Chromecast vs Apple TV: Which Is The Best For You?

Vs Michael Grothaus 15:15, 11 Jul 2014

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

Chromecast was available in the US way before it came to the UK, competing directly with offerings from Apple, Roku and Western Digital, just at a fraction of the cost. Apple TV, for instance, used to retail for £99 but has since had its price cut to £70 in order to better compete with the influx of cheaper, more feature-rich digital streamers available on market.

But a £30 discount wasn’t enough. Not by a long shot. Citing a report by Parker Associates, 9to5Mac reports, “Google’s Chromecast and the Roku streaming device each sold around 3.8 million units in 2013—though the figure is more impressive in the case of the Chromecast, which was only introduced in the second half of the year. Apple, on the other hand, reportedly moved 2 million devices, putting it just below the others.”

Ouch.

So, dear reader, which is the best solution for you? Read on to find out. 

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 your 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 does it via a standard (although not included in the box) 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: 34g
  • 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 the 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 (surprise, surprise) is a bit more open to welcoming other, third party products to work with its Chromecast. Apple TV, in comparison, is a fortress of solitude in this regard; the SDK is closed and it supports limited video codecs out the box.

AirPlay vs “Casting” 

Before we delve into the channels both media streamers offer, it’s important to distinguish between the other way users can get information to their Apple TV or Chromecast. This other 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 by streaming it from an external device to the Apple TV or Chromecast. 

With AirPlay, Apple allows you to mirror the entire display of an iPad, iPhone, or iPod touch, plus any Mac PCs 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 (and not the entire screen) from any of these devices to your Apple TV. 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) 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. At its Google I/O 2014 the big G revealed it had plans to update Chromecast with screen mirroring capabilities. This has now happened. 

Previously Chromecast supported the casting in third party apps and Google's own suite of services. With the new update in place, you're now able to cast a feed of whatever is on the screen of your Android device.

Supported devices include the Samsung Galaxy S4 and Galaxy S5, Galaxy Note 3, LG G Pro 2, LG G2, LG G3, and HTC One (M7). Ditto Google's entire fleet of Nexus devices.

Support for more handsets and tablets is on the way, according to Google. If you have a Chromecast and a a compatible device, upgrade to version 1.7 to take advantage of this new feature.

Channels

Though both the Chromecast and Apple TV allow you to stream content from your devices to your TV, both devices are actually built for cloud streaming. By this I mean both offer a series of channels that allow you to select content that 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. Chromecast is slightly different in that it relies on third parties – iPlayer, HBO, Hulu, Netflix – to optimise their apps for Chromecast by adding “cast” functionality to them.

Right now the Apple TV offers over 40 channels and is slowly adding more all the time. The big names are there: YouTube, Netflix, Hulu, but it still lacks some of the popular ones like BBC iPlayer, and Amazon Instant Video.

But Apple TV’s 40 “channels” are much better than Chromecast’s dozen or so – at least for the time being. The Chromecast currently offers the likes of Google Play, HBO Go, Hulu Plus, Netflix, Pandora, Vevo, and YouTube, among others. Google has also partnered with the BBC to bring iPlayer to Chromecast for launch, although company execs assure us more and more content is on the way. 

Neither device will leave you wanting in this regard. 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 give 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. All you need is a PC with Google’s Chrome browser or your Chromecast-enabled apps on your iOS or Android devices. The logic behind this move is simple 1.) It keeps the cost of the Chromecast down, and 2.) We almost always have one device, usually a phone or a tablet, with us when we are chilling on the couch.

The Apple TV ships with a very small aluminium remote that is as easy to use as you would expect a remote from Apple to be. It looks great but it can be fiddly to use, particularly when navigating Apple TV’s frighteningly shonky UX. Again, Google’s method of interaction is simpler, leveraging existing devices already in your possession. Apple, of course, also offers a dedicated Remote app that works with the Apple TV, removing the need for the physical remote. The app is free for iPhone and iPad. 

OS and UI

The Apple TV runs its own OS, which is based on a version of iOS. Chromecast runs, potentially, one of two things –– a light version of the Chrome OS or a light version of Android. Google says the device runs on a light version of Chrome OS, while hackers claim it’s actually closer to Android in reality. We spoke to Google and they assured us it is very much Chrome. 

On top of the fifth beta of iOS 8 Apple released yesterday, the company also dropped a new developer’s release of the Apple TV software labelled, “Apple TV 7 software build 12A4345d”. But this very unsexy sounding software update actually brings a sexy new UI refresh to the Apple TV. However this redesigned UI could be a subtle signal that Apple is going to dash the hopes of fans that want to see a true Apple television anytime in the near future.

