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If you're like me, you never get tired of digital content. I appreciate having multiple options for TV shows, music, and movies. An abundance of content allows me to re-watch my favorites, as well as provide an opportunity to binge-watch something new—and lately, with so many shows being picked up on Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu Plus, the latter has been happening quite frequently (and appears to be trending nationwide as well).
Luckily, there are plenty of options for people who like to take a weekend to catch up on their favorite shows. Lots of manufacturers are lining up to give us the entertainment sources we crave. Even home theater components and Internet devices, which used to be distant cousins, are now practically siblings. In fact, many TVs now come preloaded with “smart” features that allow you to stream content directly to the screen. Taking it a step further, devices like the Roku, Apple TV, Slingbox, and TiVo allow us to combine two of our favorite technologies—high-definition content and high-speed Internet access. We’re going to take a look at some of these devices and explore the features that make them worthy of sitting alongside your other home theater gear.
Streaming media devices started, back in the day, with TiVo. TiVo allowed users to record content to play back later (accommodating working people who didn’t have time to sit down and watch their favorite nightly programs). With TiVo came the advent of digital video recorders (DVR), on which almost every cable provider soon jumped. But users were still limited to whatever content was available on their nightly broadcast or cable schedules.
After TiVo, video on demand became the tour de force in digital entertainment. But video on demand was an extra expenditure, and as more and more viewers became integrated with the Internet and found out how to download movies and content on their own, along came Netflix and their video-streaming service. Known for delivering physical DVDs door to door, Netflix saw that the future was streaming video. Soon, the doors were wide open on the digital viewing stage, and others followed. Amazon, Hulu Plus, and others wanted in on streaming digital video, and the set-top streaming box niche was born.
Streaming video boxes are not for everyone. You may not find all the content you want, and getting new content (like last night’s episode of Scandal) may still be a hit-or-miss proposition. Some broadcast channels have their own Internet stations, where video on demand is plausible, but not every content provider has jumped on that bandwagon. Still, when considering cutting your cable box out of the picture and replacing it with a set-top streaming device, you should research each device and see what content is available. As these boxes become more popular, more specific channels are being released.
Roku offers a fine assortment, as does Apple TV (including BBC broadcasts, public television, and Internet-only content). You should also ask yourself what you want from the Internet experience. For example, is YouTube important? If it is, then Roku is out because it does not offer a dedicated YouTube channel. Some devices do not allow for attached drives to feed extra content; so if attached storage is a big deal, then look carefully and make sure the streaming device you want can support external storage.
It’s also important to consider what type of experience you want from your streaming box. If you want high-definition, lag-free content, you need to make sure you have the best possible streaming in your network (check out the InDepth article, "Wow-Fi: How to Get the Strongest Signal You Can at Home," which explains how to keep your Wi-Fi signal strong). Without good bandwidth, you may experience lag or intermittent pauses when watching TV or streaming content. Also, when displaying content, make sure your streaming device can handle Full HD 1080p content. And ask yourself if you’re going to hardwire the box into your system, or use Wi-Fi. I prefer Ethernet, since you usually get a cleaner and stronger signal from a wired connection than you do from Wi-Fi.
Finally, make sure you can integrate your streaming device into your home entertainment microcosm with the connection you want. If your TV has HDMI, then most likely you want to use a box with HDMI. If your box has optical out, make sure to take advantage of it—in other words, treat your streaming device as if it’s a member of your home entertainment setup.
When it comes to content, the Roku 3 has plenty of it. With access to more than 1,000 entertainment channels, you’re sure to be busy exploring new shows and movies. The Roku 3 includes popular movie channels like Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Amazon. The content doesn’t stop there; you’ll also have access to news apps and music services like iHeart radio. The options are many. There are multiple Roku devices, but the flagship Roku 3 offers two options for connecting to the Internet: Ethernet and dual-band 802.11 a/b/g/n Wi-Fi. There’s an HDMI output on the rear of the device that outputs video in Full HD 1080p resolution. The Roku also features a USB port that allows you to connect peripherals like USB flash drives for music and viewing photo and video files stored on portable storage devices directly on your television. Plus, the Roku 3’s microSD card slot provides additional game and channel storage. A free version of Angry Birds is built in as well.
The Roku 3 also comes with a high-tech remote that is motion controlled, so you can use it as a controller for an enhanced gaming experience. The remote has a conveniently located headphone jack for late-night listening. This means you can plug your headphones right into the remote instead of running a long cable all the way from your TV or home theater receiver. With a width of 3.5 inches, the Roku 3 can easily fit in with your other components and it can be taken from room to room as well. If you can do without dual-band wireless and the added convenience of a remote control headphone jack, you might want to consider the more budget-friendly Roku 2XS, which has access to the same digital content that the Roku 3 provides.
Apple TV streams content from popular apps like Netlfix and YouTube. Plus, if you already take advantage of the iCloud ecosystem, it can also serve as an entertainment hub for your personal music, photos, and videos. You can also access the iTunes store to explore more content and you can share that content with your Apple iOS mobile devices. Of course, Apple TV also supports AirPlay technology, which allows you to stream media over your home network from your iPhone, iPod Touch, or iPad directly to your TV. You can even mirror their screens on your TV’s display. This is a great feature if you have lots of media stored on your portable devices. Sports enthusiasts will appreciate Apple TV’s NBA, MLB, and NHL apps.
