Andy Ihnatko gets to work on a bowl of Cheetos and Amazon Fire TV

Written By Sun-Times Wire Posted: 04/04/2014, 02:59pm

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AP Images photo/Diane Bondareff

Streaming video boxes are becoming like cover versions of “Yesterday”; it seems like every major group eventually gets around to doing one.

And so, Amazon released Fire TV this week and it hits all of this kind of device’s familiar beats: $99, it’s a tiny black box that streams video from Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Instant (duh), YouTube, and most of the other major services, and hopefully, it’ll make you wonder if this is the year you finally drop cable.

My review will appear next week, after I’ve had a few days to play with it and have fallen asleep in front of its warming glow at least once.

In the meantime, I’ll run through the other options. I’ve had a Roku 3 ($99), a latest-generation Apple TV ($99), and a Google Chromecast ($35) hooked up to the HDMI ports on my living room TV for the past few months. Yes, I’ve had them fighting each other in an extended “Hunger Games”-style takedown competition. Only they’re fighting to win my attention, not survival resources for their villages, and there’s no reality TV component.

(Lie. I’ve been watching “Under the Gunn” via the Lifetime TV app. I could replace that joke with “ … and no Donald Sutherland” but that would only make me sad. Cast Donald Sutherland in anything, and I’m a happy guy. But I digress.)

Roku 3
Why string you along? The Roku 3 has proven to be the clear Katniss of the group. I might as well unplug the Apple TV and the Chromecast and redistribute them among other screens in the house. Over the first couple of weeks of this test, I diligently rotated through the three devices. But after I felt as though I’d done my duty to the gods of equality, I picked up the Roku’s remote and I haven’t let it down since.

In fact, I hadn’t even realized that I’d lost my Apple TV remote until the upholstery nozzle of my vacuum cleaner found it inside my sofa during some spring cleaning.

The Roku’s strength is its open app policy. The official Roku Channel Store is loaded with the video sources you’d expect (like PBS and HBO Go) and installing new apps is as easy as picking one from a menu. But your device’s administration page on also lets you add channels that haven’t been formally “blessed” by the company yet.

The company’s also been “blessing” a lot more stuff than Apple has. Any player can access Netflix, Hulu Plus, and HBO Go (except for Fire TV … oops). And sure, that’s where most people will spend most of their time. But Roku’s wider range of apps (meaning: sources of content) put it at the top of the heap and extend its appeal beyond the big three. It simply does more.

Some of Roku’s apps are unique to that device and add enormous flexibility. There’s a Slingplayer app. This, plus the Slingbox I’ve hooked up to the one good cable box in the house, means that I can watch every cable channel I’ve subscribed to, and all of my DVR content, without paying for a second cable box and installation of a new cable run to the Lovely Room Where I Now Prefer to Watch Television.

There’s an Aereo app. This, plus a subscription to the Aereo service (available in selected cities), means that I can watch every live local TV station in my broadcast area. I I haven’t been able to do anywhere in my house since the switchover from analog to digital broadcast TV. Poor reception has knocked out everything except for ABC and NBC. My broadcast network viewing is down to just “The Big Bang Theory” and Letterman. Go ahead and ask me how much I love digital broadcast TV.

Roku has a Plex app. I gave this home media server software a deep-soak test a couple of years ago and I was so frustrated by it that after I removed it from my Mac, I spiritually rolled it in peanut butter and birdseed and hung it up in my backyard, to be nibbled to death by critters over a period of days while I watched and laughed and took pictures.

I tried Plex again a couple of months ago, simply as a way to give the Roku access to the iTunes music and video library on my office Mac (an Apple TV feature I sorely missed). It did all that and much, much more. Plex has become easy, reliable, and completely in tune with an audience that acquires content from a wide variety of streaming and local sources. If Plex still seems too complicated for you, Roku has developed its own free local media app that will automatically find and stream from libraries on your local network that conform to the DLNA standard.

And that’s not even touching on content channels that (for now) are only available on Roku. The Apple TV just wasn’t giving me many reasons to toggle the “input” switch on my TV remote.

Roku put a big hurt on Apple TV in my TV room Hunger Games when it finally got an official YouTube app. Even if we limit the discussion to shows that … er, um … have been posted to YouTube with the full knowledge and approval of their copyright holders, I get a lot of my regular news and entertainment there nowadays. YouTube is easily the equivalent of any of my favorite cable channels.

