Adventures in Streaming - AppleTV vs Chromecast
by, 24th March 2014 at 11:29 PM (9595 Views)
So, in the fruity corner we have the Apple TV. In the red, green and yellow corner we have the Google Chromecast. Which is better? There's only one way to find out!
I've owned an AppleTV since just after Apple released the second generation iOS version so probably for two and a half years. It's been sitting underneath my TV ever since doing stirling service streaming from Netflix and playing content streamed from my iPhone. Google announced general availability of the Chromecast in the UK last week for the princely sum of £30 so I thought "What the hey" and ordered one from Amazon. I took delivery of it on Thursday and have been playing with it a little since then. I thought I'd write a little about how the two compare.
I have to say right from the beginning that this isn't really a fair comparison. The two products are similar in one regard (i.e. they both connect to an HDMI port and can stream video from the internet to your telly) but at best the Chromecast has a small subset of the features that an Apple TV. It also only costs one third of what the Apple TV costs so maybe that subset is enough for you? Who knows?
So what can the two devices do? Well, the AppleTV is in theory a standalone device. It has a series of apps built into it which can log onto various on-line services and stream content from them. Services available in this country include the iTunes store (of course), Netflix, YouTube and others. It can connect to a lot of on-line radio stations. When there isn't a built-in app available, it can play video and audio streams from apps on your iOS devices (an iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch). If your iOS device is new enough, it can wirelessly mirror the screen from iOS devices (You need an iPhone 4S or an iPad 2 or newer). The AppleTV can also be mirrored to from a Sandy Bridge or newer based Mac. There are also third party applications available to stream content from Android and Windows devices and from older Macs. The Apple TV comes with a power cable and a remote control. It can be connected to an amplifier using an optical S/PDIF cable.
With an AppleTV, you don't need an iPhone or an iPad to use it but is undeniably a lot more useful with one. The Chromecast is different. Without a smartphone, tablet or computer to stream from it's completely useless. The Chromecast is compatible with iOS devices running iOS 6 and later and Android devices running Gingerbread. You can also install an extension for Chrome which lets you stream a tab from Chrome to your TV. This is compatible with OS X Lion or newer, ChromeOS on a limited number of devices and Windows 7 or newer. With the Chrome extension there is an "experimental" feature that lets you cast your entire screen as well. However, there is an issue with that. You can only cast a 720p image to the Chromecast. Anything bigger will be cropped rather than resized. See the attached picture:
Please forgive the fuzziness but these things are hard to capture! The resolution on my Macbook is 1280x800, the traditional resolution for 13" laptop displays before 16:9 screens became common. The very top and very bottom of the picture has been chopped off, you can see that there is only half a menu bar at the top and the status lights of the apps have been cropped at the bottom. A little less visible are the thick black bars on both sides of the screen at 1280 pixels, the picture is narrower than the 1368 pixels the Chromecast displays at.
I don't have a Mac new enough to send a desktop to an AppleTV over Airplay but with iOS devices, it keeps the aspect ratio but resizes the picture to fit.
So, streaming videos.
With the AppleTV, unless the app specifically disables (Channel 4, I'm looking in your direction here. And I'm giving you the stink eye too) it you should be able to get your video onto the big screen by using either AirPlay or AirPlay mirroring. With AirPlay, you send the video stream directly to the AppleTV. With AirPlay Mirroring, it just mirrors what the device is showing. My point is, the majority of the time your app should not need to have specific support for AirPlay to work with the AppleTV.
In contrast, the ChromeCast does need explicit app support. At the moment, the range of apps that support it is very small. And don't think what I thought and try to stream a video in a tab in Chrome. Playback is very jerky and the lag is ridiculous.
Below is a screenshot from the iPhone YouTube app playing a video:
There are two icons which I want to point out to you here. One is the ChromeCast icon, it's on the top of the screenshot directly to the right of the title. The other is the AirPlay icon, it's on the bottom of the screenshot to the right of the timeline. Both work in exactly the same way, you press it and it brings up a list of detected devices. Click on the device you want to stream to and press play. Your TV will now be playing your video
Anyway, how well they both work?
The AppleTV is typically Apple. It works well as long as you work within its confines. The builtin apps do exactly what they're supposed to do. Assuming your connection is up to the job and that the stream is good, video quality is very good from all of the built in apps.
The same can be said about the Chromecast. Don't expect miracles from it and you'll be fine.
I have observed something that is quite interesting though. On my phone, I have four apps which support both AirPlay and ChromeCast natively: YouTube, Plex, iPlayer and Netflix. The video quality from YouTube and Plex to the AppleTV and Chromecast is identical, i.e. it's as good as the source.
With iPlayer and Netflix, it is significantly better on the Chromecast and my theory as to why goes like this. I think that when you send a video to the AppleTV via AirPlay, these two apps send the AppleTV the same video stream as they'd send to the iPhone, i.e. one optimised for a tiny screen on a potentially poor connection. The images they send are blocky, pixellated and have awful compression effects. The picture is worse than what you get from a low rent Freeview channel. When you send the video to a Chromecast, you seem to be getting a Chromecast specific stream. I don't think that there is anything inherently wrong with the AppleTV here, I think it's laziness on the part of the BBC and Netflix teams. The difference on Netflix is especially striking but I guess that the use case for using Airplay to stream to an AppleTV is pretty small considering that the AppleTV has native support for Netflix.
So to come back to the original question, which is better? There isn't a definitive answer to this. Both have their use cases and both have their places in their respective HDMI ports as far as I'm concerned. The AppleTV has the advantage of being a standalone device on which you can rent and buy films and music, watch Netflix and YouTube and listen to the radio on. It's also better at device mirroring. The Chromecast seems to get much better quality video streams from internet streaming sites.
I'm sure some of you are wondering which is better for use in a school. The answer to this is the AppleTV without a shadow of a doubt. It has officially supported mirroring from Macs and iOS devices, unofficially support mirroring from Android and Windows computers using third party apps and most importantly can be connected to enterprise wireless networks. The Chromecast can't.
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