Thursday, June 05, 2008, 05:55 am PT (08:55 am ET)
Review: Netflix Player vs Apple TV
Sync or Stream
Because everything is streamed directly on the Roku box, the quality you get is based on your network connection. Netflix serves up four different levels of quality, so what you get on a fast pipe looks better than what you can get if you share a slow DSL line. That also means that even if you wouldn't mind waiting to download the highest quality version possible, you can only get the poorest quality version if you have a slower network connection. Apple TV has a hard drive, so it can progressively download even HD movies in advance even if you have a slower connection.
Another advantage of Apple TV's hard drive storage is that users can sync a selection of movie downloads to the box, then take it to another location, even one lacking fast Internet service, and still play back their content. Apple's iTunes movie rentals do require a functional Internet connection to validate prior to watching them, but it does not have to be a high speed connection.
The Roku box is only usable when directly connected to fast Internet service. That also means it simply stops working in the case of a poorly timed Internet service outage. Its limited buffer of Flash RAM for incoming streamed content also means that fast forwarding or reviewing a movie results in a clumsy pause as the stream catches up and begins playing again. The user interface for this does seem to be well designed however, with the program presented as a series of still frames (below) that makes jumping back or forward easy enough to do. If you stop watching a program and return to it, it automatically beings playback where you left off last.
Audio and Video Quality
Roku promises to support 720p HD content at some point in the future. Doing so would require a very fast Internet connection because, again, the box has a very limited buffer for streamed content. Apple TV offers HD content now, both in commercial movies and in free podcasts and in Web Gallery and home movies. As mentioned above, its hard drive means that it can download titles and store them for playback, making it less dependent upon a flawlessly fast Internet pipe to deliver a smooth picture.
Both both boxes also support optical and HDMI digital audio outputs, but Roku's Netflix content only supports simple stereo audio. Apple TV supports 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks on most HD movies. Its TV and standard definition movies all have simpler Dolby Surround or just basic stereo audio.
The Roku box sports composite and s-video outputs, something Apple TV lacks. On an HDTV, using the included composite video cable results in a softer picture that looks ten years old but isn't really hard to watch. The Roku's simple menus with large graphics don't really demand a high resolution screen. Using an HDMI or component cable results in a sharper, clearer picture and menus, although many of the album graphics on Netflix's titles are low resolution. Apple TV makes more use of complex menus and fits more content onscreen at once in the shopping screens, underlining Apple's decision to target it as HDTV only.
At best quality with an ideal Internet connection, streaming Netflix titles on the Roku box look fine on older TVs but can only meet the lowest of expectations in video quality on an HDTV. Viewed from the couch, the pixelation and limited color depth certainly isn't impressive, but is fine for the type of content Netflix offers. It is almost comparable to digital cable programming. As with Apple TV, if you pause the picture and look at it from a few feet away it is not very great, but for watching movies and TV at a usual distance it is quite easy to watch.
Apple TV's basic standard definition content is quite similar to the best quality out of the Roku box, although the Apple TV's menus have a considerably more polished and refined look and feel. On both devices, the actual video picture quality varies considerably between different titles, depending a lot upon the work done by the studio to preset it digitally, and whether the program is presented in full screen or tightly letterboxed into a narrow band of the TV set. Apple TV's HD content delivers a considerable better experience, albeit at a fixed cost per movie.
That all adds up to Roku's box being a good way to watch a wide but often quirky spectrum of documentaries, comedies, TV episodes, and older movies that don't really cry out for blockbuster high definition audio and video. However, it's not really a direct competitor for Apple TV, since Netflix really doesn't offer a strong selection of mainstream movies or TV. The company is working to improve its Watch Instantly selection, it says.
On page 3 of 3:
New and Premium Content; Rating; and Pros & Cons.
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