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Monday, March 7, 2011

Guide to Internet Streaming Devices - The Pros and Cons of Internet Streaming Devices

The Pros and Cons of Internet Streaming Devices
by EscapeVelocity (originally published March 6, 2011 on DTVUSAforum)

Internet streaming of video has gone mainstream, and you want to get in on the action, but with so many devices out there to choose from which one is right for you? This guide seeks to bring you information to help make good decisions.

To begin your journey, one should take stock in what one has at his or her disposal that may already have internet connectivity and streaming functionality. Sony Playstation3 and XBox 360 are widely owned game consoles that have quite a bit of internet streaming capability, and laptops are easy starting places to hook up a modem and provide video to your television. The lessons that you learn from using these devices will help you make good decisions on future purchases. That being said, we will discuss individual boxes and general categories of devices below, their pros and cons, and their features and limitations, which will help you make good purchasing decisions with regards to this new technology.

The Set Top Boxes

Apple TV
Recommended for iPhone and iPad users.

The new improved Apple TV  was released in October 2010 to much fanfare, sporting 720p upper resolution streaming ability, which is plenty, with good video quality. AppleTV has a beautiful GUI interface and is very easy to use, and perhaps its most compelling feature is its interoperability with other Apple products, the iPhone, iPad, and iPod. The AppleTV's biggest limitation is its walled garden of content streaming. Its tied into Apple's iStore which currently is limited on available titles, and does not interface with Amazon's competing Video on Demand, which currently offers much more PPV content, for example, or Walmart backed High Definition king Vudu. AppleTV does offer Netflix and is promising Hulu Plus. In the end is recommended only for those already living in Apple's world for its integration of other Apple devices for its beautiful easy to use GUI. It's limited content should expand in 2011 on the strength of Apples market clout and commitment to it's money making iStore. 

Roku 2 XS 1080p Streaming Player
Highly Recommended. Best Buy.

Roku Box is the current champion of the Set Top Box streamers, and has been a leader since 2008, when it partnered with Netflix to bring an Netflix streaming box to market. Roku has more content available for streaming than any of the other set top boxes and is extremely easy to set up and use, as well as being the lowest cost option. Plenty of input and output options, though the older line up had more (I actually prefer the older HD-XR as the best Roku box for this reason.) Some of the boxes can handle 1080p video. Roku's GUI isnt as pretty as Boxee, GoogleTV, or especially Apple TV , but its clean and very easy to navigate. The big negative with the Roku boxes is that it's video chipset is limited with regards to the number of video standards and codecs that it can decode, and this ultimately limits the Roku boxes content, however at this time, Roku is far ahead of the competition on available content. Roku Box is where the average consumer should be spending their money with regards to set top box internet streaming, low cost and high value, and simple to use. It provides access to Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon on Demand, and a plethora of other streaming content.  And the new Roku LT Streaming Player is a low-cost option at just $49.99

The Boxee Box by D-Link
Recommended with reservations. 

Another newcomer in fall 2010, the The Boxee Box
has lots of promise, but as of yet, it isnt quite there on available content. Boxee software has been a beautiful and functional video front end for computers for several years now, and that expertise shows up on its new set top box. It has a very attractive and functional GUI, helping users to locate content, and and its ace in the hole is its ability to handle just about every video standard and codec out there. It is also designed to be a media player for your local network, meaning that it can play media files off your private LAN, ie all the media stored locally on your computers and hard drives provided they are connected. Boxee Box would be my favorite STB streaming device excepting that it still lacks access to Netflix and Hulu Plus streaming content due to issues with digital rights management. Assuming that Boxee adds these services to its abilities, Boxee Box trumps the Roku Box for its vastly improved compatibility with video standards and codecs going forward, but as of now the Roku Boxes just provide more content. Keep your eye on the The Boxee Box

Logitech Revue with Google TV
Not recommended at this time.

