A Hands-On Look at Five ‘Over The Top’ Video Services For cord cutters
If the client requires AirPlay, an Apple TV is a must.
Dissatisfied with the quality or cost of cable/
satellite channels, more and more consumers are
said to be “cutting the cord” on their TV services–over one million U.S. cable subscribers did so in 2011.
They are forsaking what has become the ubiquitous
cable or satellite set-top for a combination of overthe-
air stations received directly, the “old fashioned
way” with a built-in tuner and then using the wide
range of internet based services for movie delivery,
specialty, and supplemental programming.
Stepping up to the challenge, many set-top
manufacturers are building in the capability to
access this sort of content in today’s smart TVs.
But there are various situations where a smart
TV is not ideal. This market hole has been
recognized by a number of companies. To see if
any of them truly answer the call to deliver smart
TV services, I decided to really go, “over the
top,” taking five products–GoogleTV, AppleTV,
Roku, Netgear’s NeoTV, and BoxeeBox by
D-Link–for a test drive.
The first of these products is GoogleTV, something
I first tried out many months ago in the form of
Logitech’s Revue product. That device is now
discontinued, but since it has been upgraded to
the latest version of GoogleTV used in several new
smart TV products, I thought that it would be a
After experiencing the latest upgrade, I realized
what a shame it is that Revue was discontinued; its
new software rectifies many of the shortcomings of
the initial releases. On the service side, you now can
access YouTube and Pandora, along with a range
of other app-based services, including Crunchy
Roll for Asian TV programming and some news
and sports services.
Flawless integration with
an external DVR or set-top
leads one to scour the
web for the discontinued
Google’s Chrome web browser is the easiest to
use of the products I reviewed, and compatibility
with a full-sized keyboard and the ability to have a
PIP window for simultaneous viewing of web and
off-air content (from a downstream cable or satellite
set-top) are unique features. Similarly, there is the
integrated content search and recommendation
engine, along with the ability to control all the
products in a system thanks to a huge database
of remote codes gathered to support Logitech’s
Harmony product line.
If this is any evidence of how GoogleTV will
work in smart TVs, it is a very nice product. Of
course, there are also some downsides. Yes, this
is the only contender featuring the IMDB movie
industry database, but it lacks Hulu+ for those who
need to catch up on missed broadcast programs
when there is no DVR in the OTT system. With
the Android Marketplace powering the apps, you
may see more content services added, and each
implementation in a TV may be slightly different.
Press deadlines made it impossible for me to use
the Gen.3 of AppleTV for this article, but my
Gen.2 model was upgraded to the 5.0 software,
so the UI is identical to the new version, save for
being limited to 720p along with the other content
AppleTV is, in some respects, a basic product
designed to do a few things, but do them very well.
Of course, it streams audio and video content from
computers on the home network with iTunes,
and you can stream content directly to the display
attached to an AppleTV from an iOS device using
Airplay. Yes, other products offer Airplay, but the
AVRs with Airplay can stream audio content only.
The Boxee Box can stream video from iPhones
or iPads, but it can’t do “mirroring,” as only
The AppleTV remote is elegant, but small and
IR-based. However, AppleTV cleverly lets you
program the device to accept any codes on another
IR-based remote you choose to drive it. This
unique functionality, combined with an IR blaster
if a larger keypad control system is used, makes
integration easy. Of course, there is also a remote
app for it as well.
AppleTV now offers video content from the
NBA, MLB, and the NHL, making it great for
sports fans. There is Netflix and YouTube, Vimeo,
and podcasts, but not Pandora. Photo viewing can
not only be streamed from your iOS device, but
also viewed via Flickr or MobileMe. OTTers will
be able to view a wide range of movies and TV
shows via Apple’s own services, but no Hulu+.
Best value for
the dollar for
take you to NeoTV.
Is the client an Apple fan? Are movies, sports,
and YouTube their hot-buttons? Do they heavily
use their iPhone as a camera or camcorder? If so,
the lack of access to non-Apple services, DLNA
connectivity to content on the network outside of
the Apple ecosystem won’t bother them, making it
a “must have” in many systems for $99.
Roku’s products have come a long way from
being known as Netflix boxes that consumers and
installers bought as an inexpensive way to deliver
streaming movie content to non-connected TVs.
The latest line of products offers literally
hundreds of services in the Channel Store beyond
the obligatory Netflix, Pandora, Amazon On
Demand, and Hulu+. Roku’s content aggregation
includes news from NBC, CBS, CNN, PBS, ABC,
Fox News, CurrentTV, CSPAN, the BBC, and
even Al-Jazeera. Other content providers include
MOG, Live365, SHOUTcast, NBA, MLB, and
NHL. Religious content covers all bases including
TBN, CatholicTV, The Adventist Channel, Jewish
Life TV, Vajra (Buddhist TV), and the Mormon
Channel. International and ethnic programming
runs the gamut from East Asian to Latin American,
a great selection of African content, “Islam Box,”
to Greek and German content, and many points in
For the largest selection of news and sports apps, Roku generally comes out on top.
Roku’s latest top-of-the-line model is 1080p
and includes access to Angry Birds and many other
games, as well as an optional game remote with a
motion sensor similar to the Wii controller.
The Bluetooth-connected game remote means
that streaming from phones might be in the future,
and there is no getting around the ever-growing list
of more than 300 “channels” that seem to make
it the big winner. One downside is the phone
control app does not offer gesture/swipe control or
a pop-up virtual keypad. Only the top-end model
(at $99) offers a USB port and hard-wire network
connectivity, and there is no DLNA access to
content on the client’s home network.
