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Apple TV

If you have an iPhone or iPad, Apple TV may be the best streaming media player for you. It’s a mid-priced player, priced at $99, has a great user interface, and works exceedingly well with other Apple products, such as the iPhone and Mac computers.

Connection is via HDMI, although you also have a single optical digital audio output, if you prefer that. It includes built-in Wi-Fi, as well as an Ethernet connection.

Figure 1 Apple's incredibly small Apple TV box

Apple TV includes access to most of the major streaming video services, including Netflix, Hulu Plus, and major-league baseball (MLB.TV), basketball (NBA Game Time), and hockey (NHL GameCenter LIVE) networks. It’s also a very good front end to the iTunes Store, so you can rent or purchase newer movies and TV shows and then stream them directly to the Apple TV box.

Where Apple TV really shines is streaming your own movies and music from a networked computer (Mac or Windows) or, via Apple AirPlay, from your iPhone or iPad. You can also stream your cloud-based music via iTunes Match and iCloud.

You control the Apple TV unit with the included seven-button remote, or you can install Apple’s Remote app on your iPhone, iPad, or iPad Touch and control things from there.

Bottom line, if you’re heavy into the Apple ecosystem, Apple TV is a good choice for a streaming media player. At $99 it’s not the cheapest unit out there, but you do have that strong connection to your iPhone or iPad – and that’s worth something.

D-Link Boxee Box

And now for something completely different: D-Link’s Boxee Box. As you can see, this puppy has a distinctive form factor – it literally looks like a box, albeit one sat on its corner and pushed into a tabletop.

Figure 2 D-Link's unique-looking Boxee Box

Looks are nice, but in this instance you pay for them; the Boxee Box sells for $229.

For this price you get access to most of the major streaming video services, including Netflix, Crackle, Vimeo, and Vudu. There’s no Hulu access at the present, however, so that’s a big minus. You do get the requisite MLB, NBA, and NHL apps, however.

The Boxee Box is a very good network streamer, for all the videos and music you have stored elsewhere on your home network. Unlike most other streaming boxes, it supports the full range of audio file formats, including AAC, WMA, MP3, FLAC, and OGG. I also like the unit’s remote control, which does double duty as a standard remote and, when you turn it sideways and flip it over, a mini keyboard.

Still, at the price you could purchase several other competing units and install them all throughout your house – or just buy one and pocket the difference. Given the considerably lower-priced competition, it’s hard to recommend this one if all you’re interested in is streaming video.

Netgear NeoTV Family

Netgear offers a whole family of streaming media players, all dubbed NeoTV. There should be something in the NeoTV family that fits your particular needs.

The basic NeoTV, NeoTV PRO, and NeoTV MAX units all feature access to a fairly broad selection of streaming video services. You get Netflix and Hulu Plus, of course, along with a bunch of other services. All of the units connect via HDMI and feature both Wi-fi and Ethernet connections.

What distinguishes one unit from another? Here’s how it shakes out:

  • NeoTV (basic), $49. 1080p HD video, Wi-Fi and Ethernet connectivity.
  • NeoTV PRO, $59. Adds faster Wi-Fi (300 Mbps) and Intel WiDi technology that lets you wirelessly display your laptop PC’s screen on your TV.
  • NeoTV MAX, $69. Adds the ability to stream movies, music, and photos from a networked PC via DLNA technology. Also lets you play media from a USB drive and includes a remote control with integrated QWERTY keyboard.

Figure 3 Netgear's NeoTV PRO

For most folks, the basic NeoTV unit will work fine, although spending $10 more for the PRO unit will give you a faster and more stable connection. If you want to play media stored on your home network, splurge another $10 for the MAX unit.

Then there’s NeoTV PRIME, which is a whole other thing completely. The PRIME unit ditches the traditional NeoTV interface for Google TV technology. Google TV lets you connect the NeoTV box to your cable or satellite box to integrate live TV into the online streaming options. You get an onscreen guide (dubbed PrimeTime) that combines live and online offerings, and a funky remote control that lets you navigate the guide and the web. (Google TV includes access to Google and other websites.) To date Google TV hasn’t been a huge hit; in fact, most critics dismiss it as overly confusing and with a lot of unnecessary options. You certainly pay a bit more for it, as Netgear’s NeoTV PRIME box is twice as expensive as its other offerings, at $129. Plus you don’t have access to as many online channels as you do with Netgear’s other units. For all these reasons, it’s hard to recommend this or any other box based on Google TV – unless you’re really into the integration of live and online TV.

Figure 4 The NeoTV PRIME box and its unique Google TV remote control

Roku Family

The best-selling streaming media players on the market today come from Roku. To date, Roku has sold more than 5 million streaming boxes; no other manufacturer comes close.

Why is Roku so successful? Part of it is the wide variety of streaming services available, including Netflix, Hulu Plus, Blockbuster on Demand, Vevo, and Vudu. Roku is also one of the few boxes to support the Amazon Instant Video service, which is becoming increasingly popular.

Another reason for Roku’s success is its expandability. If a particular service isn’t available today, just wait a bit and some third party will come up with a new “channel” for that service. That makes the Roku ecosystem a continually expanding one, which is a good thing.