This is also promising tech. Its also a bit more ambitious than any of the above boxes, which ultimately is its current downfall. Google is trying to replace DVRs and cable and satellite boxes as well provide internet streaming capabilities plus local media streaming from your LAN, and to integrate all of them into one interface for easy seemless access to all of these media sources. Quite ambitious, its first generation product succeeds to a large degree, but work still needs to be done to avoid consumer frustration with bugs and integration. Its sports a beautiful GUI, but is somewhat difficult to navigate. Additionally, GoogleTV is seen as a threat to content providers advertising business model, and as such GoogleTV is a little light on the streaming content, with several large networks refusing them rights to stream. Given its high price relative to other boxes and limited streaming content, I cant recommend Logitech GoogleTV just yet...but like Apple, Google has the clout and resources to make things happen, and should continue to improve in the future. Similar to the AppleTV with the iPhone, you can use a Google Android smartphone as a remote. The Logitech Revue itself is well executed by the highly competent manufacturer.

TiVo Premiere HD:
Recommended for Tivo lovers.

TiVo has gotten in on the act as well, with its Tivo Premiere line of DVRs. Coming from the traditional DVR side of things, it combines its easy to understand and use TiVo GUI and DVR fuctions with net streaming capability. TiVo's walled garden of available streaming content is somewhat limited, however for those who love their Tivo, this is a great way to add internet streaming to your A/V system. Very stable and easy to use, especially for those already familiar with the TiVo GUI. 

The Game Consoles 

Sony Playstation 3: Highly Recommended for video gamers.

Sony's Playstation3 provides the best internet streaming experience of the game consoles. It has been expanding these capabilities over the last couple of years, including being the first to offer 1080p & 5.1 sound from Netflix. Additionally you can use Playon (which can also be used on Roku and XBox) to access just about all online content however at reduced video quality. While it does have limitations, for those who already own a PS3 as a gaming platform, it is a good solution to get into the internet video streaming game, or for those who do not have one yet, but desire a nice gaming platform as well. Playstation3's trump card is its ability to play 1080p BluRay discs, and thus can be an all in one gaming, bluray, internet streaming solution. While sporting a good looking GUI, one downside to the PS3 is its somewhat clunky interface via the game controllers, although a remote is available. With Playstation3, you dont need to subscribe to a yearly contract service as with XBox Live. 

XBox 360: Recommended for video gamers.

Microsoft's XBox 360 offers a viable internet streaming solution as well as local LAN playback. It uses the XBox Media Center (often referred to as XBMC), which is a beautiful and fantastic GUI interface. It like the PS3 has some limitation to available internet streaming content, but as with most of these devices offers many of the major players. Similar to the PS3, while the XBox 360 does have limitations, for those who already own one as a gaming platform, it is a good solution to get into the internet video streaming game...or for those who do not have one yet, but desire a nice gaming platform as well. One downside to the XBox 360 is the need for purchasing a yearly subscription to XBox Live, but can usually be acquired onsale throughout the year for $40/yr. Compared to the PS3, it does not support playback of Blu-Ray discs.

Nintendo Wii: Not recommended.

The Nintendo Wii also allows you to get in on the internet video streaming train, however it limits you to standard definition resolutions. I cant really recommend this as a streaming solution, however, if you already have one and dont own another device that can stream video from the internet to your TV then the Wii will get you there. 

Laptops & Home Theater PCs: Highly Recommended for A/V enthusiasts.

The most versatile of all the streamers. They have almost no limitations, with regards to local LAN streaming, internet video streaming, resolution, video codecs and standards, user interfaces, etc., though they require higher user knowledge for setting up and can be not quite as user friendly or easy to use. If you have a laptop, you have a fantastic internet video to TV streaming just have to connect it to your TV and modem or LAN. Many folks use the small nettop computers like Acer Aspire Revos, Mac Minis, Dell Zinos, Foxcomm, Zotac, Asus EEE PC, etc. The small footprint, lower power consumption processors, and fanless operation are what makes these especially desireable for use as a dedicated HTPC. With HTPCs and Laptops, you can use all sorts of GUI frontends, Kylo Browser and Boxee are 2 favorites of mine, and have access to anything you can find in a browser plus any codec or video standard you can download and run on a PC. There is also Windows Media Center which can act as a DVR, and you can run XBox Media Center as well, which is popular, even on a fast and small operating system like Ubuntu Linux. A dedicated HTPC is the most flexible solution but can require more of the user, plus they are more expensive than some of the Set Top Box solutions, but are definitely one of the top choices for the power user. 