The unit’s HDMI port delivers 1080p video and you can connect Apple TV to your home network via 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi or 10/100BASE-T Ethernet. You can also use the iOS remote control app to operate your Apple TV from your iPhone, iPod, or iPad. Apple TV works seamlessly with your family of iOS/Mac devices, but it’s also great for Windows users as well. Windows users can still use Apple TV to access Apple’s growing content library including the recently added Yahoo and PBS channels. In fact, you can even use the Windows iTunes app to upload your music and play it back through your Apple TV.
TiVo introduced their first DVR more than a decade ago. Since then, they have become a major player in the world of DVRs. TiVo’s Roamio, Roamio Plus, and Roamio Pro models combine DVR and streaming capabilities into a single unit. And in true TiVo form, they enhance your cable box by offering advanced recording and sharing capabilities. On the DVR side of things, the Roamio allows you to record 4 shows at once, while the Roamio Plus and Pro increase your recording capabilities to 6 shows simultaneously. The Roamio, Roamio Plus, and Roamio Pro provide 75, 150, and 450 hours of HD recording time respectively. They all feature built-in streaming apps like YouTube, Netflix, and Hulu Plus as well. The Roamio Plus and Pro models add built-in streaming support that allows you to stream content (including recorded shows and live broadcasts) directly to your iPhone or iPad as long as a Wi-Fi network is available. This is a great feature for road warriors and jet setters. Each TiVo device has built-in Wi-Fi for connecting to your home network and an HDMI port that outputs up to 1080p video.
Slingbox is another major player in wireless entertainment. The Slingbox 350 and 500 models attach to your DVR, cable, or satellite box, and act as access points for you to watch live and recorded TV on your smartphone, tablet, or computer anywhere Internet access is available. If you’re on the go, there’s no need to leave your TV shows behind. Not only can you watch TV from your portable devices, but you can completely control your Slingbox from those devices as well.
The Slingbox 350 and 500 both feature Full HD 1080p streaming and Ethernet connectivity. However, the 500 also provides built-in Wi-Fi wireless connectivity and it comes preloaded with the Blockbuster on Demand app, which allows you to rent premium movies and stream them directly to the device. The Slingbox 350 and 500 both offer composite and component video connections. The 500 also provides an HDMI output. While the Slingbox devices are not designed to be stand-alone streamers, they do offer enhanced features over standard cable boxes, giving you greater access to content in and out of your home.
SiliconDust offers two intriguing products, the HDHomeRun and the HDHomeRun Prime. Both of these devices connect to your router via Ethernet and allow you to watch and record live TV from any Internet-connected computer in your home. If you’re watching TV in the bedroom and need to spend some time in the kitchen, just take your HDHomeRun connected laptop with you and you're all set. Connect your cable source to the rear of the HDHomeRun or HDHomeRun Prime via the included RG6 cable and the devices will be all set to stream your cable TV content to any connected devices at a resolution of up to 1080i. The HDHomeRun has a digital tuner that allows you to connect an antenna to pick up free over-the-air channels and the HDHomeRun Prime has a CableCARD slot. If supported by your cable provider, you can order a CableCARD from your provider and insert it into your HDHomeRun Prime to replace your cable box. The HDHomeRun Prime is also compatible with Windows Media Center and it even allows you to pause live TV. The HDHomeRun Prime supports streaming from DLNA-connected devices as well.
Nyrius is an emerging brand in audio and video streaming technology. Their ARIES Pro Wireless HD and ARIES Home+ HD models are engineered to deliver uncompressed 3D and 1080p streaming over a wide signal area. Both devices offer plug-and-play HDMI connectivity and are designed to get you from un-boxing to streaming in a matter of minutes. No software is required to use either device, and you can add additional transmitters if you have the need to expand your wireless streaming network.
The compact form factor of the ARIES Pro Wireless HD makes it a great companion for portable devices like laptops and gaming systems. While designed with laptops in mind, you can connect the Aries Pro Wireless HD to any source that has an HDMI port. The wireless HDMI transmitter that comes with this system is approximately the size of a flash drive is conveniently powered by a USB port; this means you don’t have to maintain a separate AC adapter. As mentioned earlier, this portable streamer can stream 3D and HD content up to 1080p. It also supports Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 for multi-channel audio playback. Once the wireless HD receiver is connected to your display, it can communicate with the wireless transmitter up to 160 feet away. While the wireless signal can travel through walls in certain conditions, a clear line of sight is recommended for ideal operation. Furthermore, the ARIES Pro Wireless HD is designed to not interfere with other wireless devices in your home—freeing up the airwaves for your Bluetooth and Wi-Fi electronics.
The Aries Home+ HD features a larger wireless transmitter but adds support for uncompressed 7.1 PCM audio over its HDMI 1.4a connection. 3D and 1080p support remain for uncompressed video streaming. The Aries Home+ HD also adds an IR transmitter, which allows you to point your remote control at the receiver to change TV functions. This is a great solution for custom installs, as it gives you the option of controlling your TV remotely. The wireless receiver also has a USB that allows you to connect a mouse and keyboard for remote control of your laptop or desktop computer. This is good for users who plan to use the Aries Home+ HD to mirror the image of their computer screen. This wireless transmitter and receiver combination gives you the ability to transmit audio and video up to 100 feet away, with a clear line of sight still being the preferred configuration.
Whether you're streaming Internet channels, watching live TV in or out of your home, or using a single entertainment hub for all your music, videos, and photos—any one of these devices plays an important role in keeping you connected to the content you love. Whether you subscribe to premium streaming services or prefer free media, all of these devices are designed to provide all your favorite entertainment sources through a single box.