Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Apple TV or Google TV?

I found this very good article at written by Wilson Rothman

I could not have done half as good job describing both TVs.

Google TV arrives this month in the form of Logitech's Revue and the Sony Internet TV and set-top box. The fact that it comes on the heels of a major overhaul of Apple TV may not be a total coincidence. If you get the sense that Google's consumer strategy is to follow Apple around, listening to Apple customer complaints and then tweaking their own products to avoid them, well, you may not be far from the truth. With Android, Google has exploited the "second-mover advantage" on the smart phone stage, and it appears to be ready for a repeat performance in the home theater with Google TV.
Both Apple TV and Google TV are platforms for serving up movies, TV shows, music and photos from the great beyond — and in some cases, a nearby computer or mobile device. As the name suggests, the primary purpose of both is video on demand, though they go about this in very different ways. This isn't so much a product review as it is a run-down of those differences, as well as the notable similarities.
Content is king right? Hardware can be super snazzy, but if you can't watch the three shows you actually want to watch, the hardware goes busto. Maybe that's why sorting out which content is available on each box is increasingly a challenge.
Apple TV is, predominantly, a vessel for the programs Apple already has deals for. If you want to know if they'll have your favorite shows on Apple TV, just look 'em up on iTunes. However, the new Apple TV has a very nice Netflix app built in, too, so anything available for instant viewing on Netflix is included, and "free" with your Netflix subscription — no extra money required. Apple TV also has a YouTube app.
Google TV is even trickier, since it doesn't really have a reservoir of content at the ready, like Apple does. Though Google did announce deals with Time Warner video properties including TBS, TNT, CNN and HBO, and another deal with CNBC, the rest of NBC along with CBS, ABC and Fox still aren't on board with Google TV. ( is a joint venture of NBC Universal and Microsoft.)
Without major TV and movie studio support, at least at launch, the primary source of video for most Google TV watchers will be third-party apps. Movies can come from Netflix, Amazon Video on Demand, or Sony's Qriocity service, all with varying degrees of cost and picture quality. Google promises to link all of this together in a unified search, and let's be honest, they had better. The burden is on Google to make it easy to find "Knight Rider" reruns at 2 a.m.; it sure ain't on you.
The coming content flood might not be welcome if it takes huge effort to wade through it. Already on Apple TV, there are instances where, say, a "30 Rock" episode is available for a rental fee in one place, and free (at least with a paid subscription) elsewhere. With Google TV, given the app approach, these sorts of discrepancies could eventually be a lot worse.
Apps and openness
As I mentioned, Google TV is putting its money on the same apps game that it is playing so well on Android smart phones. Google shares the platform, and valuable partners — from Pandora to the NBA — simply turn up. I like the apps notion. For instance, I favor the Vudu video on demand service found on certain Blu-ray players and other devices. The interface is nice, the stream quality is terrific, and they already have my billing information on file. If Vudu wrote an app for Google TV, I would certainly snatch it. Ditto for Hulu Plus which, despite the ads, serves more of the TV I enjoy (most of the NBC and Fox lineups) at the best price ($10 per month). Apps also implies choice of what not to have. If I don't want the Napster app, hopefully I'll be able to ditch it.
Apple TV is different. While Apple has partnered with Netflix, Yahoo's Flickr and even Google's own YouTube, it's not declaring these options to be apps, nor is it openly inviting any and all developers to start writing Apple TV software, as it does for the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch. The dirty not-so-secret though is that Apple TV runs the same operating system as those other platforms, and as such may one day be open to apps. Here's hoping (for Apple's sake) that the day arrives soon.
Recording TV shows
Apple TVs don't record shows, and they never will. Apple computers don't even do it, most likely because it's messy, from a logistical standpoint and a legal one too. (This is why we don't all have Windows Media Center PCs attached to our home theater systems.) Broadband Internet and video on demand have greatly diminished the need for recording, although those of us who live and die by our TiVos — or even our awful cable-co DVRs — would have loved for Apple to get involved.
Google is getting involved. Google TV will let you record shows — if you're on the bloody DISH Network. Sorry to get you excited like that. We should all be envious of the small subset of potential customers who are on DISH — Google TV lets them record straight from the search bar, easy peasy. But everyone else is out in the cold, just like the Apple contingent.
Streaming and flinging
The next phase for Apple TV is becoming more of a friendly part of the iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch world. Apple TV has been out longer than all of them, but hasn't enjoyed nearly the success. The new initiative, AirPlay, lets the mobile devices share video and audio directly to the Apple TV, just pull up some content and tap a button to send it over. In Google's parlance, this is called "flinging," and it's ostensibly the same thing. The jury's still out on this feature, because Apple is launching it with its next software update for iDevices (due sometime between now and Thanksgiving), and Google hasn't shared a lot of specifics either.
