Apple TV (take 2) vs. TiVo HD for Movie Rentals

It would be nice to have ONE device that does it all. However, in reality it just doesn’t exist (yet). I have 3 set-top boxes in my home theater. Those 3 boxes are TiVo HD, Sony Playstation 3 and Apple TV. Each device has some overlap in functionality to the other two, but not enough to be eliminated. My focus here is on one aspect of entertainment and that’s movie rentals via electronic download. Since your budget may not allow the purchase of two devices that do a lot of same things, I thought I would compare the two that are the most alike.

 

Apple TV (take 2)

Apple provided a FREE software update to the existing Apple TV. So no new hardware is required. While I’m an early adopter of Apple TV, I was never behind the whole "buy movies from iTunes thing." It just never made sense to me. I said it from day one, "If I really like a movie enough to buy it, I’d rather own it on DVD (now Blu-ray)." There wasn’t really a cost advantage in buying a movie from iTunes and they tie up space on your drive. So my reason for buying an Apple TV was mainly to showcase my photography to friends and family, watch video podcasts, watch purchased TV shows, music videos and home movies. Well the Apple TV just got a lot more useful in several ways and of course the main new feature is support for Apple’s iTune Store movie rentals. I rent movies all the time. My main rental source is Netflix (and after you read this entire post, you’ll see why it will remain my main source for a while longer).

The new Apple TV interface is as you would have guessed, very slick! It’s so inviting and easy to navigate. Apple has blurred the line between what’s stored on the Apple TV’s hard drive and what’s stored on your Mac or PC’s iTunes library. So if you go to "My Movies" for example, it shows the movies from both places (the built-in hard drive and your iTunes library) all together. Pick a movie to watch and it plays it no matter where it’s located. This applies to music too. Apple has also gone a few steps further with photo slideshows by implementing direct support for .Mac gallery and Flickr online photo albums. This makes it so easy for you see photos from friends and family right on your TV. Another big improvement is the ability watch podcasts directly from Apple TV regardless of whether you’re subscribed to them or not. It will stream them right from the source. You can even bookmark your favorites such as my Creative Suite Podcast.

This is all GREAT, but what about movie rentals? The good news (make that GREAT news) is that no computer is required. You can use the Apple Remote right from your sofa/theater chair and browse movies, do searches, watch previews and RENT them on the spot. If you choose to rent a movie your iTunes account will be charged and the movie will start to download immediately. Once enough of it has downloaded, you can begin watching the movie (in my case after about 4 minutes with an HD movie). Movie rentals are priced from $2.99 to $4.99 depending upon the age of the movie and quality. Older movies are $2.99 in standard def and $3.99 in HD and newer titles are $1 more in their respective formats. Sounds great so far right? It is! However, doing my best to always do a balanced review, there are some downsides: The biggest downside for me and the reason I won’t give up Netflix is that Apple won’t get new releases until 30 days (yes one month) AFTER they come out on DVD. I’m sure this was done intentionally by the evil movie Hollywood houses, but it is what it is. Another downside is that (to the best of my knowledge) you only get 5.1 surround sound on the HD rentals. Also unlike renting from iTunes on your computer, if you rent a movie directly on your Apple TV it CAN’T be moved to any other device. This last one isn’t a big deal, but I thought you should know so that you can plan accordingly. Just like renting from iTunes on your computer, you’ll have 30 days to start the movie and then 24 hours to finish it/watch it as many times as you like. Like many of you, I feel that 24 hours is just not enough time. They should do it like they do at the rental stores. If it’s a new release you have 24 hours. If not, you have a few days. Or they should do it like Netflix, offer a monthly subscription to have a set number of movies out (downloaded) at one time to take as long as you want to watch them or watch as many times as you want. Another one of my pet peeves hasn’t been resolved in this update and that is the ability to play a playlist of music videos. Just like the original Apple TV, the first video plays and then stops returning you the list of videos. There is no technical reason that I can think of as to why it just can play one right after the other!

The Apple TV works exactly as described and is way more versatile than the original model. Apple also dropped the price down by $70 to $229 for the 40GB model. Speaking of which, a lot of people were really complaining early on about the original Apple TV ONLY having a 40GB drive. With the new software, and they way it seamlessly blends content from your computer and its built-in hard drive, the size of the internal drive is really irrelevant for most people. The only time it would be a concern is if you didn’t want to keep your computer on for live streaming of content that didn’t exist on the Apple TV’s hard drive. There’s even a new option in iTunes to have iTunes automatically figure out what content should be sync’d giving priority to newer items. However, the streaming works so well that this really isn’t an issue especially if you have an 802.11n network.