Roku currently offers four different boxes at four different price points. Here’s what’s available:

  • Roku LT, $49. Basic performance (720p), Wi-Fi connectivity, HDMI and composite video connections.
  • Roku HD, $59. Adds instant replay on the remote control.
  • Roku 2 XD, $79. Adds full 1080p HD playback.
  • Roku 3, $99. Adds Ethernet connectivity, a remote control with headphone jack (great for private listening), and motion control for game playing (Angry Birds Space included).

For most users, the basic LT unit does the trick, although popping another $20 for full 1080p high definition video might be worth the expense.

Figure 5 The affordable Roku LT player and accompanying remote control

By the way, one of the chief beefs about Roku boxes in the past has been the inability to play media stored locally, on your home network. While network playback still isn’t included with the default box, several third-party channels (such as Gabby, roConnect, and Roksbox) offer network media access. Just subscribe to one of these channels and then use that channel to access your locally stored movies, music, and photos.

With that caveat, there’s little not to like about Roku’s streaming media boxes. There’s a reason Roku is number-one – you get access to the largest number of streaming video (and music) services through an easy-to-use and expandable interface, at an affordable price.

Seagate FreeAgent GoFlex TV HD Media Player

Seagate is a hard drive manufacturer that’s moved into the streaming media player market. The company’s FreeAgent GoFlex TV HD Media Player (their marketing folks need to learn how to be a bit more concise) is a $129 unit that does pretty much everything its lower-priced competitors do.

Figure 6 Seagate's FreeAgent GoFlex TV HD Media Player

The FreeAgent GoFlex etc. etc. is a compact box that comes with its own remote, or can be controlled via an iPhone app. You only get access to Netflix and YouTube, which is a pretty paltry streaming video offering. Of course, it does offer photo viewing and music playback across your home network, but that’s no big deal these days. Given the (high) price and the (low) number of video services offered, you can do better. Much better.

Sony Internet Player with Google TV

Sony is another company that’s jumped on the Google TV bandwagon, with its imaginatively named Sony Internet Player with Google TV. This is a high-priced unit that tries to justify the price with the live/online TV integration that is part and parcel of Google TV. You get access to Netflix and Amazon Instant Video, but not Hulu, which is a strange omission. But none of that really justifies the $199 price, so this player is probably a non-contender out of the gate.

Figure 7 The Sony Internet Player with Google TV – and unique QWERTY remote control

VIZIO Co-Star Stream Player

VIZIO is a new player in the streaming media player market, with its Co-Star Stream Player. It’s another Google TV player, but a lower-priced one, at just $99. In addition to Google TV’s online/live TV integration, you get access to Netflix and Amazon Instant Video – but not Hulu. If you really have a jones for the Google TV thing, this is the unit to check out, especially given its relatively affordable price.

Figure 8 VIZIO's Co-Star Stream Player and Google TV remote control

Western Digital WD TV Family

Western Digital is another hard drive manufacturer that’s moved into the streaming media player market. Unlike Seagate, however, Western Digital gets it right with its three-unit family of WD TV boxes.

All of the WD TV boxes feature access to a fairly broad variety of streaming video services, including Netflix, Hulu Plus, CinemaNow, Flixter, SnagFilms, Vudu, and the big sports channels. Only Roku has a bigger selection of programming, and not by much. Equally important, the WD TV live boxes do a better job than do the Roku boxes in playing local content from PCs connected to your home network. It’s a winning combination.

Figure 9 The WD TV Play streaming media box

As to the three boxes, here’s what you get:

  • WD TV Play, $69. This is WD’s newest, lowest-priced unit, with 1080p playback, Wi-Fi and Ethernet connectivity, and both HDMI and composite video connectors.
  • WD TV Live, $99. Adds the ability to play back MPEG-2 videos and DTS audio.
  • WD TV Live Hub, $195. Adds a 1TB hard drive to store your own media files; this lets the Live Hub unit function as a media server for your home network. (There’s also a $260 unit with a 2TB hard drive.)

For most users, the new WD TV  Play unit is the one to get; the additional features on the WD TV Live unit don’t really matter that much.

What’s the Best Streaming Media Box?

When it comes to choosing a streaming media box, it’s hard not to recommend one of the Roku boxes. At $79, the Roku 2 XD gives you full 1080p HD playback and access to just about every streaming video service available. What’s not to like?

I also really like the WD TV Play. You get access to almost as many streaming video services, full 1080p playback, and more connection options (including built-in Ethernet), all for $10 less than the Roku 2 XD.

Similarly, the NeoTV MAX has some appeal. You get a pretty good selection of streaming video sources, 1080p playback, and playback of local media from your home network. You can also play videos (or anything else) from your notebook PC on your TV screen, and you get a nifty little remote with built-in keyboard, for the same price as the WD TV Play.

Finally, if you’re an Apple fanatic, splurge on the $99 Apple TV box. You don’t get quite as many streaming video sources, but you do get almost-perfect integration with all your iTunes media stored on your iPhone or iPad. That may be particularly appealing for serious music lovers who want to use this box for both movies and music. (And photos, too!)

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