As physical discs, tapes and analogue TV become extinct, and digital streaming delivery of files becomes more common. Watching a TV show or movie on your PC screen or laptop can be a bit too restrictive. No big screen, usually lower quality sound, having to wait 5 minutes for a boot-up and not conducive to group watching means we need another option. The answer is one of the new breed of internet TV media streaming set-top boxes that deliver digital files onto your big screen TV easier.
No one can say listening to music hasn’t changed greatly since the invention of MP3 players. In much the same way, our video watching habits can and will change as internet TV boxes continue to impact on the market. In the very near future, gone will be the piles of DVDs we all have stashed in some drawer in our house, all replaced by digital copies. It’s even possible that DVD players, cable receivers, or satellites will turn out to be as un-important as the VHS players we all got rid of a long ago. Every home has some type of set-top box that handles our video watching pastimes. But as delivering media via the internet continues to be developed, the playback of digital video will become as common as MP3s. In fact, a media streamer is very similar to an MP3 player but the media streamer offers playback of video format as well.
Choosing the Right Media Streamer
So what exactly is a media streamer and what does it do? Similar to most electronic devices that have adapted and evolved, media streamers can vary greatly in quality and features provided. Media streamers is a term that appears a lot now and describes a network connected device that both plays media from a hard drive or home network, and can stream content from the internet. So in general terms, the media you can play, video, music or images are usually stored outside of the media player and the device will play the file from its source wirelessly. So you can stream from online video sites like Hulu, Amazon and Youtube, catch-up TV sites etc. Or you can connect to your home network consisting of a computer, hard drive, tablet, phone, or media server etc.
Media streamers come in different shapes and sizes, but they are generally very small and vary wildly in the features they provide, how well the media streamer you choose accommodates your needs will require you choose the model that has the features you might need. With that in mind, it may be a little confusing at first since media streamers are so new. Like many electronic devices we have all purchased from time to time, the features needed may also vary from one person to the next. But in order to be sure you have a media streamer that will suffice, there are a few requirements to consider.
What to Consider
Connectivity is top priority. This may sound elementary, but without proper connectivity there is little hope of successfully transmitting video files from your streaming device to a television. Most media streamers found on today’s market will include HDMI connectivity. Some models will include component connections and audio connections, and there are now a range of models that enable wireless video streaming, so you can lose the ugly cables.
Support of different file formats is also an extremely important consideration. Since there are so many different video file formats and codecs, it will be important to choose a media streamer that can handle the most popular video formats. This is the best way to ensure your video library will be supported. Additionally, the network support included in your media streamer is also very important. Network support is different from connectivity. Any media streamer worth its weight will provide an Ethernet port to connect to your network. But these days, the better media streamers should also provide a wireless network support to offer users and hands-free operation.
The media streamer you choose should be easy to use and easy to navigate with an intuitive interface. You can choose a media streamer with all features unimaginable, but that will serve no purpose if finding files you wish to watch is difficult to do. The menus and navigation bars should be user-friendly and perhaps customizable to gain the most from your unit. Your media streamer should offer easy network set up and a remote control unit that responds very easily. There’s nothing more annoying than a remote control that will not change video as needed. You may also wish to choose a media streamer that has support for popular online services. Subscription services such as Netflix and Hulu Plus should be readily available. Your unit should provide content availability for such sites. Availability of on demand subscription movie sites will only further your home entertainment.
Web enabled TVs and Gaming Consoles
At this time, purchasing a media streamer may be either a little expensive or even unnecessary as they are still in the early stages of development. However, there are cheaper alternatives that will offer similar experiences to those which a media streamer can provide. It is still possible to transmit video files stored on your hard drive and view them through your television with alternative sources.
These can be described as media players and software jukeboxes which run on your computer, a connected (smart) TV or many gaming consoles can also transmit video files through your television. Many gaming consoles come with hard drives for storing multimedia files or offer a means to connect a USB storage device to access your video library. In these situations, the video playback is similar to media streamers and may be an affordable alternative until these units become more readily available and affordable to average users. It’s also likely, these jukeboxes and gaming consoles will continue to evolve and provide improved video streaming capabilities to continue to be competitive as media streamers become more popular.
What’s the best Media Streamer for you?
Price around $99
The rather snazzy looking Boxee Box by D-Link has full 1080P hd support and 7.1 audio as well but users complain of a lack of apps that include Netflix, Youtube, Spotify and Vudu. The boxee can stream from the home network, streaming from the web, via the two usb ports, and it has an antenna slot for live cable TV as well (but only free unscrambled ones). It has a cloud based DVR that also disappoints as it has limited coverage and carries a monthly subscription charge.
Price around $79
The Roku XS lets you play digital media from the web, your local network or from the USB/hard drive. Built in WiFi, over 600 channels, can play HD 720p and 1080p, has motion control for games and connects to your TV via a HDMI port. It can stream Netflix, Hulu+, Amazon and Pandora amongst others.
Price around $79 -$160
The WD TV Live Hub comes either with a built in 1Tb hard drive or without so it can double as your media server. But there is a downside in the fact that the WD Live has no wireless connection so has to be connected via an ethernet cable. The device can stream the usual Netflix, Youtube etc. It plays full 1080p HD and can stream from the web or your network files, and can also play casual games.
Price around $94
The Apple TV is an interesting streaming device, it can play files from your iTunes library rather than just standard video files, it can be controlled by any iOS device such as iPad or iPhone and has the Airplay feature which streams wireless movies from your handheld device. It has 1080p playback but you are limited to to rental content from iTunes and streaming from Netflix.
Many companies are putting the open source Android operating system on a number of boxes sized similar to the Apple TV, as well as plug-in HDMI sticks that fit into the back of your TV. They are generally cheap and make a great way to turn any HDTV into a smart TV. They can stream movies and shows from the home network as well as having (limited) storage internally which is usually around 4Gb and can be expanded up to 32Gb. Services such as Youtube, Netflix and Hulu etc can be run as well as apps from the Google Playstore and the XBMC media software. Interestingly many people prefer these devices over the official Google TV devices as streaming services are not blocked.
Price around $35
A new entry is the cheap thumb sized Google Chromecast stick. This device plugs into the HDMI port on your TV set and lets you stream from any mobile device or computer using a Chrome browser straight to your TV. The device shows great promise and an even better price.
Other media streaming options
If you have an Xbox360 then you already have a streaming device. The console made by Microsoft can access services such as Amazon Instant Video and Netflix but it is not so easy to connect to a home network.
Just like the Xbox, the PS3 has access to some streaming services and can play movies if you plug in an external hard drive.
Most of us own a PC or Mac and it is very easy nowadays to hook it up to the big screen TV and watch content. The computer also has full access to streaming services and catch up TV websites.
Install some media software into your computer and you can make filing and running movies, shows and music a breeze. A big favorite is XMBC.
The digital age is now firmly upon us, as DVD’s begin to lose popularity, downloadable movies and shows will take over, just like they have with video games. Whatever computer or console you own, you have greater access to streaming and downloadable content. Now is the time to set-up your computer or media player to a home network so you can watch all of this great content at home or on the move. Watch on the big screen then carry on on your tablet when you go to bed or traveling. Internet TV and video is not the future anymore, it’s here all around us right now. You owe it to yourself to open up this great new, easier, and more convenient world. Once you do, your viewing will never be the same again, and you will never want to go back.