The advent of digital downloads and music / movie streaming have made the HTPC scene quite popular. While pundits keep on debating the reasons as to why the HTPC remains a niche market, companies have recognized that a new market has opened up, namely, that of the media streamer. While streaming conventionally refers to communication of the IP variety, it is customary to include playback of media from local sources while discussing this market. The selling point of the media streamers lie in the fact that, unlike HTPCs, they do not consume a lot of power and they are supposed to work right out of the box. For the purpose of this article, we will not cover media streamer platforms which consume more than 50W in detail.

Before we get to the nitty-gritty details of the various media streamer platforms available, let us trace the history of media streamers briefly. Towards the middle of the last decade, DVD players started sporting USB ports, off which music, photos and videos (in the DivX and Xvid formats) could be played. One of the pioneers in this space was the DP-500 from KiSS Technology. With the decreasing popularity of optical media, the possibility that the player's size could be shrunk emerged. Starting around the end of 2004, companies like RCA put forward standalone media streamers, which could play local content as well as network media. The first HD capable media streamer was the Roku HD1000, but it received unflattering reviews. and did not have any optical media support. Offerings in the first two years were largely ignored by the public not only because of issues with reliability and user friendliness but also probably due to the fact that optical media wasn't completely out of the picture yet (it isn't even now, and is in fact making a come-back of sorts with the gaining popularity of the Blu-Ray format).

Apple, as is its wont, tried to put its own touch on a device for this market. In early 2007, they introduced the Apple TV. Unfortunately, in probably their only blot of the decade, they failed miserably with their approach. Fundamental to the failure was the fact that they couldn't identify their target market. In its incipient stages, the media streamer market relied heavily on tech-savvy people in order to take off. These were the people who would migrate from HTPCs to new gadgets (or, at least keep them side by side). By taking a not-easily-upgradeable HTPC (more on this later) and bundling it with a proprietary software stack, they took out the main advantage viz. the freedom to tinker around with various hardware and software components without resorting to documentation from the hacking community. It is then no wonder that most of the HTPC community (except for the hardcore Apple fanboy segment), and, as a result, the target market gave the Apple TV a poor reception. However, credit needs to be given to Apple for being the first mainstream company to bring a media streamer into the market, thereby opening the floodgates for more firms to pitch in with their own offerings. The last three years or so have seen products from top tier manufacturers such as Samsung, LG, Netgear, Western Digital, Seagate and others enter the fray in one guise or the other.

Any streamer able to handle HD content is also capable of handling similar content at SD resolutions, while the reverse scenario is not always true. There are dedicated devices for SD media, but it is pretty evident that the market for those devices is going only one way, and that is down. With studies suggesting that 82% of all US households would end up with a HDTV by the end of 2010, it only makes sense to restrict this article to media streamer platforms which support high definition content. Present day HDTVs also support DLNA, local media playback and streaming from sites such as Netflix in the US. However, they do not have the capabilities of dedicated media streamers (such as HD audio bitstreaming). Since the media streamer platform is a minor component of the television system as a whole, we will not cover these in much detail.

Though the term 'Media Streamer' may encompass a wide range of devices, they may all be classified under one of the following categories:

1. HTPC Based Platforms
2. Blu-Ray Player / Media Streamer Combo
3. Pure Internet Service Media Streamers
4. Internet & Local Media Streamers
5. Game Console & PMP / App Processor Based Media Streamers

The rest of this article will cover the various platforms in each of the above categories in detail.

HTPC Based Platforms
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  • ganeshts - Monday, June 21, 2010 - link

    Modelworks,

    Thanks for the info. WDTV Live Plus is currently in our labs, and a review will be up soon :)
    Reply
  • DieterBSD - Monday, June 21, 2010 - link

    > WDTV Live indeed plays the 16 reframe Planet Earth sample,
    > but only if it is off the local hard disk connected to USB.
    > It doesn't play well over wired ethernet.

    That's too bad, since the whole point of a media streamer is
    to get the noisy disk away from the TV/stereo. A conspiracy
    theorist might say that WD wants you to buy a disk.

    Two more things to test: (1) How well do these boxes deal with
    input that is less than perfect? Some mpeg decoders crash.
    (low quality programming) An easy way to generate a less
    than perfect test file is to record some OTA TV using a
    lame indoor antenna. Using the file allows testing all the
    boxes with the same input, so that the test is fair.

    (2) Also, closed captions crash some of the CECBs:
    http://www.avsforum.com/avs-vb/showthread.php?t=99...
    Reply
  • ganeshts - Monday, June 21, 2010 - link

    DieterBSD,

    Thanks for the link.