 

Moving back and forth

Just like before the update you can sync content from your computer to an Apple TV. You can also MOVE rentals from your computer to your Apple TV, but not the other way around. If you PURCHASE music or movies on your Apple TV they CAN be transferred to your computer so that you can sync them with iPods and such. So if you RENT a movie on Apple TV, you are only going to be able to watch it on Apple TV. Everything else goes both ways. Also if you have multiple Apple TVs there is no way to move (or watch) content between them directly.

 

AirTunes Bonus!

Apple also threw in an AirTunes bonus. Since you will likely have your Apple TV hooked up to your booming sound system, you can now direct your Mac or PC to stream music from iTunes directly to your Apple TV and out through your stereo. No need to buy an AirPort Express just for iTunes streaming. It would have been nice if the Apple TV was also an AirPort base station, but I’m guessing that was too much to ask for for a FREE update.

If you want more info and to see an actual demo of Apple TV, check out this guided tour. Check out the complete specs here.

 

 

What about TiVo HD?

How does TiVo HD compare? Apple has an advantage in that they make both the hardware and the software. So it will always be hard for hardware manufactures to out do Apple when it comes to user interface and user experience. However, TiVo’s user interface is legendary and should be the model for all DVRs! When it comes to movies though, TiVo has hooked up with Amazon.com (Amazon Unbox). Amazon Unbox provides movies for purchase and movie rentals with direct download to TiVo HD boxes, Windows PCs and portable devices like the Archos and Creative Zen, but NOT iPods. Although you can choose to rent movies from the website OR directly from your TiVo, trust me you’ll want to do it from the website. The TiVo interface to Amazon Unbox is nowhere near as slick or fast as Apple TV. As a matter of fact, the first time I tried it I remember saying that "I’ll never do it this way again." It works, it’s just SLOW!

Amazon Unbox links up with your TiVo Central account. Since your TiVo connects to the internet every 30 minutes or so, it will see the request/purchase from Amazon Unbox within 30 minutes and start downloading your rental. Of course if you want it sooner you can either rent directly from the TiVo HD or force an immediate connection. Like Apple TV, once enough of the movie has downloaded you can begin watching it.


Although the TiVo HD outputs an HD quality signal (up to 1080i) to your HDTV, the movie rentals themselves are NOT in HD format. They are in widescreen format and seem to be in the original movie aspect ratio. So you will get even more letterboxing than you do with a DVD. The quality is decent, but the Apple TV/iTunes quality is BETTER!

Amazon Unbox rentals can cost less too. They often run 99¢ rental specials. The first movie I rented (Shooter) cost me only 99¢ and that was certainly cheaper than going anywhere else to get it. Amazon Unbox seems to also be restricted by the movie houses in that their movies come out well after the DVD versions. Movie rentals from Amazon Unbox cost from 99¢-$3.99. They also sell TV shows for the same $1.99 as iTunes.

Although TiVo HD doesn’t hold up as strong for movie rentals, the one thing that it has that Apple TV doesn’t is DVR functionality. Not only can I play back my purchases and computer generated content, but I can RECORD TV shows and move those TV shows to my computer for viewing or downloading to my iPhone/iPod/Apple TV.

 

Feature Breakdown

  Apple TV TiVo HD
Movie Rental Costs $2.99-$4.99 .99¢-$3.99
Movies Available in HD Yes No
AirTunes Streaming Yes No
iTunes Purchased Music support Yes No
Watch Rented Movie on another networked box No Yes
5.1 Surround Sound Only on HD rentals Yes
Component Video Yes Yes
HDMI Video/Audio Yes Yes
Optical Audio Yes Yes
Max Resolution 720p for HD content 1080i
DVR No Yes
Ethernet Yes – 10/100Base-T Yes 10/100Base-T
Wi-Fi Built-in Requires $59 adapter
Max Wi-Fi Speed 802.11n 802.11g
Expandable storage via an external drive No Yes (eSata)
Monthly Fee No Yes
Requires Cable service No Yes
Base Price $229 $299

 

Apple TV 40GB Model $225 at Amazon ($229 list price), 160GB Model $329

TiVo HD 160GB $254.49 at Amazon ($299 list price)

