Physical media such as Blu-ray and CD face serious challenges, due in large part to the proliferation of online media streaming. Of course, content streamed from online sources is typically not the best possible quality because it must be highly compressed to flow without interruption through the limited bandwidth available to most consumers. But no one can deny that streaming content is more convenient than physical media, and it's available on many different devices in the home and on the go.
In fact, many (if not most) TVs and Blu-ray players—as well as game consoles—offer streaming capabilities from various outlets, such as Netflix, YouTube, Vudu, HuluPlus, CinemaNow, Pandora, Spotify, and many others. But there are also quite a few dedicated streaming-media players, which are the subject of this buying guide.
Most streaming services are not free, and there are two basic pricing models. Services such as Netflix and HuluPlus are subscription-based—you pay a fixed amount each month for unlimited access to the outlet's entire library. Other services, like iTunes and Vudu, charge separately for each title you consume. In both cases, you are essentially renting the content.
A few services, such as iTunes and Vudu, also let you purchase online content, which is normally stored in an online locker, aka "in the cloud." Many Blu-rays come with a so-called "digital version," which can be stored in your locker and streamed to any compatible device at any time.
A digital-rights management service called UltraViolet doesn't store copies of content from each user in separate lockers, only their authorization to stream that content from UltraViolet's servers, and only the content that has been stored on those servers. If a title isn't on the UV servers, it can't be used with UltraViolet. This system is used by services such as Vudu, CinemaNow, and Flixster.
For the most part, online content is sent in real time across the Internet from the provider's servers to your streaming-media player. Very few online content providers let you download titles to a local storage device, which is no big deal, since very few streaming-media players have any local storage capacity. UltraViolet does let you download a limited number of copies of titles you have purchased to devices with storage.
As I said earlier, the quality of streaming video and audio is not up to Blu-ray. Still, most services now offer 1080p video (which is more severely compressed than Blu-ray) and at least Dolby Digital 5.1 or even 7.1 audio. Some providers, such as Netflix, offer Dolby Digital Plus 5.1/7.1, but the streaming-media player must be able to pass that bitstream on to the AV receiver in order to take advantage of the higher audio quality.
Another important function of streaming-media players is access to content stored on other devices connected to your home's LAN (local-area network), such as computers and NAS (network-attached storage) devices. This usually requires that the computers, NAS, and streaming players all implement the UPnP (Universal Plug 'n' Play) and DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance) standards, which assure that the devices can find each other and play files from a server to the player.
Windows computers and many NAS devices include basic DLNA-server software, but there are several third-party server-software packages that you can install on your computer to facilitate this process with refined user interfaces and capabilities. Popular examples include Plex, JRiver, XBMC, and Twonky for multiple platforms and PlayOn for Windows. PlayOn also provides an option called PlayLater with the ability to record streaming video for later playback—sort of an online DVR.
A function related to computer-based media servers is streaming content from mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets to the player—this is sometimes called "mirroring," because content on the mobile device is mirrored on the TV. Apple's iPhone and iPad use AirPlay with the Apple TV streamer, while Android devices use Miracast. A relatively new mirroring system called WiDi (Wireless Display) was developed by Intel for use with laptops.
AirPlay mirrors the display of a mobile device like the iPad to the Apple TV streamer, which displays the image on the TV.
One thing to be aware of when thinking about media servers and mirroring is file types. Video and audio files are stored in many different formats—common video formats include MPEG-2, AVCHD, and H.264, which can be encapsulated within container formats such as AVI, VOB/ISO, MKV, and MOV. Audio files can be encoded in many different formats, such as WAV, PCM, FLAC, MP3, Dolby Digital, and DTS in containers such as AIFF, MKA, OGG, and WMA. Different streaming-media players can handle different formats and containers, so if you store files in certain formats, make sure the streamer you're considering can handle them.
Of course, a streaming-media player must be connected to your home network through a router to access online content as well as media stored on local devices. Virtually all streamers provide WiFi for that purpose, and many also provide an Ethernet port for hard-wired connection. WiFi is very convenient, but I always recommend using an Ethernet connection if possible because it's more reliable for media streaming than WiFi. Finally, the streamer connects to your TV or AV receiver via HDMI.
One type of streaming-media player deserves special mention—those that implement Google TV, which is designed to integrate online-streaming services with live TV from cable, satellite, and over-the-air broadcasting. You connect the cable, satellite, or OTA receiver's HDMI output to the HDMI input of the Google TV box, and the HDMI output from the Google TV box to the TV. You can then search for a particular title, genre, actor, or many other criteria, and Google TV will list where the specified content can be found online and live.
To use a Google TV device, you insert it in the signal chain between a set-top box and the TV.
The dedicated streaming-media players in this buying guide were selected as the best models available in 2013 by consulting various review outlets such as CNET, Consumer Reports, and Sound & Vision as well as AVS reviews and owner threads and a special call out to members for their top picks.
Many thanks to streaming-media maven Barb Gonzalez for her help with this article.
When Google introduced the Chromecast streamer earlier this year, it made a huge splash. It's no bigger than a USB thumb drive, it plugs into an HDMI input on a TV or AV receiver (powered from a USB port or power supply), and offers 1080p streaming with Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 audio. It can also stream content from your mobile device, which is used to control it as well, and it can mirror the Chrome web browser on a mobile device or laptop. It can access fewer online sources than most other streamers, but it does offer Netflix, YouTube, HuluPlus, Pandora, and Google Play.
