Apple TV vs Chromecast: Which is better?

1st Oct 2013 | 22:14

Apple TV vs Chromecast: Which is better?

Comparison of the Google and Apple set-top boxes

Right now, the Apple vs Google comparisons are focused on iOS and Android smartphones and tablets, and everyone's attention is turning to wearable gadgets like iWatch and Google Glass.

But in between that, the two companies are sneaking into living rooms to take over your big screen TV with a pair of streaming products: Apple TV and Chromecast.

The mobile content that you carry can finally break free of the thin bezel of your smartphone and tablet, and be shared with the entire family on large TVs and projectors.

The question is: Which of these two media streaming devices is right for your digital ecosystem so that you get the most out of your movies, TV shows, music, games and apps?

Compatibility: Open vs walled garden

Chromecast is the new kid on the block, but it supports more devices than Apple TV due to Apple's instance on a walled garden.

Google's decision is great news for Android owners because while Apple TV doesn't officially support streaming content from Google-powered smartphones and tablets, Chromecast works flawlessly.

In fact, Chromecast is compatible with Android, iOS, Windows, Mac OS X and Chrome OS.

Apple TV pales in comparison, limiting connections to iOS and Mac OS X hardware. If you're a dedicated Apple fan, that's fine at first.

But there may come a time when an Android-owning friend or family member wants to take a turn streaming vacation photos or share a new funny music video, and they can't.

The only major operating system that Chromecast doesn't support is Windows Phone 8. Neither does Apple TV.

Look at my totally ripped apps

The Apple TV vs Chromecast roles are reversed when it comes to the number of apps available for the media streaming platforms.

Apple list for Apple TV vs Chromecast

Yes, Apple TV was called a "hobby" box by the company's CEO Tim Cook, but content companies are taking it seriously. It supports more native apps than Chromecast. Netflix, Hulu Plus, HBO Go, YouTube and all of your iTunes content including Podcasts and iTunes Radio are here.

For the kids there are not one, not two, but three Disney apps: Disney Channel, Disney XD and Disney Junior. Sports-loving adults have plenty of options too, thanks to Watch ESPN, MLB.TV, NBA, NHL GameCenter and the new MLS app.

Chromecast is still playing catch up in this department. It launched with support for Netflix, YouTube, Play Movies & TV and Play Music. Of these four apps, three are owned by Google.

That's not exactly a shining example of third-party support.

However, content owners have expressed interest. HBO Go, Hulu Plus, Pandora, Redbox Instant, Revision3, Vevo, Sling Media and Vimeo have all committed to or expressed a desire for Chromecast compatibility.

To be fair, Apple TV launched in early 2007 and is on its third iteration of the set-top box. Chromecast didn't start plugging into HDMI ports until this past summer, so Google has a bit more time before Chromecast starts feeling underdeveloped like Google TV.

Streaming specific apps

Even more exciting than native apps is the ability to stream additional content from a computer or mobile device directly to the big screen via Apple TV or Chromecast on the same Wi-Fi network.

Apple TV vs Chromecast

Apple's Airplay functionality makes it possible to reflect photos, videos, audio files and even whole apps from a variety of iOS programs.

The only problem is that apps that don't traditionally work in the background stop streaming as soon as the app is closed. If you have iPhone OCD and often hit the home button to check your mail every five seconds, you may interrupt the mobile-to-Apple TV signal quite often.

Chromecast mirrors its few compatible apps through a different method - the cloud. Google made it so that its streaming dongle isn't device dependant. It's just the key to get the content started. Chromecast does the rest of the work, pulling the content from the web.

Apple TV can sling more apps from mobile devices to the TV, but Chromecast's limited number of apps do it better by freeing up the device for other tasks.

Mirroring entire devices

When it comes to mirroring whole content, Apple TV and Chromecast are just as different.

Apple TV vs Chromecast

In the case of Apple TV, if an mobile app doesn't support Airplay's one-button slinging approach, there's always Airplay mirroring. This option, now conveniently located in iOS 7 Control Center, broadcasts the entire screen of an iOS device to the TV.

Airplay Mirroring also works on newer Macs running OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion; anything and everything from a Mac computer can be streamed to a TV. That's great for showing friends something that should be enjoyed in groups - the latest nonsensical music video or a collection of funny memes on Facebook. Airplay mirroring to a TV is a much better option than passing around a 4-inch screen. Nobody wants to take turns laughing.

The Chromecast extension doesn't mirror an entire computer but an individual tab within Google's Chrome browser. This method once again frees up one's computer to do other tasks while a background tab can stream to a TV. It also lets you keep the content of your computer private.

Unfortunately, you can't stream PowerPoint presentations or beam newly created pieces of art in Photoshop like you could with the Apple TV's device-wide computer mirroring capabilities. If it can't be seen within a Chrome browser extension, the it simply isn't visible.

Price difference

Chromecast wins hands-down in the price department, costing just $35 (about £22, AU$37, though not available outside of the U.S. yet). Without a plethora of apps, the price is actually one of the best features of Google's media streaming dongle.

Even if no more apps are added, the Chrome tab extension is worth this affordable price. After all, most gaming machines and Roku boxes already have Netflix, HBO Go, Hulu Plus, YouTube and so forth, so native apps are actually a secondary feature here. Mirroring is much more interesting.

Apple TV, on the other hand, is a little bit more of an expensive "hobby" at $99 (£99, AU$109). It's a device that is worth $0 if you have an Android device or Windows PC without an unofficial workaround and just as inconvenient if you have friends with non-Apple devices.

Setup and connections

Both Apple TV and Chromecast are incredibly easy to setup thanks to their minimalist approach to connections on the back.

Apple list for Apple TV vs Chromecast

There's HDMI out, optical audio, Ethernet and power ports on the back of an Apple TV. It has a remote, but that's hardly even a necessity as iOS remote apps are just as functional.

Chromecast is even simpler, plugging directly into an HDMI port. It does require an external power solution via a provided USB-mini-to-USB cable and power adapter. The cable is six inches, so it should be able to reach a powered USB plug or outlet.

Chromecast is easier to set up, but for a few people who really want top-notch streaming speeds, it doesn't include an Ethernet port for a flawless hardwired connection. That may be a problem for households that typically experience router interference.

The silicon screen

The silver screen is giving way to the silicon screen as tech companies are taking over the living room. Now that Google has entered the fray with something worthwhile, Apple may invest more time and effort into its TV offerings with long-rumored Apple iTV.

For now, the two offer similar experiences with different ways of getting there. Apple TV can send more content to the big screen one of three ways: through native apps, Airplay or Airplay mirroring. But its slinging capabilities sometimes come at a cost of hogging phone, tablet and computer resources.

Chromecast has just four compatible apps and the Chrome extension tab on computers. That's convenient for streaming anything that can be seen within the Google-owned browser, but it doesn't work for programs outside of the web. It's a mixed blessing that it doesn't follow your computer around like the stalker-like Apple TV mirroring does.

What would really win the living room war for either couch potato-focused company is opening up Apple TV and Chromecast to grass roots developers. Google Play and the App Store are so popular because of the roughly one million apps available from the masses to the masses.

When that happens for Apple TV or Chromecast, it changes everything.

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