Device Comparison: Apple TV vs. Roku vs. WD TV Live Plus vs. Sony SMP-N100


[Updated Sept. 4th 20102:Check out my new review at: “Roku 2 vs. Apple TV: How To Chose The Right $99 Streamer“]

There’s a lot of streaming devices in the market today and even though there are big differences between them, lots of folks are quick to compare them to one another or use Apple TV in the same sentence as Google TV. But the truth is, you can’t compare an Apple TV to a Sony Google TV or a Boxee to a Roku. Just because a device is broadband enabled and supports the streaming of videos, does not mean it’s going after the same type of customer or has the same functionality. Many of these boxes are trying to fill very different voids in the industry and targeting different types of consumers.

For all the devices currently in the market today, there are four that should be compared to one another based on their functionality and cost. These would be Apple TV, Roku XDS, Western Digital’s WD TV Live Plus and Sony’s SMP-N100. There are other groups of devices that can be compared to one another, like Boxee and Western Digital’s WD TV Live Hub, but they should not be compared to the $99 boxes mentioned above. Last month I held a special device demo event in NYC where I showed off more than a dozen boxes in action and went through the pros and cons of each. Here are some highlights from that presentation and my take on which of these four boxes has the best chance at surviving in the long run.

Apple TV
– Retail price: $99
– Number sold as of December 2010: 1M (source: Apple)
– Released September 2010 (2nd generation)

Hardware Specs:
– HDMI, optical audio, ethernet, WiFi (802.11a/b/g/n)
– supports video playback up to 720p only
– no hard drive, no support for 1080p, no support for older TVs, no support via USB
– supports .m4v, .mp4, and .mov
– not DLNA compliant

Software and Content:
– setup is very simple, interface is smooth, clean and polished
– Netflix, YouTube and $0.99 rentals for TV shows from ABC, Disney, Fox, and the BBC
– $2.99 rentals for SD movies, $3.99 rentals for HD movies
– 24 hours to watch movie rentals, 48 hours to watch TV shows once you begin viewing
– no open SDK, no app store, closed iTunes system
– Airplay allows wireless streaming from computer to TV
– does not support video shot with the iPhone

Of the four devices, Apple clearly has the biggest advantage and opportunity in the market thanks to the sheer size of their brand and the volume of other Apple devices they sell each quarter. Apple has a huge ecosystem across iPad and iPhones that they can tie into their Apple TV, but that by itself won’t make them successful. While many are quick to point out how well designed the Apple TV is, the fact remains that today, the content available on the device is limited. Apple TV doesn’t support Hulu Plus, MLB, NHL, Amazon Video On Demand and other content supported by some of their competitors.

Of the four devices, Apple TV is the only one that doesn’t support 1080p and while some will argue that no one can tell the quality difference between video at 720p and 1080p, or that no one is streaming in 1080p anyway, those are poor arguments. 1080p is the future and consumers should not have to buy another device two years from now when 1080p streaming is more mainstream.

One of the big features of the Apple TV that many think could be a game-changer is Airplay. The technology allows a user to start watching a video on their Mac, iPhone, iPod or iPad and then continue watching it on their TV. While Airplay looks promising, it not a game changer and only works within the Apple ecosystem. Airplay is also limited in that you can move content from iOS devices to Apple TV, but you can’t move content from Apple TV back to iOS devices. Airplay looks like interesting technology, especially for streaming music, but for video, it’s not going to be the reason most folks buy the device even if it lets you stream your content wirelessly from your computer to your TV. For some, Airplay may be the one feature they want, but it’s not something most users even know about.

With Apple TV, I suspect that many of their sales of the device are impulse buys and tied to someone being in an Apple store purchasing another product and throwing down an extra hundred bucks to give it a try. There’s nothing wrong with that, the device looks nice and is cheap, but those kinds of purchases are not as a result of someone trying to change the way they currently consume content.

I like Apple devices, in fact I’ve never even used a PC before and I currently own two MacBooks, three iPods, an iPad, an Apple TV, and two of Apple’s wireless routers. But that said, there is no way I would recommend buying an Apple TV to anyone until Apple makes some major improvements to the functionality of the device, adds more in the way of content choices and offers an app store for the TV.

– Retail price: $59 (HD model), $69 (XD model), $99 (XDS model)
– Netgear OEM Model: $89 (XD model)
– Number sold to date: Expect to reach 1M by end of 2010 (source: Roku)
– Released May 2008 (1st generation), Netgear model Oct. 2010

Hardware Specs:
– HDMI, optical audio, ethernet, component, composite, USB, WiFi (802.11b/g/n)
– supports video playback up to 1080p
– no hard drive, supports playback of local media via USB port
– supports .mp4, and .mov (more format support on the way)
– DLNA compliant

Software and Content:
– setup is very simple, but user interface not as polished as others
– Netflix, MLB, NHL, UFC, Hulu Plus, Amazon Video On Demand
– open SDK, more than 100 content channels
– company moving to OEM and platform licensing model
– no easy way to stream content from PC to TV

Roku has the best lineup of content available today and is typically the first box on the market to get new content choices, like Hulu Plus. The company continues to be very quick and nimble in the market and continues to roll out upgraded versions of their player, with more functionality, at a lower price. Roku’s support for content played back locally via USB is not as robust as the WD TV Live Plus or more expensive devices on the market which are trying to act as a local network storage device. That said, Roku will announce more format support shortly and improve on the local playback experience from both USB devices and the PC.

