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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  • Xajel - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    I think that Input & Output and all connectivity features are very important along with any remote interface ( network interface ) they may have... + if they can be used as a PVR or not... Reply
  • ganeshts - Tuesday, June 15, 2010 - link

    Xajel, Thanks for your suggestions.

    Currently, I believe that no shipping media streamer has PVR capabilities. The upcoming ZaggBox fits your description, but it is nowhere close to shipping :|

    We will consider your concern about connectivity options and remote interfaces in our reviews
    Reply
  • Hubble70 - Wednesday, June 16, 2010 - link

    Actually, The Moxi DVR and its extenders can do PVR duty and coupled with Playon it can do Hulu and with Tversity I think it can playback your local content as well but I'm not sure about that.

    No standalone unit can do PVR duties, but coupled with SageTV Server software running on any computer in the house (widows, Linux, WHS, or OSX) the SageTV HD200 media streamer can be a PVR and playback your local movie content.
    Reply
  • morpheusmc - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    Congrats for the media streamer roundup, I believe an Anandtech-class article is very much needed to clear up the this area.

    I would like to see the performance of media streamers over a wifi network. Most of them support 802.11N USB wifi adapters, but do not exceed even 802.11G speeds. I have had a bad experience with an eGREAT M34A and had to return it because of it.

    I am interested in finding out which is the cheapest device to play at least 720p MKVs (4,38GB/movie) over wifi (assuming a Wifi Access point (G or N if needed) is installed).
    My 4 year old (dual core) laptop plays 720p fine over 802.11g by the way, so 25Mbps ought to be enough, IF the device can actually achieve such speeds.

    Keep up the great work!
    Reply
  • morpheusmc - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    Forgot to mention that I would like to see speed tested with WPA2 enabled. Not sure it makes a difference, just want to be sure though.

    Bottom line, I would like to see if any of those devices can function as a drop in addition in a house with an encrypted wireless network and a NAS/file server. Assuming of course that all the other components (NAS/File server, access pint etc) can support the required bitrates.

    My experience up to now says no, but I haven't tested any of the more expensive devices. Although spending 300-400$ for a media player seems a lot, considering the prices of cheap, but HD capable laptops/netbooks.
    Reply
  • ganeshts - Tuesday, June 15, 2010 - link

    morpheusMC, Thanks for the pointers.

    Wireless network performance will also be a point for us to consider in the review if it is part of the original specifications of the player. Some versions of Asus O!Play support 802.11n natively, and your suggestions will be handy while reviewing them. For units such as the WDTV Live, it wouldn't make sense, because we would be introducing third party additions to the hardware platform (yet another variable which could go wrong!) to enable this feature. Of course, wired network performance will definitely be tested thoroughly.
    Reply
  • vol7ron - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    As I said in an email to Anand,

    I would like to see the Ceton InfiniTV reviewed. I think you can stream up to 4 live HD channels at once. Not too sure if the $399 price is justified, but this might be something to consider as an option in the future, since you only need one CableCARD.
    Reply
  • ganeshts - Tuesday, June 15, 2010 - link

    vol7ron,

    We will be having a separate series of articles in the same section which will cover the TV tuners / recorders / PVRs and DVRs. CableCARD products like Ceton's will be dealt with in that series.

    Best Regards
    Reply
  • glugglug - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    I have a Jasper XBOX being used as a media center extender. Your power consumption estimate of 140W only applies to the original XBOX, not the Jaspers currently being sold. The Kill-a-Watt tells me it is using just over 90W no matter what it is doing (unless its off). Sitting idle uses the same ~ 90W as playing HD video, and it doesn't go up past 100W during gaming.

    Also, I have yet to encounter a video that was too high a bitrate for it. U.S. HDTV is MPEG2 @ around 15-16Mbps (max 19Mbps). This bitrate of MPEG-2 yields the same quality as roughly 3Mbps H.264. So 10 is actually overkill. Blu-ray rips may have this overkill, but they play just fine. I played an Avatar x264 rip at 20Mbps on the XBOX with no issues. The official maximum bitrate may be 10Mbps, but generally higher bitrate stuff still works. Otherwise you would see a lot more people who use it as an extender complaining in Europe, where their broadcast TV is H.264.
    Reply
  • ganeshts - Tuesday, June 15, 2010 - link

    glugglug, Thanks for bringing this to our attention.

    We quoted the official lines on the Xbox capabilities. Still, 90W is very high for a media streamer. There are much more capable media streamers which perform the same task for less than 1/10th the power consumption :) (Agreed, HD playback isn't XBox's main agenda).

    We may touch upon HD playback capability when covering any new Xbox versions that MS decides to put out in the future.
    Reply

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