by Claire Porter in Gadgets on Tuesday 3 June 2014

When it comes to selecting which streaming dongle device or set-top-box to purchase, for Australians it is often a matter of which is easiest to ‘hack’ around.

Unlike the rest of the planet, products like Netflix and Hulu are geoblocked on Australian Chromecasts, Apple TVs and Rokus, arguably one of the dominant reasons for purchasing one of these media devices.

So the choice then becomes which device is most hassle-free when it comes to getting around the block.

Chromecast

Google's Chromecast dongle

Google’s Chromecast is the cheapest way to get your TV online but is it effective? (Image via Google)

I badly wanted to get behind the Chromecast. I’m pro-dongle and anything that reduces the number of set top boxes that sit around my TV at any given time. But the Chromecast’s geoblocking settings are the most difficult to get around.

Pro:

  • At $49 the Chromecast is one of the cheapest media streaming devices on the market.
  • The Chromecast is super easy to install. Simply plug the HDMI dongle into your TV and connect it to a power source (either a USB port or a power point). The Chromecast has its own WiFi hotspot you can connect to configure the device, which involves updating the software, specifying the country and connecting the dongle to your home WiFi network. Once connected, the dongle will display a bunch of compatible apps which include Google Play, Plex, Rdio, Crackle and Major League Baseball.
  • Foxtel’s Presto, ABC’s iView and Quickflix have committed to providing Chromecast support to their apps in the coming months, which will help make up for the lack of Netflix, Hulu and HBO Go.
  • Google doesn’t mess around with remote controls, which are likely to get lost. It lets you control search and play via either your computer or through a phone or tablet. This move may annoy some users but frankly I have yet to see a streaming interface with a remote control search function which isn’t completely confusing and annoying.
  • Sports music and video apps such as Spotify, Google Play, Vevo, Pandora, Rdio and Songza.

Con:

  • The Chromecast does not support 5GHz WiFi networks, only 2.4GHz.
  • As mentioned, the Chromecast is operated via phone, tablet and computer by installing the Chromecast app for each device, or by tapping the Chromecast icon on supported websites (like YouTube). The tech savvy will likely see this as a pro. The con is that for the mum-and-dad market, this remote-control-free-zone is likely to be a source of confusion, especially compared to the Apple TV, which comes with a remote and is so comprehensive, there’s no need to read a manual to know what you’re doing.Then again, the remote-control experience on Apple TV (especially for search) is just terrible. It makes a lot more sense for me to do all the typing related stuff through my computer than by messing around with either a remote control or a smartphone.
  • You can’t just use a VPN to get around the geoblock, as Australian Chromecasts are hardwired to Google’s DNS settings. The only work around is to change your router’s IP configuration, blocking Google’s DNS servers and replacing it with a non-existent IP address. With an unrecognisable DNS, the Chromecast will then rely on the IP address, set by a VPN like Unblock US, but not all routers and modems let users mess with its IP routing settings. In any case, even for the ones that do, this isn’t a job most people can do on their own.At this point, the Chromecast becomes more hassle than it’s worth, considering how easy it is to access Netflix through competitor devices like the Apple TV and Roku.
  • Requires a USB or powerpoint, somewhat defeating the compact niftiness of the HDMI dongle, which is easier to ignore on the side of your TV when it doesn’t have an ugly-as-hell power cord sticking out the back.
  • No games.
  • No access to non Android, Chrome, Google features.

Apple TV

Apple TV

Apple TV may not be as small as a dongle, but it’s hardly intrusive.

Pro 

  • So easy to use. Simply plug the Apple TV cable into your TV’s HDMI port, connect to your home WiFi and your iTunes account and you’re ready to start watching.
  • It’s easy to get access to Netflix and Hulu either by creating a US iTunes account pro-loaded with credit from digital US iTunes store cards and associating that account with your Apple TV, or simply by streaming it on your computer, tablet or mobile using a VPN and throw it up onto your TV screen using the AirPlay function.
  • Between easy work-arounds for Netflix and Hulu and iTunes’ 45,000 films and 190,000 TV episodes as of 2012, the Apple TV becomes the media-player of choice for savvy and non-savvy consumers.
  • Sports music and video apps such as iTunes Radio, Vevo, Vimeo and YouTube.
  • Contains no games but at least it lets you toss your mobile, iPad and computer games onto your TV via the Airplay function.
  • Comes with a remote, which you will learn to loathe once you use it to search for stuff. It’s also so small and thin you’re bound to lose it. It’s worth buying extras just in case. I’ve been alternating between early and new model remotes as they each make their way down the side of the couch and other familiar hiding places.

Con

  • No gaming functions. Apple has yet to conquer the online gaming space. Given Google just acquired video game streaming service Twitch, don’t be surprised if you don’t see a move towards legitimate gameplay functions on the Chromecast and Google Play store. This move would see Apple seriously behind in the gaming space. But for now no one is particularly good at streaming online games (accept of course for Steam).But if you are a long-term thinker on a budget, this might be something you want to take into consideration. The cost of data or the breadth of WiFi plans in Australia will need to change significantly before the Aussie market can properly enjoy a game streaming environment.
  • Cost. At $107 from JB Hi-Fi, an Apple TV isn’t going to break the bank, but it’s more than double the cost of Chromecast.
  • The search interface is just terrible. The downside of a remote control powered device, searching for stuff is a long, arduous process and often the search results don’t spit out what you’re looking for, even though you know it’s there. Often times I have searched for shows I have already confirmed to be on iTunes or YouTube (which is also available on Apple TV) but fail to show up at all during search. There is a mobile app through which you can also power your Apple TV, but its search isn’t much better.
  • Completely hostile to non-Apple properties. Obviously no access to Android features or Google Play.

Roku

Roku dongle and remote control

Roku comes with a remote control which is gaming compatible. (Image via Roku)

Pro

  • At $50, the Roku gives both the Apple TV and the Chromecast a run for their money.
  • The Roku is VPN compatible, which means easy access to services like Netflix and Hulu.
  • It comes with a remote control.
  • Device agnostic, it is compatible across both iOS and Android devices.
  • Great search function. Type in a particular movie and Roku will not only deliver said property but also a list of where it is available to watch (Amazon Instant Video, iTunes, Netflix etc). Type in an actor’s name and Roku spits out a short bio, along with a list of every single movie and TV show they’ve ever been in. Puts Apple TV search to shame.
  • It’s porn compatible. It even has some porn channels, though none of them are publicly listed, you will have to create a private channel in order to get access.
  • Sports music apps such as Spotify, Pandora and Vevo.
  • Spots movie apps such as Amazon Instant Video, Showtime and HBO Go (once you get access to a VPN subscription to get around the geoblock).

Con

  • Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Instant Video etc are geoblocked in Australia, but don’t worry. The Roku is VPN compatible. It just means you’ll have to invest in a subscription like Unblock US in order to unlock the Roku’s full features.
  • Requires a powerpoint. A major annoyance, somewhat defeating the convenience of the small, portable dongle is that your TV must be near an outlet in order to plug in the connected wire that powers the device.
  • Most of its 1000 apps are pretty dodgy. It features apps for the Apostolic Church.
  • Not ‘released’ in Australia, so not available to buy in-store. You’ll have to go online to buy this bad boy, which changes the sticker price a little bit. I’ve seen the Roku 3 offered from anywhere between $50 and $150, not including postage. I recommend eBay or Amazon. (Don’t forget to calculate for postage.)