Roku does not currently allow you to stream content from your computer to your TV the way Apple does with Airplay and that’s the only disadvantage I see to the Roku device today. That said, Roku is moving beyond the business of selling boxes and is moving to more of a platform licensing model. Roku’s goal is to get their platform embedded into third party boxes and TV sets and they recently did a deal with NETGEAR for a OEM version of their Roku player. This now enables Roku’s boxes to show up on store shelves, where in the past they were only available to purchase online. Competing in the consumer electronics market requires a lot of capital and that’s one big advantage Apple has over Roku.

Western Digital WD TV Live Plus
– Retail price: $99
– Number sold to date: No data released, I estimate less than 2M
– Released Nov. 2008 (WD TV Live), May 2010 (WD TV Live Plus)

Hardware Specs:
– HDMI, ethernet, optical audio, composite, component, two USB ports
– no built in WiFi, requires adapter
– supports video playback up to 1080p
– no hard drive, supports playback of local media via USB port
– supports .mp4, .mov, .wmv, .asf, .iso, .vob, .m2ts, .avi, .mpg, .mpeg, .mkv
– DLNA compliant

Software and Content:
– setup is very easy, interface is simple
– Netflix, Blockbuster, YouTube
– open SDK, apps built in Adobe Flash Lite
– can stream locally from a PC, but is only Windows 7 compatible

Western Digital has a nice product out on the market with the WD TV Live Plus box, but the fact it does not come with WiFi support built-in will really keep a lot of people from choosing it over competitors. Like the Apple TV, Western Digital needs to get more content on the box and they also need to do a better job of marketing the device. Almost no one I know, outside of the tech community, ever mentions the WD TV Live Plus box and you don’t see it mentioned much when you see people writing about the Apple TV or the Roku. In my opinion, Western Digital could help fix this by re-branding and renaming all of their boxes as the naming convention now of WD TV Live, WD TV Live Plus, WD TV Live Hub and WD TV Mini aren’t very catchy or consumer friendly.

The big thing the WD TV Live Plus has going for it is the support for a broad range of formats and two USB ports, although chances are that one port will be taken up by many users with a WiFi adapter. Aside from the format support, the WD TV Live Plus really has no other advantages over many of the other boxes on the market unless you are a Windows 7 user.

Sony SMP-N100
– Retail price: $119
– Number sold to date: No data available
– Released August 2010

Hardware Specs:
– HDMI, optical audio, ethernet, component, composite, USB, WiFi (802.11n)
– supports video playback up to 1080p
– no hard drive, supports playback of local media via USB port
– supports .avc, .mkv, .DivX, .mpeg, .wmv, .wma
– DLNA compliant

Software and Content:
– setup is clunky and interface needs a lot of work
– uses a stripped down version of the PS3 interface
– Netflix, Amazon Video On Demand, Hulu Plus and Sony’s Qriocity movie service

While Sony’s SMP-N100 has some real potential, Sony needs to re-name the device. I have not run across a single person who knows what the SMP-100 is when you tell them the name. Initially I heard the device referred to as the Sony Netbox, but that seems to be a nickname given to it by members of the media as I’ve never actually heard Sony use that name themselves. It’s a good name though and something Sony needs to seriously consider.

Aside from the poor name, the SMP-N100 has some nice features going for it but it needs a lot of work when it comes to the setup and interface. Initial setup skips the networking function completely and while it has built in support for WiFi, that’s not part of the initial setup at all. The Netflix app is not as well developed on the SMP-N100 as it is on other devices and navigating to all of the video services is not smooth. The device does support a lot of video formats and allows you to stream content from a USB drive or your PC which are the devices real strength, but really does not have many advantages over Roku or the WD TV Live Plus. It’s also the largest box of the four, about four times the size of the Apple TV.

Conclusion: So which box comes out on top? For my personal usage, the Roku box is the clear winner of the four as it has the most content choices. But it all depends on exactly what you want to do with your content and how you want to stream it. In the long run, I think Apple and Western Digital have the best shot at selling the most devices in the market, simply due to the fact they are big companies who can spend a lot of money on marketing. It took Roku 3 years to sell 1M boxes, but only took Apple 4 months to sell the same. But that’s not because Apple has the better device.

While many are quick to declare one company the winner, you can’t. The race for control of the connected living room has only just started and no one will be crowned the winner for many years to come. As an industry, I think we also tend to forget that consumers have different viewing habits and preferences and multiple devices can and will be needed in the market. There can be more than one winner in the future and in any industry, there are usually 2-3 companies that share the majority of the market share.

In the long run, the device that should make the most impact is the broadband enabled TV set, but that’s many years away. And that will only be successful if we get past all of the TV platform fragmentation issues that will surely cripple adoption for the next few years. In the mean time, the current crop of stand alone devices in the market are providing a really exciting glimpse at what the future holds for the consumer streaming industry and even more devices are on the way.

If you have any questions on these or other devices in the market, put it in the comments section and I will try and answer it. At last count, I have 24 streaming enabled devices at home, so if you want me to test something for you I can.

I’m giving away a NETGEAR Roku NTV250 player to one lucky reader of my blog so go here if you want to enter the free drawing and go here if you want to enter to win a Boxee Box by D-Link.