Digital Crave

Battle of the set-top boxes: Apple TV vs. Roku 2 XS

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.

Sure, many new Smart TVs have built-in wireless connectivity to access all this online and on-demand content -- but inexpensive boxes that connect to your existing television can also do the trick, and at a fraction of the price.

With that in mind, consider these increasingly popular "set-top boxes" or "media hubs" a complement -- rather than a replacement -- to your cable or satellite television service, as these Internet devices don't offer the same selection you're accustomed to from your television provider. But you'd be surprised how much these home theater accessories can enhance your entertainment experience.

Here's a closer look at two of the biggest players in this space: Apple TV and Roku 2 XS, both of which cost $99.99.

Apple TV

A tad bigger than a deck of cards, Apple TV is a small black box you connect to your television and it lets you do one of three things: rent commercial-free TV shows and movies; access various online video services (some for free, like YouTube, while others are subscription-based, such as Netflix); or you can stream media from your home computer, such as music and video, as long as it's 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 only required once). Alternatively, you can use a wired ("Ethernet") cable to access the Internet.

The video quality of this third-generation product is excellent — top-of-the-line 1080p high-definition TV shows (for $0.99 cents apiece) or rented HD movies ($4.99 each) — plus with Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound in most cases. Speeds are fast, too, with content that starts mere seconds after clicking on it. You have 30 days to start watching a rented TV show or movie, and 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).

Along with the abovementioned YouTube and Netflix, there are other streaming services you can take advantage of including Vimeo, Flickr, Wall Street Journal Live and sports services that require a subscription including MLB.TV, NBA.com and NHL SportsCenter.

Navigating through menu screens via the silver remote (or free Remote app on an iPhone, iPod touch or iPad) is quite intuitive. In fact, the user-interface is very clean, with a minimalist design, which is one of Apple's hallmarks across all of its gadgets.

One of Apple TV's competitive advantage is support for AirPlay and iCloud. With AirPlay, you can wirelessly stream content to your Apple TV via your iPad, iPhone, or iPod touch (running iOS 5 or later), therefore video, photos and music stored on these portable devices can start playing on your television in real time. Those who have an iPad 2 or new iPad, or iPhone 4S can also use AirPlay to mirror what's on your tablet or smartphone screen — even games, apps (such as Facebook or Twitter), web browsing, email, and more. With iCloud, you can access your iTunes Store purchases anytime with no downloads or syncing, use Photo Stream to immediately see photos taken with your iPhone, iPod touch or iPad or listen to your entire music library via the iTunes Match option.

There are a few shortcomings with Apple TV, however. When streaming media from a computer, Apple's box doesn't support as many codecs (file types) as other media set-top boxes, and all content must be first imported into iTunes. Plus, unlike the Roku 2 XS and many other media players, there is no USB port for a thumbdrive. While it doesn't bother me much, Apple TV only works with HDMI to connect to a TV or audio-video receiver -- with no standard-definition option. On a related note, the third-gen Apple TV supports 1080p video but there isn't a lot of 1080p content yet at the iTunes store.

Despite some minor niggles, Apple TV delivers a delicious way to access a world of online video and liberate media stored on your computer's hard drive so you can enjoy it on a big screen and with surround sound.

Roku 2 XS

Similar to Apple TV, Roku 2 XS is a small black set-top player you attach to your television via HDMI cable (recommended, but not included) or those red, yellow and white composite ("RCA") cables, which are found in the box for standard-definition quality.

As with Apple's product, you'll first need to connect the Roku to your broadband Internet connection, either wirelessly or via an Ethernet cable plugged into your high-speed modem or router. The unit also ships with a matching black remote.

Once you're connected in one of these two ways, you'll then select what "channels" you'd like to access. And this is where Roku shines as there are more than 500 channels available.

This includes streaming movies, TV shows and user videos from Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant Video, HBO GO, Showtime, Crackle, Disney, DishWORLD and Vimeo (including support for top-of-the-line 1080p HD video); live and on-demand sports from the NHL, NBA, MLB, MLS and UFC; music from Pandora, Rdio, Slacker Radio and TuneIn Radio; photos and videos from Facebook and Flickr; and news, weather and other information from the Wall Street Journal and CNBC. Some of the user-made videos are low-quality, however, including a handful of cooking channels with poor audio, but there's a lot to choose from at least.

Like Apple TV, some channels are free to use, while some require a subscription, such as Netflix ($8/month).

But unlike Apple TV, the Roku 2 XS also offers a few interactive games, such as Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy. In fact, Rovio's mega-popular mobile game Angry Birds is included with the cost of the Roku 2 XS. As with the smartphone and tablet versions, Angry Birds is a physics-based puzzler that challenges you to fling birds out of a slingshot to destroy pigs protected by a fortress. By using the Roku remote to select the right amount of force and direction the birds will fly, you'll attempt to snuff out the swine in as few moves as possible. It's insanely addictive — and looks and plays well on the big-screen.

Something else not found in the Apple TV product is a USB port on the side of the Roku unit, therefore you can snap in a thumbdrive loaded with music (AAC, MP3 files), videos (MP4/H.264) and photos (JPG, PNG). There's also microSD card slot at the back for additional game and channel storage, if needed.

On the flipside, Apple TV has a few things not found in the Roku 2 XS. For one, Apple TV grants you access to the iTunes store to browse, buy and rent a ton of content, as well as dozens of commercial-free streaming radio stations. You can also tap into your PC or Mac somewhere else in your home over Wi-Fi and play all your media in iTunes. Finally, Roku doesn't have a licensing agreement with YouTube, which is a shame. You can access YouTube on Apple TV or any of the Google TV products, such as the Sony Internet Player.

Wrap up

Each at $100, Apple TV and Roku 2 XS each have their own merits.

If you're already comfortable with iTunes and have filled up your computer's hard drive with video, photos and music over the years, then Apple TV is a good pick as it lets you enjoy it all in your home theater -- not to mention it gives you access to rentable TV shows and movies and the option to wirelessly play content from your iPad, iPhone or iPod touch. Setup is a breeze and the interface is, in a word, elegant.

On the flipside, Roku offers a lot more online content — more than 500 channels at this point (except for YouTube) — plus it includes the awesome Angry Birds. The Roku also includes cables to connect to your television, a microSD slot and a USB port to play media you might have stored on your keychain (read: no Internet connection required).

There isn't a clear winner in this battle of the boxes, but rather, deciding on which one boils down to your individual needs and preferences.

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