Practical Technology

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Apple TV vs. Netflix Player

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It took over a year, but the Apple TV finally had a worthwhile competitor, the Netflix Player by Roku Digital. I’ve been using the Apple TV since day one and the Netflix Player for only two weeks, but I can already see the real differences and for the most part Apple TV is the clear winner.

1) The Interface: Here’s its Apple TV all the way. Since the Apple TV 2.0 refresh, the Apple TV is a pleasure to use and you can rent and buy TV episodes and movies while never leaving your couch. The one problem is that there’s still little rhyme or reason to which ones you can rent and which ones you can buy and until you’re actually looking at a title’s information, you can’t tell which is which.

The phrase ‘bare-bones’ was made for the Netflix Player’s interface. With it, you can watch movies and TV shows from the Netflix library and you can fast-forward or reverse—no chapters here—and that’s about it.

Before you can watch anything on your Netflix Player you need to queue it up from your Netflix account on your PC. Some writers have been reporting that you don’t need a PC to run Netflix Player. That’s not true. Netflix states that you “must have a computer running Windows XP with Service Pack 2 or higher, or Windows Vista; Internet Explorer version 6 or higher; Windows Media Player version 11 or higher; an active broadband connection to the Internet; 1GHz processor; 512MBs of RAM; and 3GBs of free hard disk” space to use it. Mac users appear to be out of luck.

With Apple TV, you only need any PC that can run iTunes. Advantage: Apple.

2) Video Access: For some reason some people seem to think that the Netflix Player is the first TV device that has an Instant Viewing feature that let’s you stream movies from the Netflix site through the player to be your TV screen. Sorry, no, that’s feature has been available in the Apple TV since February.

What the early reviewers don’t mention is that the only place you’re going to find video for the Netflix Player if from what’s currently available on the Netflix’s Web site. If you, like me, already have a large movie and TV collection on your computers, you can’t get to them. Frankly, that’s one of the reasons why I fell in love with the Apple TV. I have close to a terabyte now of some of my favorite TV series and movies living on my network and these really are available for ‘instant viewing.’ With both the Apple TV and the Netflix when you select a show to watch off either the iTunes Store or the Netflix Web site, you’ll need to wait a bit for the stream to reach you before watching it.

The Netflix Player is also a purely streaming device. You can’t save off a movie on the device itself. Every time you want to watch something new, you need to stream it down. This was a major design mistake by Roku and Netflix.

I’ve used other purely streaming media extenders, like the D-Link DSM-320 and they all stink. If anything goes wrong with the network connection between the PC and the media extender, the video ended up being fouled up. And, those systems only needed to contend with the local network between a Windows Media Center PC or the like and the television. With the Netflix Player you have both your local network to deal with, and the current state of your Internet connection.

This just isn’t going to work well. Apple TV avoids this problem by having up to 40GBs worth of buffer. Even if your Internet connection goes down and your half-way through a movie you may very still be able to see the rest of the video because the Apple TV has been saving up the part you’ve haven’t seen yet.

3) Video Selection: Netflix has a bigger selection than Apple’s iTunes. Netflix has about 10,000 videos available in its library, while Apple has just over a thousand at my last count.

In addition, some of the Netflix selection also comes free with a Netflix $9.95 and up membership. However, Netflix’s video catalog tends to be on the stale side. If you want to watch Adam-12, an old cop show, it’s great. If you want to watch the latest episode of Lost, it’s not a winner.

These days, Apple can sell and/or rent you videos from most of the major studios as they arrive to DVD. The newest movies I could find that for the Netflix Player were from 2006.

This really does seem to be a case of “You get what you pay for.” For $7.99, you access relatively recent movies and a good deal of older TV shows or movies “for free” from Netflix. Or, for al la carte rental pricing of $1.99 to $4.99 you can rent from a smaller, but generally new and up-to-date library of films from Apple. You can also buy TV episodes, complete TV series runs, and movies from Apple.

4) Video Quality. It’s Apple TV by a landslide. Netflix, while it can reach a streaming rate of about 2Mbps (Megabits per second), which is sufficient for DVD quality, seems to be doing a good deal of video compression. The result is video that looks like a high-end VHS tape, or for those of you who recall them, a good-quality Betamax. It’s perfectly watchable, but it just doesn’t show to advantage on any HDTV display. The best resolution you can get with it is 480i—standard television. Need I say more?

Apple iTunes’ videos always look like good DVD and it can reach 720p HDTV if you’re willing to pay a dollar more per rental on many videos.

5) Setup: It’s really about the same. You plug it in, you connect it to your network, and, in the case of the Apple TV, you register it with a copy of iTunes, and you’re ready to go.

One key difference is that Netflix Player will work with standard TVs. While you can jury-rug an Apple TV to work with an ordinary television, it really needs an HDTV capable TV.

The Netflix, besides 480i composite video connections, comes with HDMI, component video, S-Video, and RCA and digital optical audio connections. I’m not sure what the HDMI is doing there since it can’t push out an HD signal in this incarnation, but perhaps a firmware update can make the box HD capable. The Apple TV supports HDMI and component video and optical and RCA audio.

Both boxes support 10/100 Base-T Ethernet networking and 802.11b/g Wi-Fi for connectivity. The Apple TV also supports 802.11n Wi-Fi. I wouldn’t use 802.11b Wi-Fi on a bet for either one. In theory, 802.11b can deliver enough bandwidth for watchable television; in practice it’s just too slow.

6) Pricing. At $99 and $7.99 for unlimited movie and TV rentals, the Netflix Player is the hands down winner at price. On the other hand, I wonder if Netflix has really thought this through. Its current online selection and quality isn’t great. How exactly will they ever be able to improve their video catalog when they can’t make money from this deal? It’s a classic loss-leader play to pump up their business, but come the day they need to up their prices will their customers stick?

I’ll certainly replace my test box with a Netflix Player of my own. At these prices, why not? But, when it comes to watching the latest and greatest movies at the best quality, I’ll also be using my Apple TV, and I have a feeling I always will be.

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