Chromecast vs Apple TV: Which Does What Best?

Vs Michael Grothaus 15:31, 24 Sep 2014

They both do similar things, albeit in different ways. But which is the best: Chromecast or Apple TV? Mike investigates

Now that Google’s Chromecast and Apple TV have received a fair amount of updates in the UK since their respective releases, we take a look again at the two media streamers to see how they compare. 

Design, Specs, and Compatibility

The most noticeable difference between the Chromecast and the Apple TV is in the way they look. The Chromecast looks like you standard USB memory stick while the Apple TV looks like a small, mysterious black box not much larger than a hockey puck.

Both devices work by plugging into your television’s HDMI port. Chromecast accomplishes this via its HDMI interface designed directly into the dongle and the Apple TV accomplishes this via a standard HDMI cable that runs between it and the television.

By default it may seem like the Chromecast wins in the design department since it can be essentially hidden behind the television using a rear HDMI port, but the sad thing is the Chromecast isn’t able to draw power from the HDMI port so you need to use an included USB power cable to connect it to the TV’s USB port for power or plug it into a USB power adapter.

Here are the full specs for the Chromecast: 

  • Output: HDMI, CEC compatible
  • Processor: Marvell 88DE3005 (Armada 1500-mini) system on a chip
  • RAM: 512MB
  • Storage: 2GB flash
  • Max. Output Video Resolution: 1080p
  • Dimensions: 72(L) x 35(W) x 12(H) mm
  • Weight: 34 g
  • Connectivity: 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n
  • Power: USB (Power adapter included)
  • Supported Devices: Devices running Android 2.3 and higher, iOS 6 and higher, Windows 7 and higher, Mac OS 10.7 and higher, Chrome OS (Chromebook Pixel, additional Chromebooks coming soon).

And here are the specs for Apple TV: 

  • Output: HDMI (not CEC compatible)
  • Processor: Apple A5
  • RAM: 512MB
  • Storage: 8GB flash
  • Max. Output Video Resolution: 1080p
  • Dimensions: 23(L) x 99(W) x 99(H) mm
  • Weight: 270 g
  • Connectivity: 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n, Bluetooth
  • Power: Built-in universal 6 W power supply
  • Supported Devices: Devices running iOS 6 and higher, Windows XP and higher, Mac OS X 10.3.9 and higher.

Looking at the supported devices lists of both the Apple TV and Chromecast it’s clear Google is a bit more open to welcoming other’s products Chromecast. Apple is Apple and to use its products properly, you have to use Apple products. But you already knew that. 

AirPlay vs. “Casting”

Before we delve into the channels both media streamers offer, it’s important to distinguish between the ways users can get information to their Apple TV or Chromecast. One way is via streaming content from your various devices to both the Apple TV and Chromecast. 

Apple calls this streaming “AirPlay” while Google calls it “Casting.” Both ways involve sending all or part of what is on your screen to your television. With AirPlay, Apple allows you to mirror the entire display of an iPad, iPhone, or iPod touch, plus any Mac with a flash-based hard drive, right to the Apple TV. This in itself is pretty cool, but AirPlay also does more, allowing you to stream just the video from any of these devices to your Apple TV (and not the entire screen). But you’ll notice that in order to use AirPlay you must own an Apple device; Windows PCs, Android phones, and the like need not apply. 

With Casting, Google allows you to stream select content (such as a video or a photo, for example) from select Chromecast-compatible apps on your iOS and Android devices, as well as entire tabs in the Chrome browser on any Mac or PC right to your TV. You’ll note Chromecast is much more open in regards to devices supported, but casting doesn’t offer the ability to mirror your computer or device’s entire screen (Google does have a mirroring feature in beta, but it is very, very buggy).

Channels 

Though both allow you to stream content from your devices to your TV, both devices are actually built for cloud streaming. By this I mean both devices offer a series of “channels” that allow you to select content which is then retrieved from the Internet and streamed to your device. Actually, “channels” are a bit misleading. It’s really better to call them “apps.” On the Apple TV the apps/channels appear onscreen. On the Chromecast the apps/channels appear as a submenu on the device you are using, such as your laptop, or via an actual app on your smartphone

Right now the Apple TV offers over 55 channels and is slowly adding more all the time. The big names are there: YouTube, Netflix, Hulu, HBO GO, Showtime Anytime, PBS, CNBC, ESPN, and more. But the Apple TV still lacks some of the popular channels like BBC iPlayer, and Amazon Instant Video. Granted, these missing “channels” can be circumvented by downloading those apps on your iOS device (like BBC iPlayer) and then streaming the video from those apps right to your Apple TV via AirPlay. 

