Walt Mossberg

Ways to Make Web Watching More Like TV, Less Like a PC

Some folks watch movies, TV shows and videos from the Internet on their TVs by plugging in their computers, using ugly cables, keyboards, or mice that seem out of place in the living room. That PC-to-TV experience is more like using the computer than leaning back to enjoy TV.

So this week, I decided to try out three inexpensive set-top boxes that aim to make this process easier and neater. They are the $100 Roku 2 XS, the $99 second-generation Apple TV and the $199 Boxee Box from D-Link. The intent of the three products I tested is to do what a computer can, but in a simpler, cheaper and more TV-like manner—with easy setup, clear onscreen menus and small, simple remotes.

None of these boxes can handle your regular cable or satellite service. Typically, you plug these gadgets into a separate input on your TV and switch to that input to use them, just as you do when using your DVD or Blu-ray player. Nor do these boxes play discs.


Clockwise starting from the left: Roku 2 XS with ‘Angry Birds’ on the TV; the uniquely shaped Boxee Box with its remote; and the Apple TV box.

While all three products carry some of the same popular Internet video sources, such as Netflix, YouTube, MLB.TV and Vimeo, they otherwise have different offerings. Apple’s huge and popular iTunes video store is available only on Apple TV. But Roku and Boxee each have numerous sources that Apple lacks, such as Hulu Plus and Amazon Instant Video on Roku, and Vudu on Boxee.

Of the three, I’d recommend Apple TV primarily for people who frequently use iTunes, or who own an iPad or iPhone. I’d recommend Roku for people who aren’t hooked on the Apple world and crave simplicity, variety and a low entry price. I’d only recommend the Boxee Box for techies because of its complexity.

Roku 2 XS

This is the smallest of the three, a tiny black gadget about 3 inches square and less than an inch thick. It’s the high end of a lineup that starts at $60.

The Roku uses a large, simple menu of “channels” of content providers—some free and some requiring a subscription or a pay-per-view fee to the content provider.

In my tests, the Roku 2 XS set up easily on my 50-inch Pioneer Plasma TV, and provided sharp, clear high-definition TV shows, movies and other videos from a wide variety of sources. Menus were mostly consistent and clear. I was able to watch TV shows like “30 Rock” and movies like “Star Trek,” though the most recent movies aren’t available and the selection of newer TV episodes was spotty.

The newest feature of the Roku is casual gaming, notably the popular “Angry Birds.” However, the Roku can’t access video, photos or music from computers on a home network, though it can play content from a USB drive.

Apple TV

This small black box seems to have inspired the new Roku design, although it’s a bit larger. It allows you to rent movies and buy TV shows from the iTunes store. A new feature also allows you to stream, for free, any TV show you’ve purchased from iTunes, even if you bought it on another device.

Though Apple won’t confirm this, I expect this same free feature to apply eventually to movies as well.

In my tests, Apple TV delivered great video, even though its resolution isn’t as high as those on the other two devices. Its user interface is clean, simple and consistent, and its remote is tiny and very simple.

The selection of non-Apple Internet sources on Apple TV is very limited. It includes a few paid services and some free ones, but ignores most of the non-Apple video on the Internet. But Apple TV really shines in fetching video, photos and music from any PC or Mac on your home network that is running iTunes.

Apple TV is becoming even more useful as an adapter for an iPad or iPhone. Using a feature on those devices called AirPlay, you can wirelessly beam some videos to your TV via Apple TV.

And, with a software update due soon, you’ll be able to wirelessly mirror the entire display of an iPad 2 to your TV, and stream music and photos you’ve stored on Apple’s new iCloud service.

My main gripe with Apple TV, in addition to its limited Web content, is that the remote lacks a “home” and “back” button.

Boxee Box

This is a much larger device, with an unusual, angled shape that costs twice as much as the others. Even with a new software update, I found Boxee more confusing and geeky than the other two.

Boxee’s strongest feature is that it has loads of content, and can play almost any video format. But this content is presented in two very different ways. If you just select a movie or TV show, you may find yourself in a Web browser, trying to control the video with a cursor—a scenario I find annoying from 10 feet away. If, however, the content comes from an app, such as Netflix or Vudu, it’s presented in a TV-friendly fashion. Depending on how you navigate to the video, you may be surprised by which interface you get.

In addition, Boxee has the flavor of a techie device. For instance, it includes setup choices like Deinterlacing Policy, and watching content from your home network requires you to choose from a geeky list of options.

Boxee also is rough around the edges. It failed to play any of the standard-formatted songs on my home network, and it froze on me twice.

A free Boxee iPad app can fetch videos from social networks or bookmarked Web pages, and has its own method for sending videos to the TV via the Boxee Box. Boxee also claims to support Apple’s official AirPlay feature, but, in my tests, this failed more often than it succeeded. (The company calls this feature “experimental.”)

On the other hand, the Boxee remote is the only one with a built-in keyboard—on the back of the remote. With the others, you have to peck out letters on an onscreen keyboard when doing things like searching.

Bottom line: To watch Internet video easily on a TV, either Roku or Apple TV is the best choice for average consumers.

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