Cut the cord: 13 set-top media streamers

  • (Computerworld (US))
  • 21 December, 2012 17:46

Watching "whatever's on" TV -- or shelling out for cable so you can see a particular show -- is so last decade. With an ever-expanding array of movies, TV shows and other video content available online, more and more TV watchers are opting to connect their TVs to the Internet, either to supplement their cable or satellite package -- or to replace it entirely.

According to market analysis firm Informa, the number of Internet-connected TV devices worldwide could grow more than fourfold in the next few years, from 375 million in 2011 to as many as 1.8 billion by 2016.

There are many different ways to connect your television to the Internet, including buying a new Smart TV that can directly connect with online entertainment. If you're not in the market for a new set, the possibilities include a PC, a connected Blu-ray player, a modern gaming console or a set-top box. It can cost anything from zero (if you happen to have an old PC hanging around) to several hundred dollars to "Webonize" your TV.

For many, the easiest and most cost-effective choice will be getting a streaming set-top box, often for $100 or less, and plugging it into an existing TV. Most of these boxes are small and easy to set up, but there's a bewildering array of options out there, each with its own pros and cons. Some connect to the Web only via Wi-Fi, while others have a wired Ethernet port as well. Some support 720p HD content and others support full 1080p HD.

All can stream online videos and music, but only some integrate live TV. Several of these streamers offer Web browsing and gaming, and they all let you watch certain shows and movies online when you want to, not when a cable or network broadcaster wants you to.

Besides the box that connects the TV to the Web, they all include an infrared remote control for selecting what to watch, pausing, rewinding and the like. Some add a mini-keyboard on the back of the remote or allow you to use your smartphone to take command of the TV.

All the major players deliver popular online entertainment sources (called apps or channels, depending on the streaming device) such as Netflix, Hulu Plus, YouTube or Pandora; the exact programming sources vary from device to device. Some add more offbeat choices such as Vudu or Dailymotion, services like MLB.tv that cater to specific sports, and even social media sources like Facebook.

(Cheapskates beware: Although there's a wide world of free programming out there, many online programming sources cost extra, and prices vary wildly. Online subscriptions to Netflix or Hulu Plus, for instance, cost a reasonable $8 a month each, but HBO Go, which allows you to watch anything the network broadcasts, can only be had with a traditional cable TV subscription.)

To help you decide which streamer is right for you, we've rounded up 13 current set-top boxes from seven vendors, highlighting the features, capabilities, extras and gotchas of each. Our table of features shows you at a glance how each device connects, what kind of storage it has, which online services it can receive and more.

One thing is certain: With one of these systems in your living room, there'll always be something to watch.

Apple TV

Price: $99

Apple's third-generation Apple TV integrates well with the iTunes entertainment ecosystem; you can watch a variety of movies and TV episodes at up to 1920 x 1080 resolution, listen to music or even look at your family photos.

The system is a simple, spare box with rounded corners. Less than an inch thick with a 3.9-x-3.9-in. footprint, it can easily be hidden near or behind the TV set.

The small silver and black remote control is similarly minimalist and has neither dedicated buttons for popular programming sources nor a keyboard. You can use an iOS app to turn your iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch into a more sophisticated remote control.

How it connects: The system has 802.11n Wi-Fi as well as wired Ethernet networking. It connects to a TV through an HDMI port on the back, and there's an SPDIF optical audio port for use with a set of external speakers. (Neither cable is included, though.) On the downside, it lacks a composite video port for older televisions.

What you can watch: While it can't browse the Web, deliver local TV stations or integrate cable TV, Apple TV does offer a nice assortment of subscription-based online programming, from Netflix and Hulu Plus to live sports via MLB.tv, NBA.com and NHL GameCenter. Much of the content, however, needs to be purchased individually from the iTunes store at roughly $2 for a TV show or $4 for a movie. Unfortunately, there's no unlimited monthly or annual subscription plan.

Apple TV can also wirelessly stream photos, videos and music from a laptop or desktop computer (Mac or Windows) onto your TV, as well as access content you've stored on Apple's iCloud service. And the company's AirPlay feature lets you stream anything from an iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch to the Apple TV box and onto a television set.

