iOS and Android continue to be the main competing platforms for mobile devices. Both Apple and Google have taken steps entering the set-top box world. The Apple TV remains a secondary device next to its family of iOS devices, and the Google TV and Nexus Q were both products that didn’t live up to the promise.
While Apple continues to produce the Apple TV, it hasn’t shown a lot of support for the device with third party apps. Apple TV is securely tied to your iTunes account and the use of AirPlay to display or mirror content on the device.
Google’s Chromecast is essentially a mixture of the features of the Google TV and Nexus Q. It streams content to the device through supported apps. What this means is that all the content on Chromecast is streamed through a wireless connection and controlled through the compatible app. Like Apple TV, Chromecast-supported apps are still a bit shallow, but now that developers are free to work with the device, there should be more apps available in the future.
Apple TV is securely locked into the iTunes ecosystem. Apple wants you to use your iTunes account to stream your purchases, but it doesn’t ignore the biggest streaming services, so it also supports Netflix, Hulu Plus, and HBO GO as featured apps on the Apple TV.
If the app isn’t directly available, you can use AirPlay, which lets you stream or mirror your iOS device on the TV. This gives Apple the ability not to include apps on the Apple TV dashboard. The list of AirPlay supported apps is much larger and expands beyond streaming movies and TV.
Flipboard for iPad, Sketchbook Pro, Spotify, and Pandora Radio are apps that aren’t available on Apple TV, but can be streamed to the device. AirPlay is also available for some gaming apps which can take advantage of two screens. You can also use AirPlay on a Mac with mirroring. Considering the $99 price of the Apple TV, however, is it worth it to have access to your iTunes account to stream music to your TV, or to have to use AirPlay to gain more functionality?
If you have a lot of iTunes purchases, the Apple TV is a great way to be able to watch them on a bigger screen. Unfortunately, the lack of third-party app support on the Apple TV is disappointing.
Chromecast isn’t a set-top box at all. It’s a HDMI dongle that fits into your TV whose purpose is to control content streams from apps. You can also mirror a tab within the Chrome browser on Chromecast using an installed extension.
In comparison with Apple, Chromecast is using the same idea as AirPlay by letting you stream content wirelessly. The difference is that all the content is being streamed directly to Chromecast and can be controlled through the app.
Connecting an Android tablet to Chromecast within your wireless network through Netflix and streaming the content directly to the TV is just one example of its use. Netflix on the tablet would be considered the remote control, but it’s not playing the video at the same time. This effectively lets you do other things on the tablet while Netflix is running via Chromecast.
Another great feature is that Chromecast supports both iOS and Android devices, making it up to the app developer to add support. Google opened up access to developers, meaning that there should be more supported apps being released and updated soon.
Currently, app support is still a little sparse, with Google Play Movies & TV and Google Play Music offering Google’s store. Considering third-party services, all the majors are again supported, including Netflix, HBO GO, Hulu Plus, Pandora, and Rdio. Of course, there’s also support for YouTube, which makes watching longer videos more enjoyable than on smaller screens.
Even though Chromecast’s selection of supported apps is still small, now that all developers can code apps to support the device, there should be updates coming soon.
Which is better?
If you consider first party support, iTunes is much more developed as an ecosystem for movies, TV, and music. The ability to stream your library is a strong reason for Apple TV. The hesitation would come from the lack of support from Apple to further develop the device. AirPlay feels like a stop-gap solution rather than an expansion to the library of apps on the device itself.
Chromecast is also somewhat weak because it’s a streaming device that extends from Android apps. It requires direct support from developers to have greater usability. On the other hand, a $35 price tag and potential expansion from its open development make it really compelling. Google isn’t making a giant leap with the Chromecast, but its supplying a cheap and useful feature for TVs with an extra HDMI slot, although that could all change when Android TV is finally launched.
Of course, you’re not limited to these two options. Set-top boxes are an alternative to streaming with services like Roku and Amazon Fire TV.
Check out this chart comparing Amazon Fire TV, Roku, Apple TV, and Chromecast to see which one might be the best for you, and check out my analysis of Amazon Fire TV vs. Roku to see if either of these services are a better fit.