Our other frustration is the lack of cross-platform browsing and search. For example, if you browse movies, you'll notice that "The Trip" is available to rent for $5, but it's also available to watch on Netflix at no extra charge if you're a subscriber. That's not necessarily a knock against the Apple TV, since no other device handles this well either, but it would be nice if there were a "Watch for free on Netflix" button when browsing movies.
The Apple TV definitely provides a vastly better browsing experience than the Roku 2, but as one CNET editor put it, the Roku 2's interface "gets the job done." It depends on how much you care about ease of use and eye candy.
Movies and TV shows
Last year, Apple's Apple TV offerings were a mess, with a only a fraction of the content on iTunes being available to stream on the Apple TV. The rest of iTunes' catalog required you to first download it on a PC using iTunes. The upside was 99-cent TV show rentals, the downside was limited selection and confusion.
Apple switched its approach over the summer and it's made a huge difference. Now all TV shows available on iTunes are available to stream on the Apple TV. TV show rentals are gone. Instead, you can purchase an HD episode for $3 or a season at a discounted rate. The selection of TV shows is really quite comprehensive, with tons of shows offered both by major networks and cable stations. If you're interested in what the selection is like, check out iTunes.
Apple also remembers your purchases now with iCloud. That means not only can you rewatch shows on your Apple TV, but you can also download them to a PC or other iOS device. That's a great option, especially for long trips.
The main iTunes competitor here is Amazon Instant, which just happens to be featured on Roku's line of competing boxes. For TV, the selection of shows seems to be nearly equal between the two services, and the pricing for HD shows is the same at $3. However, Amazon.com does offer the option to purchase SD versions of shows for $2. It's a nice choice, especially for shows where you're not as picky about image quality. On the other hand, Amazon currently doesn't provide the option of downloading movies or TV shows, only streaming them.
Streaming services: Netflix, MLB.TV, and more
Aside from iTunes, the Apple TV also supports a few streaming-media services, including Netflix, MLB.TV, NHL, NBA, YouTube, Vimeo, and WSJ Live. It can also stream podcasts and Internet radio, plus it provides access to photos via either Flickr or Photo Stream. Apple doesn't do a great job of pointing this out, but the podcast section includes video podcasts, so you can get content from sources like Revision 3, CNET, and TED Talks.
That's not a bad collection of services, but the Roku 2 has many more and we're not just talking about niche content providers--the Roku 2 supports Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant, HBO Go, Pandora, MOG, Rdio, and Epix. Of course, it all depends on how much streaming content you consume, but heavy streamers will be better off with the Roku 2.
The Apple TV's lack of streaming-media apps is somewhat made up for by AirPlay. We've covered , but it's a killer feature if you own other iOS devices. The idea is you can stream photos, music, and videos straight from another iOS device to the Apple TV. That includes many third-party apps, so while the Apple TV doesn't have a Pandora app, your iPhone does and you can listen via AirPlay. Notice we said many third-party apps, because not all of them support it, including Hulu Plus and HBO Go. So while AirPlay can substitute for some apps, it's not a panacea.
The other awesome aspect of AirPlay is that you can stream your personal music collection. It works with any music you have stored on an iOS device and you can also stream your iTunes music collection from a computer. It's one of the easiest ways to listen to your digital music in your living room and it's only going to get easier with iTunes Match--more on that later.
AirPlay mirroring is the latest update to the Apple TV's AirPlay functions, but despite the hype, we don't think it's a very useful feature yet. The mirroring displays exactly what's on your iPad 2 or iPhone 4S on your TV screen, including games, the iPad's menus--almost anything. The exception is apps that don't allow "HDMI video out," which includes HBO Go. Also, don't count on AirPlay mirroring as a way to get streaming-video apps like Hulu Plus on your Apple TV. The video quality is much too choppy and the resolution of the iPad is too small to be enjoyable on a TV.
iPad mirroring is a cool trick and it's definitely fun to show off, but right now it doesn't have much of a practical purpose.
iTunes Match: Coming soon
The Apple TV home screen lists movies and TV shows, but there's strangely no header for music--yet. Expect that to change when iTunes Match is released later in October. You can read the full details on Apple's site, but the idea is that for $25 a year Apple will store your personal music collection in the cloud.
We haven't had any chance to use iTunes Match yet, but it's an intriguing option that we think could add a lot of value to the Apple TV. We'll update this review when iTunes Match is released later this month and we gets some hands-on time with the service.
A lot of fuss is often made about the fact that the Apple TV isn't 1080p, but . Streaming content in general looked very good, both from iTunes and Netflix. We could nitpick about some of the minor false contouring we saw, but the most people won't notice the difference. Wireless performance was also rock-solid over our testing period.
Apple TV vs. Roku 2: Which should I buy?
There are lots of options for streaming media these days--Blu-ray players, game consoles, and so on--but when it comes to streaming-media boxes, we think the choice should come down to the Apple TV and the Roku 2. There are other decent options ( , , ), but the Apple TV and Roku 2 currently offer the best value.
We've covered this head-to-head, and our answer is still largely the same. If you want the widest variety of content, go with Roku. If you're already committed to the Apple platform--iTunes, iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad--go with the Apple TV, as you'll gain a lot from Apple-only features like AirPlay.
We'd also add one more comment: if you want the simplest, most straightforward streaming-media experience, Apple TV has the edge there too. That might not matter to tech enthusiasts who've been streaming media for years, but it makes it a more mainstream-friendly box.