Scott Says: At only $35, it's a great way to dip your toes into the ocean of media streaming.
The Netgear NTV300SL, aka NeoTV Max, offers 1080p video and Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 audio, control from an Android or iOS device, QWERTY remote, MicroSD card slot, and support for Vudu 3D. It also provides 300Mbps WiFi and DLNA compatibility, and it's the first streamer with WiDi functionality. Available services include Netflix, Vudu, HuluPlus, CinemaNow, YouTube, Pandora, Rhapsody, Amazon Instant Video, and many others. If you have a Slingbox, the NeoTV's SlingPlayer app lets you watch live and recorded TV from anywhere it's connected to the Internet.
The NeoTV NTV300 (MSRP $50) is even less expensive, and it's a Consumer Reports Best Buy. But it lacks WiDi, high-speed WiFi, DLNA, playback from USB devices, QWERTY remote, MicroSD slot, and Vudu 3D support.
Scott Says: NeoTV Max offers Amazon Instant Video for Amazon Prime members, high-speed WiFi, and many other great features. And if you want WiDi capabilities, it's the only game in town.
Western Digital is well known for hard-disk drives, but it has also been making a name for itself in media streamers. The WD TV Play is its latest offering—and a Consumer Reports Best Buy—with 1080p video and Dolby Digital Plus audio. Available services include Netflix, HuluPlus, Vudu, Cinema Now, Spotify, and Flixster, but not Amazon Instant Video, and YouTube must be accessed from your smartphone. You can also play video and audio files from a USB storage device as well as a DLNA server on your network. If you have a Slingbox, the WD TV Play lets you watch live and recorded TV from anywhere it's connected to the Internet.
The previous-generation WD TV Live (MSRP $99) is still available, and it offers one ability that the Play lacks—playback of MPEG-2 video and DTS audio. Then there's the WD TV Live Hub (MSRP $260), which includes a 2 TB hard drive and DLNA-server capabilities, though it lacks WiFi.
Scott Says: The WD TV streamers all offer excellent AV quality, a clean home screen, and a good remote, and the Weather app is especially cool for determining if the weather is good for various activities.
Now in its third generation, the Apple TV is a great choice if you primarily use Apple computers and mobile devices. Of course, it streams content from Apple's iTunes Store, which lets you purchase video titles and store them in the cloud. It also has streaming apps for Netflix, HuluPlus, YouTube, HBO Go, the Disney Channel, and others. However, it doesn't offer Amazon Instant Video, and you must have a paid subscription to HBO on cable or satellite to access HBO Go (which is true for any device with HBO Go). The Apple TV can stream 1080p video with Dolby Digital audio, and it uses AirPlay to access content on local computers and iDevices.
Scott Says: If you're invested in the Apple ecosystem with Macs, iPhones, and iPads, this is the streamer for you.
Roku is possibly the best-known maker of online streamers, and its products are among the highest rated by just about everyone. At the top of Roku's lineup is the Roku 3, which provides 1080p video and Dolby Digital Plus audio and a processor that's five times faster than the other Roku models. The remote includes a headphone jack for private listening, and it also senses motion for games such as the included Angry Birds Space. In addition, an iOS or Android mobile device can control the unit, which can play content from those mobile devices as well as content from a USB storage device and MicroSD card. It does not include DLNA capabilities, but it is compatible with the Plex and PlayOn media servers. Finally, the Roku 3 provides access to more online content providers than most other streamers, including Netflix, Vudu, HuluPlus, M-Go, HBO Go, Pandora, Spotify, and many others; most importantly for Amazon Prime members, it can access Amazon Instant Video.
In descending order from the Roku 3 are the Roku 2 (MSRP $80), Roku 1 (MSRP $60), and Roku LT (MSRP $50), each with fewer features as you move down the line. All can output 1080p video except the LT, which is limited to 720p. Also available is the Roku Streaming Stick (MSRP $70, $90 with motion-control remote), which looks like a thumb drive and plugs into an MHL (Mobile High-definition Link) port of your TV or AV receiver. The Streaming Stick gets its power from the MHL port and can output 1080p video and Dolby Digital audio.
Scott Says: The Roku streamers offer the most comprehensive suite of online providers. I recommend the Roku 3 for its faster processor, motion-control remote, MicroSD card slot, and headphone jack in the remote.
This is a Google TV streamer that includes the Chrome web browser and Bluetooth remote with touchpad and QWERTY keyboard. You can also control it from an Android or iOS device, and you can search for content with voice commands. Online sources include Netflix, Vudu, Amazon Instant Video, HBO Go, YouTube, Pandora, and Google Play, plus whatever you can access with the Chrome browser. It's also DLNA-compatible, letting you stream content from any DLNA server on your network, and it offers 1080p video and Dolby Digital Plus audio. If you have a Slingbox, a SlingPlayer app lets you watch live and recorded TV from anywhere it's connected to the Internet. A Consumer Reports Best Buy!
Scott Says: If you want Google TV and you have lots of local content, even spread across many devices, NeoTV Prime is the one to get.