Roku’s YouTube app comes with a bonus for Google Chrome users: It turns the Roku into a Chromecast receiver. A Chromecast button appears in the standard YouTube players on my Mac and other devices. One click throws the video from my MacBook screen to the good TV, and frees up the streaming duties from my notebook.

The Roku 3 hardware itself is aces. It has a substantial, durable remote that communicates to the box via WiFi (no need to aim it; you can even hide the Roku box completely, so long as your TV hutch isn’t lined with copper mesh). The remote has its own headphone jack. When you use it, stereo sound immediately streams wirelessly and the Roku mutes the audio on your TV.

It might seem odd for a streaming TV box to have a USB port. Isn’t this meant to be the Golden Age of Wireless?

It’s a classic “won’t confuse you if you don’t use it, enhances the product if you do” sort of feature. I keep a 64-gigabyte flash drive in there. It cost all of 30 bucks and holds dozens of my favorite movies. (I buy my movies DRM-free whenever I can. When I can’t, I buy them on disc and then rip them into MP4 files). It works with any PC-formatted drive; I could throw a hard drive on there and have my entire video library directly connected.

Speaking of DRM: Obviously, the Roku can’t play any of the protected video content from the iTunes store. But it does have an Amazon Video app, which Apple TV (obviously, again) lacks. When I must buy DRM-locked videos, I prefer to buy them from Amazon, solely because I know I’ll be able to play them on a range of computers and devices — not just ones with Amazon logos on them.

Apple TV
Tim Cook said Apple TV generated about a billion dollars in revenue (via sales of hardware and content) in 2013. So why isn’t Apple obviously treating it like it’s something valuable?

When I compare the 2014 Roku experience with what the Roku was like a few years ago, I get the impression of a company whose entire fortunes rest on this one box’s ability to deliver a great and valuable experience to the consumer. It’s received dramatic improvements and new features.

When I compare the current Apple TV to its predecessors, it’s hard to see the love from its makers. It’s as though the team responsible for the iPhone gets to park their Audis right next to the CEO’s space, while the folks who work on Apple TV are told to move to the shuttle lot every time there’s an event on the campus and Apple needs to free up their part of the lot for satellite news trucks.

The range of Apple TV content made a nice jump in 2013. But overall, it’s still wanting. Its interface seems … rustic … at this point.

I still haven’t warmed to the Apple TV’s “aluminum stick of gum” remote, either. Apple manages to get the Apple TV, a power cord, and a remote in a package so small that the phrase “wormhole technology” leaps to mind and that’s a genuinely impressive feat. But the remote is too thin and too small and this tiny packaging is the reason for that, which frustrates me. My first step toward watching video on the Apple TV is a quadrant search of my living room for the remote, which can, and does, hide itself in any crack or crevice or under any magazine or other object. It’s like a cockroach with an IR emitter.

Overall, I value my Apple TV, but doesn’t fuel my dreams of canceling my cable subscription. It’s an excellent device … competing with a Roku box that has a wider range of features and a better remote, and which costs the same amount of money.

The Apple TV beats Roku if you’re already an Apple-heavy household. It’ll find all of the iTunes libraries you’ve shared to other devices on your home network. It’ll stream your iTunes purchases straight from the Internet. Showing off your mobile photos (shot with your iOS device) is just as easy. No thinking, no complicated setup: Apple devices are designed from the whiteboard on up to work great together.

The AirPlay feature is a four-star experience. As an iOS “second screen,” Apple TV turns an iPhone or iPad into a strong living room gaming platform. I’m a mobile gamer and the Apple TV has further dimmed my interest in buying a “real” next-generation console system. And anything that’s playing on your iOS device or your Mac can be streamed or mirrored to your HDTV with just a tap.

I’m primarily an Apple user. My computers are Macs, my tablet is an iPad. Even so, I don’t pine much for the Apple TV. I do miss its terrific Podcasts app. Unlike the apps of that type for Roku, Apple TV delivers video and audio podcasts as a true TV and radio experience that encourages me to listen and watch more of the things.

So it’s a strong recommendation if you want to use your HDTV as an extension and accessory to your iPhone, iPad, or Mac. If not, it’s not as nice as the Roku in the role of an entertainment destination.

