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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  • wiak - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    hello Aikouka mr lover 恋人 Reply
  • ganeshts - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    Aikouka,

    Thanks for your feedback. We will definitely make a comparison of how much each extra feature costs (over a particular base price) in our reviews.

    All said, except for ease of use and power concerns, a properly built HTPC scores over a media streamer any time.
    Reply
  • cknobman - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    Why did this get no mention?

    I have several media streaming devices (this, patriot, and xbox 360) and the kodak is by far the best one with the most features, smoothest interface, built in wifi N, 1080p capabilities.
    Reply
  • ganeshts - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    cknobman,

    Yes, we are aware of the Kodak Theater HD player. In terms of features in the product spec, it doesn't seem to compare that favourably with other players in the market. [ http://www.iboum.com/pr/kodakt1.php ] ; Of course, if Kodak is interested in getting its review out, we will carry it forward. As of now, Anandtech doesn't have any plans to review this unit, but things are likely to change going forward. We will keep you updated!
    Reply
  • johnlannock - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    What a great idea for a section. A few months ago I purchased a single Patriot Box office streamer as the price point had dropped to the point where I wanted to replicate it across my home network ; cat 6e cables, NAS, mult servers, wireless etc. My main streamer is a win 7 64bit mch running win 7 ultimate. Imagine my surprise when I was informed by Patriot support that the only way to share folders across a wired LAN was to invoke "regedit" and modify my registry.

    i WAS TOLD THAT WAS THE ONLY WAY THE BOX COULD SHARE WHEN USING Win7 ultimate.

    Now think of the implications for Patriot if that is needed for the mass market. The margin implications are staggering for Patriot.

    Please include this type of "software mod implication" in your future reviews of these boxes.

    I hate this requirement as I do not want to have to maintain this regedit mod as Microsoft continues to mod Win 7. A CONSUMER BOX SHOULD NOT REQUIRE SYS PROG MODIIFCATIONS.

    Needless to say I have not rolled out these boxes to my network.

    Please feel free to contact me if you need more details.

    NOT HAPPY in the Far North (Canada)
    Reply
  • ganeshts - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    johnlannock, Thanks for your feedback.

    We will include this in our future reviews:

    (1) Ease of networking feature usage / Implications on host OS
    Reply
  • pjladyfox - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    The biggest weakness that I've found in just about every single NMT (read: Network Media Tank) is the depth of subtitle support. Currently, right now most boxes while they say they support SRT, ASS, SSA, SUB, and SMI only spit out the subtitles if they are in ANSI format and nothing in UNICODE. Worse still they also default to this rather garish font size that either takes up a large portion of the screen or is extremely difficult to see on white backgrounds.

    The other big problem is the complete lack of full softsub support by a lot of these devices. While you can get the subtitles the formatting is completely stripped or ignored. This pretty much kills the device from being able to display non-English, or hardsubbed, HD titles since they mostly come in .MKV format with softsubs.

    So if you are a fan of these kinds of videos you're pretty much stuck with a HTPC which comes with it's own variety of problems and to get decent performance on HD media pretty much require a system more powerful than a Atom system since not all formats are GPU accelerated like RMVB.

    If proper subtitle support could be implemented, while keeping the cost low, in these boxes the sales for these would greatly increase. Otherwise, right now it's like playing Russian roulette when you come home from the store wondering if the box you have will support the videos you watch or not. -_-
    Reply
  • ganeshts - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    pjladyfox, Thanks for your feedback. We will note the following point for our reviews:

    (1) Support for UNICODE subtitles display
    Reply
  • pjladyfox - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    Would it be possible to add the following as well:

    1. SSA v4.00 support
    2. ASS v4.00+ support

    If you require more info a good starting point would be http://wiki.multimedia.cx/index.php?title=SubStati...

    A lot of boxes, like the Popcorn Hour, claim SSA/ASS support but are only really parsing the text and converting it to .SRT stripping out the style and event tags. While nobody really expects full support just having support to the point where the position and subtitles appear correctly would go a long way. ^_^
    Reply
  • daskino - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    Hey Annadtech, finally a serious media like yours take up the sprawling market of media players. great to see i will follow it closely. for a more in depth view of the media player market. Also look at my page and blog on the digital media players. www.industryconvergence.com Reply

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