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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  • Stokestack - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    An oft-ignored product category is that which streams content FROM your cable or satellite box TO your computer. I don't really care about watching crap-quality compressed video on my big TV, but I would like to watch shows from my cable box on a laptop in my kitchen or home office.

    Please include products that perform this task too. Thanks!
    Reply
  • ganeshts - Tuesday, June 15, 2010 - link

    Stokestack, yes, we are working on covering these devices too, but in a separate series of articles in this very section. Do you have any particular devices in this category that you would like us to review? Reply
  • Stokestack - Wednesday, June 16, 2010 - link

    Thanks for the response.

    The first product that comes to mind is Slingbox, and that might even be overkill for just viewing stuff around the house. I don't really care about transmitting stuff over the Internet to watch remotely.

    Another appears to be the HAVA Platinum HD TV Device.

    And, uh... those were the only ones I could find. I guess this could be a very series.
    Reply
  • Stokestack - Wednesday, June 16, 2010 - link

    SHORT series, that is. Reply
  • Hubble70 - Wednesday, June 16, 2010 - link

    Hauppauge HD-PVR over component up to 1080i / digital audio
    Blackmagic over component and HDMI up to 1080p
    Avermedia over component up to 1080i / analog audio
    Reply
  • nexox - Tuesday, June 15, 2010 - link

    I've got a Popcorn Hour A-110, and I'm nearly entirely impressed with it. All it really needs is a much better menu system. I'm hoping that the Popbox fixes that, if it ever comes out.

    I'd like to point out one of my main concerns with these sorts of devices, which the PCH series handles, and which many others don't: NFS.

    I understand that lots of people use Windows with the built in CIFS file sharing, or even UPNP/DNLA, but honestly those protocols are pretty weak when compared with NFS (especially over UDP on wired ethernet.) Since I don't use Windows, NFS is the natrual choice, but I've found little information on whether most of the current generation of media renderers support NFS well or at all.

    And lots more people than just Linux users would potentially benefit from NFS - many of those little NAS boxes people like so much can do much higher performance with NFS than CIFS or UPNP, which means higher bitrate video, less skipping, and better wifi performance.
    Reply
  • ganeshts - Tuesday, June 15, 2010 - link

    Yes, NFS is one of the best network sharing protocols. The WDTV Live also supports it in the custom firmware. We will add this to our testing methodology for reviews:

    (1) Network / Local file system and communication protocol support.
    Reply
  • daskino - Monday, June 21, 2010 - link

    however it is only the original WDTV that supports NFS the the Live and the live plus and the next gen wdtv oes not support true NFS olny by CIFF interceptor Reply
  • Modeverything - Tuesday, June 15, 2010 - link

    This looked like a really nice streamer for only $88.

    http://www.brite-view.com/cinematube.php
    Reply
  • DieterBSD - Tuesday, June 15, 2010 - link

    ganeshts writes,
    > DVI and DisplayPort are not aimed at the multimedia market. DVI is unable
    > to carry audio signals, while DisplayPort connectors are not present on
    > TVs / AV receivers which are common parts of a home theater system. Like
    > it or not, home theater enthusiasts seem to be stuck with the HDMI
    > standard rather than the royalty free DisplayPort

    My point is that many people already have a TV/monitor/display/projector
    that does not have HDMI, so they might not care if a streamer has HDMI
    or not. I've read plenty of complaints about HDMI, apparently the
    connector likes to fall off. What counts is if the streamer has the
    outputs the user wants/needs. Unfortunately there are quite a few
    these days: RF, composite, s-video, component, DVI, HDMI, displayport.
    A computer monitor might require the so-called VGA, and there are
    at least three varieties: separate H & V sync, composite sync, and
    sync-on-green. Streamers aren't just useful for the main TV, people
    might want to use one with an older TV in another room.

    Then there is DiiVA:
    http://www.brightsideofnews.com/news/2009/4/22/eth...
    http://admin.virtualpressoffice.com/SupportingDocC...
    Unfortunately I haven't heard of any products with DiiVA. :-(

    Stokestack writes,
    > An oft-ignored product category is that which streams content FROM your
    > cable or satellite box TO your computer. I don't really care about watching
    > crap-quality compressed video on my big TV, but I would like to watch shows
    > from my cable box on a laptop in my kitchen or home office. Please include
    > products that perform this task too. Thanks!

    An excellent idea, although I would suggest making these a separate article.

    nexox writes,
    > I understand that lots of people use Windows with the built in CIFS file
    > sharing, or even UPNP/DNLA, but honestly those protocols are pretty weak
    > when compared with NFS (especially over UDP on wired ethernet.)

    And do the boxes support NFS over TCP? (Older implementations of NFS
    were UDP only.) Personally I'd like to see something better than NFS.
    Too bad that popularity seems to be inversely related to quality.
    Reply

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