Sony's new Internet Player with Google TV has been announced, adding another box to what is, for many, already a crowded living room. Google TV was a bumpy experience at best when it launched, but just like the Android of smartphones and tablets, it has received a rather slick update this time round for Sony's new kit.
So is it worth it? How does Sony's new product fare against the substantial competition? There many ways to get on-demand internet video on to your TV other than via Google's method. So without further ado let's explore the options.
The newest contender into the IPTV market is YouView. After years of development and a rather hefty price tag taken from TV license fees, it has finally arrived. Think of it like the spiritual sequel to Freeview, just with added internet and catch up capabilities.
There has been a lot of time spent getting YouView just right. Most would argue too much time. Complaints aside, the idea is to bring catch up TV to everyone in the simplest way possible. Using an easy to navigate UI and 14 day channel guide, which allows you to go back and watch telly you might have missed, it certainly is easy to understand.
The problem then? Well that Sky and TiVo do essentially the same thing, but rather than being restricted to just Freeview and Freeview HD content as well as catch up, you get a vast selection of channels to choose from. Sky Anytime dwarfs YouView for its selection of movies and on demand TV. It does however cost a bit more.
At the moment YouView only exists in one form, on the Humax DTR-T1000 box. Priced in at £300 it definitely isn't cheap. Expect hardware prices around YouView to drop. Once they do, then it could be a serious alternative to an expensive Smart TV or subscription service.
Check out our YouView hands-on here.
Viewed by many as nothing more than a side project for Apple, the latest update to the little black box of wonders has made it a much more persuasive purchase. For starters, it is no longer a clunky piece of kit to use, the actual UI has been given that Apple shine.
So what do you get for your £99? The latest version of Apple TV uses a processor similar to that in the new iPad, bringing with it full 1080p video rentals and playback. The box uses iTunes to manage content and rentals, which gives you access to a lot of entertainment. Not only can you play back music from your iTunes library using home sharing, but also push video and music to the box using AirPlay.
On the back of the box is a single HDMI port, an Ethernet port, power and optical audio out. The last is both a good and a bad thing: good because if you have a decent amp you can use the optical out to get the best quality audio; bad because not everyone has an amp with optical.
In terms of apps, things are pretty sparse. The best you are going to get right now is Netflix. The rest of the selection is very limited. Still, for such a cheap piece of kit Apple TV is very formidable, offering a huge video rental library and plenty of options for playing back music and video from other devices. Worth a look if you want a simple media streamer. Check out our Apple TV review here.
Sony Internet Player with Google TV
Unlike Apple TV, Google TV is designed to be a much more web-oriented experience. This box is not just about video playback, it's about letting you browse and interact with the internet from the comfort of your sofa.
What does this mean? Well Google TV runs an adapted version of Android scaled up for the big screen. This translates to much more fully featured applications, like a top-quality YouTube player and Chrome web browser.
On top of this you also get access to the Sony Entertainment Network and the Google Play store. This means you can stream HD movies straight from the box. Built-in Bluetooth also lets you do things like pair up a mouse and keyboard to make the web browsing experience so much smoother. In terms of playing back local content, dual USB ports allow you to do things like connect up a hard drive or USB key. Android 4.0 devices can also stream content to it just like AirPlay.
Google TV places a skin over your conventional television viewing. It then incorporates all the live TV and Google TV controls into one remote, so there is no need for channel switching using a separate remote.
The real idea behind Google TV is more about adding web to your television. Unlike Apple TV, it is less focused on bringing movies and music to your set, more the internet, so that you can browse through them. It definitely works and the promise of things like an iPlayer app make it even more tempting. For £200 it is twice the price of Apple's offering but gives just that little bit more.
Check out our Sony Internet Player with Google TV hands-on here.
No one is going to argue that Sky doesn't have a tonne of live TV content on offer and of course it's possible to have both Sky and Google TV. But what about Sky by itself? What sort of experience do you get outside of just channel surfing?
First there's Sky Anytime+ which is included free with all Sky packages. It gives you access to lots of on-demand television content, most of which is a step above the likes of Netflix. Sky Movies customers also get on-demand movies to view, most of which are fairly decent titles.
Then there is the Sky Box Office setup which lets you rent movies in HD instantly through your Sky Box. There is a lot to choose from here, although it doesn't quite rival what Apple currently offers through iTunes and Apple TV.
Sky Go is also worth looking at as it brings on-demand content included with your package to up to two other devices for free. You can use Sky Go to do things like watch live television on your smartphone or catch a movie using Anytime+ on your computer. It's impressive stuff.
