Buyer's Guides

Surveying the Set-Top Boxes


Will 2010 be the year of the set-top box? This category (sometimes called “broadband-enabled devices” since the term “set-top box” used to refer to a product rented from a cable company) includes a variety of devices that deliver streamed or downloaded online video to the television, and it was a huge topic at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. Blu-ray players, connected televisions, and game consoles can also do the job, however, so there’s a great deal of competition in a category that hasn’t really taken off yet.

To get an idea how the options compare, we sampled five of the leading players: Apple TV, Boxee Box, PlayStation 3, Roku, and VUDU (on a Blu-ray DVD player).

None of them was a dud, and they all delivered movies and TV shows quickly and easily. Read on for the details, though, because they provide vastly different content. Which device you choose depends on what you want to watch and how much you want to pay.

Apple TV
Could Apple have big plans in store for a revised Apple TV? We hope so, because the unloved current version has been on the shelf for far too long. While it was cutting edge when it first launched, its lack of support for outside services makes it feel dated.

The Apple TV currently comes in only one configuration-160GB for $229. That storage is so you can sync the media files from all of your networked computers to the Apple TV. If the files are synced, you can play them even when those host computers are off; if the computers are on, you can stream any content stored in iTunes on those machines.

The Apple TV looks similar to a Mac Mini, but it’s larger and flatter. You connect it with a composite, an optical, or an HDMI connection, although the device doesn’t include the cables for any of those. We bet a lot of people make an angry run to an electronics shop after getting the Apple TV home and discovering it doesn’t include cables.

Connecting the Apple TV to a home network is quick and easy: Just choose your Wi-Fi network and enter your password. A simple walk-through helps you link up to your networked computers. Once that’s done, you can display all the media in your iTunes libraries on your Apple TV. The fact that Apple TV can sync to iTunes accounts is a strength and a weakness. While it’s easy to play anything you have stored in iTunes, you’re limited to the online purchases and rental options that
Apple offers. Apple TV seemed a lot cooler before Netflix stole the internet movie market with its unlimited streaming option.

Purchases or rentals you make through the Apple TV are automatically downloaded to your main computer, so you can watch them there as well. We were pleased at how quickly purchased content came through. We could start viewing it 2 or 3 seconds after making a purchase.

While it doesn’t include cables, the Apple TV does come with its own remote. In keeping with Apple’s clean and simple aesthetic, it has only a few buttons. The remote is easy to use, but entering text with the online keyboard is tedious.

The iTunes Store interface is easy to navigate, with sections for movies, TV shows, and music. It’s best for browsing, although there’s a search box if you’re looking for something in particular.

Free content here is limited to podcasts and the occasional sample TV show, while paid TV shows are available per episode or by season. Movies can be rented or purchased. Apple TV offers access to HD movies, something that the desktop iTunes lacks.

Apple PR was pretty unhelpful with this article, leaving us to procure a unit on our own, and we can see why. Compared to a newer generation of set-top boxes, the options on the Apple TV are sorely limited. With the set-top box market finally reaching a mass audience, we hope that Apple becomes a contender soon with a greatly expanded online selection.

Boxee Box
We did our testing for this story in early February, so we had to fudge a bit on the Boxee Box. Boxee was still going through production revisions with D-Link, which was creating the hardware, and there was no preproduction model for us to test. Instead, we visited the company’s new office on West 16th St. in New York City and tested one of the first Boxee Boxes. A Boxee employee confessed that it had been hot-glued together in a hotel room the night before CES. The glue held, and the company got lots of attention: The Boxee Box was one of the most celebrated gadgets at the show.

The Boxee Box is a lot smaller than you’d think from looking at its pictures. It’s more compact than any set-top device we’ve tried, including the Roku SD. The glossy surface of the Box was a fingerprint magnet, but company head Avner Ronen told us the company was working on that in production. We hope the final version is better because the sleek black Box is great-looking when it’s smudge-free. The rear of the Boxee Box holds an Ethernet port, HDMI out, an optical port, and left and right audio jacks. Below that sits two USB ports, at least on the model we tried. Ours also had a USB port on the front, but Ronen wasn’t sure that would stay. There’s no composite or component video, so you need an HDMI-equipped set to use the Box. One side holds an SD card port, while another holds a hidden power/reset button. It comes with a radio-frequency remote, which doesn’t require a line of sight, so you can place the Box anywhere that’s convenient.

