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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  • StormyParis - Sunday, June 13, 2010 - link

    I'm disappointed by your excluding AMD. I seem to remember a test in which Dell's Zino HD played Bluray perfectly, and HD Flash almost perfectly with a beta flash player. That makes it "good enough" in my book, and I'm contemplating either a Zino or an AMD Zbox for my next Office PC. Reply
  • ganeshts - Sunday, June 13, 2010 - link

    I did mention the Zino HD in the final paragraph on Page 2 (HTPC based platforms). In our opinion, the Ion / Atom based nettops are somewhat better than the AMD based nettops. If the ZinoHD or the Zbox had a HD 4xxx series based motherboard, things could have been a little different. As is, the Ion series gives same video decode capabilities as the GeForce 9400.. while the Zbox / ZinoHD tend to not have the same capabilities ; All said, it depends on the usage scenario, and if Blu Ray and flash playback is all that you need, then the Zino / Zbox might be well suited. Reply
  • Hubble70 - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    The Zino HD has an available 4330 graphics card if you want HD audio and better video performance. Also, the Zino's deinterlacing performance is subpar not because of the onboard graphics, but because it uses an Athlon based CPU that uses hypertransport 2.0 instead of an Athlon II CPU that has hypertransport 3.0. The onboard graphics is memory bandwidth starved, and the 3200 graphics in the Zino is perfectly capable of good deinterlacing if you drop in a CPU with hypertransport 3. Either way, its still able to do full acceleration of BD and other formats. Reply
  • ganeshts - Sunday, June 13, 2010 - link

    Thanks, fixed :) Reply
  • ganeshts - Sunday, June 13, 2010 - link

    Sorry, my bad! Fixed :) Reply
  • JPVann - Sunday, June 13, 2010 - link

    Although they are hacked using existing APIs, there are two different projects that now stream both Music and Video to your TV via the ROKU. Both install extremely easily and require no hacking or programming skills.

    Coupled with all the current 'Channels', Netflix, MLB Baseball, Facebook etc the ROKU is one capable box. Upgrades have been constant and full of content since I bought mine last Nov.
    Reply
  • ganeshts - Sunday, June 13, 2010 - link

    JPVann, Thanks for the info. Since local media playback is not officially supported, we classified Roku as a Internet only media streamer. Hopefully, the new Roku box will officially support streaming media through its USB port.

    The problem with the original Roku is that there is no USB port. So, the user is at the mercy of his network connection speeds for high definition Blu Ray videos. Local content 'streamers' usually have USB or eSATA ports, and that is our criterion to classify a player as a local media streamer.

    Another issue with both Roku and Vudu is that they utilize chipsets originally intended for set top boxes and not dedicated media streamers. As such, the experience delivered from the WDTVs and the OPlays are quite different from the restricted environment of the IP set top box platforms.
    Reply
  • CorrND - Tuesday, June 15, 2010 - link

    I agree, Roku is quite capable, very affordable and already has the Channel Store (aka App Store) model that is a leading contender model for future content delivery. They have an installed base of 500k (as of January '10), expected to increase to nearly 1M this year, and a non-exclusive (but preferential) partner in Netflix. For a relative newcomer, they're sitting on pretty good ground for now.

    The thing that is going to kill Roku is the rumors that Apple is going to re-release Apple TV with the iPhone/iPad OS. That will place Apple TV in direct competition with the Channel/App Store model that Roku already uses. The difference will be the additional Apple clout and industry connections that Roku can't possibly compete with.
    Reply
  • flamethrower - Sunday, June 13, 2010 - link

    Is support for Asian characters. Basically does the thing support unicode in subtitles and filenames.
    That is probably not something many people in the Anandtech audience would like to see tested though. It might be included in "multiple subtitle formats" but I think you had something else in mind for testing this.
    Reply
  • ganeshts - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    flamethrower, Thanks for the pointer. We will keep this in mind. In fact, we already have a sample file with subtitles in more than 20 different languages (though this particular file is not related to the 'multiple subtitle formats' we mentioned). We will report languages which don't display correctly in the review. Reply

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