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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  • ruzveh - Thursday, June 17, 2010 - link

    I forgot to mention USB3 & SATA3 support along with bluetooth3 & new giga connection Reply
  • batmanuel - Thursday, June 17, 2010 - link

    I found the PS3 a little to easily dismissed in this discussion. Yes, the power draw is much higher than a pure media streaming product, but for me the convenience of having one device for games, Blu-Rays, Netflix, and local file streaming outweighs the extra little hit on my power bill. I've also found the PS3 Media Streamer software to greatly increase the usefulness of the PS3 for streaming, since on a reasonably up-to-date computer it can transcode just about any file format, including 1080p MKVs, into a stream the PS3 can decode.

    Similarly, not mentioning the Media Center Extender capabilities of the 360 also does it a great disservice. It seems like a power drain was used as too big a criteria, when it honestly doesn't cross my mind when selecting home theater equipment. I'm fairly sure the power drain of my PS3 isn't quite that big when you compare it to the drain of the HDTV,surround receiver, and TiVo (withe external hard drive) combined.
    Reply
  • ganeshts - Thursday, June 17, 2010 - link

    Both PS3 and XBox are good media players, and PS3 has some great features such as bitstreaming.

    However, the intent of the article was not to cover all-in-one platforms in great detail.

    In our gaming platform reviews, we will also touch upon the media capabilities.
    Reply
  • ruzveh - Wednesday, June 23, 2010 - link

    My friend PS3 is good but it lacks file format support by way big margin and todays codec r suppose to accelerate power from cpu and graphics card for better smoother experience. but still PS3 has many things lacking..

    I forgot to mention that media streamers can come equipped with some game emulators to play on our HDTV like this product "multimedia-mp6-player-sound-system-and-game-console" on chinavasionDotCom
    Reply
  • balancebox - Thursday, June 17, 2010 - link

    max reframe rate for 1080p h.264/x264 mkv playback should be tested

    I purchased an asus o player air recently it plays 720p fine even with 10 reframes but for 1080p it is having problems with 10 reframes, 5 reframes plays fine

    its probably do to hardware memory limitation. I would like to confirm if the WD TV Live can play 1080p with 16 reframes with video "planet earth from pole to pole 1080p"

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NQdSLOhrVMc#t=4m19s <--- this video says it can but being youtube it isn't reliable

    also WD TV have a larger linux modding community than asus o player =(
    Reply
  • ganeshts - Thursday, June 17, 2010 - link

    balancebox,

    This is definitely a part of our test suite (The 16 reframe video is one of the files). That said, almost all modern chipsets can handle 16 reframe (32 reframe for interlaced H264).

    Personally, I can confirm for you that WDTV Live indeed plays the 16 reframe Planet Earth sample, but only if it is off the local hard disk connected to USB. It doesn't play well over wired ethernet.

    I will include the following in our reviews:

    (1) Homebrew firmware / community development support
    Reply
  • NeBlackCat - Friday, June 18, 2010 - link

    Excellent article and follow up, once again showing why AT is in a class of it's own. Really looking forward to the next instalment!

    One major (imho) omission though, and it's very important to many people - the extent to which software is open and has active third party development. This keeps the bug count down and feature count up, promotes choice and innovation, makes your investment go further, and gives you a whole new way to have fun if you're a hacker. Ask Dreambox owners.

    For example, you could categorise each as:

    Closed: runs manufacturer software only, or perhaps semi-FLOSS (eg. Linux plus a proprietary manufacturer SDK that is closed, buggy and feature limited - are you listening Realtek/Sigma?).

    Customisable: mainly closed, but has been hacked in a limited way, allowing some end user customisation (eg. NMTs and their plugins and customisable UIs)

    Hackable: not fully open, but has been hacked enough to make most things possible, even complete firmware replacements.

    Open: anything goes - IONs, Dreamboxes, etc.
    Reply
  • NeBlackCat - Friday, June 18, 2010 - link

    > (1) Homebrew firmware / community development support

    Bah, that'll teach me to not hit the post button quick enough!
    Reply
  • Colin1497 - Saturday, June 19, 2010 - link

    Seems like a pretty big oversight. I stream from my PC and Netflix on my S3 TiVo quite a lot. Reply
  • scJohn - Saturday, June 19, 2010 - link

    I found this site useful for audio test clips: http://www.demo-world.eu/trailers/high-definition-... . Scroll down to see the Dolby, DTD and THX sections. I used the audio clips to see what audio the WD Live would pass thru to my A/V receiver.

    When testing a wired/wireless connection a lot of times a short clip (< 3-minutes) will play fine but when you try and stream a 2 hour movie all kinds of problems seem to crop up. I guess I'm recommending that your test suite have a good selection of run times.

    Another area that needs to be addressed is filmware updates. Does the company have a good history on updates? Not sure how one would about assigning a grade to a company in this matter. Also, what problems, uprgades, etc. can a company do on it's own and what a company is dependent upon the chip manufacturer's SDK.
    Reply

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