I anticipate big improvements to Apple TV this year, though. Apple’s stopped referring to it as a “hobby.” One of the sturdiest rumors in Apple history is that it’s trying to crack the problem of cable TV content; it was one of the most interesting revelations that Steve Jobs made during his interviews with his biographer. It’s been making some interesting hires toward that goal, and the momentum of these rumors of a radically improved Apple TV is building.

(Oh, I guess this is a good time to write about the rumors that Apple intends to sell its own branded TV: I think it’s rubbish. End of in-depth commentary.)

The most positive sign of Apple TV’s future is the knowledge that Apple doesn’t hesitate to ax a product if it doesn’t serve a role in the company’s future. Unlike other tech companies of its size, Apple isn’t organized like a collection of independent companies united by a common dental and medical plan. If Apple keeps making and selling the Apple TV, then the answer to the question “Why has it stagnated?” is most likely “Its attention has been elsewhere.

I expect that Apple has demurred on incremental changes in favor of a big one it’s planned for quite some time. Apple has a hot mobile CPU that can perform miracles, and an exciting new design aesthetic. Neither of these existed two years ago. When they arrive on the Apple TV, it’s going to be something big.

Further: Apple has made Siri into a marquee feature of the ecosystem. All of my complaints about the Apple TV’s stick-of-gum remote disappear if I’m able to walk into my living room with a Coke and a bowl of Cheetos and ask “Is there a new episode of ‘Bob’s Burgers’ on Hulu?”

HDTV has almost completed its Alexander the Great-style march throughout my house. “And when HDTV reached Andy’s bedroom, he wept … for there were no screens left to upgrade.”

It’ll sound classier in Greek:

“Και όταν έφτασε HDTV κρεβατοκάμαρα του Andy, έκλαψε, για δεν υπήρχαν οθόνες αριστερά για την αναβάθμιση.”

(Well, it was worth a shot.)

Streaming devices are only a step or two behind. I get most of my programming through streaming services. I want them on every screen, not just the one room whose feng shui has been reappropriated toward the optimization of TV viewing.

This seems to be the point of Chromecast. It’s $35. Maybe you can’t justify $99 for every TV in your house, but $35 is a cheap enough way to add some streaming mojo to your kitchen or office TV. And it’s a fine, if limited, device.

Chromecast is designed like a USB flash drive. It plugs directly into an HDMI port and doesn’t contribute to the tangle of wires under your TV. There’s no remote and no native apps. So how does it work? Through the standard Netflix (or Hulu, or HBO Go, or etc.) app on your phone or tablet. You use the app to choose a program and then tap a button to view it on a nearby Chromecast instead of the device’s own screen. From then on, the Chromecast takes over the streaming duties and the phone app only needs to perform the functions of a remote.

I’m wrestling with my opinions on this approach. I’m not under 20, which means that my interface with TV has always been through a handheld remote with clickybuttons. I don’t want to brag, but I’m really, really good at operating one of those things.

Tapping a glass screen works too. But it’s a different experience. I have to look at the device and carefully aim my finger; I have to momentarily drop my attention from the show I’m watching. A physical remote requires only touch memory and provides physical feedback when I’ve pushed the “rewind” and then the “resume play” button.

Also: when I want to bail on a bad movie, I want to bail now. Not after I’ve carefully entered the PIN code on my phone to unlock it and display my playback controls. Overall, operating a TV through a phone app instead of a clickybutton remote a very disruptive experience.

Chromecast isn’t ideal, but it’s a terrific value. It also integrates well into your desktop Web browsing. Watch a video, get engrossed, click a button in the YouTube player control deck in your Web browser, and presto: it’s on the big screen.

As things stand today, without finishing my weekend with the Fire TV, the Roku 3 is my default recommendation. You should think about the Apple TV if your streaming ambitions don’t stretch far beyond the most common half-dozen streaming services and you’re attracted to the idea of using your HDTV as an accessory for your iOS or MacOS device. Also, I think Apple will soon update the Apple TV in a major way, though I don’t think it’ll make it into an open-ish device like the Roku).

Chromecast is less ambitious than Roku or Apple TV, but it’s an inexpensive way to add some streaming-studliness to a TV.

I’ll be sure to talk about Fire TV and how it affects these recommendations in my review. It’s too soon to talk about it right now. I’ll try not to be prejudiced by my gratitude: It’s always nice to have a work-related excuse to spend a weekend watching TV.