Apple TV (2012) Third generation full review
Google's recently announced Android TV joins a busy market for television streaming devices. Our Apple TV vs Android TV looks at both devices: the features, apps and streaming services on offer.
The Apple TV has been around since 2007, when Apple introduced Apple TV as a easy way to shift content from an iTunes library to the television. Since then Apple TV has undergone numerous revisions and refinements and now offers a comprehensive media streaming service. Google announced Android TV this year alongside the upcoming Android L operating system. Android TV is the spiritual successor to Google TV, an earlier attempt by Google to add internet smarts to the television. Google has also recently introduced a device called Chromecast, a HDMI dongle that streams video from YouTube and other service providers.
Both Google and Apple have been busy here, the question is what services does Apple TV and Android TV provide, and is it worth getting either device? Our Apple TV vs Android TV review puts both devices under the microscope.
- New Apple TV release date rumours
- Read our updated Apple TV review here.
- Our preview of the new Apple TV, including all the features you can expect, is here.
Apple TV vs Android TV review: Getting to know the Apple TV
The original vision for Apple TV was to create a device that made it easy to transfer content from an iTunes library on your Mac to a television. That content would be mostly music and photographs, but could also include television shows and films purchased from iTunes Store.
That original device morphed into an Apple TV (introduced as a "Take 2" by Steve Jobs in 2010) which is the device we know today.
The modern Apple TV is a minute box that hooks up to your television and local wireless network. It still makes it easy to stream content from your Mac to your television (by means of AirPlay) but the Apple TV is no longer limited to iTunes. These days Apple TV can stream just about any part of your Mac, including the whole display.
You can also stream content directly to an Apple TV from any iOS device (such an iPhone or iPad) and many apps (such as BBC iPlayer) enable you to stream content directly from the iPhone or iPad app to your television. Games can make use the Apple TV to display the main action, while other controls are displayed on the iOS device (the quality of this depends on the speed of your wireless network).
The Apple TV also has a number of built in apps that work with popular video services such as Netflix, Sky Sports, Sky News and YouTube. There isn't an App Store, however; you are limited to a selection of apps created by Apple.
More recently, Apple has introduced direct streaming of content you have purchased from the iTunes Store. This on-demand content includes films and TV programs you have purchased or rented, and any music you have purchased from iTunes (or linked to your iTunes account via iTunes Match.)
Apple TV is a pretty comprehensive device these days, but it still falls short when compared to an iOS device like the iPhone or iPad. The most notable omission being the ability to download and install apps.
Apple TV vs Android TV review: Getting to know the Android TV
Google has already had one attempt to take on the Apple TV with Google TV, a set-top box that enhanced television with features such as YouTube and online browsing. The Google TV was a markedly different (read: "terrible") device that came with a remote keyboard instead of a regular remote control.
More recently Google introduced a newer device called the Chromecast. This HDMI dongle connects to a television and streams content from supported services directly from your network connection. (The Chromecast uses compatible Android and iOS apps as remote control.) In effect it performs a similar (although functionally different) effect to AirPlay. Chromecast benefits from focusing on the task of streaming and doing that well for a great price.
Into this mix steps the Android TV. Android TV is part of the upcoming Android L software update and will enable developers to build apps for the television. Major content providers are currently building Android TV apps that will deliver content to the television.
"The TV is an entertainment interface, not a computing platform," writes Google. "Android TV is simple and magical. It's all about finding and enjoying content and apps with the least amount of friction."
Android TV will feature a small remote control (like Apple TV) to navigate the interface and will avoid users from having to input text whenever possible. Google suggests developers "avoid making users enter text whenever possible, and use voice interfaces when you require text input". This addition of voice interaction is an element that is missing from Apple TV (which does not feature Siri).
In a nutshell: Android TV is a voice activated set-top box with simple controls and an app store.
Apple TV vs Android TV review: How do the devices shape up?
If you look at Chromecast as offering the same functionality as AirPlay, then Android TV offers the other half of the Apple TV experience (apps that stream content directly from supporting providers). How well this experience works depends on the hardware Google and its partners implement, how many developers support Android TV and the efficiency of Android L. All of which we will find out this autumn.
How successful Android TV will be as a wider strategy is debatable: one of the biggest problems facing both Apple TV and Chromecast is a plethora of other devices. Direct comparisons include devices like Roku and Now TV; these have to compete with space under the television from standard Freeview and YouView boxes and fend off big hitters like Sky, BT and Virgin Media. Then you have games consoles such as PS4 and Xbox One and a variety of small interesting devices such the Western WD Live and D-Link Boxee Box. Not to mention the upcoming Amazon Fire TV.
In such a crowded market you have to question Google's approach of creating two devices in a market where even selling one is a challenge.
Apple TV vs Android TV review: All about the apps and games
Android TV does have one advantage over the Apple TV. Whereas app development on Apple TV is tightly controlled by Apple, Google is opening up Android TV to the wider developer community.
This could result in a raft of apps for the Android TV, including a native app for BBC iPlayer (which still isn't supported directly on Apple TV, although AirPlay support seems perfectly sufficient). We can expect most of the big players like Netflix to quickly create Android TV apps, but if the device is even moderately successful you can quickly expect a range of supported apps that far outstrips the Apple TV offering.
And then there are games: developers have long wanted Apple to release an Apple TV SDK so they can start to develop games for the Apple TV. Game development has been a runaway success on the iOS platform, and developers are keen to take their apps to the big screen. Android TV will enable them to do just that.
It is possible that cheap low-fi gaming could be the killer feature that makes the Android TV a runaway success. Whether that will be enough to forge a market for Android TV in the face of such tight competition is anybody's guess. We'd bet against it.