(If you're into rumors, there are several circulating about Apple integrating the Apple TV interface and functionality into an actual television set for a one-stop digital entertainment center. But by most accounts, that's a long way off.)

Who it's best for: Apple TV is a smart pick if you already have an iDevice or own a lot of iTunes content. It's not, however, for anyone who has an older TV that requires composite video input -- or who hates buying shows one at a time.

Boxee TV and Boxee Box

Price: $99 for Boxee TV (plus $10/mo. for cloud DVR storage), about $180 for Boxee Box (TV tuner $50 extra)

The two streamers in D-Link's Boxee lineup do something many of the others can't: Pull in broadcast TV, from the 6 o'clock news to that late-night horror movie marathon. Having a TV tuner attached to the set-top box means you can watch digital TV broadcasts on a computer monitor or on a TV that doesn't have a digital tuner. And you don't have to switch out of the box's interface to watch live network TV.

Just released in November, the Boxee TV is typically sized for a set-top box at 6.7 x 3.8 x 1.6 in. The older Boxee Box is a larger 4.7-in. cube set at a rakish angle (see below); subtle it's not. Both can send 1920 x 1080 HD video to your TV.

The Boxee Box comes with a remote control that has a full QWERTY keyboard on the other side; the Boxee TV's remote lacks the keyboard but has a pair of dedicated buttons for popular online services. You can also connect an external keyboard to either box via USB.

Both devices can use the company's free iOS app that lets you control the device and type in passwords or the name of your favorite show. There's also a third-party Android app called Boxee Wifi Remote that works with the Boxee machines.

How they connect: Both Boxees use an HDMI connector (a cable is included with Boxee Box but not Boxee TV), and both offer the choice of using either 802.11n Wi-Fi or wired Ethernet to get online. Neither offers a composite video port for connecting to an old TV. The Boxee Box adds an audio-out optical connection for an external speaker set.

What you can watch: Both devices can display local TV stations and unencrypted cable TV, but they take different routes to do so. While the Boxee Box has an $50 add-on USB tuner, the Boxee TV has two tuners built in so you can watch a show on one channel and record another show at the same time.

Going a step further, Boxee TV lets you store recorded shows on Boxee's cloud servers for watching later from your TV, computer or mobile device. The optional service costs $10 a month (first three months free) and has no storage limitations; think of it as a bottomless DVR that never runs out of space. Note, however, that the service is currently available in only a handful of cities, and it works only with broadcast TV, not pay channels. You can sign up to be alerted when it rolls out to your neighborhood.

Either Boxee device can tap into online programming sources including Netflix, Hulu Plus, YouTube, Vimeo, Pandora and MLB.tv; most of these services are subscription- or fee-based.

Tired of watching online TV? Both models have a pair of USB ports so that you can attach a memory key or hard drive to play stored personal media. The Boxee Box adds an SD card slot for playing music, photos or that clip you just saved on your digital camcorder -- and it also includes a built-in Web browser.

While the Boxee TV system costs $99 wherever you buy it, it pays to shop around for the Boxee Box: It lists for $230 but can be found at many retailers for about $180.

Who they're best for: Like having local TV mixed with Web-based TV? The Boxee TV delivers both, and its ability to record and store an unlimited number of shows in the cloud is a big bonus -- if the service is available in your area. If you want local TV and Web surfing (but no DVR service), the Boxee Box with add-on TV tuner is a sound (albeit expensive) choice. (Note, however, that neither device works with older composite-input TVs.)

Netgear NeoTV / NeoTV Pro / NeoTV Max

Price: $50 for NeoTV, $60 for NeoTV Pro, $70 for NeoTV Max

With three inexpensive models to choose from, Netgear's NeoTV set-top boxes serve up 1920 x 1080 HD programming to your TV and provide freedom of choice for how you connect.

The NeoTV, NeoTV Pro and NeoTV Max all look the same and offer a range of features and services. At 3.6 x 3.6 x 1 in., they are among the smallest devices in this class.

