By Rob Pegoraro
Saturday, October 9, 2010; 5:18 PM
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.
Buying an Apple TV today amounts to a bet on its progress - that other networks will offer shows for rent, that it will connect to other media sites and that Apple won't neglect this like its now-abandoned precessor. But the only upgrade Apple will discuss is the AirPlay feature of the next version of the iOS software in Apple's iPhone, iPod touch and iPad, which will let you watch video from many apps on your HDTV.
With Roku's boxes, there's less need to hope for later improvements but also less present-day elegance to appreciate.
This Saratoga, Calif., company offers an impressive selection of sites in its Channel Store. Its 87 channels include such name-brand sources as Netflix, Amazon's excellent video-on-demand site, the Pandora Web-radio service, Flickr and Major League Baseball's MLB.tv.
You can also browse through dozens of quirkier offerings: NASA TV, tech podcasts, church sermons, news broadcasts and more. And this fall, you'll be able to watch Hulu's $9.99-a-month Hulu Plus service.
YouTube, however, goes mysteriously missing - as does the search feature desperately needed in such a diverse catalogue.
Roku also doesn't connect to the media libraries on your computers, leaving you to experiment with third-party solutions listed in the Channel Store.
The XD-S does include a USB port that allows you to play back music, photos and some videos saved on flash drives - but, amazingly enough, software for it isn't included, either. You have to activate an unlisted channel to enable this.
Given a choice between these two boxes, I'd rather spend $40 less on Roku's $59.99 HD, which offers the same Channel Store but drops the XD-S's USB port and largely irrelevant 1080p high-definition output.
But I would do better to wait a little longer. We're about to see Logitech and Sony devices running Google TV software, which will let viewers switch between the TV programming they pay for and, in theory, any media site on the Web.
Another option will come from a third media receiver, D-Link's $199 Boxee Box, which also promises open Web access.
Even late-model HDTVs and Blu-ray players have a role to play. Software updates have steadily augmented my year-old HD set's support for Internet music and video. Soon, it also will be able to tune into Hulu Plus.
What I may need to make the Web my TV service is not a new box, but a spreadsheet to compare all these choices.