If you're looking for an alternative to a home theater PC your best bet is a purpose-built solution that combines excellent hardware with an interface designed for home theater use. Two of the most popular options available are Apple TV and Boxee Box - so how do they compare?
David vs. Goliath
I don't have to tell you who Apple is. The company's reputation is well known, and while some of the side-projects like Apple TV have not had the same success as the company's computers and smartphones, the name is enough to push units out of the door.
Boxee is an underdog. The company has been trying to put out a powerful home theater device for years, but frequently ran into hardware limitations. In late 2010 they were finally able to make their dream a reality as a partner of D-Link, but Boxee is still a small fry that lacks name recognition.
As such, the battle of Apple TV vs. Boxee Box is one of David trying to smite Goliath. Will the slingshot fell the giant?
Pop open an Apple TV and you'll find hardware not entirely unlike what you'd find inside a smartphone. The current Apple TV ships with an Apple A4 processor (based off the ARM Cortex A8 core), a PowerVR graphics processor, and 256 MB of RAM. Those are some fairly slim specs - a smartphone equipped with this hardware placed on the market today would be outdated.
The Boxee Box uses an Intel embedded solution that includes a 1.2 GHz Atom processors and 1 GB of RAM. Ironically, it uses the same PowerVR graphics processor found in the Apple TV.
As a result of the Boxee Box's additional memory and faster processor, it is capable of displaying 1080p video. The Apple TV is not - instead, it's limited to 720p. This is a clear victory for the Boxee Box. The hardware is better, and the additional power allows for higher quality video.
Winner: Boxee Box
The Boxee Box is yet another product that runs a custom Linux derivative. The Boxee Box's custom operating system is little more than content portal that categorizes content based broadly on its format: TV show, movie, etc. Boxee Box also includes a web browser, which means you can theoretically view any web content. The controls via the Boxee remote are a bit clunky, but the speed and capability of the browser itself is great.
Apple TV is based around iTunes, and little else. This follows Apple's tradition of simplicity. Boxee can be a bit confusing, particularly when you start getting into the apps, which aren't well organized. Apple TV is more direct and streamlined. Of course, you can also watch content you've purchased on other devices with iTunes on your Apple TV, which is great if you're already an iTunes user. There's no third-party apps available, however, nor is a web browser included.
Winner: Boxee Box
The content features of Apple TV and Boxee Box are quite different. Apple TV, since it is linked to iTunes, gives you the opportunity to purchase content digitally. Boxee Box does not; some rental content is offered, but you cannot digitally purchase anything through Boxee Box.
This downside is made up for, however, by Boxee's much wider content selection. Every single show that is available online is also available on the Boxee Box, either through the interface (preferably) or the web browser. Netflix and Vudu are supported, and a number of small content producers are launching Boxee apps. For example, I like to watch StarCraft 2 matches. I was surprised to find my favorite caster, Day, has his own Boxee Box app that I could use to watch his videos.
Apple TV has a great selection, but it's also just one store. Boxee's openness gives it a big edge in terms of content selection.
Winner: Boxee Box
In the Apple TV vs. Boxee Box battle, it's a clean sweep for the Boxee Box. The giant falls!
Granted, Boxee's solution is almost twice the price, and it's not entirely without flaws. As I noted in my Boxee Box review, the software crashed on rare occasions, and the unique exterior design could be more functional.
Yet in spite of these issues, Boxee is the victor. Buying Apple TV only gives you access to a limited amount of content, while Boxee will let you access anything found on the web. That's clearly a better solution for all but the most dedicated Apple fans.