Apple TV vs. Xbox 360: Media Center Showdown

Walt Mossburg said in his review that "Apple TV's most formidable competitor is the Xbox 360 game console from Microsoft, which, in addition to playing games, can also play back content from Windows computers on a TV." The Times' techmeister David Pogue also calls up the 360 Media Extender in his review, as well some other gadgets.

In our head-to-head, we took Vista Ultimate and used a 360 as a Windows Media Extender. With this setup, we came to the conclusion that the hulking white box ekes out the slimmer, shorter Apple TV—unless you have a standard XP computer with Media Center, or copious amounts of Apple iTunes DRM'd content. Why?

Setup

Both are easy as pie, quite frankly. Turned on the 360, my Vista Media Center found it instantly. Same for iTunes/Apple TV. One catch here, however, is that if you want to wirelessly stream to your 360, you're going to need a dongle than runs $100 for the official one, which is quite frankly, obscene. Apple TV's lack of cables isn't much better. Both the 360 and Apple TV provide a code for you to punch into your Media Center and iTunes to authenticate, not long after which you can start moving content. Woohoo. The 360 warns you if you're moving content wirelessly on both ends, however, recommending that at least your computer be hardwired to the network.

Apple TV vs. Xbox 360: Media Center Showdown

Interface

Both have attractive interfaces, obviously. Apple TV looks simply fabulous in HD, with crystal clear text and vivid icons. Granted, this is a downside if your album art sucks, as mentioned before. Media Center's no slouch either, with a heavy emphasis on live previews. Text-wise, I prefer Apple TV, simply because I find white text on a black background easier to read than light blue and white on dark blue, which dominates the interface.

Apple TV is also much snappier—Media Center felt sluggish both on my laptop and on the TV itself. When that sluggishness is paired with scrolling in four directions, I found it to be a bit awkward to get where I want to go. That said, both use a modified "folder metaphor" as its major schematic, and I'm not overly fond of it. It takes too long to access content. God forbid you ever have to the onscreen keyboard to get anywhere with either of them. (You don't really, as of yet.) I don't know what the solution is, but surely there's a better way to make content and options more quickly and easily accessible. Live previews are excellent, I do know that.

Apple TV vs. Xbox 360: Media Center Showdown

Moving Content

Media Center lets you customize which folders you want it to "watch" to import into your library. That content you can then stream to your "Media Extender," the 360. If for some reason the 360 won't play a video in your library, it won't give you a thumbnail preview, which is a nice way to let you know. Apple TV, because it syncs (ports content to its hard drive) from your main computer rather than simply streams, thankfully it has a fairly customizable set of syncing options. It still annoys me that you can't manually delete or add content, though. Be warned, just because iTunes will play a video doesn't mean that Apple TV will, as you can see in the screenshot below.

Apple TV vs. Xbox 360: Media Center Showdown

Apple TV plays H.264 and protected H.264, iTunes Store purchased video and MPEG-4, whereas Media Center handles MPEG-1, MPEG-2 and all WMV. Not being able to grab content straight from the iTunes store is a bummer, especially since it pulls trailers from the intertubes directly, so the 360 one-ups it here with its built-in direct access store. So both use proprietary formats in some manner. Bleh. But Media Center gives you more options than Apple TV does, so a check for the 360 setup.

Apple TV also does not stream photos—meaning you can only store them on the drive, you can only pull pictures from your main computer. Media Center, since it only streams, obviously streams photos, but I prefer the way it presents them, actually. No problems loading up my music library, which is comprised entirely of MP3s, and the corresponding album art, on either system.

Apple TV vs. Xbox 360: Media Center Showdown

Playing Content

I find the Apple TV remote to be a little crummy. Sometimes fast-forwarding and rewinding was a little wonky, getting ahead of itself. Using the Xbox 360 controller (not remote) wasn't better, largely because there's no dedicated pause button, though I appreciated using the triggers as FF and RW. Weirdly, when you go back to the menu in Media Center, a live thumbnail preview keeps playing, and there's no easy way to shut it off, which was kind of frustrating when I wanted a video to stop playing.

Otherwise, both played beautifully (if they were able to play the content), with no hiccups when streaming with either, despite using wireless G networks in both tests. (If you'd like to donate to the Giz wireless N fund, let us know.)

Conclusion

If you use iTunes as your primary media software and want to get your content on your widescreen TV, it's not a bad way to do it, but that's all it does (for now). If you already have a 360 and don't mind Media Center, I see little point in blowing $300 on Apple TV if all that concerns you is bringing content stuck on your PC to your TV. You already have a $400 machine that does more than port media, it plays games. Great ones. And soon it'll be an IPTV box to boot.

Apple TV is a bit more elegant in its presentation, I think, and it's slightly easier to get to content with it, but it could do better. More importantly, it doesn't do what it does so much better than the 360/Media Center setup that it warrants a separate purchase if you already have a 360, or even plan on getting one. Value-wise, the 360 is the winner here, at least for now.

But there are better convergence solutions on the horizon, so if you don't need one of these now sit tight, because things are only going to get better.

Apple TV [Gizmodo]