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 - Tuesday, June 15, 2010 - link


    WTV and DVR-MS are already in our test suite.

    We will make sure the following is in our reviews:

    (1) Support for WTV and DVR-MS containers
  • s44 - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    The LG BD390 has been discontinued and unavailable for months now. At this point we should be looking at the LG BD570/590 or the Samsung C5500/6500.
  • Hubble70 - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    Yes please. My parent's LG590 freezes up on them and they are pissed. If you did a review maybe it would whip them into shape and deliver a decent firmware.
  • Decaff - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    Another thing I believe you should add to the list is DLNA support. It offers some neat capabilities in controlling your setup from a PC.
    Also, be sure yo check the audio and video quality, as I have heard rumors of some players not displaying a proper picture (Xbox for example).
    Furthermore, I think you should pay special attention to the interface of the media streamer, as it has to be easy to navigate, even if you have a thousand movies stored on your NAS.
  • ganeshts - Tuesday, June 15, 2010 - link

    Decaff, Definitely!

    WDTV Live is DLNA 1.5 certified. So, we will definitely test similar capabilities for other media streamers that we review.

    Points to note from your comment for our reviews:

    (1) DLNA Support
    (2) Quality of User Interface
  • hughlle - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    erm, "as is its wont"

    that makes no sense to me, although granted i'm just out of bed.
  • clarkn0va - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    Does that help?
  • genzai - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    It would be very helpful to me (and i think many other readers) who have extensive libraries ripped (by for instance handbrake) into "iDevice" compatible formats, such as the appleTV, iphone etc. Though these files are essentially a form of h264 in a .m4v (quicktime?) wrapper i have found in my own limited testing that they rarely work on non "iDevices". When we are considering moving away from the appleTV or extending our iPod video library to one of these new feature rich players, it would be very good to know whether we would be looking at re-encoding our entire libraries, or if a device will support the .m4v files.
  • ganeshts - Tuesday, June 15, 2010 - link

    genzai, Thanks for your very good suggestion.

    We will take the following point for our reviews:

    (1) Support for M4V container
  • SlyNine - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    I use the WD Live and Twonky to host HD movies, Series, Music. Twonky does a great job of organizing my music but I wish the interface was more customizable ( and maybe it is, I haven't played around with it much).

    WD Live may not be the most powerful, But its fast enough to play 40 mbps .264/VC1 movies with DTS or DD, I also think it can support DTS HD, but TrueHD seems to be lacking. Like Twonky, the interface could use a little work, but it's plenty usable.

    I use 4 TB worth of harddrive space and for my series DVD's, I just use handbreak and reencode them ( thank god for the Core I7).

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