 

The Bottom Line

When Apple TV first came out, it was exactly the same price as TiVo HD $299. That coupled with the limited functionality it was pretty much a no brainer to go with TiVo HD if you were going to pick one device. Now Apple TV costs less and has a lot more functionality than the original model so you would have to decide which features are more important to you. For me, I need BOTH devices. If Apple TV were a DVR, I’d potentially be saying good-bye to TiVo. If TiVo HD improved in the areas of movie rental interface, streaming from Macs, etc. I could live without AppleTV. However, neither device is strong enough to run solo in my theater. Since I still need disc playback capabilities the Playstation 3 isn’t going anywhere either. It makes a great Blu-ray player.

 

Netflix still wins the bulk of my business

Why? Netflix offers me something that Apple TV/iTunes and TiVo HD/Amazon Unbox don’t and that is I can watch my rentals whenever I feel like it, anywhere I like with an all-you-can eat price. The movies are available immediately when they are released on DVD. I can take my time and no have to watch a 24 hour clock. There are no late fees and as their commercial suggests, "there’s always something to watch!" I usually have two DVD’s that I haven’t watch at home almost all the time. So I’ll probably only do iTunes/Apple TV rentals when it’s a spur of the moment kinda situation OR if I’m already on the road and want to watch something for the flight home. Netflix has also promised Mac support in 2008 for their online movie stream service. So things should really start to heat up when that happens.

Take your DVR with you – Slingbox Pro Review

I’m late to the party on this one! Slingbox has been out for a couple of years now and while I had heard about it in passing and kinda knew what it was, I was never that interested in it. What I surmised was that Slingbox was a device that hooks up to your TV setup at home and lets you stream live TV over the internet to your computer or your PDA. I was right. I wasn’t that interested because I rarely have time to watch "live" TV. However, what I didn’t realize was that it wasn’t just limited to "live" TV. Sometimes it takes a good demo to get someone excited and that’s exactly what happened to me. A friend showed it to me at Macworld Expo and I was floored. Not only was she able to show me what was playing live from her NY home, she showed me what was on her DVR. This 5 minute demo was all it took and I couldn’t get to Best Buy fast enough to get one (could have saved money by ordering online, but hey I was excited!)

Although there are a few different Slingbox models, I was really only going to choose between two: Slingbox Solo and Slingbox Pro. There is a Slingbox AV, but it’s limited to just Composite and S-Video ports so it wasn’t even in my thoughts. The Slingbox Solo allows you to hook up to one source such as a Cable Box, DVR/TiVo, Satellite box, Coax Antenna Cable/Antenna, etc. The Solo has Composite, Component and S-Video connections. My other choice was the Slingbox Pro and the difference between the Solo and Pro is that the Pro can allow up to 4 sources to be connected at once. So it has the full complement of ports (Component can be added for $39-$49 via a dongle) and you can plug multiple devices into it. Although I could have gotten by with the Solo, the Pro wasn’t that much more in price so I went for it (I hate those "I should have bought the next model up" regrets).

The main connection I wanted to make was to my Comcast DVR or my TiVo HD. Since the Slingbox has to be connected to an Ethernet connection, the most convenient spot was on a TV with a Comcast (Motorola) DVR on it. This particular TV also has an older DirecTV TiVo on it and having the Slingbox Pro allowed me to connect both of these. Overkill? Yeah probably.

 

How does it connect?

The Slingboxes have both in and out ports. So no matter which connection method you you use, you’re connecting out from your source (such as a DVR), into the Slingbox and out of the Slingbox back to your TV. So it sits in between your source and your TV and therefore you don’t need any extra ports which is great. I connected my DirecTV TiVo via S-Video and my Comcast DVR via the optional Slingbox Pro HD Component dongle along with the appropriate audio ports. Unfortunately none of these units have HDMI yet. I was impressed and pleased that all of the necessary cables were supplied. As I mentioned above, you will need an Ethernet connection from your router. If your router is NOT close by, they do sell a SlingLink Turbo which allows you to route the necessary Ethernet connection through a standard electrical outlet by just plugging in one near your router and one near your Slingbox. I didn’t need this accessory, but it is getting good reviews on Amazon, so I assume it works. No drilling holes through your walls to run Ethernet cables. The last part of the setup is placing the IR emitters over your existing boxes. This allows you to control your devices from your onscreen SlingPlayer remote.

back of a Slingbox Pro

the optional Slingbox Pro HD Component connection

back of a Slingbox Solo

 

After you get it all connected up, then what?

