By Eric Podolsky, 8/14/12
For those looking to free themselves from the shackles of the all-powerful cable company, there are plenty of hardware options that will help you declare your independence and still get all the content you need from your TV. The world of streaming video has expanded dramatically in the past year, and though the picture quality of streaming video is still not quite up to speed with cable, the money saved through reliance on these services makes a strong argument for switching over. We know that the amount of streaming boxes on the market has become overwhelming, so here’s a guide to the best of the best: these are the most comprehensive, easiest to use, and best supported streaming devices -- guaranteed to help deliver the content you crave in a convenient bundle. Before you buy, though, keep in mind that many HDTVs and Blu-ray players come with many streaming services already built right into their hardware, so there is a chance that you may already have a streaming device at your fingertips. Choose wisely...
Roku 2 XS
Roku offers four different boxes, and the Roku 2 XS is the best of them all. For $100, you get the best selection of content available anywhere. There’s arguably nothing its competition offers that it doesn’t have -- including gaming capabilities, ethernet and USB ports, and a micro SD card slot to enjoy external content. And did I mention it’s able to stream in 1080p with 5.1 sound? AVS member greaser seems to be happy with his decision: "I bought a Roku 2 XS and dropped my sat. subscription. This move isn't for everybody!! But for me it's perfect because everything I like to watch is available on the net, ie, movies and old TV shows. With Netflix streaming/mail, Amazon, Crackle, Hulu+ and about a 20 other channels that i programmed into my Roku... I have more than enough to keep me happy... AND i am saving the 96 bucks/month i used to pay Dish." With all the features packed into this box, you won’t be going through cable withdrawal anytime soon.
Supports: Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu Plus, HBOGo
PlayStation 3 / Xbox 360
If you’re a gamer, these stacked consoles are your no-brainer go-to when it comes to streaming hardware. If it wasn’t for their hefty price tags, we would recommended them to everyone, as their compatibility and storage capacity are second to none. Both feature USB ports which allow you to watch your own external video files, and though only the PS3 supports Blu-ray, only the XBox supports HBOGo, so it’s a toss-up between the two depending what you’re looking for. There is one noticeable difference between the two consoles though, according to AVS member michaeltscott: “I don't think that I can live with the fan noise from my venerable old PS3... my Xbox S is silent when streaming video.” [UPDATE: michaeltscott later added, "It should be noted that the newer PS3s are probably just as quiet as the Xbox S...Newer models, cooler chipsets, less fan noise...If I had a quieter PS3 I'd much prefer it to the Xbox for streaming Netflix, as it can display Netflix's 1080p encodes, which the Xbox will not."] Regardless, both of these consoles are heavy duty, and at the very top of the stack when it comes to versatile media centers.
Supports: Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu Plus, Vudu, HBOGo (XBox only) and more
Boxee Box + Boxee Live TV
What was once just another media streamer box has recently been updated into a frankenstein of sorts with the introduction of Boxee Live TV, a $49 add-on which allows you to access and seamlessly integrate OTA HDTV and local basic cable into the $200 Boxee Box’s menu, which features a smooth, easy-to-use interface and a fast processor. Boxee’s offering of extensive streaming web content and live TV makes it the only device of its kind, and well worth the investment if you want to loose the cable but keep your basic TV channels. Its only downside is that it does not support HD Audio, but if you aren’t concerned with that, give Boxee some serious consideration.
Supports: Netflix, Vudu, OTA HDTV
You may want to steer clear of Apple TV unless you own some Apple products, as this box is designed to work with iTunes above all else, and supports a very limited number of file formats (as most Apple gadgets do). But if you are an Apple die-hard and are used to working within the confines they have created for their products, you will probably love this box. The main reason is AirPlay, a feature which allows you to wirelessly beam content from your iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch to your TV -- after trying it once, you’ll quickly find that AirPlay’s ease and convenience is incomparable. However, AVS member Secret Squirrel does point out that “The only thing that I don't like about the new Apple TV is that there is no longer a hard drive for storage. Sure its cheaper now at $99 but its basically only a streaming set top box.” This may not matter for you, as the box effortlessly streams content from your computer’s hard drive, as long as it’s through iTunes. Bottom line, if you subscribe to Apple’s user-friendly, closed-source vision, this is the device for you.
Supports: Netflix, Hulu Plus, and iTunes (obviously)
WD TV Live
While not as popular as its big-name peers, the $100 WD TV Live box is more than worthy of sharing equal praise -- its streaming capabilities are excellent, and unlike other boxes, it is compatible with virtually any file format, allowing you to enjoy your own media without hassle. The picture it delivers is also superior, as AVS member david0406 attests: “I must say that I would have to recommend my new device hands down over the Roku2 for video quality... This device does not have near the content that Roku has but makes up for it in video quality... Sorry Roku but you have been dethroned in my house. Correct colors and no black level issues. Just WOW. I really never expected it.” The WD TV Live also comes in a Hub version, which includes 1 TB of storage and multi-room streaming capabilities. Thanks to its impressive compatibility and versatility, this sleeper box is certainly worthy of your consideration as a multi-use streaming machine.
Supports: Netflix, Hulu Plus, Vudu, and more
When all else fails or if money is tight, there’s always good ol’, over-the-air antenna HDTV. Since the nationwide switch to digital transmissions in 2009, local networks have been transmitting surprisingly high-quality HD signals, including extra program channels that sometimes aren’t even available to cable subscribers (PBS broadcasts up to five different channels in certain areas). For some, OTA is enough to satisfy: AVS member dohnut says, “I've been primarily watching OTA digital when I watch TV (ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, PBS, ION). I find myself watching about the same amount of TV as before... I don't ever see myself going back [to cable].” If you’re looking for a tuner to integrate the OTA broadcast signal into your own set-up, Charles R suggests the SiliconDust HD HomeRun Dual, which “connects to your network, and all of your devices (which support it of course) can access the various channels.” Whether you utilize OTA to supplement your streaming services or on its own, you can bet that there’s more free content drifting on the airwaves than you could have imagined.
Supports: Local digital HDTV broadcasts!
The possibilities are endless....
This article is a companion piece to Cutting the Cord, Part I: Best Streaming Services