Apple TV, Roku 2, Google Chromecast

Making your dumb TV a Smart TV

Smart TV is not new. Internet connected flat screen TVs and Blu-Ray players have been around for a few years. And, yes, the mostly suck. The experience is very slow. Add on the second factor for TVs, that most people hang onto a TV for a least 8 years which makes any tech in the device obsolete very quickly, you can see why most TVs are, well, pretty dumb.

But that is changing. A new category of devices has emerged that connect to your TV to add new features such as streaming content from Netflix and Hulu. The current big players are:

  • Apple – with the Apple TV
  • Roku – their CEO is the guy who invented the DVR
  • Google – the Chromecast dongle changed how much space a TV device should take up
  • Microsoft – the big push for the new Xbox One was not games, but TV integration
  • Amazon – FireTV
Apple TV, Roku 2, Google Chromecast allow you to have a Smart TV without the expense
Apple TV, Roku 2, Google Chromecast allow you to have a Smart TV without the expense

Incredible as this may seem, the Apple TV (originally called iTV) is older than the iPhone. Yep, Apple has been playing in the Smart TV business since 2007. The current box from Apple (available for $99) has a focus on streaming video content. The focus on video is often referred to as “over the top” video. There is wide speculation that Apple is working on a new version  of the Apple TV. The fact that Apple has not significantly updated their hockey puck device for nearly 4 years (the minor update 2 years ago doesn’t count) is only fueling speculation. Of course, what is throwing water on the deal is that Apple TV is only a $Billion business for Apple which, these days, is peanuts. Apple may want to focus on other growth areas.

Out of the four companies leading Smart TV solutions Roku is the odd man out. It is a small company. But, boy, do they have a great product. Like Apple, Roku has a small hockey-puck sized device that connects to the HDMI port on your TV. As with Apple TV, Roku gives you loads of channels but you also get the bonus of interactive content in the form of games. Recently, Roku introduced a USB drive sized device that gives you all of the video channels that distribute over Roku’s service (but no games, sorry folks).

The Roku Stick Gives you Netflix and thousands of hours video on any HDMI TV
The Roku Stick Gives you Netflix and thousands of hours video on any HDMI TV

Google has tried the Smart TV a couple of times. The first attempt was Google TV, a program that allows device manufacturers to add Apps to your TV. Whats a mess! The second attempt came last year with the release of Google’s Chromecast, a tiny dongle that slots into a HDMI port. WOW! HUGE IMPROVEMENT. What makes Chromecast so great is the potential for all the apps that will come now that developers have access to the Chromecast SDK. Chromecast is definitely a product to watch and, for $35, is cheap to buy and try.

The most expensive Smart TV converter on this list is Microsoft’s Xbox One: $499.99!! The One does have some crazy cool tools that make your TV experience incredible along with an amazing developer tool-set to create new TV experiences. But, wow, that price!

Amazon, last on the list, also have a Apple TV-like hockey puck. You can play music, videos and watch photos. As a bonus you can play games. But there is a catch. The Amazon Fire feels like a device that you have to keep buying stuff for. First, it is $99 which is kind of pricey. Then you need subscriptions to all the services. Amazon Prime is another $99/yr. If you want the kids channel then you need to shell out $2.99/mth ($36/yr) and one the games are not great and, while you do not need an Amazon Game Controller you kind of get the feeling you should.  Throw in one controller and that’s another $39. So the Fire can cost $277 for one year of service and one controller to play games from 2004! 

Here are the four devices compared with each other:

Amazon Fire
Amazon Fire TV
Roku 3
Roku 3
Apple TV
Apple TV
Google Chromecast
Google Chromecast
Pricing $99 $99 $99 $35
Form Factor Box Box Box Dongle that sticks into TV
HDMI Compatibility Yes Yes Yes Yes
Voice Commands Yes No No No
Processor Quad-core Dual-core Single-core Single-core
Memory 2 GB 512 MB 512 MB 512 MB
Video Apps Amazon Instant Video, Netflix, Hulu Plus, YouTube, Crackle, Showtime Anywhere, Bloomberg TV, Vimeo HBO Go, Amazon Instant Video, Netflix, Hulu Plus, YouTube, Crackle, Showtime Anywhere, Vimeo iTunes, Disney Anywhere, HBO Go, Netflix, Hulu Plus, Crackle, YouTube, Bloomberg TV, WatchABC Google Play, HBO Go, Netflix, Hulu Plus, Crackle, YouTube
Music Apps Vevo, Pandora Vevo, Pandora, Spotify Vevo, Vimeo, iTunes Google Play, Vevo, Pandora, Rdio, Songza
Sports Apps Watch ESPN, NBA League Pass Watch ESPN, NBA League Pass, MLB.TV, NHL Gamecenter, Major League Soccer Watch ESPN, NBA League Pass, MLB.TV, NHL Gamecenter None
Number of Games 100+; “thousands” more coming Less than 100 Games via AirPlay None
Remote Voice search, physical remote (no line of sight needed) Physical remote, iOS app available Physical remote, iOS/Android app available (no line of sight needed) App controlled
Gaming Controller Yes; $39.99 (sold separately) No No No

Whatever your choice, it is clear that the Smart TV add-on market is hotting up. Will be lots of cool stuff coming over the next few months.

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