Internet Streaming Enabled HDTVs: Not really recommended, but alas...

Many new Plasma and LCD HDTV Flat Panels today are coming with integrated internet streaming solutions plus Ethernet and WiFi connectivity. These are generally easy to use with good looking user interfaces, especially if you stick to the major brands, Samsung, Sony, Panasonic, Vizio, and LG, however there are a couple of drawbacks. Being that the hardware for these solutions is inside the TV, they are not really upgradable like say a set top box is. Furthermore, you are limited to the manufacturers offerings as each have their own walled garden of internet streaming offerings, however generally speaking they are pretty good and offer most of the most popular content. Furthermore, there is the concern about backward support for older units and while this hasnt been an issue yet, its bound to become one in the future. In this author's opinion, its much better to have off board streaming solutions, which can be upgraded easily as needed. That being said, many people are enjoying their web enabled TVs and often you dont have a choice, as its not optional, generally not included on only value or budget sets.

Internet Streaming Enabled Blu-Ray Players: Highly recommended.

This is an excellent solution as well. You get the dual benefits of high quality 1080p playback of a BluRay Player, plus the internet streaming capabilities of the manufacturers walled garden internet streaming apps. and generally some high quality video processing as well. Additionally, upgrading these off board solutions couldnt be easier. There is the concern that older products will not be supported by the manufacturers at some point in the future. An easy entry into streaming with BluRay disc playback and high quality video processing. One drawback is long boot times.

A Note About Resolutions

When discussing internet streaming solutions, one should take into account the current state of bandwidth available to the average consumer and the quality of the video that the end user can expect. The internet download speed of the average user in the US will limit usuable resolution to 720p and most of the time, 480p will produce better overall consumer satisfaction. Anything under 5 Mbps will not stream 1080p with good results. If you are down around 1.5 to 3 Mbps territory, like most folks, you will have better picture quality and less frustration by choosing 480p streams on your average 50" HDTV or smaller set. The quality varies of course depending on the source material and the mastering/encoding, however generally speaking you will achieve not quite DVD quality viewing with 480p streams. Please note that available bandwidth is not necessarily what the plan that you pay for states. It is generally lower than this on average and can vary with time of day, Prime Time being a high use time, with generally slower bandwidth available to the end user. Three tools that I recommend to gauge your bandwidth are, Youtube's test, and Vudu's test. You will generally recieve the highest throughput number via SpeedTest and the lowest via Vudu, with Youtube in the middle. Youtube's is the most accurate for our purposes, but the ranges that these three tests give, accurately describe the best case scenario to the worst, the range of your connection speed/bandwidth. In my case the numbers are 2.75ish Mbps via, 1.75ish Mbps via Youtube, and 1 Mbps via Vudu. My experience with Netflix has been that 720p streams are problematic, not only requiring annoyingly frequent rebuffering and longish buffer times, but also poor video quality. When I select 480p streams from my Roku Box, not only do I rarely encounter rebuffering of video, but the quality of the video is superior to the 720p streams. The later has to do with limited data throughput for each pixel, and the significantly fewer pixels of 480p allow for more information per pixel to be gathered before the need to draw a frame. In my case, my particular Roku Box, the old style Roku HD, allows for choosing 720p, 480p Anamorphic, or 480p 4:3 resolution. Ive settled on 480p Anamorphic as the best combination of video quality and quickness of buffering with lack of need for rebuffering.
What does all this mean? Well, two things. You might want to consider the cost of upgrading your bandwidth if contemplating internet streaming, or alternatively, dont place too much value on 1080p streaming ability of devices, 720p is fine, and 480p works well too for screen sizes smaller than 50".

Its the wild west out there right now and device makers and content providers are jockeying for position, with the resulting unstable marketplace. Content is king, and the ability to access it should trump technical specifications for the current consumer, a low entrance cost like the Roku Box, AppleTV and Boxee Box, or alternative uses like the PS3, XBox, and BluRay Players, or infinite forward versatility like laptops and HTPCs are the best choices for consumers in these turbulent times.

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