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Choosing the Best Streaming Media Box

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  1. Understanding Streaming Media Players / Choosing a Streaming Media Player
  2. What's the Best Streaming Media Box?
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You know how to watch streaming Internet video on your computer, but how do you stream movies and TV shows to your living room TV? The solution is to purchase one of the many streaming media boxes available today. In this article, author Michael Miller examines the most popular of these set top boxes, and recommends which ones are best suited to your own viewing needs.

Whether you want to completely cut the cable cord or just watch your favorite programming outside the traditional network schedules, streaming online video is the way to go. Subscribe to Netflix or Hulu and you have a world of entertainment options available, over the Internet.

Most people first got acquainted with streaming video via their computers, watching Netflix, Hulu, and other services in their web browsers. Watching movies and TV shows on a computer screen may be fine for some, but it’s hardly a theater-worthy viewing experience.

What you really want is to watch your streaming movies and TV shows on your big-screen living room TV. But short of connecting your computer to your television set (which you can do, although it’s a bit of a kludge), how do you watch Internet-based programming in your living room?

The solution comes in the form of a small set-top box called a streaming media player. These boxes – from Roku, Western Digital, Apple, and others – connect to your home Internet connection and to your living room TV or home theater system and enable you to watch content from Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and other streaming video services. For $100 or less, it’s the way to go.

Understanding Streaming Media Players

Streaming media player. Digital set-top box. Home media player. Network media player.

These are all names for a certain type of black box you use to stream audio and video over the Internet (and your home network) to your living room or bedroom TV. Whatever the name, these devices all let you stream content from Netflix, Hulu, and other streaming video services – as well as watch and listen to your own movies, music, and photos stored on any computer on your home network.

The concept is simple. The streaming media box (or whatever you want to call it) sits in your living room, next to your existing audio and video equipment. It connects to your A/V receiver or flat-screen TV, typically via HDMI. It also connects to your home network, either wirelessly (via W-iFi) or via Ethernet cable. Using your home network, the media player connects to a variety of streaming video and streaming music services over the Internet, so that you can watch and listen to your favorite programming on your TV set. Most of these media player boxes also grab videos, music, and photos stored on any PC connected to your home network, so you can play your own media in your living room or bedroom (or any room in your house, for that matter).

Most of these streaming media players are smallish boxes, smaller than a PC or even a DVD player. They’re small because they can be; there’s not a lot inside, no hard disk or CD/DVD drive or the like. You have the expected A/V connections on the back and maybe a USB connector (to play media on USB memory drives), but that’s it. All the functions are accessed via remote control, which is typically included in the price of the unit. You sit across the room in your comfy chair or couch and press the appropriate buttons to browse through and play your favorite programming.

The advantage of one of these boxes over a full-featured PC is simplicity. These devices are designed to play back movies, music, and other digital media, and nothing else. As such they’re relatively simple to set up and use, less prone to crashing and freezing, and much less expensive than a personal computer. They’re also easier to connect, typically via a single HDMI cable.

As to price, these streaming media players are fairly affordable. Basic units start at $49 or so, and most units come in at $100 or less.

Choosing a Streaming Media Player

There are lots of streaming media players available today, and they all do a pretty good job at streaming audio and video over the Internet. Yes, you’ll find units with different sets of connections, different graphical displays, different remote controls, and (of course) different prices. Some units come from consumer electronics manufacturers, some from computer manufacturers, some from networking companies. And, of course, some of these units are simply better at what they do than others.

When all is said and done however, choosing a home media player is as simple as comparing the specs and the functionality and the prices, finding the one that does what you need it to do the way you want it to. Which specs should you pay attention to? Here’s what I think you should consider:

  • Services available. All streaming media players come with access to different streaming video and music services baked into their interfaces, in the form of buttons or apps or gadgets. You want to make sure that the streaming box you choose can access the streaming services you use. Put another way, if you’re a fan of Hulu, you want to make sure that your streaming media box can connect to the Hulu service.
  • File compatibility. If you’re interested in also playing music and movies you have stored on your personal computer, you want your streaming media player to be able to play your particular media. That means if you have an Apple-focused library, you need a media player that plays back AAC and H.264 files. If you have a Windows-focused library, you need a media player that plays back WMA and WMV files. Not all streaming media players can play all formats, so peruse the specs to find out for sure.
  • Connections. Most media player boxes have an HDMI output, which may be all you need; just connect an HDMI cable between your media player’s output and the input on your A/V receiver or flat-screen television. However, if you need additional types of outputs, do your homework to determine which media players meet your criteria.
  • Graphical interface. Every digital media player has an onscreen user interface of some sort, but there are significant differences in what and how things are displayed. If you have the opportunity, play around with the interface a bit to see if you like it. If you’re shopping online, search for screenshot images from the media players you’re considering. You have to deal with the interface every day, so make sure you get one that does what you need it to do in a way you’re comfortable with.
  • Wi-Fi. Your media player has to connect to your home network. Some do this wirelessly, via Wi-Fi; others connect in a wired fashion using Ethernet. Naturally, Wi-Fi is easier to connect, since you don’t have to run any wires. But not all media players have built-in Wi-Fi; you may have to purchase some sort of Wi-Fi adapter to go that route. Most media players have an Ethernet connection, however, and Ethernet is not only faster but more reliable than Wi-Fi, especially when streaming video. Of course, you may not be able to run an Ethernet cable from your main PC or network server to your streaming media player, in which case Wi-Fi makes more sense. Figure out how you want or need to connect, then make sure your media player accommodates your wishes.
  • Price. Finally, there’s the money. Can you make do with a unit in the $50 range, or are you committed to a higher priced (and, presumably, higher performance) device? If you have to stay within a budget, make every dollar of that budget count.

