Google Chromecast vs. set-top boxes
Aug 01, 2013 (St. Joseph News-Press - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- Last week, set-top box makers like Roku, Apple and Western Digital came to a stark realization -- they're going to have to think smaller and cheaper in the future.
On July 25, Google unveiled its evolutionary replacement for those increasingly popular streaming set-top boxes that are allowing people all over the country to say goodbye to cable and satellite. It's a little zip drive that you plug into your TV's HDMI port. It costs just $35 and it's called the Chromecast (it can be purchased at Best Buy stores or online at google.com/intl/en/chrome/devices/chromecast).
Using the Chromecast is simple -- plug it in, connect it to your home's Wi-Fi network, and you can instantly stream Netflix, YouTube, Google Play and Pandora from any Chromebook, Android/Apple iOS device or any computer running the Google Chrome browser (basically, only BlackBerry and Windows Phone users won't be able to connect with the new Google device).
The Chromecast's release is significant because it indicates that only a small drive -- not a big box -- will be needed to stream content in the future. It's even more significant because it's so cheap. After all, this new device currently costs less than a tank of gas.
However, the Chromecast still lags behind the competition in some regards. Owners aren't able to stream PC tabs to their TV from their Chrome browser yet, but Google has indicated that feature is coming very soon. Plus, it doesn't carry apps like Hulu, HBO Go, Amazon Instant Video, Spotify and many others.
The Chromecast essentially is a glorified Netflix and YouTube player right now, but more app developers surely will start to flock to the new device. Plus, the Chromecast offers Netflix in 1080p video quality, unlike the Xbox 360, several other set-top boxes and most smart TV apps which stream Netflix only in 720p.
We've consulted with St. Joseph Electronics owner Chuck Nill and PCMag.com's Will Greenwald (who has reviewed all of the following items) to see how the Chromecast fares against the best set-top boxes around.
Roku 3 ($99) The Roku 3 is the app king. It currently offers access to more than 750 different entertainment channels including popular apps such as Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, Hulu Plus, Vudu and HBO GO. The only major player you won't find on the Roku 3 is YouTube.
"That Roku has a lot. It has more apps than most," Mr. Nill says. "I haven't had anyone complain about them." Ideal for high-definition televisions, the Roku 3 offers 1080p video playback with 7.1 and 5.1 surround sound. The box also includes an Ethernet port for direct connections to a router, which is ideal for those who don't have the best Wi-Fi connection (you won't find this on Google's Chromecast). The Roku 3 also has a USB port to connect a flash drive or portable hard drive and a MicroSD slot to expand the internal memory for storing applications downloaded from the Roku channel store.
While many voiced their complaints about the navigation through the Roku and Roku 2, the Roku 3 offers a very snappy experience when navigating between pages. It feels faster than all other devices, and applications seem to respond more quickly. In addition, the universal search function has a wonderful focus on simplicity. Search results are based off the applications that have been installed on the device, and listings pop up almost instantly.
The Roku 3 lacks a Web browser, and it's not the best box for storing your own music and video files. But if you're looking to stream a variety of content from apps that aren't YouTube, it won't look or sound better than it will through the Roku 3.
Apple TV ($99) It's all about Airplay. With Apple TV's Airplay feature, you can display video, games or other applications from an iPod, iPhone or iPad on your TV. It's a feature that's undeniably valuable to people that already have invested in Apple products.
"Apple TV works really well with those devices," Mr. Nill says. "It seems like everyone has an iPad or an iPhone these days, and those who do are better off with Apple TV." Apple TV's video services include access to your iTunes libraries, Netflix, YouTube, Vimeo and MLB.tv. Hulu Plus is the only major app that's absent from the rundown, but considering Apple sells most recent episodes over iTunes, Mr. Greenwald says, the omission of Hulu makes sense.
The new Apple TV (released in 2012; the first model was released in 2010) also displays HD video in 1080p resolution. However, the crispness and quality of the video depends on the content and your Internet bandwidth.
"I watched a preview of 'The Simpsons: Tapped Out' in 1080p and it looked clear and smooth. After that, I loaded a 'Being Human' featurette during a dip in network performance and the video looked slightly blocky thanks to the compression," Mr. Greenwald says. "The 1080p support is great when your media can reach that level, but that won't always be certain." If the Apple ecosystem already is part of your home, then by all means, purchase the Apple TV. It'll look great as long as you have a good Wi-Fi connection.
WD TV Play ($69) Until the Chromecast's unveiling, it was difficult for other boxes to compete with Western Digital's newest media streamer purely on the basis of price. As you can see, the minimum price for streaming 1080p video usually hovers around $100 on set-top boxes like the Roku 3 and Apple TV. Western Digital accomplishes the same feat at $69 (it can occasionally be found on sale between $59 and $65).
While the WD TV Play doesn't offer the same amount of streaming apps as a Roku 3, it does still offer access to popular ones like Netflix, Vudu or Hulu Plus in 1080p video quality. However, you won't find Amazon, HBO GO or any professional sports offerings. It doesn't offer a Web browser either. But like the Roku 3, it does have a USB port for storage, along with an Ethernet port and composite video, HDMI and digital audio outputs.
Spawned from a hard drive supplier, Mr. Nill says the WD TV line has been the choice for people who have large personal media libraries. WD's products really shine when they're playing media from local or network drives, and they have the best reputation for playing various file formats. The Play is Western Digital's attempt at making a great streamer, so if playing your own files is important to you, invest a little more in the WD TV Live ($99).
Google TV boxes (range from $69 to $199) Google TV is a Smart TV platform from Google co-developed by Intel, Sony and Logitech. It is now available on set-top boxes made by Vizio, LG, Samsung, Hisense, Netgear, Asus and TCL as well.
Through Google TV, the Chrome browser provides a gateway to the Internet, allowing consumers to browse websites and watch television in tandem. It also can search to find content from live TV, Netflix, YouTube, HBO GO, Amazon and more. Android and Apple smartphones and tablet computers may be used as remote controls for Google TV, but many of these set-top boxes also come with wireless remote controls or full keypads.
If browsing the Web is your primary concern, buying a set-top box with Google TV included still may be your best bet.
Shea Conner can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @stjoelivedotcom.
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