At $49, the NTV 200 is the lowest cost unit in my
test, but to look at the content list and video quality,
you would never know it. Along with the usuals, it
was the only device among those tested with Vudu
Apps. With Vudu doing the content aggregation
for this, you won’t find NBC Nightly News, Today,
MSNBC content, or programming from Discovery
Channel, AP News, and many others on the “my
channels” page; rather, click on the Vudu Apps
icon. Unless I missed it in the massive channels list
of the Roku, NeoTV is the only box with the Golf
Channel, TV Guide Channel, and content from
As you would expect from a company with
Netgear’s main business line, the connectivity
was flawless, and this is the only product with
Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS), though that type
of network configuration is more for consumers
than installation pros. At the end of the day, the
basics are all there, and more. The phone app is
one of the best, and control is further extended by
a unique-in-class implementation of HDMI CEC.
No, it doesn’t have every app in the universe, but
from a price/value point of view, Netgear’s NeoTV
is a winner.
BoxeeBox by D-Link
I’ve actually been using a BoxeeBox by D-Link
since its introduction, but I have held back on the
review until the product’s software had matured. It
is truly a unique product, starting with the “cube
on an angle” that sets it apart from the low-profile
design of the others. Indeed, on our test desk, the
BoxeeBox sits higher than the AppleTV, Roku, and
NeoTV stacked on top of one another.
Its price is also unusual: a very un-round
$167.99, which is enough to buy an AppleTV or
Roku2 XS and the NeoTV with a bit left over to
go toward the sales tax. Its remote is dual sided,
with a menu, play/pause buttons and a directional
pad/enter layout on one side, and a full QWERTY
keypad on the other.
With the Logitech GoogleTV Revue out of production, this is the only unit
in our group that lets the user access content from computers on the home
network via UPnP, Windows Network (SMB), Apple Filing Protocol, or
Network File System. It has a web browser with quite good readability, and it
is the only unit in the group with Spotify, as well as Pandora. It may not have
the wider range of news content that Roku has, but who else has the Onion
News Network? For serious news there is no official content from the major
networks, but no one else has content from the CBC, and through the browser,
you can go directly to the news site of your choice. Along with the three sports
networks available elsewhere (none of the products has NFL or MLS content)
there is content from Speed, The Surf Network, The NLL for lacrosse fans, and
Fastpitch Softball TV.
There is also YouTube, Netflix, and Vudu, though not Hulu+ (yet). But no
other product has a built-in app for SlingBox, HBO GO, TNT, and Adult Swim.
Did someone say adult? Although it is only there if specifically enabled, the Boxee
Box has two of the leading adult entertainment aggregation sites as well.
Other than the AppleTV, the Boxee Box is the only product that lets users
stream audio or video content from an iOS device. However, there is no
mirroring, and the video quality is not up to par with that of the AppleTV.
If live TV reception, a web browser, and file access are needed, the capabilities of the BoxeeBox make it
the only choice.
All of this would set the BoxeeBox apart from the rest were there no more,
but its latest addition is what really takes it “over the top.” For an additional $49
you can add an ATSC/Clear QAM tuner module to the BoxeeBox, giving it
the ability to receive all local TV content or, if the cord hasn’t been completely
cut, non-scrambled cable channels. Particularly for projection systems with no
internal tuner and where a cable or satellite tuner isn’t required, this is a major
plus for viewing network or local news, or sports programming.
OK, we’ve established that the BoxeeBox is unique, but it is not flawless?
The tuner is great, but it seems to be less sensitive than other OTA tuners
I’ve used, and the stub antenna included with the tuner only brought in a few
channels. A good, high-gain passive or amplified antenna is essential. If the
viewer is accustomed to instant display of channels when surfing up or down,
they will have to get used to a bit of delay with the BoxeeBox. Finally, channel
selection cannot be done via direct entry; you either surf using the up/down
buttons or bring up the channel listing. Finally, while there are channel listings
for the OTA channels, the Clear QAM signals only have their natural channel
number, and it takes some detective work to convert that to the actual channel
when surfing through the listings.
Perhaps as an outgrowth of Boxee’s architecture, and unlike the other
products here, the apps are not stored in the BoxeeBox, but must load each time
they are selected. For viewers with a “Type A” personality that demand instant
display, this could get annoying. The dual-sided remote is a plus, but you need to
remind clients to be careful not to put something on top of that, or the result of
pressing the buttons on the “bottom” of the remote will lead to dead batteries. (It
is also worth noting that the battery is powered by a CR 2032 button cell, not the
standard AAA batteries.) Finally, note that the remote is RF. That’s great in that
there are no directional problems, but it does somewhat complicate integration
with other control systems. There is, of course, a smartphone/tablet remote that
can be used on a client’s iPhone/iPad, etc.
There is no perfect product among the five, though all are eminently capable,
and each does some things the others do not. If the client requires AirPlay,
an Apple TV is a must. For the largest selection of news and sports apps,
Roku generally comes out on top. Best value for the dollar for cost-sensitive
applications would take you to NeoTV. Flawless integration with an external
DVR or set-top leads one to scour the web for the discontinued Logitech
Revue. If live TV reception, a web browser, and file access are needed, the
capabilities of the BoxeeBox make it the only choice.
Michael Heiss (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a contributing editor to Residential
Systems, based in Sherman Oaks, CA.