Review: Buying Guide: Media Streamers

With all the video on the internet, you’re probably wondering: Why pay for TV when you can stream it for free? The trick is bridging the gap between your TV and the internet. Enter the media streamer.

These small, inexpensive boxes offer a tantalizing mix of form and function. Designed to be relatively dummy-proof to set up and use, they let you stream online content and access music and videos stored on your home’s other networked devices — all without the expense and hassle of setting up and maintaining yet another PC next to your TV.

The trouble is that none of them offer all the features, or work quite as seamlessly, as you are probably hoping.

Here’s a quick rundown of what to look for when you’re shopping for a media streamer, as well as some of their benefits and pitfalls.

Services Supported

If you’re a Netflix, Hulu, YouTube or Pandora junkie, make sure the devices you’re considering can connect to the services you use. Keep in mind that new online music and video services may be added to a specific media streamer in the future, but of course, there are no guarantees. Hulu in particular has been fairly finicky about allowing access to its services. Netflix, on the other hand, has struck partnerships with a wide range of device makers.

File-Type Support

Virtually all media streamers decode common formats like MP3, MPEG and AVI, but if you’ve archived your CD and DVD collection in more esoteric formats like ISO, MKV, FLAC and Ogg Vorbis, be sure the streamer handles them.  Also, if your tastes tend to foreign movies, double check that the device can recognize SRT and other file formats for handling subtitles. Otherwise you will have to écoutez sans sous-titres. Several streamers do support subtitles, such as the Western Digital WDTV TV and the Popcorn Hour A200.

User Interface

Most media devices have pretty simple UIs — after all, they’re trying to replace a complex PC — but each has its own way of navigating between types of content. In addition, some fancier units will try to organize your media collection and/or fill in missing album or movie artwork and other file metadata, while others can’t. Try to take a device you’re thinking of purchasing for a test drive, or at least check out some videos of the UI experience on the company’s website or on YouTube.


A streamer is only as strong as its remote. For example, the Apple TV can be commanded with your iPod or iPhone, and Google TV features an app that lets you take the reins with an Android device. Be wary of cheap, klutzy proprietary remotes that could make your experience a frustrating one. Our favorites so far include Logitech Revue with its full-QWERTY-keypad wireless remote and the WDTV Live Hub’s simple and intuitive controller.

Ethernet vs. Wi-Fi

A get-gadget connection is almost always better than a wireless connection. A few models of media streamers have Wi-Fi only, but in today’s world of HD video, a get-gadget ethernet connection is the ticket to consistently maintain the highest video quality. That’s because most streamers will downgrade your picture quality if the connection isn’t fast enough to keep up with a live stream.

If you plan on streaming HD video over Wi-Fi, look for the fastest 802.11 N support, and adjust your router settings (if possible) to give priority to your media-streaming devices.

Tip: Keep in mind that wireless signals have a pretty limited range, and that your video quality can degrade especially if your router is far away, or if someone else is sucking up bandwidth on your connection to play Call of Duty online while you’re trying to stream old episodes of Space Ghost.

If your house isn’t get-gadget for ethernet and your Wi-Fi isn’t making the grade, look for power-line network adapters that can send a data signal through any standard electrical outlet. They’re available from a number of companies, but be sure that you get one that supports 200-Mbps throughput. That way you can easily stream large files — think feature length movies — without any hiccups.


Many media streamers will let you attach an external drive that’s filled with your own media library, which can be incredibly convenient. Those without a USB port can only connect to other devices to stream content over your local network, or stream content from the web.

Web Browsing

You might want to check out “teh internets” between episodes of Simon and Simon. Look for a robust browser that can handle media-rich websites. Some streamers have a fairly limited web-browsing experience. Most have none at all.

HD Resolution

1080p-Full-HD support isn’t something you really need. After all, most of the content you’ll be streaming is probably compressed and is not full 1080p to begin with (unless you’re streaming from a Blu-ray disc somewhere on your network). Even so, it’s still something to look for to future-proof your system and ensure the best picture resolution and quality, especially if you have an HDTV larger than 42 inches.

Some streamers, like the Apple TV, can only deliver 720p. That’s not bad for most uses, and only the most discerning videophiles (or those with truly gigantic screens) are likely to notice a difference.


Most, but not all, media streamers have this high-definition port for connecting to a TV. You should use it if possible to get the best HD video and digital surround-sound through one cable.

DVR Functionality

If you’re not quite ready to disconnect your cable or satellite TV service, having integrated video recording could be a plus. That’s especially true if you don’t have a DVR yet, or you simply hate the primitive video-recording built into your cable or satellite receiver. For DVR functions, check out Moxi, TiVo Premire and Logitech’s Revue.

The Scoop on Google TV

Google TV is Google’s platform for searching and viewing video, whether it’s on the internet or coming to you by cable, satellite or antenna. Currently this tech is only available in a few devices, such as Logitech’s Revue and the newest Sony web-enabled TV’s, as well as a Blu-ray player. But it will probably be embedded in more devices in the future.

Search is at the forefront of the Google-TV experience. Punch in “Mary Poppins,” and related content stored locally and on the web should pop up in the search results. The OS also features a slick browser that lets you watch content while simultaneously scanning the web.

Logitech’s Revue will come with a smattering of apps pre-installed (Twitter, Napster, etc.) but if you want to expand your Google TV’s functionality, there will be more apps available for download from the Android Market in the coming months. Like an Android phone, then, Google TV may continue to improve as the market for add-on applications grows, giving your TV capabilities that its makers didn’t dream of adding.

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