Apple TV vs Chromecast - Apple gets a price cut to £59
Wondering if the cheap Chromecast or powerful Apple TV is the best media streamer? We have the answer
Chromecast and Apple TV are the two big media streamers, turning dumb TVs into smart ones and bringing internet media to all. If you think that the choice is easy and that the Apple TV is best for iPhone users while Chromecast is for Android users, you would be wrong. It's actually a lot more involved than that, and the decision will largely come down to what you want to achieve.
At just £30, it's hard to argue that the Chromecast is anything other than amazing value. In fact, it's almost an impulse spend. Apple TV used to be a lot more expensive at £79, but Apple has just dropped the price to a far-more-reasonable £59. That may be £19 more than the Chromecast, but given that you get a remote control and a box that can be operated standalone; in comparison, the Chromecast is a dumb receiver. Neither's particular the only right decision, but this distinction helps explain the price difference, and we think that both devices are now fairly priced.
It's fair to say that the Chromecast is the least obtrusive media streamer that we have ever seen. It plugs directly into one of your TV's HDMI ports (an extension cable is provided in the box to avoid the streamer blocking other devices, although we have never found a TV where this happens) and is powered via USB directly from a USB port on your TV. If your TV doesn't output enough power, there's a USB power adaptor in the box.
The Apple TV is a small square box, which is still very neat, although you will need to find the room to place it next to your TV. While the Chromecast is controlled entirely via a smartphone over Wi-Fi, the Apple TV ships with a remote control. This means that you need to place it so that its IR receiver is in line-of-sight to where you're sitting.
While the Chromecast has only an HDMI port, the Apple TV has HDMI and an optical S/PDIF output, so you can hook it up to an older amp for better sound. Apple doesn't provide an HDMI cable in the box, although it sells a soft-touch black rubber cable to match the bundled power cable (if you like that kind of thing). Alternatively, you can just use any old HDMI cable you've got lying around or just buy a new cheap one. There's no point in buying expensive HDMI cables, as they don't make a difference.
Apple's the hands-down winner for flexibility here. With 802.11n (dual-band 2.4GHz and 5GHz) and Ethernet, the Apple TV is the most flexible media streamer of the two, connecting to any network. In contrast, the Chromecast has an 802.11n adaptor that will only connect to 2.4GHz networks. It's not a massive problem, but the cleaner 5GHz band suffers from less interference and is our preferred choice of wireless networking for media streaming. If you're having problems with Wi-Fi, our guide on how to troubleshoot and extended Wi-Fi networks will help.
Interface and local apps
Chromecast doesn't have an interface as such. In fact, it's really just a 'dumb' box that you send content to (called Casting, see the next section for more information). This means that it requires a smartphone or tablet to work. Apple TV, on the other hand, is a complete media streamer in its own right, running an OS based on iOS 8. Although there's no app store available, it ships with several pre-installed apps, so you can use it without the need for a smartphone or tablet.
There's a good range of apps including Netflix, Sky News, Sky Now TV, Flickr and YouTube. In addition, you can access all of your music and videos stored on your home computer via iTunes Home Sharing, and all of your Apple TV, movies and music via the cloud. It even integrates with iCloud, so you can view your Photo Stream on the TV.
As we've come to expect from Apple the interface is both extremely simple and smooth. A remote control ships in the box with just a cursor pad and buttons for select, back (Menu) and Play/Pause. Alternatively, the Apple Remote app lets you control the media streamer over your home network using your iPhone or Tablet. Using the app also means that you can use your tablet or phone's touch keyboard to enter text into search boxes, which is much easier and quicker than using the remote and on-screen keyboard. Without having to pull your phone out to access key apps, you can quickly get started with the Apple TV.
Airplay vs Casting
Take the Apple TV's built-in apps away and both it and the Chromecast work in a similar way, letting you use a smartphone or tablet to beam content to them. Apple calls its technology AirPlay while Google calls its technology Casting. Both technologies are conceptually the same. When using a supported app (audio or video), you can tap a button and select the Chromecast or Apple TV that you want to send the content to. Rather than streaming it from your phone or tablet, you pass over the information of where the original stream is, letting the Chromecast or Apple TV take control directly. With this method, you can use your handheld device as normal for other tasks, without interrupting the stream. Crucially, both technologies still allow you to control playback from your device. So, you can play/pause, and scrub through an audio file or video.