    Is it possible for you to link us to some 'faulty' OTA TV recorded videos? We can add them to the test suite.

    Currently we have no plans for testing converter boxes with our test suite, as the requirements for those vary greatly from that of the media streamers that we are trying to cover in this particular section.
    Reply
  • DieterBSD - Tuesday, June 22, 2010 - link

    > Is it possible for you to link us to some 'faulty'
    > OTA TV recorded videos? We can add them to the test suite.

    I am not aware of any available online. Thus my suggestion
    that it is easy to generate a test file by recording some
    OTA TV using a lame indoor antenna. Or add attenuation
    until the signal/noise drops low enough. This assumes you
    have a computer connected TV tuner card/box available.

    fixed attenuator (available in a variety of values)
    http://www.provantage.com/steren-electronics-201-4...

    variable attenuator (knob):
    http://www.solidsignal.com/pview.asp?mc=03&p=1...\
    %20Variators&sku=853748001293

    variable attenuator (switches (thus repeatable, but more expensive)):
    http://www.solidsignal.com/pview.asp?mc=05&p=S... Equipment&sku=

    These are just examples, not recommendations for these specific products.

    A two-way splitter adds about 3.5 dB of attenuation, a four-way about 7.4 dB, ...

    The harder way would be to start with a good mpeg2 file
    and corrupt it with a binary editor.

    > Currently we have no plans for testing converter boxes

    Sorry, I wasn't clear. Since some CECBs crash attempting
    to decode and display closed captions, perhaps the media
    streamers have similar bugs.

    You could set up a tuner card/box with a multicast/broadcast
    to the media streamers with closed captions on and let them
    run overnight. For completeness both the "analog" and "digital"
    captions should be tested.
    Reply
  • average_joe - Tuesday, June 22, 2010 - link

    The last time I looked at this product class, I believe I liked the Netgear EVA9150 for it's extensive media support, including DVD ISO. At the time, IIRC, almost nothing could read Bluray ISO, including the EVA9150, which would have made it perfect. Can you include this device in you evaluations?

    My long term goal is to have a media player that can pull from my home NAS and the internet seemlessly, without the need of an additional server (HTPC).
    Reply
  • ruzveh - Wednesday, June 23, 2010 - link

    Todays media players are also lacking built in tv tune capability. I understand we have different device for the same but still its a good thing to have.

    And i personally dont own a media player of my own but would like to know does the following file format which is shown on the catalog works for file copied on CD's, DVD's, BD Disk Drive via USB or directly via pen drive?

    I would like to connect my Blu Ray drive to media player via usb and has it play all the collection that i have stored on my cd, dvd & blu rays
    Reply
  • LuxZg - Wednesday, July 07, 2010 - link

    I'd have one addition for testing - PLEASE test the non-English character support in the subtitles. For example "accented" characters in different European languages.

    As for the other things, which have already been listed, do make sure you test the MTS/M2TS container format, and 1080/60p playback. If you'll need "heavy duty" 60p samples, just look for "raw" Panasonic HDC-TM700 videos (MTS, 50p/60p, 1080, H.264, with 5.1 surround).It chokes most software players, so I'm personally very interested in how these stream players support it :) Besides, it's future BluRay spec (well, 60p/1080/H.264 part at least)
    Reply
  • johnlannock - Saturday, September 25, 2010 - link

    When will you start posting reviews of different streamers so that I can purchase my next few?

    I have one patriot and am not happy with it.

    What do you think of the Argosy products?

    I need 5 of these devices in the near future and do not want to get fooled again.

    I rely on Anandtech to steer me in my purchasing decisions so that I do not suffer from "buyers remorse"

    Thank you
    Reply
  • turbobeta - Thursday, January 27, 2011 - link

    In regards to the 360 and PS3, you stated:

    "However, such power consumption numbers put these devices beyond my criteria for a media streamer (their original intent was to act as a game console after all), and I will not discuss them any further in this article."

    I think that's a terrible reason to exclude them. These two devices are the most widely available, have modern av hookups, have modern internet connectivity, and have the largest install base.

    Its as if you were stating something ludicrous like "I'm not including pencils in my roundup of greatest writing utensils of all time, because they need to be sharpened, and I will not discuss them any further in this article."
    Reply
  • dpbrick - Monday, July 18, 2011 - link

    I'm really impressed by your approach in this article: looking at product capabilities and limitations on the basis of their chipsets. This is the first article of its kind I have seen of its kind. Unfortunately, it is over a year old at this point. Has any progress been made in updating it? Reply

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