Hot on the heels of the unveiling of the revamped Apple TV, web giant Google announced that its Google TV service is due to launch in the US in a few weeks' time and worldwide in 2011. According to Steve Jobs, the Apple TV has moved on from being a "hobby" product to be being a fully-fledged contender in the TV streaming market. Meanwhile, one of the major principles behind Google TV is for you to spend less time finding and more time watching what you want to see, as well as having more choice, and being able to customize your viewing. The idea is to combine your TV, DVR recordings and the internet. We take an early-bird peep at the two streaming services to see which has the advantage over its opponent.
Measuring just 98 x 23 mm x 98mm, the revamped version of Apple TV is about half the size of its predecessor and comes in the form of a slick black box weighing just 0.27 kg, and running on Apple's A4 chip. It's a device that you'd be proud to have on display, unlike some media streamers which are best hidden in a darkened corner.
Google TV will be pre-installed on some TVs, with Sony already confirming it's involvement and Samsung said to be on the verge of a similar agreement. If you haven't got a Google TV-ready set, then you'll need a compatible set-top box instead - and the one available at launch will reportedly be made by Logitech who will also be offering an HD TV cam and video-calling app. There will also be a Sony HD TV and Blu-ray player ready in time for the launch. Both the Sony TV and the Logitech companion box will run on the Intel Atom CE4100 processor.
Apple TV keeps things simple when it comes to connections, which include HDMI, Wi-Fi and Ethernet and optical audio. The unit isn't supplied with an HDMI cable, so you'll need to buy that separately. The unit has cut out a lot of the ageing connections available on the previous model, such as composite video, no doubt in a attempt to keep the size of the unit and the costs down.
There's no news on the connections that will be on Logitech's Google TV set-top box, but it's safe to assume that they'll include HDMI and Ethernet.
There are no controls on the Apple TV itself, so you'll have to make so with the tiny remote control which offers only a basic selection of buttons, so that options must be selected using the onscreen menu. It's a relief to see that these have been designed with Apple's usual flair making them consistent and intuitive to use.
Google TV is based on Android and runs the Google Chrome web browser, offering access to full web browsing (including Flash support), rather than just a ring-fenced selection of internet apps, as offered by some TVs. The Google TV menu system is sharp and easy to use, being broken down into a number of areas: Most visited, Bookmarks, What's On TV, Google playlist, Applications, YouTube Most Popular, and Sony Recommends. You can personalize your TV reviewing with a custom home screen, and you'll also be able to access Android Marketplace. There will be a full Qwerty keyboard and a navigational device to guide you around the screen, although exactly what form this will take hasn't been confirmed. Supposedly you'll be able to use your Android phone, and potentially your iPhone, as a remote control.
Video content and streaming
On Apple TV, all content is streamed in HD (where possible), and because it's streamed there's no issue with storage space. The rental-based system will start at £3.49 for HD movies and £2.49 for SD versions, with prices varying depending on how new the film is. In the US it will cost 99c for TV shows, although this service is not currently available in the UK. You have up to 30 days to start watching rented films, and 48 hours in which to watch them once you've started. US-based Netflix users can also stream content for free as well. Although the box will stream in 720p HD, those with full HD 1080p content will be left disappointed with downscaled footage. The Apple TV can stream music from your PC or Mac, while Airplay will also let you wirelessly stream video and photos directly to Apple TV from any iOS 4.2 devices.
Google TV has no rental fees and lets you search for and tune to channels or do the same for individual programmes, which you can then record. You can also stream videos from sites such as YouTube while the built-in web browser means that you can search the whole of the internet for video content. You can also multi-task so, for exmaple, you can check the stats of your fantasy league team, while you're watching the game or check out what people are saying about the news on Twitter, while you're watching it.
At £99, the Apple TV seems quite resonable, considering what it offers. Google TV will offer total web access for free, although you will have to shell out for a Google TV-capable TV or set-top box. Pricing has yet to be confirmed.
The price and functions of the Apple TV certainly make it an appealing option, although it's not exactly a one-stop shop answer to all of our TV needs. While streaming content that you've bought in iTunes shouldn't be a problem, we have concerns that you might run into trouble when using different formats and codecs. That's something we'll be looking at closely when we review the device in more detail.
Although the actual Google TV service will be free of charge, you will need to shell out for compatible kit, but no pricing has been announced yet. Even if the cheapest option for watching Google TV turns out to be more expensive than the Apple TV, we still think that Google's service has the edge over it's rival, thanks to it's untethered web browsing capability.
Are you looking forward to Google TV? Or is your money going on Apple TV? Let us know.