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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  • twol - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    I think the review would have gained from the author having looked at some of the user forums for this area - e.g. Mpcclub, avsforum - where there is a wealth of information on these devices and their popularity, some of the most popular are not mentioned in this article unfortunately . Reply
  • ganeshts - Tuesday, June 15, 2010 - link

    twol, Thanks for the tips. I am quite active on AVS Forums, and I also keep a lookout for HiJack's posts on MPCClub.

    Our readers would hugely benefit from the content on those sites, but our reviews and analysis are intended to complement the content on those forums.

    To the best of our knowledge, there is no English review site which has a standardized test suite for media streamers. We intend to create one with the help of our readers. This is only part of the story! You will also get Anandtech's unique style of SoC and system analysis in the reviews and articles. I hope this will help consumers to identify whether a company is just plain lazy, or the base hardware platform doesn't have enough power for a certain task when they demand features from their media streamer.
    Reply
  • Golgatha - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    A bit of background:

    I recently purchased a newer and bigger home. At my last residence I had just my 32in Sharp Aquos (for my HTPC) and 22in TV/Gaming Rig Samsung monitor as the only screens in the house. At my new residence we plan to use the old Sharp Aquos TV upstairs, buy a newer and bigger TV for downstairs, and install a smaller TV in the kitchen area. I transcode my DVDs to MP4 with the audio left untouched for the most part. I also stream Pandora, Netflix, Hulu, YouTube etc. through TVersity.

    Current day:

    I just recently got my GbE network set back up downstairs and have my XBox 360 and PS3 streaming content from a Tversity DLNA server to my main 32in TV (we plan to buy something bigger and put this one upstairs above the fireplace) and 22in HDTV/Monitor at my PC. This is mainly for my family's benefit, as I just watch videos directly from the HTPC on my main 32in HDTV, while navigating around with a Logitech DiNovo Mini. For the 2 new upstairs locations, I had some choices to make.

    Location 1 - 32in Sharp Aquos 1080p HDTV

    Basically for $100-$150 more than a local network enabled streaming box, I can put a 120GB PS3 behind my 32in HDTV and control everything with a PS3 Bluetooth remote, which doesn't need line-of-sight transmission to work. This is advantageous because we can play all our Blu-ray disc content and all our streaming media from one device. Also, the space for this TV is above a large fireplace, so line-of-sight transmission would require standing up and lifting the remote in the air to change anything. Not acceptable for a sitting room and the Bluetooth remote fits the bill nicely and cheaply. The TV's IR receiver is easily seen and settings on the TV can be changed easily from a sitting position, so that's not a problem.

    Location 2 - Yet to be purchased wall mounted TV

    I'm kind of unsure about this location and this is where I hope Anandtech reviews and user experience can help me out. I need a smallish local streaming enabled device, which can be easily mounted to a wall, and is not very intrusive space wise. I envision it beside an extendable mounting arm, with the 19 or 22in TV covering most of it up. An Apple TV or WD Live unit would seem to fit the bill here. I do however wonder what the maximum bitrate one can stream is for these devices, and if the wired ports are GbE or 10/100Mbps Ethernet. I also wonder how they handle a 5.1 encoded file when outputting it in stereo, since most of my transcoded DVDs are 5.1, but my upstairs locations will just be using the TV speakers or a simple stereo setup at the most. Finally I wonder if iTunes will require re-transcoding of my already transcoded files, and if either one will be able to stream from my TVersity server. That's a lot of questions and I almost wonder if a Slim PS3 wouldn't be the easiest solution since I'm used to using it already and I know what its limitations are as far as streaming is concerned.
    Reply
  • ganeshts - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    Golgatha,

    Currently, there are no shipping media streamers with Gigabit Ethernet. Looking at your background, I would suggest that you go with something you already have experience with, i.e, a Slim PS3, since you are already aware of its limitations. Any other product you purchase is probably going to present you with new challenges to overcome.
    Reply
  • papaki - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    You should definitely test LG's BD570. It doesn't have to do with the fact that I bought it just 1,5 month ago and even after 2 updates it's wireless speed continues to drop to ~1Mbps when streaming through the provided Nero's Essential version of Media Home (grrr), it's just that its wired speed and the wireless as well, when streaming from Win7's own streaming setup, is perfectly adequate (~20Mbps from a 802.11g modem/router - perfect for even a 1080 mkv file)... (Btw, Win7's streaming service is lower in capabilities that Media Home's, so this is why I'm writing these) (Also, the player shows the exact same behavior when it tries to stream via wireless from other programs, such as TVersity. Mezzmo etc.) Of course, I don't expect Anandtech to become the technical support of my player - just pointing out an issue for you. Reply
  • ganeshts - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    papaki,

    Thanks for the pointers.

    I have personally played around with the LG-BD390, and while it may not be the best media streamer, its feature set when considering that it is a Blu Ray player, is indeed very good.

    We will try to review the LG-BD570, but no guarantees :)
    Reply
  • wiak - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    AMD 780G aka Radeon HD 3200 was the FIRST chipset that had hardware acceleration of Blu-Ray Disc codecs in full 1080p and is still a good chipset, 2 years after its release

    and ION is basicly a renamed Geforce 9300 chipset for atom
    Reply
  • wiak - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    AMD 780G: Preview of the Best Current IGP Solution
    http://www.anandtech.com/show/2475

    oooh the irony
    Reply
  • ganeshts - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    Ion is a renamed GeForce 9400 ; It is not a IGP per-se ;

    The 3200 is a very good IGP, but it simply lacks a lot of hardware acceleration modes that Nvidia users take for granted. [ http://imouto.my/watching-h264-videos-using-dxva/ ]

    This is why I would personally recommend the Ion over the 3200 IGP right now. Maybe, in 2008 (when the Anandtech article you have cited below was posted), HD 3200 was the best IGP in the market, but not any more.
    Reply
  • Aikouka - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    I'd highly recommend comparing available features (in your list) to how much the device costs. Usually people are willing to settle and remove a feature if it means a significantly lower cost.

    It also might be worthwhile to compare a custom HTPC, maybe with your own list of components to try and compete. That concept might possibly even become something completely different.. evaluations of available software for HTPCs. I know I've had quite a hellish time working with Windows Media Center and videos of certain sizes. Awhile back, I simply gave up and just used the normal Explorer GUI with Media Player Classic, because at least it didn't crop videos making me unable to read the subtitles.
    Reply

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