The Boxee Box runs the same Boxee software that you can download online for free, but it makes the experience of using it easier for the nontechnical. There are many who couldn’t handle connecting a notebook or Mac Mini to their televisions, so the Box is a shortcut. The software was in beta when we tried it, but it had recently been overhauled for ease of use. Still, we don’t think it’s easy enough. Boxee’s open software relies on apps created in-house or by third parties. Go to an app, and you can find shows or audio streams held by that site or service. The approach is valuable in that any company or individual can create an app but tricky in that nontechy users will want a simple interface that lets them go to all the shows or movies that are available. It’s nothing that couldn’t be ironed out by a software upgrade, and we hope it will be soon.

As for content, Boxee provides access to a strong selection of free ad-supported TV programs and free podcasts. Hulu shows will play through the included web browser instead of an app, since Hulu has a well-documented grudge against Boxee. Netflix account holders can get easy access to premium movies.

Sony PlayStation 3
Game consoles are an easy way for streamed movies and shows to enter the living room since they’re already in so many homes. The three main players-Xbox, PlayStation 3 (PS3), and the Wii-have all gotten in the action to some degree, and we got our hands on a PS3 for testing. (Microsoft and Nintendo weren’t as forthcoming as Sony.) While the unit is quite a bit larger and heavier than the average set-top box, it’s easy to connect to your set, and, hey, it even plays games. The package comes with a composite video cable, although it has an HDMI port for a hi-res connection.

There are a few extra steps to setting up a PS3 that you won’t get with other devices. Besides connecting it to a wired or wireless home network, we needed to create a PS Network account with user ID and enter all of our contact data. The PS3 controller isn’t ideal for entering text and numbers, and doing so became a little tedious.

Once connected, we were able to view online content in two ways. The PlayStation Network store lets users download a library of titles a la carte. If you have a Netflix account, you can sign in to that as well and use your unlimited streaming subscription.

The PS Network store suffers from interface problems and feels like it was designed for massive screens only. The text is small, and on-screen menus waste a lot of space. Perhaps it would look better on a wall-filling flat screen. Categories are well-thought-out, however, and let users browse by genre, studio, or other filters. You can also enter a word or two and search by title or artist. The listings include TV shows, and there seem to be plenty of new releases. You can click on a movie to see if it can be bought, rented, or both, or you can view filter pages that only show rental content or purchasable content. Prices are inline with what we found with other stores: about $3.99 to $5.99 for rentals and about $19.99 for purchases. We were impressed with the quality of the video we saw, which looked bright, clear, and detailed, even over an analog connection.

Using Netflix on the PS3 can be a little trickier, as you’ll first need to visit www.netflix.com/ps3, sign in to your account, and get your PS3 instant streaming DVD. It’s free, but it’s a nuisance. You won’t be viewing Netflix movies in minutes as with other boxes, but in days, after you’ve received your disc.

Considering that this set-top box is also a game console and a Blu-ray DVD player, it’s the obvious choice for families with children. Why connect several devices to your television when one can do so much?

Roku
Roku excels in price and simplicity. It offers three boxes, with the lowest-priced version starting at $79.99. Connect one to your TV, and in minutes you’ll have streaming Netflix. Sure, it offers a small collection of other viewing options, but Netflix is the real attraction.

We tested the base-price Roku SD, which offers standard-definition video for people without an HDMI connection. There’s also the Roku HD ($99.99), which delivers high-def content over an HDMI cable, and Roku HD XR ($129.99), which adds extended range wireless-N connectivity for an especially strong and far-reaching signal. All the options are attractively priced, as is the $9.99 per month Netflix level of service that delivers unlimited streaming content.

Connecting the Roku was as easy as advertised, although setting up service and activating channels required entering codes several times on webpages. It’s best to have a computer at your side as you work so you don’t need to make repeated trips to another room.

After we’d connected our Netflix account, we were a little surprised to find that we couldn’t browse the Netflix library through the television. Instead, we needed to add movies to an online queue through the Netflix site. While we would have preferred the ability to work through the TV, working through a browser was easy and probably faster. The site creates two queues, one for streamed content and one for mailed DVDs. Netflix offers about 20,000 titles currently for live streaming, and it’s easy to see which are available for instant viewing.

