Media Streamers Step Up

So much media, so many ways to watch it on your HDTV. That's the quick take on the media-streaming landscape following a year of explosive growth in the number of set-top boxes, a term that has come to mean pretty much any device that connects, and somehow delivers, video, music, and still images to your set. New, high-profile streamers from Apple, Boxee, Logitech (running Google TV), and Roku put the category front and center.

Where is all this media coming from? The sources are continually expanding, and vary depending upon which box you buy. It could be from a free or commercial Internet service (such as Amazon, Apple TV, Netflix, Vudu, YouTube, Vimeo, or any network TV site), or it could be stored on a drive, either connected directly to the box (via a USB port or an internal hard drive) or shared over your local area network via either a wired or wireless connection. And then there are all the TV shows and movies you've recorded with a digital video recorder.

The set-top boxes we've seen can deliver media from at least some of the above sources, but at this writing none of them can do it all--either because that's how they were designed, or because Hollywood won't let them.

While Apple TV in its current iteration supports the popular Netflix on-demand service, it's still optimized for media rented or purchased on iTunes. The current iteration of Apple TV lacks a hard drive, so you have to stream purchased media from a computer, iPod or iPad. Of the media streamers we looked at, the most versatile and capable were the Logitech Revue with Google TV and the Boxee Box by D-Link--but some network sites are preventing them from showing their video content, and early glitches keep these from being knock-out successes.

Roku's products are great for streaming media from literally dozens of sites and services--but they don't support streaming from your PC or networked drive. A whole group of boxes from little-known vendors (Cirago and Uebo, for example) do support streaming of locally stored media, but lack built-in software for Netflix or other commercial services. Because these boxes typically support DLNA servers, some rely on Media Mall's Play-on software running on a networked PC (which essentially creates a DLNA server) to access Netflix and the like.

But this is basically a workaround that adds network hops, whereby the media has to stream from the Internet to a PC, and then to the box, as opposed to streaming straight to the box; this approach makes the music or video much more prone to stuttering or freezing because of interference.

Other variables apply, too. Most media streamers support 720p HDTV, either through an HDMI or a component video hookup. Not all, however, can deliver 1080p content, a capability that typically ups the price of the streamer. Some have built-in storage of their own, allowing them to double as media servers; but USB ports for attaching drives that you provide are more common.

Some connect to your network via ethernet; others also have built-in Wi-Fi support, although at this writing that support is mostly for 802.11n on the 2.4GHz band. Because most notebooks and other devices also use the 2.4GHz band, interference can compromise smooth playback of video, causing stuttering or even stopping a video while the software waits for more input to arrive. Of the streamers we looked at, only Roku's high-end version supports streaming by Wi-Fi over the less-crowded 5GHz band.

In general, we recommend looking into wired network options--such as HomePlug AV powerline or the newer MOCA (Multimedia over Coax Alliance) products that use your home's cable TV wiring--for hooking up media streamers, as they generally are more reliable, especially for video.

However, the diversity of the boxes means that your very first consideration in shopping for one should be what media sources you want it to stream--and whether your other entertainment center components, such as your HDTV, console game, or Blu-ray player, is already capable of delivering them. Many newer models of these devices support Internet services, and there's little point in shelling out money for a box that duplicates what you already have.

Pricing is all over the map. While some Roku models go for under $100, prices generally fall in the $100 to $200 range, depending on features; the $300 Logitech Revue is the priciest of the group, but it comes with a full-blown keyboard and Web browser.

See our Top 5 Media Streamers chart and check our reviews carefully, especially if you're willing to be an early adopter. While these products show great promise in letting you enjoy media on your TV, the gold rush mentality of vendors means that many are arriving with what we would consider beta software that will require firmware updates. As consumer electronics go, they can be geeky. But they are rapidly opening up a whole new frontier in home entertainment that may make them well worth the trouble.

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