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Getting more and better TV, out of the box

Apple TV and Roku XDS broaden your viewing options.
Apple TV and Roku XDS broaden your viewing options.
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Sunday, October 10, 2010

A tiny $99 box can connect your TV to a wealth of Internet-sourced TV shows, movies, pictures, podcasts and music. But which box would that be?

Over the past two weeks, two similar contenders have arrived in the market: Apple's $99 Apple TV and Roku's barely larger $99.99 XD-S (along with its slightly less capable $79.99 and $59.99 siblings).

But although these devices resemble each other, down to setup routines in which the hardest part is typing a WiFi password on an onscreen keyboard, they represent different ideals.

Think of the Apple TV as a projector and Roku as an antenna. Apple's box functions largely as an extension of its iTunes store and software. Roku's tunes into a growing variety of content sources, with no clear favorite among them.

That means the Apple TV can be easier to like upfront, while the Roku promises more lasting value.

Apple's device looks its best if you only watch shows on Fox and ABC - the sole U.S. networks to sign up for the 99-cent rentals Apple introduced with this device last month.

Browsing and searching through its listings is easy, aside from the occasional unwanted selection caused by the remote's tightly spaced buttons. Over a Verizon Fios connection, shows appeared in seconds - free of commercials and in high definition that looked it, unlike the blurry "HD" of some Web video services.

(With slower access, the Apple TV can cache a show or a movie in its flash memory.)

Renting movies, starting at $2.99 for standard-definition titles and $3.99 for high-def fare, is just as simple. But Apple's selection of rentals, like those of every other video-on-demand site, suffers from the constrained availability imposed by Hollywood's idiotic "release window" business model. Want to rent "The Hurt Locker" or "The Hangover"? Sorry, too late.

TV and movie rentals give you 30 days to start watching; you have 24 hours to finish a movie and 48 hours for a TV show.

You can also watch purchased iTunes TV shows and movies - and play back music and view photos - through a copy of iTunes on another computer at home. But Apple hides this "Home Sharing" option in iTunes' "Advanced" menu - not the more obvious "Sharing" feature listed in its preferences window.

In addition, you can watch Netflix TV shows and movies, play short clips off YouTube and view photos from Flickr. And that's about it - there's a Web-radio function, but its lack of a search function makes it useless.

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