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How to Make Your Dumb TV PC-Literate

With a remote-controlled media device plugged into your TV, retrieving digital photos, music, and videos or savoring select Web sites can be as painless as changing the channel.

By Michael Antonoff

So you bought your HDTV set before built-in USB ports, digital media playback, and network connectivity became all the rage? No problem. By attaching the right peripheral, your home theater or bedroom TV can be as up-to-date as the latest Internet-savvy set.

Two types of dedicated devices are available: media players and media receivers. Unfortunately, the terms are used interchangeably. Simply put a media player plays content attached to it. A media receiver is a media player also capable of streaming content that is stored elsewhere. A media player stands alone. A media receiver is network-connectable.

Western Digital WD TV Live HD Media Player with external USB hard drive

A media player may come with storage of its own, but it always contains one or more USB ports for adding storage. With storage, you can park your music, photo, and video files in the player itself or on a hard drive or flash memory stick that you plug in. Media players weren't originally designed as network-compatible devices. A media player's main appeal is that you don't need a home network to get content from your computer to your TV. Alternatively, some (but not all) digital cameras and MP3 players that normally attach to a computer by USB cable or pop-out connector can be plugged directly into the media player's USB port for viewing stills and videos or listening to music on your TV.

A media receiver does everything a media player does, but it also contains an RJ-45 port for receiving media from other devices on your network. Content could be streaming from one or more computers on your network or from a network server. Not limited to media in your home, media receivers increasingly stream content through your broadband connection from sites on the boundless Internet chosen by the equipment's manufacturer.

While a media player is simpler to install than a media receiver, it does make you walk back and forth and wait for files to copy when you add new content. For those people who can use the exercise, media players with storage include the Iomega 1TB ScreenPlay Plus HD Multimedia Hard Drive and Seagate FreeAgent  Theater HD Media Player with 250GB Hard Drive.

The 1TB ScreenPlay Plus HD Multimedia Hard Drive (above) from Iomega embeds a one-terabyte hard drive  into a TV peripheral the size of a box of chocolates. Imagine how many hours of high-def video you'll be able to store internally, with room to expand via a USB-attached drive. Capable of decoding a wide variety of conventional and high-def video formats, ScreenPlay lets you take advantage of your HDTV set's best-quality input whether it's HDMI or component video.

The FreeAgent Theater HD Media Player with 250GB Hard Drive from Seagate lets you pop in a FreeAgent Go portable hard drive (one 250GB drive is included) or attach any USB storage device. Using its component video outputs, the player can display content on your HDTV at resolutions up to 1080i. Supported video formats include MPEG-1/2/4, DivX, and Xvid. There are also S-Video, composite video, stereo, and coaxial digital audio outputs.

Moving over to media players that are media receivers capable of streaming content from your home network or the Internet, our trio consists of the ASUS O!Play HDP-R1 Media Player, Netgear Digital Entertainer Live EVA2000, and WD TV Live HD Media Player.

The ASUS O!Play HDP-R1 Media Player sports two USB inputs, one of which doubles as an eSATA port. That way, you're covered whether you want to attach a USB flash drive or hard drive or eSATA hard drive. The Ethernet port accepts content streamed over your home network from a computer or network-attached storage device. The player's HDMI output can send content to your HDTV set at full HD 1080p resolution. You can connect the player to an older TV using the composite video and stereo outputs and included A/V cable.

Netgear may be famous for its routers, but the company is also known for its leading-edge media receivers. Its latest is the Digital Entertainer Live EVA2000, dubbed "Baby Eva" due to larger models in the Netgear line like the Digital Entertainer Elite EVA9150. Besides playing media from up to two attached USB devices, the EVA2000 streams a generous assortment of video and audio formats including protected tunes in iTunes from a Windows computer on your network. Baby Eva is also your ticket for enjoying YouTube on your TV without a computer, as well as browsing and playing popular movies and TV shows from Hulu, Netflix, CBS, and more as long as a networked PC is running the PlayOn software. You'll also be able to view newly-released pay-per-view movies from Roxio CinemaNow.  In addition, a free trial of VuNow is included, which provides hundreds of other Internet videos and live Internet TV channels and radio stations streamed from around the world.

Western Digital's original WD TV HD Media Player was sneakernet only, meaning there was no network connection. Its new WD TV Live HD Media Player, on the other hand, is network-ready, with the word live standing in for media receiver. WD TV Live supports an amazing variety of video, music, and photo formats, and the player's firmware can always be updated to accommodate codec revisions. Now that Western Digital has recognized the popularity of Internet streaming, you can use WD TV Live to show pictures directly from Flickr, listen to music from Pandora and Live365, or watch videos from YouTube. And you can stream media from files anywhere on your home network. That's a lot of entertainment delivered by a box that takes up less surface area than a CD.

Keep in mind that none of these devices play or stream every video, music, and photo format out there. Check the specifications to see if a particular format you're fond of is covered. Alternatively, a computer-based conversion utility may be available. A chart follows that compares major features and shows the rear jack panels.

Pint-Size Media Players and Receivers

  Inputs Outputs Included Storage Streaming Ability? Maximum Resolution Size (WxHxD)
ASUS O!Play HDP-R1 Media Player 2 USB, one doubles as eSATA; RJ-45 Ethernet 1x RCA Composite Video
1x RCA Stereo Audio
1x HDMI
1x S/PDIF
None Yes 1080p 7.1 x 1.9 x 4.9"
Iomega 1TB ScreenPlay Plus HD Multimedia Hard Drive 1x USB 2.0 (B)
1x USB 2.0 (A)
1x HDMI
1x RCA Composite
1x RCA Component 1x RCA Stereo
1x Coaxial S/PDIF
1-Terabyte No 1080i 5.1 x 1.75 x 7.75"
Netgear Digital Entertainer Live EVA2000* 2x USB 2.0 RJ-45 Ethernet 1x HDMI 1x AV composite (single pin) None Yes 720p 5.6 x 1 x 3.7"
Seagate FreeAgent  Theater HD Media Player with 250GB Hard Drive 1x USB 2.0
1x Dock for FreeAgent Go
1x RCA Composite
1x S-Video
1x RCA Component 1x Coaxial S/PDIF
1x RCA Stereo
250 Gigabytes No 1080i 7.2 x 1.2 x 7.1"
Western Digital WD TV Live HD Media Player 2x USB 2.0 (A)
1x RJ-45 Ethernet
1x HDMI
1x RCA Composite 1x Optical S/PDIF
1x RCA Stereo
None Yes 1080p 4.9 x 1.6 x 3.9"


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