Apple TV vs. Google TV vs. Roku: 3

Remote control: IR keyboard controller, Android/iOS apps, optional Mini Controller ($129.99)

Connectivity: 802.11a/b/g/n, Ethernet, two USB ports, HDMI in and out

Basic media channels: YouTube, Pandora, Crackle, Blip.tv, Vevo, others

Premium media channels: Netflix, Amazon Video On Demand, Dish Network Video On Demand (for Dish satellite subscribers), HBO Go

I took this to be a function of the box's ability to adapt to varying signal strength, and as compromises go, it was better than having the video just pause while the buffer filled again.

Bottom line

Google TV is an ambitious project that spans the worlds of computing and television. It's inevitable that occasionally you'll need to stop and wonder whether the Logitech Revue is going to behave like a computer or a television, or not quite like either. But if your budget stretches to three times the price of an Apple TV or Roku XD|S, it's more likely to transform your TV-watching experience than any other product in this roundup.

Roku XD|S

If Apple TV and Google TV feel like slick corporate TV networks, Roku is more like a 1980s local cable station: It gives you access to network feeds, sure, but there's a real enthusiast's feel to it. You need to root around a bit to get to the good stuff -- even visit a couple of Roku fan sites to see what they have done with Roku's open API architecture. But if you like that home-brew club feel, Roku's a rewarding product.

Setup

Roku's XD|S box is, at $100, the most expensive of its newly released line (there's also a $60 HD model that does 720p HD, and an $80 1080p XD model that lacks some of the output ports of the XD|S). But since the XD|S is priced like the Apple TV and throws in some features that Apple left out, it seemed like an obvious choice for comparison.

To begin with, in addition to an HDMI port, the Roku comes with composite and RCA video/audio outputs, so you can plug it into older televisions or video projectors. It even ships with a yellow, red and white RCA cable.

The XD|S also has a USB port, into which you can plug a USB hard drive or memory stick. As of November (when the application will be ready), you will be able to play MP4 or M4V videos at up to 1080p-resolution HD, MP3 audio, and slideshows of JPG and PNG files. Until then, there's a USB screensaver channel that can display the JPG content of your USB stick, which improves on the rather limited built-in screensaver options.

The box itself is chunkier than the Apple TV: a 5-in.-square, 1-in.-deep black box sporting a blue fabric tag with the word Roku on it. The chunky little remote has a matching tag and only a few basic buttons: an arrow pad with central OK button, and Back, Menu, Home, Skip and Play/Pause keys. Next to the stylish Apple remote and the great keyboard that comes with the Logitech device, it looks almost funny, but it does the job, and its well-spaced layout resulted in fewer mistaken commands than the others'.

Setting up channels to watch through a Roku box works differently than with the other set-top streamers in this review. When you click through Roku's on-screen Channel Shop and select a channel like Netflix, Pandora or Amazon Video On Demand, a five- or six-digit code and an URL (such as www.netflix.com/roku) pops up. You type this into your computer's Web browser, log in and enter the code.

On the plus side, this cuts down on clicking through on-screen keyboards on your TV; on the minus side, you need a computer handy in your living room during setup.

Content

The Roku platform is extensible, so its channel store (the menu where you pick top-level channels to watch) features premium online video providers, such as Netflix, Amazon Video On Demand, MLB.tv and the Weiss Money Network, alongside the work of more rough-and-ready video sources like Vimeo and Blip.tv.

Roku's interface suffers somewhat from having so many channels to choose from. It's a little bewildering to see a premium financial network in the same menu as a more amateurish offering like "Fifty Great Speeches," a collection of inspiring audio clips sometimes set to very low-resolution still photographs.

Some online channels you'd really like to see, such as YouTube, don't appear on the menu at all. That's not to say Roku doesn't support them -- it just hasn't turned them on. You can add such channels by visiting the sites of Roku developers -- after a few clicks at one such site, TheNowhereMan.com, I was enjoying YouTube and Archive.org movies on the big screen.

Streaming media from your computer is a little less satisfying on a Roku box than streaming from the Internet. You need to add the Gabby Personal Media Server channel to your Roku, and download and install the server software on your PC (yes, it's a PC-only server). After a few rocky restarts on my test system, the local media server kicked in, but there was a noticeable latency when scrolling through to find files I wanted to watch. In short, I had to wait too long for menus to respond and files to load.

To play an iTunes library on a Roku box, you need to jump through another hoop: Register and set up a locker at MP3tunes.com, where you can store up to 10GB of MP3, AAC and other iTunes-friendly audio files for free. The plus side: You get 10GB of your iTunes library to play on any Web-ready device. The downside: You have to set it up.

Quality

In terms of video output, the HDMI video and audio output from the Roku XD|S matched that of Apple TV and Logitech's Revue when I played comparable Netflix videos and downloaded HD footage from BBC America. The video output from Roku's composite and RCA jacks was of lower quality, but that's because RCA and composite are always grainier than HDMI -- and kudos to Roku for providing some backward-compatible options in its streaming boxes.

At a Glance

Roku XD|S

Roku Inc.

Price: $99.99

Dimensions: 4.9 x 4.9 x 1.2 in.

Video output: 1080p HDTV

Audio output: 5.1 surround sound

Remote control: IR remote, iOS apps

Connectivity: 802.11b/g/n, Ethernet, one USB port, HDMI out, component video out, optical audio out

Basic media channels: Vimeo, Pandora, Roku Newscaster, others

Premium media channels: Netflix, Amazon VOD, Hulu Plus, UFC, NBA Game Time, Mog, MLB.tv, Weiss Money Network, others

On a couple of occasions, it seemed to take the Roku box a while longer to buffer up a good stream before playing than the Apple and Logitech boxes on the home network tests, though that wasn't apparent in the load-balanced corporate network testing.

Bottom line

As a platform, Roku feels like the world of home-brew computer enthusiasts in the 1980s. There's a lot of professional-grade stuff there; there's a lot of clever amateur stuff, too. For a consumer, it means that there's plenty of choice, much of it free, but you may find a few channels are clunkers before you design your dream menu of video options. The plus side is that you can do that more readily with Roku than you can with Apple.

Of course, if your budget spreads to three or more times the cost of a Roku box, you can expand your viewing options with Logitech's Google TV box, the Revue. But for a low-budget device, especially for those with older-component TVs or projectors, the Roku XD line is an obvious choice.

Conclusions

All three of the set-top streamers in this review provide viewing choices that you just don't get from regular television, but each has a different flavor.

Apple TV is great for tapping into your iTunes library and the iTunes Store, and has a slick interface. But beyond YouTube and some great podcasts, most of its emphasis seems to be on pay-to-view content.

The Roku XD|S and its sister products offer current standards like Netflix and Amazon Video On Demand, but also let you delve into an online videophile community that is sometimes amateurish but occasionally turns up a gem like Archive.org's Prelinger collection.

At three times the price, Logitech's Google TV-based Revue is much more ambitious: It sets out to be the focal point of your TV viewing. It snakes its way between your DVR, cable box and TV and controls them all with a remote that's halfway between the worlds of online computing and couch-potatodom.

Of the three, I suspect I'll be using the Apple TV just to screen my own video-editing projects on the big screen (its integration with iTunes is just too convenient not to), and the funky lumber room of public videos that Roku provides for my general viewing.

Matt Lake is a technology journalist who provides videographic support at a high school. When his reading-dimmed eyes failed to pick up artifacting on HD video streaming, the eyes of the honors photography class did not.

This story, "Apple TV vs. Google TV vs. Roku: 3" was originally published by Computerworld.

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