These features (and more) are compared in the following table; I’ve arranged the units in order of price. Out of all the available units, there should be at least one that meets your personal requirements.

Unit

List Price

Streaming Video Services

Max Resolution

Outputs

Network Connection

Other Features

Netgear NeoTV

$49

ACM, Bamm.tv, Break.com, CBS News, CinemaNow, ESPN, FashionTV, Hulu Plus, Netflix, Vudu, YouTube, YuppTV

1080p

HDMI

Wi-Fi, Ethernet

 

Roku LT

$49

Amazon Instant Video, Blockbuster on Demand, Crackle, Epix, Flixter, HBO GO, Hulu Plus, Netflix, NBA Game Time, OVGuide, Popcornflix, SnagFilms, Vevo, Vudu

720p

HDMI, composite video, R/L analog audio

Wi-Fi

 

Netgear NeoTV PRO

$59

ACM, Bamm.tv, Break.com, CBS News, CinemaNow, ESPN, FashionTV, Hulu Plus, Netflix, Vudu, YouTube, YuppTV

1080p

HDMI

Wi-Fi, Ethernet

WiDi

Roku HD

$59

Amazon Instant Video, Blockbuster on Demand, Crackle, Epix, Flixter, HBO GO, Hulu Plus, Netflix, NBA Game Time, OVGuide, Popcornflix, SnagFilms, Vevo, Vudu

720p

HDMI, composite video, R/L analog audio

Wi-Fi

Instant Replay on remote control

Netgear NeoTV MAX

$69

ACM, Bamm.tv, Break.com, CBS News, CinemaNow, ESPN, FashionTV, Hulu Plus, Netflix, Vudu, YouTube, YuppTV

1080p

HDMI

Wi-Fi, Ethernet

DLNA, WiDi

Western Digital WD TV Play

$69

AOL HD, CinemaNow, Comedy Time, Dailymotion, Flixter, Hulu Plus, Launchpad by Flingo, MLB.TV, Netflix, Red Bull TV, SEC Digital Network, Skitter TV, SnagFilms, Vimeo, Vudu, WatchMojo, XOS College Sports, YouTube, YuppTV

1080p

HDMI, composite video, optical digital audio, RCA R/L analog audio

Wi-Fi, Ethernet

DLNA

Roku 2 HD

$79

Amazon Instant Video, Blockbuster on Demand, Crackle, Epix, Flixter, HBO GO, Hulu Plus, Netflix, NBA Game Time, OVGuide, Popcornflix, SnagFilms, Vevo, Vudu

1080p

HDMI, composite video, R/L analog audio

Wi-Fi

 

Apple TV

$99

Hulu Plus, iTunes, MLB.TV, NBA Game Time, Netflix, NHL GameCenter LIVE, Vimeo, WSJ Live, YouTube

1080p

HDMI, optical digital audio

WiFi, Ethernet

AirPlay

Roku 3

$99

Amazon Instant Video, Blockbuster on Demand, Crackle, Epix, Flixter, HBO GO, Hulu Plus, Netflix, NBA Game Time, OVGuide, Popcornflix, SnagFilms, Vevo, Vudu

1080p

HDMI

Wi-Fi, Ethernet

Motion control for games, remote with headphone jack

VIZIO Co-Star Stream Player

$99

Amazon Instant Video, Google Play, M-GO, Netflix, OnLive, Vudu, YouTube

1080p

HDMI

Wi-Fi, Ethernet

Google TV,DLNA, live TV, PrimeTime guide

Western Digital WD TV Live

$99

AOL HD, CinemaNow, Comedy Time, Dailymotion, Flixter, Hulu Plus, Launchpad by Flingo, MLB.TV, Netflix, Red Bull TV, SEC Digital Network, Skitter TV, SnagFilms, Vimeo, Vudu, WatchMojo, XOS College Sports, YouTube, YuppTV

1080p

HDMI, composite video, optical digital audio, RCA R/L analog audio

WiFi, Ethernet

DLNA

Netgear NeoTV PRIME with Google TV

$129

Amazon Instant Video, Google Play, Netflix, YouTube

1080p

HDMI

Wi-Fi, Ethernet

Google TV,live TV, PrimeTime guide

Seagate FreeAgent GoFlex TV HD

$129

Netflix, YouTube

1080p

HDMI, component video, composite video, optical digital audio, RCA R/L analog audio

Ethernet

 

Sony Internet Player with Google TV

$199

Amazon Instant Video, Crackle, Drive-In Classics, Netflix, Pop Flix, YouTube

1080p

HDMI, optical digital audio

Wi-Fi, Ethernet

Google TV,live TV, PrimeTime guide

Western Digital WD TV Live Hub

$199

AOL HD, CinemaNow, Comedy Time, Dailymotion, Flixter, Hulu Plus, Launchpad by Flingo, MLB.TV, Netflix, Red Bull TV, SEC Digital Network, Skitter TV, SnagFilms, Vimeo, Vudu, WatchMojo, XOS College Sports, YouTube, YuppTV

1080p

HDMI, component video, composite video, optical digital audio, RCA R/L analog audio

Wi-Fi, Ethernet

1 TB hard drive, DLNA

D-Link Boxee Box

$229

Crackle, MLB.TV, NBA Game Time, Netflix, NHL GameCenter LIVE, Vevo, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube, WSJ Live, YouTube

1080p

HDMI, optical digital audio, RCA R/L analog audio

WiFi, Ethernet

 

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