Amazon Video On Demand Shootout: TiVo versus Roku

January 15, 2011

There are lots of ways to access Amazon’s Video on Demand Service (previously known as Amazon Unbox): Clients have been deployed on a variety of TVs, blu-ray players, computers and set top boxes.  Thanks to the special offer credits the Hub has built up on Amazon, I decided to purchase Sons of Anarchy Season 2 in HD. I then had a choice to watch the episodees on my Series3 TiVo or my new Roku XDS.

Regardless of which device you have, you need to set up your box to connect to the Amazon service. For the TiVo click here.  For the Roku click here.  For on overview of the service on the respective devices click here for Tivo and here for the Roku and other streaming devices.

The TiVo and the Roku take two very different approaches to interfacing with Amazon’s Video on Demand service.  The TiVo downloads the show from Amazon and stores it on the TiVo to be watched at any time (the same option is available on the PC).  The downloaded show is integrated into TiVo’s Now Playing List.  On the Roku as with most other Amazon enabled devices, the content is streamed to the device and not stored locally.

First, I decided to watch the program on the TiVo.  In theory, the quality of the TiVo version is better with an advertised 5 MBps bit rate versus the 2.5 MBps rate of the streaming version of HD shows (both versions support surround sound).  Only problem was that the download was very slow.  After 30 minutes, only 5 minutes of the program had downloaded.  After an hour, the counter had reset to zero.  Now to be fair, there’s lots of factors that control the download speed.  The speed of Amazon’s network, the FIOS network (my provider) and the performance of my wireless network.    When I attempted to download episode 2 the two days later, it only took about an hour and you can start watching while the download is in progress.

Once the show was downloaded, the quality was pretty awesome! Hi-Def picture and surround sound. While it’s not as good as the blu-ray version, it’s acceptable for the discounted price.

On the Roku, I fired up the Amazon channel and selected “My Video Library”. I selected the first episode of Sons of Anarchy and it started streaming. However, it was not streaming in HD.  The quality was standard definition and not in surround. After some repositioning of the Roku box, I was able to get a HD quality signal with surround sound to boot. Then the A/B testing started.  I flipped between the Roku and TiVo watching the same scene on both boxes.  It was difficult to tell if there was any real quality difference between the two.  Both were impressive.

As I then started browsing other titles on the Roku, I received several messages stating how the Amazon service was unavailable.  Other channels such as NetFlix were still functioning so it was not a problem with my network or my provider’s.  And hence, the TiVo’s main advantage over the Roku and over any cloud based content.  Once the content is downloaded to the TiVo, you will get a consistent HD picture in 1080i (apparently 1080p on the Premier).  The problem with streaming devices is you are at the mercy of all of the components between your set top box and the provider’s network.  In the case of Amazon, it appears they need to do some work to improve the reliability of HD streaming. Last night I could not get a show to stream in HD but no problem this morning.  Other times, the show has started streaming in HD only to fall back to SD a few minutes into the program.  As long as all of the components are functioning, the near instant availability of a show on the Roku is it’s advantage.

TiVo: Browsing Top HD Shows

Roku: Browsing Top HD Shows

The other advantage the Roku has is its user interface to Amazon. There are categories with nice thumbnails of the shows and movies to browse through. The TiVo’s Amazon application still has an outdated puke green interface that is low-res. The Premier does have the advantage of integrating it into TiVo’s global search function (available as a beta on the Series3). The biggest drawback of the TiVo app is that you cannot directly browse your Video library for content already purchased. You need to go to Amazon’s web site and push the individual shows to your TiVo.

You can browse your video library on the Roku but not on TiVo

In addition, the Roku also gives more options when looking at a particular show.  You can buy the entire season at a discount or preview the first two minutes.  Look at the screen shots below comparing the first episode of Glee on both boxes:

In conclusion, the TiVo and the Roku have their respective advantages. If you can plan ahead a little and you really care about picture quality, the TiVo is the way to go. If you’re a person who enjoys channel surfing and instant gratification, the Roku is the way to go. The Roku also has the advantage of not having a monthly service fee like the TiVo. There’s one thing that would improve both offerings: Amazon improving the performance and reliability of their service.
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Tags: Amazon, Roku, TiVo

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