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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  • ganeshts - Monday, June 21, 2010 - link

    scJohn,

    Thanks for the link. We already have 2 files from that link which are L4.1 compliant H264, but fail on the WDTV as well as the WDTV Live.

    We will pick up more files from that site, as you have suggested.

    Points from your comments for our reviews:

    (1) Add long clips to test suite
    (2) Frequency of firmware updates (assign grades to company)
    (3) Difference between reference platform from chip manufacturer and the product platform ; Missing / Additional features between chip manufacturer's SDK and product platform's firmware base.
    Reply
  • darkeyes909 - Sunday, June 20, 2010 - link

    Before anyone else there was Avel Link, a Philips dvd that played divx etc. and a Plextor unit that played various media files. Reply
  • gigahertz20 - Sunday, June 20, 2010 - link

    I just want to know what product is the best for videos with high bit rates. Right now I have a Popcorn Hour A-110 and it has worked pretty good for the last year and a half or so. I've never really stressed it though with a super high bit rate movie though. Reply
  • ganeshts - Monday, June 21, 2010 - link

    gigahertz20,

    Off a local drive mounted on USB, there is probably no difference between different products based on the same chipset. As of now, both Sigma and Realtek are comparable as far as high bit rate videos are concerned (Both can play Blu Ray compliant clips easily). I think your A-110 will probably not have any trouble with high bit rate movies, and if it does have, it probably fails on current generation chipsets too.

    As long as you stay away from the Chips & Media IP products like the HDX Bone (which are mainly for PMPs), you should be fine :)
    Reply
  • stormcrow216 - Sunday, June 20, 2010 - link

    Something that matters a lot to me in a streaming box and that I'm not seeing a lot about in your articles, is the ability to display web content. I don't mean youtube or netflix, I mean random web pages without video attached. Do all of these devices support this? None of them? A true HTPC would do this of course, and that's kind of my default circumstance right now. But I'd rather have something more streamlined. Reply
  • ganeshts - Monday, June 21, 2010 - link

    stormcrow216,

    This is something many people would like, but it blurs the distinction between HTPCs and media streamers. As embedded processors become more and more powerful, we will see improvements on media streamers such as Tegra 2 based Boxee TV. Right now, they are in a 'neither here - nor there' situation, as they supposedly don't support Blu Ray compliant clips and also don't have a full featured web browser. A year or so down the line, I am sure things will improve to where we want them to be right now!
    Reply
  • ganeshts - Monday, June 21, 2010 - link

    stormcrow216,

    Do peruse this link: http://www.opera.com/press/releases/2010/05/03/

    It looks like we may get web browsing on Realtek based products in the near future (However, I am sure it is going to be severely crippled by the lack of horsepower, since all it has is a MIPS processor inside, clocked pretty low compared to the traditional HTPC).
    Reply
  • daskino - Monday, June 21, 2010 - link

    Ganesh T S do you happen to have a email i can contact you on? Reply
  • ganeshts - Monday, June 21, 2010 - link

    daskino,

    You can contact me at: ganeshDOTfilesATgmail
    Reply
  • Modelworks - Monday, June 21, 2010 - link

    A few bits of information about the Live. WD has a new version called the WDTV Live Plus. This version uses similar hardware but uses the sigma chip with macrovision support . It was necessary to support netflix. The pricing seems to be about $120 so not much different from the earlier one.

    The WDTV Live has custom firmware available. The box runs linux and with the curstom firmware users can access it just like any other linux system. People have added torrent, web services, OSD mods, and more . You can run things in the background like torrents, ftp and more and it doesn't effect the video performance thanks to the offloading of the decoding to the hardware. On board ram is 512MB, with about 180MB for user programs. Changing firmware is as easy as using a usb flash drive and you can change it back to retail easily if you want.

    The plus version of the box does not have custom firmware yet.

    This forum has more info:

    http://forum.wdlxtv.com/wdtv-live.php
    Reply

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