While Netflix has steadily built an empire from its streaming media, there have also been a number of hardware companies that have put together devices that “aggregate”, or combine, the plethora of channels (for lack of a better word) that exist beyond Netflix and that are available to anyone with a high-speed Internet connection.

Roku is one such company, creating a line of devices only 5″ W x 5″ L x 1″ H that will provide Standard and High Definition content from quite an extensive list of Streaming Media content providers. Roku recently teamed up with the more recognizable name of Netgear and put the Netgear logo on the Roku XD device (NTV250). While Roku has built a large and loyal following relatively quietly it seems, Google is handling things a bit differently…

Google has jumped into this game with typical Google style and has drummed up a lot of excitement and fanfare about their latest step towards World Domination: your Television. Google began announcing its plans with Google TV back in May of this year, and I’d be willing to bet that there are quite a few people out there who have been chomping at the bit to see how far they will take this.

Google TV can be viewed in two ways: If you happen to be in the market for a new TV, you can purchase one of the new Sony TVs that will be announced this week that have Google TV embedded into them. If you’ve already got an HDTV that suits your needs, then you can go with the Logitech Revue, which is a companion device for Google TV.

I thought it would be beneficial to compare the two offerings of set top boxes and get a feel for which device fairs better in the categories of Operating System, available Content, Hardware & Peripherals, Control of the device, and lastly Connectivity. This will hopefully help you as a user decide whether the difference in price of around $220 is worth it to go the direction of the Logitech Revue.

With that, let’s get started with the internals of…

The Operating System
Netgear’s device, called the Netgear Roku Player, comes pre-installed with its own proprietary OS, providing the user with a simple intuitive menu system. You are able to enter the Channel Store and select the channels you want available to you on your Home page. The channels are lined up across the top in an endless string depending on how many channels you decide to subscribe to. As you might have guessed, some channels come with their own monthly premium; yes, you still have to pay for Netflix! There are even a couple of channels that act more like apps. For example, a channel that acts as a local media player.

In reality, Roku offers simplicity extremely well. I’d be willing to guess that just about anyone can setup, configure, and enjoy the Netgear Roku with little effort. I’d say this is how they intended it to be.

However, with Logitech’s incarnation of Google TV on their device, the Revue, things are going to change in how people interact with their TV. Yes, truly interact with their TV. This is the first device I’ve seen that even somewhat rivals the Home Theater PC (HTPC) / Windows Home Server combination when it comes to truly being able to interact with their TV! This is because Google TV is all about flexibility and customization. The Revue comes not only with Google’s Android Operating System and the Chrome browser, but it is also integrated with the Harmony control system, which we will discuss further in Control, but is definitely very exciting news!

What Google TV brings to the table is the ability to easily go find and play just about any type of streaming content you will find on the Internet. In addition to the Search box you would expect from Google, you also have the typical boxed home screen where you can put different Apps. Because this operating system is based on Android 2.1, there is no doubt that there will be plenty of apps designed pretty quickly to further enhance the viewing experience. The Android Market place will be available to the Logitech Revue in early 2011.

In addition to all of what Google TV comes with, the Logitech Revue has built-in support for some of its more popular peripherals, being certainly something that Logitech is well-known for. This includes Logitech VidTM HD, which is Logitech’s own video conferencing system, and recommends being paired up with the optional Logitech TV Cam.

At this point in the battle for Streaming Media supremacy, both companies pretty much offer the same content; with no one company having an “in” with a popular Streaming Media content provider that is exclusive. The readily recognizable content providers that are currently featured on both boxes include Netflix, of course, as well as: Amazon Video on Demand, Pandora, Shoutcast, and the UFC Channel to name just a few. Hulu Plus remains teasingly on both the Netgear Roku website and the box the unit came in, and it is missing from Logitech’s website, but both companies (Google and Roku) claim to be in talks with Hulu. If I were a betting man I’d say that Hulu is going to be selective with who it lets in to have access to its content. After apparently pulling the plug from Boxee by blocking Boxee from getting to its content, it seems that Hulu is working at remaining somewhat exclusive in its partnering. We’ll have to see how long they hold on to that business model.

I do believe that when it comes to available content, the Revue (and Google TV in general) will come out ahead. This is because the Revue has the ability to go out and actually search the web for content that is beyond the pre-configured “channels” like Netflix, Amazon, etc. If there is a video on some random website out there, and Google Search knows about it, you’ll be able to play it on your Revue.

So while the content game remains a waiting game, what really sets the Logitech Revue apart from its competition is…

Hardware / Peripherals
… where there is a drastic difference between the two offerings:

The Netgear Roku comes with everything you will need to get connected to your TV unless you’re going to use the HDMI (which as it turns out is pretty much essential for HD), so you’ll need to provide one. Besides that, setup of the Roku is a piece of cake and you’ll be finished literally in 3 minutes. The system comes with a very generic remote that requires you to point directly at the box to get it to accept commands.

