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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  • agold80 - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    Could I put in a request that you test subtitle languages that are Right to Left oriented, like Hebrew? there is quite a market for HTPC and Media Streamers in the middle east but companies support for RtL languages has been less than stellar and is something that often even their technical support finds hard to give a straight answer about. Reply
  • beginner99 - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    I would also test network capabilities. Support for wireless or wired, limitations, connection stability and so on.
    I would say most people buying such a device will sooner or later also get a NAS.

    Personally I have a WD TV Live and it's fine.But it has it's issues. One beeing that it sometimes has trouble connecting to the network. Another thing is that some content from youtube is blocked. You get a message similar to:
    "This content can not be watched from TV attached devices."
    This is pretty annoying because it is no mentiond that youtbe access i limited...
    -> one thing that speaks for a real HTPC.
    Reply
  • ganeshts - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    beginner99, Thanks!

    We definitely plan to test the networking capabilities, and present it in the review. The only problem we will need to work around is the fact that the network performance is highly dependent on the setup and environment. So, one thing which works in the reviewer's home perfectly, might not be very stable in someone else's home. Of course, we will be keeping an eye out on the various forums to get the various users' experience and make those observations play a small role in our review.

    By the way, my WDTV Live experience is also very similar to yours, and that is the main reason I am unable to get rid of my HTPC :)
    Reply
  • SlyNine - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    For HD content you will def. need 50+ sustained mbps. I find that even my netgear WNDR3700 based wireless stutters on High Def, I just wired everything and now it's silky smooth.

    I think the devices should be reviewed in their own right, with no networking limitations, then a general review of how wireless works on media streamers ( unless you find one that performance unusually well or poor)

    Also you might think about looking at software media servers like twonky and tversity and others. With Twonky and WD Live, through the twonky software on your server ( computer) you can tell the WDlives what to do, for instance, play music in the bathroom, see what each device is playing, Play the same music through out your home.
    Reply
  • clarkn0va - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    "For HD content you will def. need 50+ sustained mbps"

    For non-recoded BD rips perhaps, but many users will not run into this limitation, at least not in the current state of things. I've tested hundreds of 1080p mkv/H264 rips and typical bitrate is in the neighbourhood of 20mbps (variable, peaking as high as 40).

    I don't stream a lot of HD over wireless, but with a good 54mbps connection I've found 720p to work well, while 1080p is more hit and miss.
    Reply
  • SlyNine - Tuesday, June 15, 2010 - link

    Yea I'm talking about demuxing and remuxing a Blu Ray and playing back TrueHD which is my preferred way of getting HD content. I guess if you reencode it at 720 P you would be ok. Now, I'm way more picky then most so to get acceptable quality encoding HD takes around 5-10 hours, I have a Core I7 at 3.7ghz. So for me, forget that.

    But I just say 50mbps just to be on the safe side, you'd probably be ok with 40 but you would have no overhead.
    Reply
  • Hubble70 - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    Don't forget the SageTV HD200. It is the only media streamer that spans all of the categories. It can act as an extender for their excellent media center software, can play almost any file format (mkv, blu-ray file format, etc) as a standalone media streamer, and can stream non-DRM internet video. I'd love see Anandtech cover it since it never seems to get any love from the media. Reply
  • ganeshts - Tuesday, June 15, 2010 - link

    Hubble70,

    Thanks for your suggestion. SageTV HD200 is based on a Sigma Designs chipset. It will probably have the same features of a WDTV Live or any other NMT, except for UI changes. We will definitely review an upcoming revision of the product if we manage to get our hands on a review unit.
    Reply
  • Hubble70 - Wednesday, June 16, 2010 - link

    Yeah, its based on the old Sigma, but I find that its not the hardware that limits most of these devices, it is the software stack. Whether or not they can play ISO, full BD menus or just BD menu lite, whether you can pick a BD playlist, container support, etc. It seems to matter a lot more than the hardware in them unless you really want HD audio support which it lacks.

    And no, the HD200 is nothing like the WDTV since its primarily designed as an extender for for their media center software. And when you use their media center software you can use any UI on it that you want. There are LOTS of user created UIs and you can customize your own easily. SageMC is the most popular alternate UI. Their new version of their media center, V7.0 even allows you to install XBMC frontends on them, though this feature is in beta.

    Used as a standalone unit it is pretty similar to the WDTV live but with better file format support.

    It's definitely worth taking a better look at since it is unique among media players because it can be used as an extender, a standalone media streamer, and even as a placeshifter.

    Here's a geektonic review of the unit.
    http://www.geektonic.com/2009/01/sagetv-hd200-hd-t...
    Reply
  • dumbletore - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    Hi and thx for an very interesting article.

    I would like included test for playback of the format WTV which is the standard TV recording format for Windows7 / media player 12
    WMP cannot record TV shows in any other format, and i am really annoyed by my WDTV LIVEs lack of ability to playback it.
    Not that any of the competition can either though..
    Reply

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