Steve Jobs once described the AppleTV as a ‘hobby’, rather than a full-scale business that could hold its head up alongside the iPhone or iPad. There has, of course, been a huge amount of speculation about Apple taking that business to the next level with a proper TV set, but for the time being it looks as though we’re more likely to see an update to the current AppleTV box rather than an actual TV set.
If you look at the current AppleTV you quickly realize that – for non-US audiences at least – it’s actually quite limited. It provides access to iTunes and Netflix, but you can’t use important UK services such as the BBC iPlayer or LoveFilm. If you’re primarily interested in iTunes downloads, or streaming your iTunes library from other Apple devices, then the AppleTV is still a good option. However, there are plenty of non-Apple alternatives that provide access to a wider range of features and services.
The AppleTV’s most obvious rivals are media players such as the WD TV Live or the Roku 2 XS. These are very similar to the AppleTV, both in terms of design and pricing, and while they don’t provide access to iTunes, they do offer both the BBC iPlayer and Netflix, along with additional options such as Spotify or Sky’s NOW movie service.
And, now that the UK’s television service has gone completely digital, we’re also seeing a new generation of set-top boxes that provide access to online services as well as the basic set of Freeview digital TV channels. One of the most interesting new ste-top boxes is the YouView box from Humax, which provides access to online ‘catch-up’ services from all the main UK broadcasters. However, we also liked the Avalon box from Pure, which boasts the kind of graphical eye-candy that you might expect to see from a future AppleTV (or Apple-TV).
And, of course, the television sets themselves are now growing more powerful and intelligent, with a whole new generation of ‘Smart TVs’ that can be connected directly to the Internet. Not surprisingly, right at the front of the Smart TV pack we find Samsung – the company that has already emerged as Apple’s arch-rival in the mobile arena, and which has a long and successful pedigree in the TV market too.
So whether you’re looking for a cheap and cheerful media player that will let you have the BBC iPlayer on your TV, a new Freeview box, or a brand new TV we’ve rounded up some of the rivals that are ready and waiting to challenge Apple.
Despite all the rumours about Apple launching an actual television of its own, the current AppleTV remains a rather unambitious little set-top box with only limited access to the many TV and streaming video services that are now available on the Internet. [read the full review]
Pure Avalon 300R Connect
Like the Humax DTR-1000, the Avalon is a Freeview+ box with a twist. Pure is best known for its range of digital radios but its parent company, Imagination Technologies, also produces the PowerVR graphics chips that are used in many mobile devices – including a number of iPhone and iPad models. [read the full review]
Roku 2 XS
The design and price of the Roku 2 XS make it obvious that it’s intended as a direct rival for the AppleTV. [read the full review]
Samsung ES8000 Smart TV
Samsung is already giving Apple a run for its money in the smartphone market, and if Apple ever does launch a TV product it will find Samsung ready and waiting with its own Smart TV range. [read the full review]
Western Digital WD TV Live
There are two versions of the WD TV Live available at the moment – with a third on its way. The basic model reviewed here costs about £80 and, like the AppleTV, lacks an internal hard drive. However, there’s also a model called the WD TV Live Hub that costs £160 and includes a 1TB hard drive that can be shared with other people on your home network. Western Digital has also announced a new model called the WD TV Play – that doesn’t actually seem to add any new features, but simply looks more like the AppleTV. [read the full review]
Humax YouView DTR-1000
Initial sales of the DTR-1000 YouView box have been modest, but things look like they’ve started to pick up recently – and the YouView box does point to a future in which conventional broadcast TV channels exist side-by-side with online streaming video services. [read the full review]
Macworld's Buying Advice
Samsung’s Smart TVs are really impressive, and well worth considering if you’re planning to buy a new TV this year. It also gets big brownie points for including apps for both the BBC iPlayer and LoveFilm, alongside the omnipresent Netflix. These are the sort of services that Apple needs to provide in any serious TV product or updated AppleTV.
However, most of us only replace our televisions every few years, so it could be a while before we all have Smart TVs in our living rooms. A more affordable alternative is to buy a new set-top box. There are dozens of Freeview boxes available now that the UK’s television service has switched entirely to digital, but you should definitely stick with more up-to-date models that provide Internet access and services rather than just basic digital TV.
The Humax YouView box stands out with its range of UK ‘catch-up’ services, while the Pure Avalon has a very Apple-esque graphical interface and built-in wifi. However, both boxes are pretty expensive and need to add further services such as Netflix and Lovefilm before they can really qualify as ‘must-have’ items.
If you’re on a tighter budget and simply looking for an affordable way to bring online video services to your existing TV then the choice boils down to the AppleTV, Roku 2 XS or WD TV Live. If you don’t mind paying the high-prices for iTunes films and TV programmes, or you like the convenience of streaming your iTunes music and video around your home network, then the easy-to-use AppleTV is hard to beat. That makes it all the more frustrating that Apple refuses to open it up and include a wider range of services.
The AppleTV’s two main rivals at the sub-£100 end of the market are the Roku 2 XS and WD TV Live. Both provide access to the BBC iPlayer, Netflix and Spotify – but not, sadly, LoveFilm. Roku also includes Sky’s NOW movie service, so if that particular service is on your shopping list then Roku is obviously your best bet. However, the WD TV Live is very good value for money at just £80. We also like its Mac-like graphical interface and ease-of-use, and the fact that it also works well as an all-round network media player too (and you don’t have to give it your credit card details either).