While you can’t really compare the Chromecast’s interface with the other two devices, I vastly prefer the Roku 3 UI over Apple TV. It’s faster, more responsive and seems to launch applications quicker. Roku is also more expedient with firmware updates and upgrades, something that doesn’t seem to be a major priority for Apple. Of course, Apple has a slightly better store (iTunes) for purchasing content, mostly because the content selection is a bit more expansive than some of the alternatives on the Roku 3.
Remote Control: Google Chromecast
As much as I love the simplicity of the Apple TV remote or the headphone jack on the Roku 3 remote for private listening, neither hold a candle to the second screen experience on a smartphone. The Chromecast basically eliminates the need for a traditional remote control since all functions are performed within the mobile apps that are compatible with the device. I can peruse through Netflix’s content library looking for something new to watch while an episode of a different show is playing on the big screen. Apple and Roku do offer smartphone applications to act as a remote control, but neither offer significant second screen options beyond access to the keyboard for typing.
What About Google TV?
If you haven’t noticed, it’s clear that Google TV is pretty much dead at this point. While Google is rumored to be working on a new Nexus device designed for the home theater that could launch as early as Q1 2014, the Google TV brand and user interface is barely being used by consumer electronics manufacturers. You will still see a smattering of Google TV devices, like the Sony NSZGS8 Internet Player, on the market, but I’d expect Google TV will be rebranded as Nexus TV next year in order to line up with Nexus mobile devices. To what extent that the Google TV interface is used on the new Nexus device is anyone’s guess.
But What Should I Buy?
Personally, I prefer a combination of devices. I utilize the Roku 3 in my main home theater and I have Chromecasts installed at the other televisions scattered around my home. The Apple TV is also hooked up in my home theater, but I can count the number of times I’ve used it over the last twelve months on one hand. Apple’s AirPlay, while an exciting feature at release, has taken a backseat to streaming content with the Chromecast, at least in my household.
The Chromecast has also become one of my favorite travel devices when I attend family events or business functions. Assuming it’s easy to get access to the Wi-Fi network, I can fire up the Chromecast and I can quickly pair my device in order to share pictures (using a laptop and Chrome) or other media with the rest of the group.
It’s also not much larger than a traditional USB thumb drive, thus it’s easy to slip into my laptop bag, even with the power adaptor. In addition, I’ve used it for a conference call once, pretty smooth for a Google Hangout.
It’s fairly clear that the current version of the Apple TV has become somewhat stale at this point, especially since the hardware hasn’t been officially refreshed in nearly two years. I’m something of an Apple fan (with an iPhone 5 and iPad Mini), but I find myself defaulting to the Chromecast for streaming video time and time again as opposed to using AirPlay on the Apple TV. Until Apple rolls out new hardware with the new A7 processor, a slicker user interface and greater app support, you are better off picking up a Roku 3 for a traditional set-top box solution or the Google Chromecast, if you prefer streaming over mobile devices.