The biggest downside of going this route is that Hollywood studios have forced Netflix to not offer new releases for streaming. The mailed DVD library feels much more current. While we loved being able to choose a movie and stream it instantly (add a movie to your streaming queue and it shows up in about 5 seconds on your TV), we didn’t love the selection. Other products discussed here, such as the VUDU service or the PlayStation Network, deliver more current movies.
Netflix subscribers can watch anything in the streaming library as often as they want, so there’s no timed window to worry about. Content is wonderfully well-organized in categories and subcategories, so if you’re into British TV comedies or independent dramas, you can zoom in on just the video you want.

Free channels on Roku include Blip.tv, Revision 3, Facebook, Flickr, Pandora, and SmugMug. Other paid channels include Amazon Video on Demand and MLB.com. While we like having other options so that this isn’t just a Netflix box, we weren’t blown away. The Blip.tv videos especially are poorly organized, so finding something you might like is a challenge. Once you do find a favorite, there’s no way to bookmark it for easy access later. If Roku could deliver access to streamed premium content already offered for free online, as Boxee does, the viewing options would feel a lot less limited.

VUDU (on an LG BD390 Blu-ray DVD Player)
As you may have heard, VUDU, which is now owned by Walmart, recently made the move from being a hardware solution to a software solution. Rather than selling its own set-top box, VUDU has transitioned to a software service that rides along on other manufacturers’ equipment. This is certainly a smart move, as set-top devices will likely fade away in time as connected TVs, DVD players, and game consoles take over delivering online video.

Once we connected an LG BD390 Blu-ray player to our TV and our wireless home network, we were able to see a menu of online options, which included VUDU, CinemaNow, Netflix, and YouTube. VUDU started up quickly and offered a menu of movies to browse. The service offers a la carte purchases, so it’s more like Apple TV than Netflix. Its library is larger than both, with plenty of new releases. In fact, one of its main strengths is that some movies are available the same day that they’re released on DVD. The library seems especially well-edited, with useful categories for browsing. We saw a list of Disney titles and (since this review was done shortly before the Academy Awards) a list of nominated films. That list really underscored the fact that new and noteworthy films are available. We also liked browsing the list of popular options, which showed that people don’t often want challenging films at home. Light comedies that didn’t do outstanding at the box office, such at The Invention of Lying, are a sort of video comfort food and dominated the list. We wished the library had helpful subcategories, though, as Netflix does. While VUDU offered adult content during our testing, new owner Walmart removed it soon afterward.

Rentals are generally priced from $3.99 to $5.99, with some costing as low as 99 cents; HD-quality (720p in this case) or HDX (which offers 1080p video and Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 surround sound) cost more. You can also purchase films for $4.99 to $24.99, with the most common price for new titles being $19.99. Unlike with Apple TV, purchased films aren’t physically stored on your device, so you need to stream the content every time you view it. Even though content is streamed, you can forward or reverse through it by either viewing thumbnails or calling up a scene menu, as with a DVD. Besides being able to rent or purchase movies, VUDU gives you the option to add them to a want list. This is a helpful feature so you don’t forget a title that caught your eye. Purchased or rented movies are available in a personal library.

Despite streaming over an 802.11n network, we did experience significant digital artifacts with one film. Others we watched were fine, but apparently, it happens now and then.

Oddly, the VUDU channel on the LG Blu-ray was the only one we could get to work. The CinemaNow option consistently froze the player, and the YouTube channel always claimed a problem with network congestion. We tried to download a firmware upgrade, but it wouldn’t load. LG support didn’t have an answer, but we didn’t push too hard since we mostly wanted to try the VUDU service.

VUDU is now available on LG and Mitsubishi devices, but it should be on Samsung, Sanyo, Sharp, Toshiba, and Vizio products sometime in 2010. With Walmart as its new owner, it might finally get the retail push it needs to become a household name-although that’s far from certain, since Walmart’s previous online efforts haven’t gone well. If you have a phobia about subscriptions, however, only want to rent movies occasionally, or just want more new releases, VUDU is a strong option.

Though none of the boxes we tested are perfect, each of them has its own strengths to fill the gap while you’re waiting for the next generation of internet-connected TVs.




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