Web & social
This is one of the core aspects of Google TV, but also the one that is hardest to get excited about. I mean, yes, it is awesome that you can pull up a browser or a Twitter page without having to pause your video (it's kinda like picture-in-picture), but how many times during a movie can you hit IMDB, or tweet about how much you love the movie? And frankly, it seems like it would be easier to leave the movie playing at full screen, and do your look-ups and tweeting on your smart phone, especially if you're watching with other people. Web on TV has been tried before, many times in the past decade or so, and it's still not clear anyone really wants it.
Video is chief among the streams coming into and going out of the Apple TV or Google TV, but music could be great here. I have always been impressed with Apple TV's seamless connection to iTunes: You get access to the whole music library and all its playlists (plus every video in there too). But although Apple believes you should rent movies and TV, they think you should own music. I do. I have 15,000 songs on my hard drive, so streaming tunes from my Mac to Apple TV is a valid proposition. But say you want to listen to random music that you don't own. Your only option on Apple TV is the Internet radio mode. Yes, it does give you access to the world's Internet radio stations, but the interface is primitive — any car sold today does a better job of remembering favorite channels.
Google TV will include, at launch, two different music choices that work for those people who don't have 15,000 songs on their hard drives. Pandora is a free streaming service that picks songs based on your preferences; Napster is a subscription service that lets you pick all the songs yourself.
Though photo slideshows on your big screen TV always seem cooler than they really are — you're not that great a photographer, and frankly, most of your friends have already seen the three pictures of your kid/dog/car that they care to see — both Google TV and Apple TV give you plenty of photo options. Google TV of course comes with its own service, Picasa, as well as Flickr. Since you also have a web browser on board, Google boasts that you can access "every other photo-sharing site." But will you?
Apple TV has three photo viewing options: You can access multiple accounts of publicly published photos on Apple's MobileMe service, you can pull photos from Macs on your home network, and you can hit Flickr.
Remote control
One of the cool things about the iPhone (and iPod Touch) is how many companies have made use of it as a remote control for everything from Sony Blu-ray players to Lutron home lighting. Apple's own Remote app lets you D.J. your computer's iTunes, but when you have an Apple TV, you can play the music through it instead. You can also select the Apple TV inside the Remote app and control the interface, using the touchscreen. It's pretty fun, though a tad gimmicky.
You can also use an iPhone to control Google TV. With Logitech's Revue, if you buy a special add-on kit, you can even use the iPhone to control the TV and audio system that you connect the Google TV box to. Needless to say, Google is also making sure that all Google TV control software will be released on Android phones too.
Google is taking a Microsofty approach with Google TV, as it did before with Android: They write the software, and partners build the hardware. As you will have surmised, Apple is making everything for itself, no partners allowed. Apple sells only one Apple TV, and it costs $99. Apple TVs work as billed, and all current-generation Apple TVs will get the same updates at the same time. But there's no "choice," so to speak.
With Google TV, different versions will look different, operate differently and possibly even come with different content. The Logitech Revue box is $300, not counting a lot of the accessories. Google's other launch partner is Sony, with whom it will launch a pretty sexy looking TV. Whether it comes with a whole different look and feel or just an app or two that the other hardware maker(s) don't get remains to be seen. While the diversity of hardware options can be a good thing, confusion in the marketplace never is.
To suggest this is a two-horse race would be disingenuous. It's easy to pit Apple and Google against each other, and in the end, they may be the ones with the most muscle, but there are plenty of other ponies. The four biggest home theater brands, LG, Panasonic, Samsung and Sony, all have Blu-ray players with suites of video-on-demand apps, music streaming, picture sharing and other Internet widgets. They all have TV models with Internet capabilities too. (Here's my look at the top Blu-ray players of the past summer.)
Roku is actually the company that set this whole business in motion, having been the original Netflix partner when it launched the first free-standing $99 VOD box. That box has only gotten smarter in the past few years, and now also comes with Pandora, Amazon VOD and Hulu Plus. It's certainly a worthy competitor.
The nerdiest shoppers in this category are still waiting for D-Link's Boxee box, a $200 multitalented multimedia box that started as a clever hack for Xbox and the original Apple TV.
Just the beginning
If there's a reason to pay attention to all of this now, it's that this is the start of something wonderful: more control over our home entertainment. I'm not saying we'll be telling our cable providers to take a hike anytime soon, but all of these boxes represent choices we didn't have before, not just what we can get, but what we can live without (i.e., 1,000 channels of stuff we don't watch anyway). With Apple and Google both pushing into the living room and exploring the space, you can bet an upheaval of the old ways is imminent.

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