Calculating exactly what sort of price a decent on-demand Sky setup is going to cost is difficult as it depends on what sort of content you want to watch. Typically prices are around £35 although this will shoot up if you start adding a lot of movie channels or sports packages.
As for hardware, the Sky remote is decent enough and the box certainly works well. The UI has just been given a significant facelift which has done a good job of modernising it somewhat. Still it is nowhere near as slick an experience as Apple TV or Google TV.
Check out our hands-on with the new Sky EPG here.
Virgin Media TiVo
TiVo is Virgin Media's effort at a smart set-top box. As with Sky, you get access to plenty of live content. Unlike Sky, it also has built-in apps which turns it into a sort of amalgamation of all of the above. Not only can you do things like access YouTube and BBC iPlayer, you can also watch live TV and stream on-demand video content.
You would think then that this would be a no-brainer in terms of choice, but so far TiVo has shown itself to be slightly less than exciting. Think of it as a sort of poor man's version of each of the above all rolled into one. The apps aren't as good as Google TV, the TV content isn't as good as Sky and the on-demand just doesn't quite rival Apple.
If you are a Virgin Media customer it is certainly better than its standard TV experience. But then it costs quite a bit extra. Getting yourself setup for TiVo is going to set you back anything from £12.50 a month, with virtually no channels, to £74 a month for everything.
TiVo is getting incremental updates, which are rapidly improving things. The BBC's support in releasing apps like BBC Sport and iPlayer is also helping make it a more exciting experience. Spotify integration is also pretty cool and something not on offer elsewhere.
Check out our Virgin Media TiVo review here.
We have thrown the Xbox in here because Microsoft's continuing effort to turn it in to a compelling media player have made it competitive in this market. As well as having a top-notch games console, you get things like a BBC iPlayer app, Netflix, Lovefilm, 4OD and many of others.
The whole lot is managed using the Xbox's tile-based UI, which is nice enough to navigate. If you have Kinect, you can go one step further, using it to do things like pause and play streamed video, or search using voice control.
Then there is the Zune marketplace which offers access to a near iTunes-sized selection of movies and music. In fact, minus things like a proper web browser (there is Bing search but it isn't great), the Xbox does more than most of the competition and has shown itself to evolve quickly. You can even access local content on your Xbox using things like the Xbox Media Centre app on a desktop computer or Windows Media centre. Both will let you stream content on your computer using your Xbox.
The best bit? A brand new Xbox 360 with Kinect and a 250GB hard drive is going to set you back £299. If you fancy something cheaper, ditch the Kinect and you can pick one up for £199, this is the same price as Google TV and you're getting a games console on top, as well as being able stream existing content from a network drive.
Check out our hands-on with the new BBC iPlayer app here.
Why Sony didn't incorporate Google TV into the PS3 we aren't really sure. Surely it would make the console a much more tempting purchase? Still there is quite a bit there to play with in terms of apps and video-on-demand content.
First up is the PlayStation Store itself, which has movies to rent as well as things like downloadable games and DLC. The Sony Entertainment Network is also built in as is Qriocity, so you can download music. If you are opposed to using the SEN, just like the Xbox, the PS3 can access content stored on your PC via shared folders and play it back on your television.
Lovefilm and Netflix apps complete the on-demand package but, yet again, there is virtually no way to watch live television. That is unless you can somehow track down a Play TV unit, which Sony released a few years ago. Play TV has TiVo and Sky-like functionalities in that it can even record live TV while you are watching it.
Currently on sale for £55 and adding in the price of a new 320GB PS3 (£239), you are getting a pretty nice on-demand and live TV experience, albeit a fiddly one. Of course, there is also a Blu-ray player in the mix, if you want to go old school.
Have a look at our Play TV review here.
So which to buy?
Clearly there is a lot of choice here. There is an element of selecting which works best for you, as most will offer a decent enough experience and a wide range of options. Similar movies are available across platforms and the BBC pretty much runs iPlayer on everything, including the as yet to be released YouView.
That said, if we had to opt for an ideal entertainment solution it would be a combination of two things. First we would get a Sky subscription, then a nice cheap 4GB Xbox. The result would be not only a games console, but enough on demand through Sky Box Office and Zune Marketplace. You would even be able to get a multiroom setup at no extra cost, using Sky Go on the Xbox to do things like play Anytime+ content or live TV.
The total cost works out at £129 for the Xbox and around £20 a month for the Sky. This is about the best cost to content ratio we can come up with and will ensure that you satisfy just about everyone's living room needs, be it music, gaming, live TV or on-demand video.
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