But Apple TV’s 55 channels are much better than Chromecast’s twenty. And again, when I talk about Chromecast’s channels I’m speaking of Chromecast-compatible apps for iOS and Android. The Chromecast currently offers the likes of Google Play Movies, BBC iPlayer, HBO Go, Hulu Plus, Netflix, Pandora, Vevo, and YouTube. It has also more recently added support for blinkbox Music and Moves, BT Sport, Now TV, NPR, DailyBurn, and others. The let down here is, like the Apple TV, it leaves folks out in the cold if they subscribe to Amazon Instant Video.

But as for content, neither device will leave you wanting. The Apple TV gives you access to Apple’s iTunes Store and its hundreds of thousands of TV shows and movies. Not to be outdone, the Chromecast gives you access to the same via the Google Play Store. And considering both devices gives you access to Netflix and YouTube, it’s hard to define a clear winner in the content category. 

Remotes

The Chromecast comes with no dedicated remote at all. Your computer with the Chrome browser or your Chromecast-enabled apps on your iOS or Android devices are the only remote Google thinks you need. I get why Google has done this: 1) it keeps the cost of the Chromecast down –– and at £30, one can’t complain. And 2) we almost always have one device with us, be it a phone or tablet, when we are chilling on the couch.

However, there’s something to be said for a physical remote. You don’t need to worry about being cut off from your streaming box if your smartphone runs out of power. The Apple TV includes a gorgeously designed, very small aluminium remote that is as easy to use as you would expect a remote from Apple to be. For me, I like the tactile feedback a physical remote gives.

Apple, of course, also offers a dedicated Remote app that works with the Apple TV. It’s free for iPhone and iPad.

OS and UI

The Apple TV runs its own OS on the box itself, which is based on iOS 8 and called, rather unoriginally, “Apple TV Software 7.0”. The Chromecast runs, depending who you talk to, a light version of the Chrome OS or a light version of Android (Google has said it’s Chrome OS, while hackers have said it’s closer to Android).

The Apple TV’s UI has just received a complete refresh along with the release of iOS 8. Gone are the glossy iOS 6-like buttons and in is an all-new flat design. The UI is easy enough to navigate. It’s a grid system of apps/channels that you select to access the content inside them. Apple has also added some small new features like the ability to rearrange the channel buttons on the screen or hide a channel altogether. This is becoming more useful as the Apple TV gets more and more channels. The latest Apple TV Software 7.0 software also adds support for Family Sharing, which allows movies and TV shows purchased by any family member’s iTunes account to be shared with other member’s iTunes accounts. 

But the Chromecast, in contrast, doesn’t have a UI at all. As stated above, everything is done through apps on smartphones and tablets or via tabs in Chrome browsers. Props to Google for trying to go as basic with Chromecast as possible, but it’s also nice to know that the Apple TV will work (and allow you to access content) even if there’s not a single other device in your house. 

The Future 

But what’s more interesting than where these two devices are now is where they’ll go in the future. Google has Android TV, which will be with us later this quarter, and Apple’s CEO Tim Cook has mentioned on numerous occasions that his company’s next BIG project will be reinventing TV. 

Case in point: Apple TV now supports HomeKit, which is Apple’s IOT framework that allows smart devices to be controlled just by speaking to Siri. For example, if you have Phillips Hue lights you can tell Siri on your iPhone or iPad to, “Turn on the lights in my living room,” and they’ll switch on. Of course this functionality requires you, for now, to have your iOS device with you. 

But if the Apple TV now supports HomeKit –– and Apple hasn’t publicly acknowledged it doe –– it could be possible that Apple sees its Apple TV as a hub that you’ll interact with your smart home through, just by using your voice. And if I were a betting man, I’d put the chances of this of happening at 90%. The Apple TV is a relatively cheap device at £79 and adding HomeKit support to it would enable Apple to provide a low-cost unifying hub that would further strengthen the iOS ecosystem and also solidify Apple’s position in the home entertainment and home automation markets. 

Winner 

All in all, the Apple TV will be a better option for those who want a traditional, full-featured media streamer. The dedicated box of the device and the fact that it works independently of other devices makes it as dependable as your trusty DVD player. The Apple TV is also the best option for those already in Apple’s ecosystem with iPads or iPhones. And if Apple does turn the Apple TV into a smart home hub, Apple’s set top box will become even more useful with just a free software update. You can pick one up for around £79. 

Then again, at £30 the Chromecast is hard to say no to. It’s not a versatile as the Apple TV, but for all it does at such a low price, it’s almost crazy not to pick one of them up, especially if you don’t have a way to get Netflix or YouTube on your television right now. For anyone that hasn’t, however, you might want to wait until the release of Google’s Android TV initiative –– it’s basically Chromecast, just with a more Roku-Apple-TV-feel, in that it’ll ship either inside HDTVs or in set-top boxes. 

Sponsored Links