There is a CD in the box for PC users to install the SlingPlayer. For Mac users you just download it from their website. Once you download the SlingPlayer, it walks you through setting up your Slingbox to be accessed over the internet. Although the setup assistant claimed to be able to configure my router automatically and claimed it did so successfully, it didn’t work when I tried to access my Slingbox from outside my network. So I just opened up the necessary port on my router myself and it works like a charm.

 

How well does it work?

Your ability to watch YOUR TV or DVR while you’re on the go is going to greatly depend upon available bandwidth. As you might imagine, streaming live video requires a pretty beefy internet connection. So your mileage (read picture quality) will vary depending on how you’re connecting to the internet. Some public/pay-as-you-go internet connections expressly prohibit this kind of use. For example, Verizon’s EVDO service prohibits streaming of live video and some users have had their accounts permenantly suspended as a result. Someone told me that a hotel they stayed at had high speed internet and right in the terms of service they spelled out "No Slingbox use". However, if you are on a speedy internet connection and you are not restricted from this kind of use, then slingbox performs extremely well. My connection at home is Cable Modem with very good throughput and I tested connecting back to my Slingbox over a DSL connection that was much slower (and under heavy use at the time) and the experience was more than adequate. I was also happy to see that it played nice with the different aspect ratios of my sources. My Comcast DVR is setup for 16:9, but my DirecTV TiVo is 4:3 and it remembers that in the player.

Also if you have a compatible Palm Treo, Symbian OS or Windows Mobile PDA, you can buy a SlingPlayer Mobile app for those too. They have also announced a SlingPlayer for Blackberry due out later this year. I have high hopes that once Apple releases the SDK for the iPhone next month that Sling Media will develop a SlingPlayer for iPhone! Fingers crossed.

Also keep in mind that while the Slingbox has to be connected to Ethernet, your computer that you’re running the SlingPlayer on doesn’t. So I can stream over my Wi-Fi connection with no problems. This would also allow you to watch TV in rooms that you don’t have a TV in in your own house via your laptop.

 

Having access to my DVR makes all the difference in the world

I wouldn’t call myself a TV junkie, but there are a few shows that I really like to watch. I can remember a few times last year of being on the road and getting back to my hotel room too late to catch "24" or "LOST". Now with Slingbox, I would be able to fire up my MacBook Pro, launch the SlingPlayer, go to the "My DVR" menu and start playing the episode that I recorded at home. What’s even better is that I would be able to fast forward through the commercials and pause it as needed. DVRs allow you to "Time Shift" your TV viewing. Slingbox allows you to "Place Shift" your TV viewing. Forgot to set your DVR to record something before you left the house? No problem, fire up the SlingPlayer on your laptop and just use the onscreen remote to setup the recording remotely.

my Comcast DVR showing through the SlingPlayer on my MacBook Pro. They even match the remote. The little squares at the bottom of the screen are station presets that you can configure to jump to your favorite channels.

 

my DirecTV TiVo showing through the SlingPlayer on my MacBook Pro. Complete with an onscreen TV Remote.

 

How much does it cost?

If all you want to control or watch is one device such as a DVR or cable box, then I would go with Slingbox Solo which Amazon has for $144.99 with free shipping (regular price $179). If you want to have two or more sources, then you want Slingbox Pro which Amazon has for $179.99 (regular price $229.99). Keep in mind that with Slingbox Pro, if you want to connect via Component cables you will need the optional Sling Media HD Connect Cable for $38.99 at Amazon (regular price $49.99). If you just want a basic unit with composite connections, then you could go with the Slingbox AV for $109.72. Sling Media did announce a Slingbox HD that will be coming out in Q3 of this year and will go for $400. I’m not sure it would be worth the wait for most. I have the Slingbox Pro connected right now to an HDTV and there is no downside that I can see. Since bandwidth will be an issue, I’m not sure how effective you will be streaming HD anyway (outside of your home network).

There are no monthly service fees or contracts involved. It’s just a box that streams over your existing broadband internet connection.

 

The bottom line

If you not only want to watch TV on your schedule, but also in the location of your choosing, then there is no better solution that Slingbox! For me it was a no brainer and it works as advertised. I would have gotten one of these a year ago if I had seen it in action. Sling Media, you need better marketing!