Click to viewMaybe you've had a snootful of Apple TV, but here's a comparison with a twist: We're going to compare Apples and oranges, pitting Apple TV against the TiVo Series3 HD Digital Media Recorder. From the outset, realize that the Apple TV is not a personal video recorder, and can hardly compete against the mighty TiVo Series3 HD on that playing field. For instance, you're going to have an awfully difficult time watching something like the Super Bowl in HD on the Apple TV.
But there are some things both systems can do, and that's where we'll compare Apple TV versus TiVo. For example, how well does the TiVo Series3 display photos compared to the Apple TV? How about playing music, or displaying downloaded content from iTunes compared to TiVo's downloaded content from its latest partnership with Amazon and its Unbox service?
It's now possible to download TV shows and movies with TiVo, using Amazon's Unbox service. Both Unbox and the iTunes Store don't have enough movie and TV show content for our taste, and both can't deliver HDTV movies or TV shows. So in our mind, for now, they both suck. In fact, the content from both is hardly even DVD quality. We downloaded this season's first episode of 24 from both Amazon Unbox on the TiVo (pictured above, at left) and the iTunes Store (both were $1.99). Take a look at one versus the other, and you might agree that both are just fugly. TiVo has a slight quality edge, where its widescreen picture isn't scaled all the way out to the edges of the screen, but had decidedly better color saturation. The Apple iTunes TV show we downloaded looked washed out by comparison. Advantage: TiVo
But when I looked at their attendant software and user interface, Apple sucks less. It has better-looking graphics and a pleasing subtlety that's missing on the TiVo user interface. For instance, when you push the Play button, Apple TV dissolves to the program, and then dissolves out the position indicator bar after a few seconds. Not so with the TiVo, which merely takes the shot from one source to the other, and pops out the superimposed titles. Advantage: Apple TV
What about the remote? Apple has made a valiant effort with its tiny pack-of-gum-sized remote, but it doesn't come close to that of the TiVo, with its famed ergonomics and lightning-quick response. Apple TV's remote responds quickly, but it's about a half-second behind TiVo's remote. However, both remotes are exceedingly powerful, not requiring you to point them directly at the box in order to control it. Still, TiVo wins in the battle for the remote. Advantage: TiVo
Displaying photos is a clear win for Apple TV. Where TiVo lets you team up with its TiVo desktop software and import pictures (and a beta version will soon let you import HDTV-rez pictures), Apple has this photo display thing down pat. TiVo's interface just feels downright clunky next to Apple's smooth and artful photo display routine. You can pick a music playlist as accompaniment, and then Apple TV will show you a beautiful Ken Burns effect with each of your photos in a slide show that's extensively configurable. Plus, your photos show up in a beautiful montage screensaver effect throughout the Apple TV interface. It's gorgeous, and slam-dunks TiVo. Advantage: Apple TV
Here's another win for Apple TV, where music is easier to get to with Apple's ergonomic sliding-style interface, with better graphics and easier classifications. Even when you don't have any album art, the Apple TV looks better than the bare-bones TiVo music interface, if you could even call it that. However, it's clumsy to get to large music libraries on either the TiVo or Apple TV, and add to that TiVo's disadvantage of not being able to play back any songs you bought on the iTunes music store. Advantage: Apple TV
HD, DivX and XviD Files
We're not crazy about the fact that neither can handle XviD or DivX files right out of the box (yeah, you can hack them, but that's not easy to do), and both are locked up tighter than a drum with DRM. Apple TV files download faster from iTunes than the Amazon Unbox ones do (notice the "Can't Play Now" label on the TiVo screen above). That said, both seem to be taking baby steps toward bringing online content to the living room, and both are shying away from HDTV downloaded content now, which is almost a deal breaker in our book. Both are full of potential, but are relatively lame so far, compared with what they someday will be able to do. Advantage: Neither (Xbox 360)
Verdict: Which is Better?
Playing music, displaying photos, and playing video files via a network seems to be an afterthought for the TiVo, and Apple TV bested it in each of these categories. However, TiVo completely outclasses Apple TV when it comes to having two CableCards on board, being able to record HDTV and play it back perfectly. TiVo Series3 is a PVR, and is a far more versatile machine, as its $800 price tag reflects, versus the $300 price tag of Apple TV. Advantage: Not Comparable
Which to Buy?
Apple TV and TiVo can coexist in a home theater system, and it's not a zero-sum game. If you're interested in watching downloaded video from iTunes, seeing photos and music in your home theater, and don't care about HDTV, Apple TV would be a great addition to your playback arsenal.
But if you care about HDTV, TiVo Series3 would be your best choice now, and maybe its comparatively plain user interface will serve your needs as far as Internet television, photos, and music are concerned. Apple TV just feels like an unfinished box that's full of potential, and as soon as it's able to download and play back HDTV, all it'll need is a couple of CableCards inside to seriously challenge TiVo's Series3.
Until then, we're thinking the ultimate solution is to have both these set-top boxes sitting side by side in your home theater. Advantage: You Need Both.
Check out this gallery with enlarged views of the user interfaces and more comments and captions: