Roku and Apple TV are the two little boxes that fight for the big cord-cutting (or more likely, cord-supplementing) masses, though they have tackled it in different ways. But with new movie- and TV rental services offerings Roku announced today, and a coming ability to sling video from your computer or mobile device to your TV, Roku is starting to look more like its rival.
(To put this in perspective, though, far more people use a game console or a connected Blu-ray player than a set-top box to get online video to their TVs)
Roku is also launching a new line of streaming boxes that essentially bring higher-end features down to lower-priced models.
Apple TV points you first toward its own iTunes service to buy or rent TV shows and movies, though it has always included Netflix streaming and has been adding more channels, currently up to 25. Starting as simply a Netflix streaming box, Roku has continually added video and music channels, now numbering about 1,000. (Thankfully, Roku also has a good universal search function that covers many of the biggest channels at once.)
New movie and TV offerings
Today, though, Roku announced something like Apple TV's emphasis on iTunes by partnering with movie and TV service M-GO, putting it front-and-center on the home screen, as well as on the remotes for its updated line of streaming boxes.
If you haven't heard of M-GO, don't feel bad. It's been around for less than two years and looks similar to rivals such as Amazon Instant Video. M-Go has been available on the Web and as an app on Android devices and some Smart TVs and Blu-ray players.
Like its rivals, M-GO has a healthy selection of recent movies and current TV shows, at similar prices. You can rent a movie like "World War Z," for $3.99 (aka $4) for standard definition and $4.99 (i.e. $5) for HD. (You can also by the movies for around $20 or more.) TV shows like "Burn Notice" are for sale only, at $3 for SD and $4 HD.
As such, M-GO is a good supplement to Netflix, which doesn't usually have the latest movies or current-season TV shows. However, you can get similar offerings, for similar prices, already on Roku via its Amazon Instant Video channel, which isn't going away, nor are any of the other video and TV services.
New streaming boxes upgrade features
The M-Go service will come in a software update in October for the current Roku models and the new models. That lineup largely shifts the features of today's models down a notch to lower-priced new models. For example, the new $60 model, the Roku 1, now gets 1080p. It's predecessor at the same price, the current Roku HD, has only 720p capability. The new $80 model, the Roku 2, now has the wireless remote with headphone jack and dual-band wireless that had heretofore been available only on the current $100 model, the Roku 3 (which recently had an upgrade and is the company's most popular model).
Slinging video to your TV
Roku really starts to look like Apple TV later this year when it gains a capability called Miracast to receive video (and audio) wirelessly from smartphones, tablets and PCs.
Apple has offered that capability for a while on Apple TV using its own technology called AirPlay, which works well, but only among Apple products. You can send Apple TV content from a MacBook, iPhone or iPad, for example, but not from a Galaxy S phone or a PC.
That video-slinging ability is more than a neat trick, it's a money saver. Say you don't have cable and want to watch a recent episode of "Burn Notice" on your TV. You can buy it for you set-top box from iTunes for Apple TV or from Amazon Instant Video or M-GO for Roku at $2 in standard definition or $3 in HD (iTunes sells only the HD version).
You can also watch most episodes free on your laptop at usanetwork.com. With video-slinging capability, you can now watch that episode for free on the TV, as well. That's been the killer application for Apple TV, and now Roku is catching up.
However, that is with a lot of caveats: AirPlay works with pretty much all recent Apple computers, phones and tablets. Miracast works with some phones and tablets and some computers, but it isn't immediately apparent or easy to figure out. Still, brining Miracast to Roku could encourage other device makers to get their act together on support.