Tech Files mailbag: Digital set-top box recommendations

I often receive email from readers of my Tech Files column who are looking for advice or recommendations. From time to time, I’m republishing edited versions of some of these questions and my answers here on SiliconBeat. 

Q: I would like to ask for your recommendation: Which of the digital set-top boxes (i.e., Apple TV, Roku, etc) is the most versatile, user-friendly and cost- effective? And which is your favorite?

A: I have multiple boxes in my house, but the one I use most often is Apple TV. I use it to watch Netflix, rent movies from iTunes or play ones I’ve bought from there, play movies stored on my computer, and occasionally view pictures I’ve uploaded to iCloud or movies I’ve uploaded to YouTube. For all those things, it’s a very good device, and fairly cheap at $100.

If you have an iPhone or iPad, like I do, Apple TV may be a good fit for you also. I don’t do it all the time, but I like being able to control Apple TV with my iPhone, being able to “beam” movies and pictures from my iPhone or iPad to Apple TV and being able to mirror what’s on my iPhone or Mac’s screen on my TV.

Apple TV isn’t perfect. It has far fewer channels or apps than Roku’s box, and unlike Roku’s it doesn’t allow you to add new ones. Apple hasn’t created an app store for Apple TV. But you can get around some of that limitation through its “AirPlay” beaming and mirroring features, which allow you to view far more content on the Apple TV than you can get just through its pre-installed apps.

The other big shortcoming with Apple TV is that it lacks a universal-search feature. If you want to watch an episode of “30 Rock,” you can’t do just one search for it. Instead, you have to search iTunes, then separately search Netflix, then Hulu.

One of Roku’s digital players would be another good option, particularly if you’re not concerned with accessing videos from Apple’s iTunes, which are only available through Apple TV. Some Roku boxes are less expensive than Apple TV. And they offer far more channels (although they still don’t offer YouTube). And Roku just added both a universal-search feature and “beaming” technology that allows you to send pictures and music (but not movies) from an iPhone or Android smartphone to a Roku box.

But it’s not as easy to get content stored on your computer onto a Roku box as it is on Apple TV. It doesn’t allow you to mirror what’s on your computer or smartphone screen. And I haven’t been as impressed with Roku’s interface; unlike Apple, Roku pretty much allows each content provider to design its own interface for its channel, so the system is something of a hodgepodge.

Google TV is one more good option, particularly in the form of Vizio’s new $100 Co-Star box. One of the best things about the Google TV software compared with Roku or Apple TV is that Google has been developing a universal search feature that allows you to search for content across a number of different channels and providers including live TV programs. And Google TV has an open app store, meaning that you can add apps to your Google TV and pretty much anyone can offer apps for it.

Unfortunately, Google TV doesn’t have as many true channels as Roku. And it’s just not as easy to use as Apple TV.

You can also choose from more expensive Google TV boxes, such as the one made by Sony that I reviewed earlier this fall, as well as other adapters from companies including Western Digital. And each of the game consoles offers digital content options. Nintendo’s new Wii U will soon have a feature called TVii that is essentially a universal-search that allows you to search for and directly tune in both live TV and Internet-streamed content.

And if you’re in the market for a new TV, you can find a wide range of “smart TVs” that allow you to tune in Internet-streamed content without the need of an external box.

But the premium you pay for a smart TV — which can be $300 or more — isn’t worth it when you can get an Apple TV or a Roku box for $100 or less. The game consoles are similarly far more expensive than those digital set-top boxes; if you’re not a gamer, you likely won’t find the extra expense worth it.

And I don’t think the other boxes are as well developed as what you will find on the Apple, Roku or Vizio  gadgets. So, I’d stick with one of them.

Troy Wolverton Troy Wolverton (279 Posts)

Troy writes the Tech Files column as the Personal Technology Columnist at the San Jose Mercury News. He also covers the digital media, mobile and video game industries and writes occasionally about Apple, chips, social networking and other aspects of technology. Previously, Troy covered Apple and the consumer electronics industry. Prior to joining the Mercury News, Troy reported on technology, business and financial issues for TheStreet.com and CNET News.com.