As a child I remember going to my grandparents home. They had cable television, which was a big deal at the time since we had 1-3 channels depending on the weather and the placement of our homemade antenna. I remember the box that sat on top, you would push down the buttons for the channel you wanted, it was amazing to have so much to watch. I loved Saturday morning cartoons, and occasionally talking my mother into an evening cop show when we visited.
For our purposes assume this refers to the Apple TV Gen 4, the first with an app ecosystem. With the exception of Amazon Video, thanks to a rumored disagreement between Tim Cook and Jeff Bezos, this is probably one of the more comprehensive ecosystems in the space, with new apps released fairly regularly. From a user experience perspective, this is likely one of the better systems, in typical apple fashion, with an ecosystem of streaming services and games. The biggest complaint on this device is the remote. While it is larger than previous remotes, the touch remote features, while intuitive, it is tends to get bumped, and can be a pain to use with precision.
The latest Roku models are quite well done. With a number of form factors, and quality levels, Roku strives to be all things to all people. The comprehensive app store experience is good, as is the remote. It is the right size for your hand, with a minimalist feel on the buttons. One of the biggest features that made me really like this device is the headphone port on the remote. On the subject of the remote, these generally use a proprietary wireless technology for the remote paring rather than IR, which is great if you want to hide the device, or just don’t have great line of site. My biggest concern with the Roku is they are not backed by a large content company such as Amazon, Apple, or Google. They do seem like an easy acquisition target, or possibly a company which could evaporate in the shifting ecosystem.
I want to like smart televisions, I really do. I even purchased one, with a Roku built in. My biggest concern is the processor speed. In the several systems I have tested, my experience has been a little laggy. Of course we are stuffing a mini computer inside an already thin TV system, but the user experience is critical to solidify adoption. For most users this is probably a technology which is good enough, but still has a bit to go.
Chrome Cast, Fire TV, and open source
There are always other options, Google’s Chrome Cast is probably one of the more popular choices. It is great except that it is simply a receiver. A phone or computer becomes the remote control for the device, although content is streamed directly from the internet. Amazon’s Fire TV is a good product as well, but it is very amazon centric. As an Amazon Prime subscriber, I love all things Amazon, but this just doesn’t quite get my attention. Kodi, and other open source systems promise to enable you to build your own, with their TV style interfaces, using a Raspberry Pi, or even a PC. Again not bad, but this is probably one of the few areas I do not want to do it myself on.
The biggest issue with most of these devices is a lack of standards. Developers have to choose what platforms to write apps for, and consumers may end up with several interfaces. It really comes down to use case, and what apps do you anticipate using over the long term. It will be interesting to see how many of these devices become a part of televisions, how many become a centralized device that streams to all screens in the house, and whether the television survives a generation more and more inclined to watch on phones, tablets, and computers.