A few of you know my policy on cable: it’s expensive and I don’t want it. In part, it’s a generational thing — a 2009 Pew Research Group survey found that the Millennial generation (those between 18-29) reported that they used the Internet almost as much as television for news and information. At the same time, more content is going to the web and a wave of media streaming boxes and other devices are coming to the market to give your television access to all favorite shows without cable.
Media Streaming Boxes You Say?
There are a plethora of devices that can stream either Internet based content (e.g. Netflix) or local content (e.g. your home movies) to your television. One problem in the tech world now is that no one’s come up with a snazzy name for what these devices should be called. The world of streaming to your television is schizophrenic to say the least: set-top boxes, streaming players, media-streaming devices or simply a Netflix device — don’t let the names confuse you they all more or less do the same thing.
If the device names weren’t confusing enough manufacturers like Sony and Samsung are integrating streaming capabilities in with their T.V.s and and blu-ray players. Meaning that for just a little more money you could buy a television or other device that is WiFi connected.
What Services Are Supported
I knew I wanted a media streaming box that that pulled a wide variety of content from the Internet and from my own personal media collection. For example, I’ll likely want to be able to watch my services like HBOGo and Netflix, but also be able watch movies I own that I’ve ripped from my DVD and blu-ray collection.
I’m one of those folks that’s always impressed by Apple’s next big thing; if they made an iPlunger I’d probably buy it. Apple TV is Cupertino’s solution to streaming media to your television. Apple TV is heavily integrated into the Apple ecosystem and can play music and video from local computers with iTunes installed. The most recent update to Apple TV brings AirPlay Mirroring, basically you can beam whatever’s on your iPhone or iPad directly to your TV screen — whether that be a movie, photos, video or even games.
Apple TV supports the standard fare of web content including Netflix, HuluPlus and YouTube and a handful of different professional sports networks (most of which will require a subscription). As you might expect, using an Apple TV is just like any other Apple product — smooth, simple and to the point. If you’re already using a Mac, iPhone or iPad an Apple TV makes perfect sense for your home.
However, if you’re not into iTunes and want a more robust set of options for digital content the Apple TV may not be your best bet. You can pick up an Apple TV for only $100.00 (not terribly expensive). It comes with HDMI support and a remote control.
What’s To Love: Beautiful Interface, Easy To Use
What’s To Hate: Not As Many Content Options
Roku has quickly become a tech favorite because it’s 1. Cheap and 2. Works with a variety of Internet-only media providers. Roku offers several different models of their tiny media streaming box with the cheapest one starting at just $49. The cheapest model means you won’t get access to 1080p quality resolution, so it’s worth it to upgrade to the Roku 2, which is a little more expensive at around $80.00.
Regardless of which model you choose, Roku has support for Netflix, HBOGo, Crackle, HuluPlus and Amazon Instant Video. In other words, Roku has support for pretty much every Internet content source around. The only catch is that Roku doesn’t (natively) support streaming your own videos and movies to your television (music is supported). Now, there’s supposedly a round about way you can do this with Roku using another service called Plex. Plex requires a little set up, and since it’s not directly supported by Roku there’s no guarantee that it will work correctly.
What’s To Love: Price, Simplicity
What’s To Hate: No Steaming Option For Your Media (At least not an easy one)
Price: $50-$100 (Depending On The Model)
Wii, Playstation 3 or XBox 360
Believe it or not, most gaming devices make pretty good media streaming boxes for the basics like Netflix and Pandora. So, if you already have one of these devices it may save you from purchasing something else. Again, all three of these devices will do Netflix, and both the XBox 360 and Playstation 3 have support for media streaming for networked computers and other devices, as well as, HDMI support for your HDTV. The Wii however only supports standard definition and does not have the ability to stream movies or music from other devices.
If you’re strictly in the market for a media streaming device then I’d suggest going with some thing more like a Roku or an Apple TV. While you can get a remote for these devices they’ll always feel like game consoles with the streaming capabilities.
What’s To Love: Can Do Double Duty with Games and Media Streaming
What’s To Hate: Expensive, May Not Always Work Well As An Independent Device
Blu-Ray Player With Wifi
Blu-ray is everywhere now and has become the de facto standard for all your favorite HD content. Lately, however, manufacturers have been packing in WiFi and streaming services into their Blu-Ray players, making a powerful media devices capable of playing pretty much anything.
There are too many options to list for WiFi enabled Blu-Ray players but some good picks include the Sony BDP-S590 (pictured above) and LG BP620. Both scored high with CNET testers and are both under $150 dollars. These are great options for anyone that wants to stream digital content to their television and doesn’t have a Blu-Ray player already.
The only drawback with purchasing one of these is that you’re likely to be limited one or two software updates that are probably more about bug fixes than adding new features. With an Apple TV or a Roku you’ve got a better chance of some new web channel coming out and the platform eventually supporting it, which won’t typically be the case with proprietary options like Blu-Ray players.
What’s To Love: Easy Two-In-One Solution If You Need A Blu-Ray Player
What’s To Hate: Not Always Update To Date, Experience Varies From Device To Device
WD TV Live
WD TV Live is Western Digital’s attempt at a set top streaming device and, while a bit of an outlier, has made an impact on those looking to upgrade their television experience. WD TV Live handles all the basics like Netflix and Hulu, but can also directly pull media from a connected hard drive (not much a surprise consider that Western Digital is a hard drive company). WD Live can also display pictures and video directly from devices with a USB cord sans a computer.
WD TV Live is popular with folks that have a lot media they want to stream and support practically every file format in existence. The interface is both prettier and a little more intuitive than Roku (but maybe not quite as nice as an Apple TV. WD TV Lives come with a host of different inputs (including two USB inputs) and supports 1080p via an HDMI cable.
What’s To Love: Great For Streaming Your Own Media, Good Support For Online Services
What’s To Hate: Complains About Speed, And Occasional Software Bugs
Price: Less than $100
So, Which One Is The Best?
All of them. They’re all the best. No, I’m just kidding that’s pretty much not true. It really depends on how much media you plan to watch on the Internet and how much you have stored locally (or if that matters all). Most folks will be find going with a Roku or just using their Wii, which is more akin to a Netflix box that does one or two extras. Folks more interested in streaming their own content would be better with an Apple TV or a WD TV Live.
I’ll probably end up going with a Roku, because while it has practically no support for local media it’s fantastic at bringing in digital media from across the web. Plus, it’s incredibly cheap compared to other media boxes on the market now.