The remote controls vary based on model. The NeoTV and NeoTV Pro systems include a basic infrared clicker that has six dedicated keys for popular programming. The high-end Max model has a more advanced remote that includes a full QWERTY keyboard with chiclet keys on the back, which makes entering passwords much easier than using an on-screen keyboard and arrows. You can also control all three NeoTVs from your smartphone or tablet via Android and iOS apps.

How they connect: All three connect to the Internet via 802.11n Wi-Fi or wired Ethernet, and they connect to your TV with an HDMI cable (not included). The Pro and Max models add an audio output port for driving external speakers, plus an AV-out port that can feed an older TV with composite audio and video signals.

What you can watch: While none of the NeoTV family integrates live cable or network TV, some of their online programming sources (some subscription- or fee-based, many free) include Netflix, Hulu Plus, YouTube, Pandora, Facebook and Cinema Now. The top-of-the-line NeoTV Max system also includes a microSD card slot and a USB port for playing back videos, photos and music from external devices.

Although the NeoTV software is based on the Opera browser, the systems don't include a browser for surfing to individual websites. The Pro and Max models do, however, have a trick up their sleeves: Using Intel's WiDi technology they can wirelessly mirror anything that's displayed on a WiDi-enabled laptop (including a browser) on a TV. It's easy to set up and transmits audio and video over the air for a range of about 30 feet.

Who they're best for: The NeoTV trio are for budget-minded users who crave online TV and movies, don't care about roaming around the Web from a TV, and don't mind switching interfaces to watch live TV. If you want to connect to an older TV or access content from a microSD card, USB drive or WiDi-enabled laptop, look to the top-of-the-line NeoTV Max model.

Roku LT / HD / 2 XD / 2 XS

Price: $50 for Roku LT, $60 for Roku HD, $80 for Roku 2 XD, $100 for Roku 2 XS

Roku's family of set-top boxes is the largest and most confusing of this roundup, ranging from the basic Roku LT and Roku HD models, which offer 1280-x-720-resolution video, through the Roku 2 XD and Roku 2 XS models, which can deliver full 1920 x 1080 resolution.

All four models have a compact 3.9-x-3.9-x-1-in. case. The LT model is purple and only sold online, while the black HD is widely available in brick-and-mortar stores as well; otherwise the two models are pretty much interchangeable. The 2 XD and 2XS add more features as the price goes up.

The LT, HD and 2 XD models come with the company's basic remote control that includes dedicated buttons for jumping to Netflix, Pandora and Crackle, while the 2 XS comes with Roku's motion-sensitive gaming remote. (The Bluetooth gaming remote is available as a separate purchase for $10, but only for the 2 XD model; the LT and HD don't support Bluetooth.)

All the boxes work with Roku's free Android or iOS app, which not only controls what you're watching on the TV, but lets you watch everything on the phone or tablet's display. It requires a Wi-Fi connection, though.

How they connect: Unfortunately, only the 2 XS model includes an Ethernet port; the others rely exclusively on 802.11n Wi-Fi to bring the Internet to the TV. All of the Roku boxes connect to TVs via either an HDMI port or a composite video connector for use with older TVs. (Cables are not included.)

What you can watch: None of the Roku systems provides a Web browser or integrates cable or local TV stations. But Roku's real strength is its vast array of online entertainment options, ranging from well-known sources like Netflix, Hulu Plus, Disney, HBO Go and MLB.tv to offbeat channels dedicated to independent films, comics, yoga, cooking videos, fishing, astrology and much, much more. While several of the big-name services are subscription- or fee-based, much of this decidedly mixed bag of content is available for free.

There are also numerous free and paid games to play, and the 2 XS model includes a copy of Angry Birds. The 2 XD and 2 XS also have two USB ports and a microSD card slot for accessing stored content.

Who they're best for: If you're looking for a basic set-top streamer that works with older TVs and offers few bells and whistles but a huge assortment of online entertainment possibilities, one of Roku's four set-top systems can deliver. To get full 1080p HD support and access stored content from a microSD card or USB drive, you'll want the 2 XD or 2 XS model, and for Ethernet connectivity you'll need the 2 XS.

