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Apple TV, Roku lead the Web-enabled TV category

Of all of the tech gifts to give in 2010, I don’t think anything produces the “slot car track around Barbie’s Dream House” excitement of an Internet TV device. You know, those little WiFi-enabled boxes that serve streaming media to an HDTV. It’s not a vague kind of gadget. Ebook readers are lovely, and it’s cool to get a new camera, but everyone’s already familiar with the concept of reading and taking drunken photos of your friend.

Ah, but when they plug one of these Internet TV boxes into their HDTVs for the first time! It’s raindrops and roses and whiskers and kittens: the screen that hitherto only showed HD movies at $25 a pop and showed the user’s favorite programming only when the network damned-well felt like it is now transformed into a firehose of media and entertainment. And it’s either free, or close enough.

By the holiday season, four high-profile boxes landed in stores. Only two are so mature, and state their cases so emphatically, that you can gift-wrap it and pop it on the mail to Cousin Whimsy without any concern about whether or not it’ll be well-received.

First, the Also-Rans. Google made a huge, splashy announcement over the summer when they took the wraps off of their Google TV project . Like nearly everything else the company does in consumer space, Google TV isn’t a specific product. It’s a hardware specification for a TV-specific kind of computer and a special build of the Android OS that’s designed to meet the needs of slackers, layabouts, and goldbricks.

Google TV ambitious and it has a lot of potential. But it’s not fully cooked yet. It’s got a lot of conceptual wins: it runs Android apps, so it’s a given that it can deliver wide swath of content from multiple sources. The Search feature is terrific. Look for “Nash Bridges” and it’ll find episodes playing right now, shows that will air anytime in the next few weeks, shows available on-demand via streaming sites, shows that you can buy on DVD, and fan fiction from the Web in which Don Johnson and Cheech Marin make out in the back of that convertible. The built-in browser means that you can access any kind of info as you go, and in theory you can also watch video from any streaming website, like The Onion News Network or Funny Or Die.

Google’s got something here. But its components don’t really come together in an easy, compelling way. And most irritatingly, the broadcast networks are so indignant at the idea of Google finding a way to profit from their content that they’ve blocked Google TV’s browser from their sites.

The biggest problem, to me, is the price. At this writing, there’s just one Google TV add-on box. It’s from Logitech and costs — whoof — $399.

I shouldn’t call D-Link’s Boxee Box an “also-ran.” It’s a strong and impressive performer. The device is committed to finding and playing anything you have and anything you can find, and at $199, it’s realistically-affordable. I’ll have a full review of it soon.

Boxee’s only difficulty is that it’s way more ambitious than either of my two picks. It’s designed for slightly-knowledgeable people who are already getting a huge chunk of their video from online sources. In fact, the ideal buyer of the Boxee Box is someone who’s been running the free Boxee software on one of their PCs and would like that Internet pipe to run all the way to their HDTVs.

It’s a great device, but it’s not quite what we’re looking for in a good gift. We want something that goes from a sealed cardboard box to a source of untrammeled functional joy in less than ten minutes, without a lot of phone calls to explain the basic concept.

The correct answers to those questions are clearly “Roku” or “Apple TV.”

They’re both exceptional little devices that conceptually lean towards “a DVD player that doesn’t let it on that it’s also a computer” rather than “a computer that plugs into your TV.” And they each sell for under a hundred bucks.

The Roku box has multiple “channels” to connect you to a wide variety of streaming services, including Netflix, Amazon Video, Pandora Music, Major League Baseball, and Hulu Plus (though Hulu Plus and some other channels require an added subscription from the provider). But it chiefly comes across as a dead-simple way to get Netflix Streaming content on your HDTV. If you want a streaming video device that’s barely more complicated than sliding a DVD into a machine and pressing “Play,” this is it.

The Roku is available in three different models at three different prices, from $59 for the simplest device to $99 for the Roku XD/S. The top of the line Roku includes goodies like full 1080p playback, higher-speed wireless, and the ability to play almost any of your own media files via its USB port.

Another strong selling point: the box has both modern HDMI and old-fashioned analog inputs. So it’ll even work with Aunt Aggie’s ancient Magnavox console TV.

Gosh, the Roku seems like a clear winner. Why even bother looking at the $99 Apple TV?

Because Apple seems to have found the sweet spot between the dead-simple Roku and the more ambitious Boxee box. $99 still gets you a cool device that streams Netflix, YouTube videos, and photos. But if you’re already invested in Apple’s media ecosystem, no other competing box can touch Apple TV.

Within a few minutes, the Apple TV will locate and connect to every iTunes library on your home network. All of your family members’ music, photos, and videos will stream to your TV in HD. If you have a Mac, an iPhone, or an iPad, there’s an equally-ginchy bonus: the “AirPlay” feature allows you to pipe media directly from the computer or device to the Apple TV.

It’s truly a night-and-day kind of feature. I pull into my driveway, take my iPhone out of its car dock, and see that the phone has already sensed the Apple TV on my home network. I tap the AirPlay button and when I walk through the door ten seconds later, the podcast I was listening to during the drive home is continuing to play, right through the good speakers in the living room.

And yup, when I’m using my iPad in my lap to navigate the content from the massive iTunes library over in my office that’s playing through the HDTV in the living room ... I feel almost drunk with power.

Well, it’s a neat feature, anyway. Google TV has a similar feature, but it doesn’t work nearly as cleanly.

The Roku and the Apple TV are exceptionally good friends to the gift-giver. Have you ever tried to work out a friend’s ring size, or cleverly figure which volume of “The Complete Peanuts” they don’t already have without spoiling the potential surprise? It’s hopeless.

But if you need to find out if someone is a good candidate for either of these devices, you can get the answer easily enough. Just email them a recommendation for an awesome movie available on Netflix streaming, and use iTunes to “gift” them a music track.

If they tell you that yes, “Shawn The Sheep” is way too good to be just a kids’ show, that means they do indeed have Netflix and will love either one of these devices.

If they thank you for the music track and say things to indicate that they actually downloaded and listened to the song, then they use iTunes. The Apple TV is the better choice.

And if they don’t have Netflix or iTunes ... good God, man. The mind boggles. Perhaps the could use a new handle for their butter-churn? Why are you even friends with these people?



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