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Best Boxes for Streaming Internet Video (And More) to Your TV

Best Streaming Boxes
As a tech blogger, you know things are getting tricky when you can't even figure out what to call the devices you're writing about. Digital Media Streamers, or Media Extenders? Internet TV Adapters, or Digital Media Renderers? Thus, we witness just one example of the confusion surrounding all these newfangled, mostly black, little boxes that are intended to hook up to your TV and Internet, and bring the glory of streaming video to your living room. We aim to clean up that confusion, and even suggest which ones deserve a place in your home. (And, to make things easier, we'll just call these things Network Enabled Replay Devices, or NERD, until the industry comes up with something better.)

The concept of centralizing all your digital delights isn't new; companies have been struggling for more than a decade to make this convergence dream a reality. The general paradigm until now has been to slap a media-centric operating system onto a fully-functioning, shrunken PC that ultimately gets squeezed into your home theater setup. The fact that you likely don't own such a device speaks to their common failings. They were either clunky in design, missing critical features, unreliable, or required a degree in advanced computing to set up and use.

Recently, though, the stars have begun to align in ways that may just make that all-in-one dream a real possibility. With the rise of broadband penetration, high-speed wireless home networks, digital TVs, the all-but-total adoption of downloadable media over physical media, and the reluctant willingness of content providers to make their video content available online, it seems inevitable that some lucky manufacturer will design a device that rightly earns the title of King of All Media. (No offense, Howard.) Not to burst your bubble too quickly, but we still think that device has yet to be invented. Sorry. In the meantime, though, there are a few excellent options we'd still be happy to recommend. Before we get started talking about our picks, let's go over a few models we wouldn't recommend... or not to everyone, anyway.

Amid much fanfare, Google announced this summer that it would be licensing Google TV software (based on its phone operating system, Android) to manufacturers. To date, three Google TV devices have been released: a Logitech Revue, a line of Sony TVs and a Sony Blu-ray player. There's a lot to be admired about each of them, and they'll surely get more refined in the future. Still, we're confident in saying that, despite their burgeoning potential, none of these devices compares to the functionality and ease-of-use offered by other NERDs already on the market. Click here to read our full review to better understand our misgivings about the current crop of Google TV offerings.

For the same reasons, we also held off from reviewing the Boxee Box, which has had us holding our collective breaths since it was announced in January. We know it will certainly please savvy techies who know how to transcode, troubleshoot and debug, but, as of now, it simply isn't a solid option for most consumers.

Tech Note: The three boxes we do recommend, then, as viable options for getting Internet-based video onto your TV -- Apple TV, Roku XDS, and WD TV Live Hub -- approach the task from very different angles. To test them, we used 7Mbps DSL plugged into an 802.11n router (except the WD TV Live Hub -- see below), and we were completely stunned by the overall excellent quality of the video and audio, as well as the zippy loading speeds.

Certainly, streaming video won't rival popping in a Blu-ray, but we think even the prickliest curmudgeon would be satisfied by any of these NERDs. Here's our take on how well they perform individually, what benefits they offer (or not), and what consumer would enjoy them most.

Apple TV - $99

Apple TV
What we like:
The AppleTV is, for better and worse, a classic Apple product: slickly designed in terms of hardware and software, incredibly simple to set up and use, and largely biased to Apple's iTunes media ecosystem. Those first two points make the Apple TV unrivaled in the NERD world, and, if you're a Mac user in particular, the pairing with iTunes makes things ridiculously easy. The menu system is as intuitive as it gets, and is mirrored by Apple's remote control, which merely features a D-pad, a menu button and play/pause button.

Setup takes a few minutes; simply plug in an HDMI cable to your TV, switch its inputs, and then plug in the power cable. Once it boots up, select your Wi-Fi network, enter the password, and you're done. From here, renting movies or TV shows, and cruising through (or adding to) your Netflix streaming queue is a breeze. To access your iTunes catalog from a PC on your network, you'll go to iTunes on your PC, turn on Home sharing (in the advanced menu), and also photo sharing. From there, you can access all of your movies, TV shows, music, podcasts and photos under the "Computer" column (as long as your PC is turned on, of course). All of this works quickly and smoothly, and scooting around the menu system is remarkably simple. We especially loved Apple's inclusion of other iDevices. You can control your Apple TV with the free Remote app on your iPod, iPhone or iPad -- especially helpful when you're inputting text for log-ins or searching. (Plus, if your device is new enough, you can instantly push music, photos and movies to your TV via the new AirPlay software.)

What we don't like:
Some will gripe about the fact that you can't buy and download content directly from the box. (You can only rent; otherwise, you have to buy stuff on your PC through iTunes, and then stream it to the box). Some will complain that Apple TV only supports 720p video while the competition handles 1080p. Fair enough, but, in our experience, we found little room to complain about the Apple TV. Of course, there is the one persistent Apple complaint; other than a few admittedly useful sources like Netflix, Flickr or YouTube, you're out of luck if you want to access the Web's full stock of streaming video. For many people -- again, especially those who are content with the iTunes ecosystem -- this won't be an issue, but the rest of us would love to see Apple open up to a little competition the way it is starting to do with its App Store. (Another small issue is that, since the Apple TV only has optical/digital audio outputs, we had to run cables between our TV's analog outputs and our old-school home audio receiver. But, for those with modern digital systems, or who use their TV's built-in speakers, this is a non-issue.)

Best for:
A Mac user will be immensely pleased, but even PC owners who use iTunes for their media and want plug-and-play simplicity will be happy.

