Apple TV vs Chromecast - which is best for you?
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. Conversely, the Apple TV is still £79, which is still a fair amount of cash, given that the product is now a few years old. On that basis, the Chromecast is the winner, but it's a little more complicated: the Chromecast is a dumb receiver, while the Apple TV can work as a standalone device. Neither's particular the only right decision, but this distinction helps explain the price difference.
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.
Platform and app support
As AirPlay is an Apple technology it is only supported in major apps by Apple devices. You can get AirPlay apps for Android devices, but these are limited to apps that can stream local music and video. AirPlay devices include MacBooks and iMacs, which can use AirPlay to mirror their screens, as well as sending content from iTunes. You get the best support through an iPad or iPhone. As well as supporting mirroring your device, AirPlay is supported through the OS, including letting you send your photos and home videos to an Apple TV.
Third-party app support also isn't bad. Netflix support has been recently added, letting you browse from your phone or tablet before sending the content to your TV. In addition, you get Amazon Prime Instant video support, too. BBC iPlayer and 4oD lets you watch catch-up TV properly. ITV Player now supports AirPlay mirroring from your iPad or iPhone, but you have to leave your device turned on for the stream to work.
There's still no Demand Five support, nor can you get Sky Go. BT Sport is supported via AirPlay, but Sky's Now TV is not. However, the most recent software update for Apple TV introduced a full Sky Now TV app, replacing the old one that only let you access the sports content. Now, you can view all of the available packages directly.
Chromecast has much better cross-platform support from apps that support the technology: if you can Cast from Android, you can Cast from the equivalent app on iOS. In addition, there's a Cast extension for Chrome, which lets you send content from your browser to your Chromecast. It supports Mac, Linux, Chrome OS and Windows versions of the browser, so support is way ahead of what Apple offers. Chromecast also supports mirroring to cast anything to your TV (see next section for more details).
App support isn't too bad, with Netflix, BBC iPlayer, BT Sport and Now TV the big stand-out names. There's no Amazon Prime Instant Video support, despite their now being an Android app for it. You also can't Cast from ITV Player, 4oD, Demand Five, or Sky Go. App support on Apple TV and Chromecast is a very close-run thing, with Apple only having a minor advantage if you want to watch Amazon Prime Instant Video.
Mirroring and Tab Casting
Mirroring your entire desktop or phone is a way to send content from an unsupported app to your TV, so you can use this kind of trick to try and play any video file you want. With Apple TV, you can mirror any OS X device or iOS device, but there's no Windows or Android support. Mirroring isn't perfect and, depending on the speed of your network, video can be jerky. Content providers can also choose to disable AirPlay mirroring support. Try and use Sky Go, for example, and you'll get a message telling you that the content's not supported.
Chromecast has wider mirroring support with Windows, Linux and OS X all supporting Tab Casting (where you beam a single Chrome tab to the Chromecast) and mirroring of the entire desktop. The most recent Android devices also support mirroring. Currently, there's no switch for content providers to turn off mirroring support, so you can use this trick with pretty much any app or video stream. However, the technology's not always perfect and, despite a recent update that improved matters, video isn't always played smoothly. Other problems have been reported, too, with some people finding that they don't get audio when using Sky Go.
With both Apple TV and Chromecast, the big issue with mirroring and Tab Casting is that you have to leave your device turned on playing the content you want. Switch apps or turn the screen off and the stream will stop. This means that you'll use more battery power this way and you're effectively locking up your device, so you can't use it for anything else. With proper AirPlay or Cast support, you can continue to use your device as normal or power the screen off without interrupting what you see on screen.
This is one area where the Chromecast is far ahead of the Apple TV, with new interactive games now playable on your TV. The Chromecast Big Web Quiz is one of the best examples of this, letting up to five players use their smartphones or tablets play a quiz, with the questions and results appearing on the TV. While there are few games at the moment, it shows the capabilities of Chromecast; Apple TV offers nothing like this.
Surround Sound Support
Both the Apple TV and Chromecast support Dolby Digital support where it's available in streamed movies. Technically, the Apple TV should be a bit more flexible, as its Optical S/PDIF output means that you can connect it to an older amp that doesn't have an HDMI input. Although Netflix surround-sound on Apple TV was broken, a fix has now roled out. Chromecast supports Dolby Digital, where available, such as on Netflix, so you can plug it straight into your AV amp and enjoy surround sound straight away.
One trick that Netflix lovers are fond of is spoofing their location, so that they get access to US Netflix from the UK and its larger content collection. With the Apple TV you can easily do this, as you have access to the necessary network settings - see how to get US Netflix on the Apple TV.
With the Chromecast, Google completely locked down the system, denying access to the required settings. It is possible to override the Chromecast, although any changes you make have to be network wide and you have to have a router that supports certain advanced functions. It's been made even harder now with an Android Netflix update. See how to get US Netflix on Chromecast for more information. Depending on how important this feature is to you, you may have to buy an Apple TV if your home router doesn't support the necessary settings.
DLNA media server support
If you want to stream video from your local network you can do, although neither devices support DLNA media servers directly. Instead, you need an app that will stream from your local media server that also supports AirPlay or Chromecast. You then select the media with your phone or tablet and then beam it to the media player.
Neither the Chromecast nor the Apple TV support many video file formats, with H.264 videos the main codec. This may mean that you have to convert your videos. Our guide on how to convert videos for Apple TV will work on both devices. For Apple devices and AirPlay we recommend that you use 8player (see how to connect your Apple TV to a DLNA server). Sadly, this app doesn't support Chromecast. GoodPlayer will do the job, although it's not a patch on 8player. Android users can use BubbleUPnP.
If you don't want to convert your videos, both support Plex. With a Plex server you can transcode video on the fly, so you don't need to convert any files to start with. Read more with our guide on how to use Plex with Apple TV and Chromecast.
These are two products that keep evolving, particularly as more and more companies turn on AirPlay or Chromecast support in their apps. In reality, the choice depends on what you want to do. If you want Amazon Prime Instant video, then the Apple TV is your only choice out of these two devices. Likewise, if you want US Netflix without a lot of hassle, then the Apple TV is your best choice.
Chromecast has largely caught up with Apple for all other services (4oD and ITV Player withstanding), making it a brilliant and cheap choice to upgrade your TV with. Chromecast is also the better option if you've got a mix of Apple and Android devices at home.
|Model||TV 3 (3rd generation, 2012)||Chromecast|
|Audio outputs||Optical S/PDIF||None|
|Video outputs||HDMI 1.3||HDMI|
|USB port||None||Micro USB (for power)|
|Networking||802.11n (dual-band), 10/100 Ethernet||802.11n (2.4GHz only)|
|App support||iOS||iOS, Android, Windows, Mac|
|Supported servers||DLNA (via app), iTunes||DLNA (indirect)|
|Audio formats||MP3, AAC||AAC, MP3, Ogg Vorbis, WAV|
|Video formats||MPEG-4, H.264, M-JPEG||H.264|
|Video file extensions||.mp4, .mov||N/A (no direct streaming)|
|Image formats||JPEG, TIFF||BMP, GIF, JPEG, PNG|
|Internet streaming services||Netflix, Sky Sports NowTV, YouTube, plus others via apps||BBC iPlayer, BT Sport, Netflix|
|Price including VAT||£79||£30|
|Warranty||One-year RTB||One-year RTB|
|Part code||Apple TV||GA3A00030A23|