This has turned into the year of Internet TV, or at least the year of the Internet set-top box. Google has launched its TV play. Apple and Roku have updated their Internet STBs, and Boxee (a cult favorite among techies and hackers) has moved beyond just software and delivered its own hardware box as well.
For those who are ready to take the plunge and add an Internet-connected box to their entertainment center, it's suddenly become a crowded market and a tough choice.
I'm going to help simplify it. Here is a quick summary of what each of these Internet STBs have to offer and who they will appeal to. I have also ranked them from worst to best.
4. Google TV
Of these four, Google TV is by far the most ambitious. Unfortunately, it's also the most complicated, and that's its ultimate undoing. I tested the Logitech Revue ($299) along with its Mini Controller ($129) and TV Cam ($149). Even without the two extra accessories, this is the most expensive option of the four.
For that premium price, you get a system that integrates with your cable or satellite set-top box and gives you the ability to switch back and forth between your traditional TV experience and an Internet interface on your TV. The Google TV interface makes it easy to search the web for video clips (although it's skewed toward YouTube and Google video search) and then play those clips on your big screen. That's its greatest strength.
If you watch a lot of short web video clips from across the web and want to get them up on your flat-panel TV then the Google TV box is now the best and easiest way to find them and watch them. I think it's still easier and a better experience to watch this short stuff on a laptop or the iPad, but some people may disagree.
The most disappointing thing with the Google TV is that it doesn't have many apps yet. Watch out for apps. If big content companies (i.e. TV networks and production companies) start jumping on the app bandwagon they could create super-dynamic apps/channels that mix the power of web and multimedia interactivity with traditional cable channels. Google TV is best-positioned for that revolution if it were to happen.
3. Boxee Box
Boxee could eventually turn out to be the leader in the Internet set-top box space. It has the best UI of any of these devices. It has the best remote, hands down (you flip it over and it has a keyboard on the back). And, it is the only one that successfully integrates social networking into the experience.
The Boxee Box ($199) is easy and pleasant to use, but also attractive and powerful. And, make no mistake, software and UI are huge differentiators in this space. The Boxee user experience is much cleaner, smoother, and more intuitive than Google TV, and the two of them are natural competitors because they are both about bringing video clips from across the web to the TV screen. Boxee has a better UI, but Google makes a little easier to find good stuff. My biggest problem with Boxee is that I just never seem to find that much good content to watch.
Boxee also allows you to access any of your own personal video files or movies and make them part of the experience, which is a plus. But, its killer feature may turn out to be that it effectively integrates a social experience so that you can add your friends and see the videos that they are watching and recommending. That could become even more important in the future since there is likely to be more and more content to sort through.
Another great thing about Boxee is that the software is also available for Windows, Mac, and Linux, so you can download it for free and try it. If you like it you can run it on your own box connected to your TV or you can go out and buy the Boxee Box STB to simplify the process.
2. Apple TV
The new Apple TV update for 2010 ($99) has two things going for it: 1.) It is amazingly small, which makes it easy to add to any TV or entertainment system, and 2.) It has a ton of content available, especially if you're already entrenched in the Apple and iTunes ecosystem.
The new Apple TV also solves a number of the nagging problems from the original Apple TV. It doesn't overheat, it doesn't have the goofy local syncing with a Mac or PC, and it now integrates Netflix (the best Internet-enabled content library). Although Apple claims it has the best Netflix experience of any device, it still doesn't quite match the Roku for speed, navigation, and simplicity.
However, Apple does have a great library of new release movie rentals, easy access to lots of audio and video podcasts, and a great gallery of movie trailers (a feature that I surprisingly have turned out to use a lot). Apple also has an interesting scheme with AirPlay, which it intends to use to allow devices such as the iPhone and iPad to stream content over-the-air to Apple TV. Once this goes live, it will be interesting to see how well it works and how much it gets used.
Apple narrowly edges Boxee for second place for one reason: It is simply more useful, and that's mostly due to the fact that it has more and better content.
1. Roku Player
The thing about Roku is that its mission is simple: Take high-quality video content that is published over the Internet and deliver it to your HDTV in an ridiculously simple way. And, it absolutely nails that goal.
And, it's inexpensive. It offers three versions: the HD ($59), XD ($79), and XD|S ($99). For most buyers, the XD will make the most sense. You can even get the Roku XD through retail channels such as Best Buy now for $89, since Netgear sells it as the NTV250 (pictured above).
Roku started out primarily as a streaming box for Netflix on Demand -- a library of catalog movie titles and complete seasons of past TV shows that Netflix originally made available for streaming to PCs. In bringing this to the TV, Netflix has brought us closer than anyone else to the goal of eventually having the whole history of movies and television shows available on demand over the Internet and playable on any screen. And, as I mentioned above, Netflix still has the best and simplest Netflix experience of any of these STBs.
Roku has now expanded its content and offers lots of different channels and content options, from Amazon Video (which offers virtually all of the same movie rentals as Apple TV) to Major League Baseball to This Week in Tech (TWiT) to Revision3, and much more.
Roku does not have the ability to access web clips from across the Web the way you can with Google TV and Boxee. So, if you're looking for a box that will allow you to watch that 7-minute clip from historychannel.com on your big screen TV, then Roku is not the best choice.
However, I never have a hard time finding good stuff to watch on Roku and that -- combined with its simple setup and ease of use -- is why I rank it number one, even over its much larger competitors.
What's your vote?
Jason Hiner is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about the people, products, and ideas changing how we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the upcoming book, Follow the Geeks (bit.ly/ftgeeks).