The streaming app world is exploding. Viewing video content delivered over the internet is becoming more and more popular. One Saturday I went into total geek mode and decided to find out which mode of streaming gave the best picture. Surprisingly, the results I thought I would get were not what happened, which made this even more interesting.

For testing I used a top of the line Sony XBR 55” flat panel and sat about 5 feet away. I put it in ‘Vivid’ mode, as I knew this would exaggerate any artifacts from the streaming device. With external devices I connected with an AudioQuest Forest HDMI cable ($50). I hard wired every device with exactly the same ethernet cable. I also watched each section repeatedly to account for any differences in network service to my home.

The devices I decided to test were:

1) the Netflix app built into the Sony TV
2) the Netflix app on a brand new Oppo BDP103-D
3) an Apple TV
4) a Roku 3.

My hypothesis was that the built-in Sony TV app and/or the Oppo app would look the best.

I used a really dark scene from House of Cards as one data point and a very bright outdoor scene from Breaking Bad as another. I must have played each scene more than a hundred times during the course of the testing. The results completely surprised me!

Both Sony TV and Oppo appear to use the exact same Netflix interface. With this there was a lot of ghosting and video artifacts. The picture was far less clear than from Apple TV or Roku. I really expected a direct connection from inside the TV to be the best, but it was not – by a large margin. I also thought the Darbee circuit of Oppo would create a great picture, but it did not. My suspicion is that the app makes the difference in picture quality and that Roku and Apple paid more attention to their Netflix app than Sony or Oppo did.

Apple-TV-v-Roku-3
 When comparing Apple TV to Roku the differences were more subtle. The Roku did have what I call a small, “jumpy” artifact where in some scenes the image looked like it jumped instead of moving smoothly. Also, every so often it would pixilate. I saw the jumpiness to a small degree on Apple TV as well, but not as much.  Clarity on Apple TV and Roku was very, very close.

Just for fun, I then put an entry level AudioQuest power cord (the $74 variety) into the Apple. It’s got a plug designed to fit right into the Apple TV. Unfortunately, Roku has an outboard power supply so there was no way to try an AudioQuest with it. The upgraded power cable caused the jitter I was seeing in the Apple TV to go away completely! I also thought I got an increase in clarity in outdoor scenes.

Now, what about the interfaces? Just like with picture quality, the navigation on the TV app or Oppo was sub-par compared to Apple TV or Roku. I found Netflix navigation to be the most fun on Apple TV.  It’s just easier to find things to watch. However, Roku does have one pretty cool feature if you like to binge watch a single TV series. Most TV shows start off with a summary of the previous few episodes. If you’ve been watching for a couple of hours, this is annoying. With Roku, when a show ends, in 20 seconds it jumps to the next one in the series and has the intelligence to skip the “what happened last time” part of the show. Pretty cool! For sheer number of apps, you cannot beat the Roku. It’s got 1475 and is growing!  Searching through the apps is very easy as well.

VUDU-6

For streaming pay per view, there are a lot of choices available. You’ve got Amazon Prime, the Apple store, pay per view on cable or satellite, Roku has their own store, and there’s VUDU.  For me, VUDU is the clear winner! You can get VUDU on Oppo and Roku. The Apple store and VUDU have great picture quality, but VUDU wins on the audio side – even offering 7.1 content on some films. VUDU also has an incredible interface for browsing movies. You can dive in by searching director, actress/actor, etc.

Another neat thing about VUDU is UltraViolet. Walmart bought VUDU a few years ago and their grand plan is coming into play now. Did you know you can go on your computer, drop in your own DVD or Blu-ray, and for a couple of bucks (in the case of a DVD) have the movie available in the cloud for streaming anywhere in the world?  That is extremely cool. You can also pay $5 and have it upgraded to Blu-ray quality or upload a Blu-ray for $3. If you bought a new Blu-ray that has an Ultraviolet disc (and a lot these days do) the process is free!

While still in geek mode I did another comparison. I paid for uploading both a Blu-ray copy and regular DVD of a movie I owned in both formats. In the Oppo, the higher end HD version looked better streaming than playing the DVD. However, the actual Blu-ray disc looked a good deal better than streaming the HD version on VUDU. But think about this for traveling and when you’re on vacation:  you can get s $50 Roku stick, plug it into any TV, and have access through VUDU to your uploaded movies or use an app to watch them on your tablet anywhere. That is pretty neat!

Both Roku and Oppo offer the VUDU app.  Obviously Apple does not, as they want you to rent from the Apple store.

So who is the winner? I decided I did not need the 1475 apps on the Roku and our family does not binge watch TV series over many hours in a single sitting. The Apple TV with a good HDMI cable and upgraded power cord is the best way to watch Netflix for me. I use the Oppo 103D as my VUDU intereface.

I hope these tests will help you pick the best way to get into streaming video. Remember, once the movie or show starts, it’s all about the picture and sound experience. Making sure those are as good as they can be is the most important thing of all!

Update 6-6-2014 –

Oppo has upgraded their Netflix app to the same one used by the Roku along with adding several improvements of their own on how the streaming video is processed.  The improvements are tremendous.  If all you need are Netflix and VUDU, the Oppo is the best choice, plus you can easily upgrade its power cable for even better performance.