Sony Internet Player with Google TV

Price: $150

Although its asking price has dropped from $200 to $150, Sony's Internet Player with Google TV (model NSZ-GS7) is still one of the most expensive streamers here, but it opens up a world of online content to your television.

Sony's second-generation online TV set-top box is based on the Google TV platform, which aims to roll up the entire universe of TV and online experiences into one ecosystem. Instead of connecting only to your TV, as most of the other set-top streamers do, the Sony Internet Player sits between your TV and one other device: your cable/satellite box, DVR or DVD player.

From a single interface you can watch live TV (network and pay channels), DVDs, shows stored on your DVR and online streaming content. You can also access Android apps and games from the Google Play Store, surf the Web with the Chrome browser and use Google search. As you'd expect from a device that sits at the center rather than the periphery of your entertainment system, Google TV boxes tend to be more complicated to set up than other streamers.

Able to deliver 1920 x 1080 HD programming, the Sony set-top box is an unwieldy 8.0 x 5.1 x 1.3 in., making it harder to hide than the other devices in the roundup.

While the Internet Player's remote control has four dedicated buttons for programming your favorite content providers, there's also a touchpad for moving around the screen. Flip it over and the remote has a full QWERTY keyboard with tiny keys that make it a snap to type in your password or the first few letters of what you want to watch. Sony also offers apps that let your Android or iOS device act like a smart remote control.

How it connects: Sony's streamer lets you connect your TV to the Internet via 802.11n Wi-Fi or an Ethernet cable (not included). The Internet Player has HDMI input and output connectors that can send signals to your TV and can also integrate a cable/satellite box or an external DVD/Blu-ray player. There's no composite connector for older TVs, but it can connect with a set of external speakers through its SPDIF optical audio port.

What you can watch: Although it doesn't include a TV tuner, the Sony set-top box pulls in local stations from your TV's tuner and pay channels from your cable or satellite provider. The online programming choices include a mixture of free and subscription-based Google TV options such as Netflix, Crackle, Pandora and oddballs like Flixster and Adult Swim. It is also the only box in our roundup that can display programming from Sony's Entertainment Network, which delivers music, movies and games for a fee.

Like Vizio's Co-Star, the Sony set-top box can download thousands of Android apps and games from the Google Play Store; Sony throws in three free movies to boot. And you can browse the Web with the built-in Chrome browser -- but note that several major networks block Google TV from streaming Web-based video.

Unlike any of the others here, the Sony Internet Player has the luxury of 8GB of internal storage for apps, games, home videos, photos or music. If that's not enough space, the system also has a pair of USB ports for connecting memory keys or hard drives for more storage capacity.

Who it's best for: Google fans who want to experience the company's full integration of live TV, streaming Internet TV, Web browsing and search, Google Play Store apps and more -- and who don't mind paying a premium and putting up with some complexity to do so -- may be interested in Sony's Internet Player. (Have an older TV that requires composite video input? You're out of luck.)

Vizio Co-Star

Price: $100

Vizio's $100 Co-Star set-top box gives your TV the Google TV treatment for a lot less than Sony's box. Like the Sony Internet Player, the Co-Star sits between your TV and a content-delivery device like your cable/satellite box, DVR or DVD player. It supports 1920 x 1080 HD as well as 3D content, and at 4.2 x 4.2 x 1.6 in., the midsize device won't dominate your living room.

The Co-Star's remote has dedicated buttons for three popular entertainment selections and a touchpad for navigating around the screen. Flip it over and you'll find a QWERTY keyboard with tiny keys for typing in everything from your password to the search term "Green Acres." The Co-Star's remote has a dedicated ".com" key to ease Web journeys and a four-way gaming control for when aliens attack.

There's also a Google TV Remote app for controlling the set-top box from your Android or iOS phone or tablet.

How it connects: The Co-Star can tap into your home's broadband via 802.11n Wi-Fi or wired Ethernet. It connects to the TV via HDMI and offers an HDMI-in port as well for integrating a cable/satellite box or DVD/Blu-ray player. (Cables not included.) There's no audio-out jack or composite connector.

