It seems that more and more, the people I interact with on both Twitter and Facebook want to stream their content via add-on boxes and the services they work with rather than being tied to Big Cable. Doing this is called "cutting the cord" and it's one way that consumers are trying to trim their budgets without sacrificing the content they love so much. Take for example my situation: I rarely watch anything on cable. About 98% of my content was being streamed via services like Netflix and Pandora or I already owned the content I wanted to consume on Blu-ray or MP3s. Having an $80+ cable bill made absolutely no financial sense.
To this end, during this busy holiday season, I think it high time that I write a post about the three most popular streaming boxes on the market today: Apple TV, Boxee box and the Roku Player. Notice I said popular - that's why Google TV isn't listed (ha!). I will not be including gaming consoles such as XBOX 360, because it's really beyond the scope of this post. This article is for comparison of consumer grade streaming boxes and devices like the XBOX are primarily gaming devices, not streaming consoles (although I do acknowledge they have this capability, it is not their primary function). Also, the links below to the location you can purchase each device online are not referral links, so you don't have to worry about me posting a slanted review. ;) Lastly, I'm providing this information based on my personal experience with the devices (except for the Roku - more on that later). Please don't send angry emails because I've messed up a technical nuance somewhere that 99.999% of consumers won't notice or care to understand, however, if the error is glaring enough, please send me a note so I can correct or update the information presented here.
Boxee Box by D-Link ($179, Boxee website)
When Boxee first released the Boxee box, I was skeptical. Here is what seemed to be an overpriced set-top box with a lot of unnecessary clutter going on in the back - and what was up with the design?! It's funny how first impressions can be misleading. The Boxee box was originally released at $199 when it debuted. Since then the price has falled to $179, but still boasts an impressive array of features.
For one, this is the only box out of the three I'm comparing which appears to have the most video output formats. In addition to doing true widescreen 1080p (and 1080i), it can downsize the format to 720p (720i) and 480p (480i) respectively. Changing your video preferences (and audio for that matter) in the Boxee box's OS is a breeze, with a variety of options to make any home theater fetisher squeal. These days every TV is widescreen and a few are even oversized (48" and up). Those of you who display your content on a beast like that will want to check out the overscan options. The OS has presets for a set percentage of overscan to be used on the display and you can also tweak the overscan to your exacting needs. I've had to play around with this option a bit on my 42" plasma and I've finally gotten it to where it's perfect enough to satisfy my OCD.
The box is no schlub when it comes to audio either. The connectors available on the backside of the device allow you to transmit audio via HDMI, optical cable or traditional composite (those L/R red-and-white audio cables on older TVs). Those of you hooking it up to a digital audio receiver will want to use either the HDMI or optical connections, as that will provide the best audio experience on the unit. Tweaking the format of the audio output in the settings menu will allow you to customize the audio program you're wanting. It's just that easy.
On the back, you'll notice two USB 2.0 ports. These by themselves are unimpressive, until you think about what you can do with them:
- Connect external HD media - The Boxee box is the only device that I've found and tested which can easily add media via an external HDD. Adding the device is simple - just plug it in. When you want to watch or listen to media via this method, simply navigate to the external media in the OS and consume content until your heart's content.
- Connect a Boxee Live TV device - In January 2012, Boxee will be introducing a USB dongle which will give you all the features of a traditional set-top box. You can watch live local channels via the dongle when it's connected to either an unencrypted cable connection or an HD antenna. According to Boxee's website [LINK NEEDED], the device will retail for $49.99 and they are currently taking pre-orders. The only disclaimer here is that you have to use it with a Boxee box.
The selection of content available on the Boxee box is the best that I've come across on an independent set-top box in some time. Much like the Roku line of add-on boxes, Boxee partners with what they call content partners. These content providers can range from major content distributors to independant organizations that want to get their media in as many homes as possible - all available over the Internet and mostly for free. There are some paid subscriptions you can connect to your box: Netflix, Spotify, VUDU to name a few. In the instance that you're jonesing for a late night FireFly marathon and you're not sure what service you can stream it from (or don't care to search), simply type the name of the content you're looking for into the search bar and Boxee will return links to any place it's found - on your local network, a network website (such as CBS or ABC), YouTube, Netflix and more. It's the most versatile way to watch streaming content.
Lastly, all this wouldn't be possible without the ability to enter information easily and the remote that comes with the Boxee box does just that. It boasts a full QWERTY keyboard on the back of the remote in addition to navigation buttons on the front. While it does fit nicely in the palm of your hand, my only complaint here is that the form factor of the remote is too small. Since I'm an OS X user, I've found an awesome shortcut for those of you who dig dashboard widgets to solve this problem.
This is an excellent device if you're a home theater geek and you want to cut the cord from your cable provider. If you just want a simple no-fuss way to stream content, you might want to look at the other two options available in this review.
Apple TV ($99 USD, online Apple Store)
The Apple TV is Apple, Inc's foray into the home theater market. It's changed significantly since it first shipped in March 2007. The first model (first generation) had an internal mechanical hard drive with variable sizes of 40GB or 160GB, enough to store your content locally. With the advent of the second-generation model, all the content brought to the device streams from another source - your iPhone, iPad, iPod, PC or Mac, or via the many services that it can connect to: Netflix, YouTube, MLB.tv, NHL, Flickr, etc. The flash memory included in the device is just enough to store your settings and passwords to those services - nothing more.