Enter Logitech’s Harmony control system. Harmony intelligence has been built right into the Revue giving you not only the ability to control the Revue and say, maybe the TV, but control numerous other household systems. The Revue suddenly becomes a central piece for your home system integration, and with the Harmony app on your iPhone or Android Smartphone, you can control anything from your TV to the lighting in your home using either method.
On top of building Harmony into the Revue, Logitech provides an integrated keyboard, touchpad, and remote control all in one sleek keyboard sized unit. Not that the keyboard is big by any standards, but if you’re preferences go towards something even more compact, the Revue will work with the Logitech Mini Controller, a palm-sized combo unit.

Google’s vision for Google TV seems to include shifting family get-togethers via webcam from the office computer chair to the living room, if desired. This feature can be yours by adding the optional $149 Logitech TV Cam into the mix. The TV Cam is designed to work with the Revue as well as being designed with a larger Living Room or Family Room in mind. The TV Cam will work in conjunction with the already installed Logitech VidTM HD program on the Revue.

Out of everything that comes or is offered thus far with the Logitech Revue, certainly the Harmony integration is the most exciting news for those who already have a decent Home Theater involved. It would be a shame to miss out on the Revue’s SPDIF output and not fully integrate this new technology with your current technology at home. The Harmony system brings that level of integration to reality.
So, while we are on the subject of..

…let’s see how the two stack up in regards to giving the user control over their system(s).

The Netgear Roku (and therefore all Roku devices) comes with a sadly generic controller with only a few essential buttons. You also need to point right at the Roku device with an effective range of about 15′.

Once again, we step into Logitech’s superior realm when we touch upon the topic of control. Considering the fact that I’ve been singing its praises this entire article it seems, it probably won’t surprise you to find that we are speaking of the Harmony system. As I mentioned before, the brains of the well-known remote control system by Logitech have been placed inside the Revue and truly open up the world when it comes to controlling your environment. You are not restricted to controlling merely your new Revue and the TV, but realistically you can control a larger portion of the systems within your home, including your lighting. Also, because Harmony is the control system integrated with the Revue, remember that you’ll be able to use the new apps designed for iPhone and Android on your Smartphone to control any of these devices.

Now that’s control via integration!

It’s pretty difficult to compare how well each device works when it comes to connectivity without a Logitech Revue (which hasn’t hit the market yet)…to review, but I can speak on the Roku and realistically assume that when it comes to the basics of connectivity, both companies will employ fairly similar technology.

The Roku is, as with all things, extremely easy to set up for connecting to the Internet. In truth, there is but one question, are you connecting via wireless or did you plug an Ethernet cable in? After you answer that question, the system takes over and you are connected within seconds to an abundance of content.

The wireless connectivity on the Roku ended up working very well and I was able to stream from various providers with very little buffering, but if you can get Ethernet connectivity to your Home Theater, you’ll be much happier in the long run.

From what we know about the Revue, you will have the same options of going either wireless or connecting to the Internet via an Ethernet cable.

In Conclusion…
You really can’t go wrong with either of these devices; they both do what they are supposed to do very well. Hopefully the point you’ve taken from this article is that the Logitech Revue with Google TV is supposed to do more and overall it truly delivers home system integration combined with nearly limitless content (at least we anticipate that it will!). It’s got more functionality built into it, more peripherals available for it, and I’m betting someday soon more content available forit…for a price. Yes, the Logitech Revue is going to run you about $220 more than the $80 Netgear Roku Player. Depending on what you are trying to achieve with this technology will determine which solution fits you the best. If you’ve got the extra money, then taking the step up to the Logitech Revue and Google TV seems like a no-brainer.

But beyond any price difference, it’s more about what Google has done here. What they’ve done is pushed the envelope of what one can do with a TV and surrounding technology to the point of almost being an equal experience to having a HTPC (Home Theater PC) in functionality. Google is probably wise enough to realize that there are more people out there who don’t need (or perhaps aren’t ready for) a PC integrated with the Home Entertainment System and so therefore has filled the gap quite well. Despite being an avid HTPC / Windows Home Server fan, I’ve got to admit that the Logitech Revue looks very enticing. Perhaps Christmas…or will I be able to wait that long?

Tom Abell is a System Integrator and Owner of Home System Integration LLC, in Sunnyvale, CA. He brings to the table a combination of 15 years in IT Systems Engineering and Home System Integration experience, shifting back into the Home market after returning from Iraq in April of 2009. Judging from his passionate writings on the Articles page of his website (www.homesystemintegration.com), it is easy to see that he feels he’s in the right place at the right time and that his “mission” is to raise awareness about Home Technology Integration to the masses!