What you can watch: Like the Sony Internet Player, the Co-Star integrates live TV with the Google TV platform's array of free and subscription-based online programming, including Netflix, Hulu Plus, HBO Go and Amazon's Instant Video service. It also provides access to the OnLive on-demand cloud gaming service as well as thousands of Android apps and games via the Google Play Store.

Want to see what's going on at CNN's or Computerworld's website? The Co-Star has a Chrome-based Web browser as well as Google search built in. It also has a USB port for connecting a hard drive or memory key for watching home movies, scrolling through photos or listening to music.

Who it's best for: If you want Google TV but don't want to shell out for Sony's Internet Player, Vizio's Co-Star does without extras like onboard storage, an optical audio port and a second USB port -- but it still rolls up live TV, online TV and Web browsing for $100. (It doesn't, however, work with older TVs that require composite video input.)

WD TV Live

Price: About $99 ($79 TV tuner also available)

Best known for its hard drives, Western Digital also has a TV set-top box that can deliver your favorite shows and movies. It lacks the ability to browse websites, but gives freedom of choice for how you get it online.

At 4.9 x 3.9 x 1.2 in., the TV Live box is small enough to be stashed just about anywhere, and it's available in versions for the U.S. (for NTSC TVs) or Europe (for PAL sets). Like most of the others, the set-top box delivers full 1920 x 1080 HD content to the TV set.

The system's remote control doesn't have a mini-keyboard, but one of the USB ports can be used for connecting a wired or wireless keyboard to the set-top box. If you like, you can use your smartphone or tablet as a remote control with Live TV by downloading the company's free Android or iOS app.

How it connects: TV Live can get you online via Wi-Fi or wired Ethernet, and it works with TVs old (with composite video connectors) and new (with HDMI; cable not included). A bonus is its audio-out connection that can drive a set of digital speakers using the SPDIF optical standard.

What you can watch: Although TV Live doesn't have a Web browser, it can tap into online programming sources like Netflix, Hulu Plus, Vudu, MLB.tv and YouTube, some free, some fee- or subscription-based. It can also deliver traditional broadcast TV or unencrypted cable TV with Hauppauge's add-on 950Q USB TV tuner. The tuner, which costs $75, lets you record shows to a USB drive attached to the TV Live box.

Speaking of which, the TV Live device has two USB slots for connecting a memory key, a hard drive or a video camcorder to show your home movies, family photos or digital music archive. You can also stream videos, music and photos from a Windows 8 PC to the box, but note that it doesn't support protected formats such as iTunes music and movies.

Who it's best for: Western Digital's TV Live is for those who want a small, unobtrusive device that offers online programs, live TV (with add-on tuner) and the ability to access content from external storage -- but not Web browsing.

Making a decision

No two people like the same exact mix of TV shows, music and movies -- or desire extras like Web browsing or live TV integration. To decide among set-top streamers, start by asking these questions:

Are there specific sources of online programming -- say, Pandora or Hulu Plus -- that you consider must-haves? Check out our features chart for listings of each streamer's content sources, and do your initial filtering based on that.

Do you have an older TV that requires a composite connector? You'll need to choose from the NeoTV Pro and Max, the four Roku boxes and the WD TV Live.

Do you like having a vast multitude of online entertainment choices, including a variety of offbeat content? One of the four Roku systems should be next to your TV.

Own a lot of iTunes content and/or have an iDevice? Prefer simple controls and streamlined options to a lot of bells and whistles? Apple TV is an excellent fit.

Want to watch local TV channels in the same interface as Internet TV? If you don't care about nosing around the Web, then Boxee TV or WD TV Live (with add-on TV tuner) will do the trick. If you want to use your TV as a Web browser without sacrificing local TV integration, Boxee Box with its add-on tuner fits your profile -- though it'll cost you.

Want to bring live cable/satellite TV, Google TV's online programming and everything the Web has to offer into one interface, and don't mind enduring some complexity to get there? Sony's Internet Player and Vizio's Co-Star bring it all together.

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