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AVS › AVS Articles › Cutting The Cord Part II: Best Streaming Devices

Cutting The Cord Part II: Best Streaming Devices

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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

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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

 

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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

 

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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


Apple TV

 

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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

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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


OTA Antenna

 

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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....

 

 

Compatibility Breakdown

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This article is a companion piece to Cutting the Cord, Part I: Best Streaming Services

 

Comments (65)

I've streamed hudreds of videos to my WDTV without a hitch. Plays everything and keeps on movin'. Zero complaints here.
Not on board 100% with the comment:

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.”

In my case, my old 360 Pro sounds like a jet engine. PS3 slim is sleek and quiet. If you have a newer model console, choosing one just comes down to preference.
I would like to see the Vizio CoStar added to the list once it is readily available. It should be shipping any day now, since I preordered the day it was available. I was impressed by the fact it will make your tv into a Google TV plus able to use all the other services and the remote has a keyboard for typing and search.
@hennesy80: As I've heard lots of mixed things about Google TV, I'd be curious to hear your take on the Vizio CoStar once you've used it a bit. Google TV was deliberately not included in the list due to its current limitations, but that may change soon...
HTPC doesn't even get a mention? It would sure do pretty well on the compatibility breakdown chart of yours...
I hope the HTPC is Part 3. These boxes are like sending a boy to do a man's job. HTPC's can access far more than these few services, and with the right hardware and software, can act as a DVR. The video quality is better, and you can color/gamma calibrate the system. Microsoft Media Center is included with most versions of Windows 7 and Windows 8.
Dont forget to mention that you have to have Xbox Live ($60 per year) to access these features, that makes a difference if your not a gamer.
I am using a SONY BDP-S790 to stream all of these, Amazon, Netflix, Vudu, Hulu etc.
Absolutely perfect - superb HD video AND audio (eg. Battleship Galactica in 5.1 sound, mmm! )
Higly recomended, and fast loading of the internet contents too.


Way better than my Boxee, which gives a decent picture, but only STEREO ;-(
@dryasanne - I just purchased a Sony BDP-S590 (BX59 from Costco) and I am very pleased so far with streaming services built into the box, plus DLNA capabilities to stream content that I have stored on my family media center. I have a Roku and 360 on other televisions, and on the Roku I really like the Plex app (and running that on my media center, along with Serviio, until I figure out which one I like). The UI for DLNA material isn't as nice on the Sony (no thumbnails) but it works well, including recorded television from Windows Media Center.
I use Google TV for internet streaming, PlayOn/PlayLater with a PC for SD streaming blocked to Google TV, Oppo BDP-93, PS3, LG BD590 and TiVo with OTA. I have also purchased the Plex Google TV app for 99 cents but I don't have a PC powerful yet to handle the things I want from Plex, fortunately Google TV finds enough to watch as is. Google TV is far and away the best streaming box for my needs, the walled garden approach with some selected apps with Apple TV or Roku and the others are of no interest although they work well enough if you want simple and limited.
Another vote for my new Sony S790 blu-ray player. You can get full the full video and audio from the major streaming services (e.g. VUDU at 1080P and 7.1). The dual core processor has no problems processing high resolution videos via DLNA from my older Synology NAS. Excellent blu-ray and dvd upscaling is added bonus.
Apple tv2 and 3 have a large buffer to make downloaded videos consistent. Why no one else has done this is a mystery.
I use google tv for my streaming, along with a sony bluray player with internet applications, this way I get it all, gtv gives me amazon, playon, netflix, and much more, and my bluray player gives me vudu, blockbuster, and hulu plus to name only a few. I love my setup, I have so many options if you throw in you tube and there rental movies along with all the others I mentioned I find myself with so many options, sometimes I just watch the news so I don't have to make a decision!! HAHAHA
No mention of the Asus O!play
Been jamming my WD box for a while. I have had several of them (previous models) WD just keeps getting it better. Latest edition has on-board wireless N, Gigabit Network input, Faster processor than previous versions, very nice interface with library creation. USB inputs, etc. Nice price point usually less than $100
Don't think I saw anyone using their laptop (with an Intel i3, i5 or i7) and WiDi along with a an associated TV adapter. I've been using one for the last 6 months and I can put anything from my laptop in 1080P and dolby up on my HDTV. It seems like a more universal solution to me. As I recall, I believe Costco had Belkin units on sale for $79.
Yeah... too bad none of these plays live HD football on the family of ESPN networks. I'll be keeping cable!
NO Mention of HTPC? Build your own and you have access to EVERYTHING!
Access to everything? How do you get Vudu HDX with an HTPC? Hulu Plus HD and Amazon HD? I don't think any of those services offer HD if using a PC to access the service, I know I tried with Vudu and couldn't do it, is there a workaround? It not, an HTPC is pretty pathetic for what I want from a streaming box. I admit I need several boxes for my cord cutting solution and a PC is one of them but it is used the least, Hulu and a couple of sites blocking Google TV are all I use the PC for. It seems poor when compared to TiVo for an OTA DVR as well so I couldn't make it work to my satisfaction for that either.
I've never tried Vudu, so I can't comment there. But I use Hulu Plus and Amazon Instant regularly through a PC. Both claim "HD", and both look pretty good most of the time. I think they both say they're coming in at 720p. I'm not going to say that either looks great, but I think they look at least as good as the same services look streamed over my display or optical player.

In other words, I don't think the PC or the method of access is a limiting factor. Unfortunately both Amazon and Hulu streams are still noticeably compressed. Hulu is worse. And both come in with very compressed sounding stereo. I believe that content I've purchased from Amazon can be downloaded instead of streamed, and then I'm supposed to get Dolby Digital quality sound. I haven't tried that yet to confirm.
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