Roku XDS - $100

Roku XDS
What we like:
Roku's line of little black boxes have long been a favorite of the tech-savvy crowd (naturally, that includes us), and for good reason. They're blessedly simple to use, and offer more potential sources of Internet video than any other device of its ilk. The XDS, Roku's top-of-the-line model, streams 1080p video via Ethernet or built-in Wi-Fi (802.11n to be exact), and also has a USB port for a drive loaded with media. Roku's approach to getting video on your TV is somewhat like buying Apps for a smartphone; after turning on the machine, you simply browse the dozens of available "channels," and select the ones you want to install. Then, when you return to the main menu, you can select one of your channels, browse through its latest video or audio offerings, and click on whatever you want to see.

The XDS comes preloaded with a handful of popular channels, like Netflix, Pandora and Roku Newscaster (which features network TV news shows from NBC, CBS, CNN and others), but we also downloaded Vimeo, Chow (a free cooking channel), the incredible NASA channel (with live feeds from the International Space Station!), Hulu Plus... you get the idea. There's a lot here, including some must-have premium/pay channels, such as MLB TV and NHL. And we're confident that developers are chugging away to offer even more options for mainstream and niche viewers alike. While using a flash drive, we were pleased to find that the USB Media Browser channel automatically determined the file types on the drive, and then sorted them into labeled, on-screen folders (e.g., Music, Video, Photos). It allows for quick access, and looks a lot better than an unruly list of hundreds of random files -- a nice touch. And, lest we forget, the remote, while cheapish feeling, is straightforward and stripped-down. With a similarly smart on-screen user interface, the XDS is a breeze to set up, navigate and use. Within minutes, we were completely comfortable clicking around without a thought. (Dear engineers from other companies, please do this more).

What we don't like:

Without mincing words, the XDS is largely pretty great, and is capable of a lot. But we have a bit of a beef. Roku consistently claims that you don't need a computer to use its devices. That's at best disingenuous, and at worst a fib. Heck, even just to use a Roku requires going online on a PC and registering with an account first. Plus, for a large number of channels (and all the premium ones), you have to consult your PC in order to input an activation code on a specific website. It's certainly not a dealbreaker, since, if you have a Roku, then you clearly have Internet service, and almost assuredly a PC. Still, it's an example of the minor hurdles that Roku requires you to clear occasionally.

Our biggest stumble came when we plugged in a USB drive that held videos and photos, only to realize that, first, you have to go online and search for an independently distributed private channel that enables your Roku to access local storage. This is supposed to be remedied any day now via Roku, but it was a real head-scratcher for us. It took more than a few minutes of Googling to finally discover that Roku doesn't even offer a factory-set way to do this (despite the fact that this function is one of the XDS's big selling points). That also brings up the point that the XDS can only handle a very limited group of file types (mp4 and m4v/H.264 for video; jpg and png for photos; mp3, AAC and m4a for audio). Certainly, those are the most commonly used file types for each category, but anyone expecting to simply pop in a drive with a massive collection of torrented AVI files is in for a surprise.

Best for:
Aspiring cable-cutters. Those who want a basic, reliable way to access Amazon On Demand, Hulu Plus, Netflix, Pandora and similar Internet offerings without a fuss. Those who don't have a need or desire to stream content from a home PC.

Western Digital WD TV Live Hub - $200

Western Digital WD TV
What we like:
Western Digital has already built a respectable fan base with its TV Live line of NERDs, and the new Hub brandishes a host of new features as well as a good-looking revamp to the on-screen menu system (code-named Mochi, for you tech trivia buffs). Unlike the other models we tested, the Hub is meant to be an everything-for-everyone type of solution. Not only can you stream video from a handful of popular services like Netflix, Blockbuster and YouTube, but you can also load up its giant one-terabyte internal drive, pull media from USB drives connected directly to it, and even access content from shared folders on any computer on your home network. And, unlike the other models we tested, the Hub takes on a cornucopia of file types (second only to Boxee's extensive list, as far as we can tell). Talk about versatility! Setup is pretty straightforward for Internet sources, and, although we confess to occasional button-mashing when navigating the rather tricky remote (which is fully programmable), picking up the basic internal logic of the menu system doesn't take long. It's powerful, and, honestly, we're still discovering some of its capabilities. In the right hands, the Hub will be a dream come true.

What we don't like:

We like a lot about the Hub and its ambition, and think for a certain subset of home theater completists, it will happily fill that last digital gap in their entertainment setups. At times, though, the Hub also reminds us a lot of Windows Vista -- full of potential that sometimes just doesn't work so well. For starters, the unit doesn't come with Wi-Fi built-in, so it requires an ethernet connection or a USB dongle from another source. (And not all are supported, so check first.) For us, this necessitated jerry-rigging an Internet connection from a desktop's wireless-to-ethernet jack. (We don't normally expect to have to jerry-rig anything on a $200 device.) The Hub comes with no documentation other than a wiring diagram, so, when it came time to connect our network, it simply didn't happen, resulting in an hours-long odyssey into near madness. (Granted we were using a Mac and eventually discovered we needed to specify a shared folder via SMB; of course, there's nothing anywhere in Western Digital's downloadable 168-page manual that mentions this.) The point of the Hub is to be a central location for all your media, and to act as a server for your various PCs and audio/video equipment. That is admirable, but, in practice, it simply won't work well for those who have purchased a lot of copyright-protected media -- iTunes purchases especially, but also video and music from other online stores. Finally, once everything was up and running, it took forever for the Hub to actually process the album art and covers of a few thousand songs and a handful of videos; we quit checking after a few hours of waiting. When used as directed, the Hub will work wonders for many, but setting it up and using it to its full potential takes a lot of involvement. And, in unconfident hands, it will get confusing quickly.

Best for:

The home theater junkie who wants granular control of a vast, un-copy-protected media empire, and hopes to share it throughout a well-connected (and ethernet -networked) home.

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