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 good benchmark.
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 Logitech Revue.
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 it delivers.
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 AppleTV can.
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 cost-sensitive applications would 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 between.
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 Showtime.
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.