The ports on the back are pretty standard for today's streaming boxes: HDMI-out (1), Optical Audio out (1) and a 10/100T Ethernet port. This is fairly standard lineup of connections which should allow you to integrate this device into an existing home theater setup. Mine is connected to a 42" plasma television through a Yamaha receiver via just the HDMI connection. This is enough to display the content bright and crisp with no lost in picture or audio quality (more on audio in a moment). The most stark feature (or lack thereof) in the second-generation Apple TV is that the highest quality it streams in is 720p at 30 frames per second (fps) in H.264. Rather disappointing when you consider that most mid-to-high level displays these days are offering 1080p resolution for their high-definition offerings. Which means that the video you stream through the device may not look as good as you think it will on your shiny new 60" television. However, this may not be the case, as everyone has different vision and we all see images differently.
I'm not really sure why you'd want to use both the HDMI and optical audio out ports, unless you were connecting this device to a 7.1 channel home theater setup. Otherwise going the HDMI route should do you nicely for stereo, 2.1, quadraphonic and 5.1 audio arrangements. Like most consumer streaming devices, the device itself is not officially certified with THX, Dolby or Sony standards of audio reproduction, leaving the heavy lifting divided up between the content you're streaming and the receiver (if any) you'll connect it to.
In typical fashion, Apple feels that the services to which the device connects are enough. There is no way to add additional services, like the Boxee box for example. Also, there is a micro-USB port on the backside of the device, near all the other ports, however from what I've been able to read about it, it's for hard-flashing the device back to the original factory state or for diagnostic servicing by Apple. I've yet to run across anything that says this port can be used for an external hard drive, which in my opinion is the major drawback of this device.
The only saving grace for the Apple TV is AirPlay - but only if you're already heavily invested in Apple's nomenclature. The reason for this is that without at least iTunes running on a PC or Mac, there is no way for you to take advantage of the feature, since AirPlay has not been opened up for developers to take advantage of in their standalone desktop applications such as Pandora. However, running Pandora on your iPhone, iPod touch or iPad can offer the option to stream to the Apple TV, if you so choose. However, it pretty much renders the device down to the level of a glorified Apple Express base station.
All in all, I feel that the Apple TV is a good device to have as a secondary or tertiary convenience option for streaming media. While it may duplicate functionality (Netflix, YouTube, etc.) if you're in a household primarily of Apple products (like mine), AirPlay is a convenient way to stream photos, video and surf the web right from your iPad. If you are sans iPad or iTunes and you're in a household of non-Apple products, I would recommend you save the money on buying this device.
Roku 2 XS ($99 USD, Roku.com)
Roku actually makes 4 individual boxes to attach to your TV to stream content - the Roku LT, Roku 2 HD, Roku 2 XD and the Roku 2 XS. I've chosen the XS model for this article because its feature set is similar to both the Boxee box and Apple TV and therefore offered the best comparison at a similar price point. However, I should make the disclaimer that this is the only device I have no personal experience with and I won't be able to get hands on with a Roku box until at least early 2012. That being said, I've done my best to compare the Roku 2 XS based on its advertised feature set and nothing more.
The XS boasts pretty much the same feature set as the Apple TV in the same form factor: 802.11b/g/n wireless, 10/100T Ethernet, a HDMI port… you get the picture. But what else the XS has, for starters is full 1080p support for streaming media in addition to 720p, both in true 16:9 anamorphic widescreen. The XS offers a microSD slot, similar to the size SD cards you might be used to using in your smartphone for extra memory. This differs from the full SD slot available on the Boxee box, but in my opinion its better than no expansion at all like the Apple TV. This was probably done to keep the form factor the same as Apple, but to allow you to pull the microSD card from your phone and display the images you've taken. The same can be done with the Boxee box by using a microSD adapter.
Via the HDMI port, the Roku offers full 5.1 channel audio to run to your digital receiver should you choose to use one. However, seeing as the HDMI-out will only support 5.1 channels to your external receiver, it may leave some home theater enthusiasts with 7.1 and 10.1 audio setups disappointed.
A feature on the XS that the other two devices don't have is Bluetooth. However, the impressiveness of this offering stops when you find out it's limited to the remote control. To play Angry Birds. Is this really what we need: yet another device that can we can play Angry Birds on? This is as gimmicky as anything Apple could come up with for their product line. I'm not sure this is really the "killer feature" that most people are looking for. If you want to play video games with a gyro-controller, by a Wii or Playstation Move - a set-top box is not the right place for things like this and is, at best, a novelty that will wear thing quickly.
To wrap up this post, I created a little comparison chart for these three devices, developed according to the feature set that each device boasts. You can grab it here: Streaming-Box-Comparison.xls. The spreadsheet does list my final thoughs and summary on each device and I encourage you to check it out so you can quick-glance at which add-on set-top streaming box might be right for you.
Update: Unfortunately due to a meltdown of my WP database during some routine cleanup and maintenance last week, I lost the spreadsheet that was linked to in the last paragraph, hence the strikethrough. I now have a CDN hosting my content now, so this won't be a problem going forward. If anyone has this file and is able to email it to me, I would be appreciative. I apologize for the inconvenience.