Apple TV gets the iOS 7 look

The software Apple released to developers yesterday is officially the fourth beta of the latest Apple TV 7.0 software, which is the operating system on Apple’s tiny black box. Earlier betas of the Apple TV 7.0 software introduced new features such as iCloud Family Sharing, which allows up to six people in your family to share purchased content (movies, music, TV shows) with each other.

In the new beta the big new feature, however, is that the Apple TV software has finally gotten a visual refresh, taking its cues from the flat design of iOS 7. The new Apple TV software features completely redesigned Movies, TV Shows, Music, Settings, and Computers icons. The third-party channel icons have remained unchanged. The Apple-owned channel icons on the Apple TV UI now visually look similar to their iOS 7 counterparts as well, using the same colour schemes.

[Image by @DannyPhantom36

In addition to new icons, the Apple TV 7.0 software also now features the Helvetica Neue typeface Apple introduced with iOS 7. It’s thinner than the old typeface and generally looks a bit nicer. Besides that, there is no major feature enhancements found in the fourth beta of the software. 

Why this refresh is potentially bad news to Apple TV fans

A real Apple television set has been rumoured for years and for many Apple TV fans this is the holy grail of Apple devices – a true push by the company into the living room and in the process, they hope, a complete disruption of traditional TV and cable services.

However, these latest UI changes – along with the iTunes Extra features added to the most recent public release of the Apple TV 6.2 software suggest that any new television hardware or service isn’t coming from Apple for a while yet (if, at all).

Why? Because the iTunes Extra support Apple added to the Apple TV in its version 6.2 software last month was a pretty big deal: it finally allowed deleted scenes and mini documentaries and all the other extra content you get with some movies bought through the iTunes Store to be viewed on the Apple TV again (the original Apple TV could play iTunes Extra content, but Apple stripped that feature out in later versions).

That major new feature, along with a complete UI refresh with the latest Apple TV 7.0 beta 4 software, suggests that the Apple TV as we know it will stick around in its current form for some time. After all, why would Apple add these new features and change the UI of Apple TV if it were getting ready to release a new television set or service in the near future?

Furthering this contention is the fact that any new television hardware or service from Apple is in fact being held up by the major cable and content providers, as reported by The Information, and thus Apple will not be releasing anything new in the television area in 2014. 

When can I get the new UI and what Apple TV’s will it run on? 

If you’re a registered developer you can download the latest Apple TV 7.0 beta 4 software today via the iOS Dev Center. But beware; it’s still a beta so it’s not guaranteed by Apple to work reliably in any way. And even if you are a developer, chances are you don’t need the beta anyway unless you are testing it with AirPlay and HomeKit and your iOS apps. 

If you aren’t a registered developer you’re going to have to wait until autumn to get the latest Apple TV 7.0 software. But that’s just a guess, because while Apple has said iOS 8 and OS X 10.10 Yosemite are definitely shipping this fall, they haven’t said a single thing about the new Apple TV release date, which is another thing that suggests there are no major Apple TV announcements in the near future. But still, it’s likely the Apple TV 7.0 software will ship at the same time as iOS 8 since it will need to be compatible with iOS 8 apps that use AirPlay and HomeKit.

One big bummer is that unless you have a 3rd generation Apple TV you won’t be able to run the new version 7.0 software with the new UI. As of the Apple TV 7.0 beta 1 software release Apple has stopped supporting the 2nd generation Apple TV.

The Apple TV’s UI is easy enough to navigate. It’s a grid system of apps/channels that you select to access the content inside them. Chromecast, on the other hand, doesn’t offer much the way of a UX at all. As stated above, everything is done through apps on smartphones and tablets or tabs in Chrome browsers on Macs and PCs.

Winner 

Sorry to disappoint you, folks, but there is no clear winner here at all. Despite their similarities (digital media streamers that allow you to stream and watch content), the Chromecast and Apple TV are still different beasts in many respects. 

All in all, the Apple TV will be a better option for those who want a traditional, full-featured media streamer. 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. You can pick one up for around £99.00. 

But at £30, the Chromecast is hard to say no to. It’s not as versatile as the Apple TV, but for all it does at such a low price, it’s almost crazy not to pick one up, especially if you don’t have a way to get Netflix or YouTube on your television right now.

Another option is the Roku 3 – check our review out here. Between these three devices, plus the multitude of other solutions on-market, you’re pretty much spoilt for choice when it comes to media streamers. In this respect it really is hard to pick a winner... both products are very good in their own unique ways. In order to press ahead, Google needs to ensure more and more content providers add Chromecast support to their products. 

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