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High-Def Digest's Holiday Gift Guide 2012: HD Streaming Gear and Services
Tags: Holiday Gift Guide 2012, High-Def Retailing, Daniel Hirshleifer, Fun Stuff, HD Streaming, High-Def Streaming, Industry Trends (all tags)
While we here at High Def Digest specialize in content on disc, we recognize that Blu-ray isn't the only way to get your high def kicks. In a world where studios are making more and more content available in remastered, high resolution transfers, and home internet speeds are getting ever faster, it only makes sense that streaming media solutions are becoming more and more popular. Whether you want access to more movies than you could reasonably afford to buy on disc, or you're looking to cut your costly cable TV expenses, there are many reasons to turn to a streaming service.
Most of these services are configured to play on your PC, but what do you do if you want to watch them on your nice, big HDTV? Why, you get a streaming device, of course! But with so many to choose from, which one is right for you? Well don't worry, we here at High Def Digest have you covered with our guide to HD Streaming Gear and Services!
Before you find a device, it would help to take a look at what services are out there, and what they have to offer. If you know what services you want to use, you'll have a better idea of what device fits your needs.
The granddaddy of all these services, Netflix is so popular that it reportedly uses one-third of all the bandwidth in North America, an incredible sum. It's not hard to see why Netflix is so ubiquitous. For $7.99, you get unlimited streaming of thousands of ad-free movies and TV shows on a variety of devices. And because Netflix is so frequently used, virtually any device you can think of supports it. In fact, many new TVs and Blu-ray players offer Netflix support baked-in. And, for an additional fee, you can still get DVDs and Blu-rays shipped to your house, including titles that aren't currently available for streaming.
Netflix isn't perfect, of course. At times, the gaps in their catalogue can be infuriating, and their stream seems to be especially sensitive to the strength of your signal, downgrading image quality if your router even threatens to waver in its connection. Also, as the service has eaten into the profits of physical media, the studios have generally seen fit to enforce a 28 day waiting period before allowing Netflix to stream their new releases. However, these issues are relatively small when you compare their large selection, ease of use, and constantly improving suggestion system.
As great as Netflix is, there's one area where it falls woefully short: Timely TV content. Sure, Netflix has a ton of TV shows, including many currently on the air, but they only offer episodes that are available on home video, meaning that it's useless for watching a show within days of airing. That's where Hulu comes in. Hulu offers ad-supported TV shows which are available to view the day after they air on TV. They also offer a selection of movies, although not as robust as Netflix. And all of this is 100% free.
Well, not exactly. Yes, much of the content on Hulu is free, but you can only watch it on the web. If you want to watch any of it on a device that isn't a computer, you'll have to upgrade to Hulu Plus. Hulu Plus is also $7.99 per month, but isn't quite the slam-dunk that Netflix is. While Hulu Plus allows you to watch on TVs and other devices, your payments don't get rid of the ads. And the frequency and length of ad breaks has increased as the service has risen in popularity. Variety, sadly, has not, and you will see the same five or six ads over and over for weeks. Hulu Plus gives you access to more content, such as older seasons of shows (the free version only lets you watch the five most recent episodes of current series), as well as more titles that aren't available for free (but may be available from Netflix).
By far the most annoying thing about Hulu Plus is that despite the fact that you're paying for off-web access, some titles remain web only. And we're not talking about old titles that people hardly watch. Big name shows like '30 Rock' currently can only be watched from a computer. However, the service offers plenty of options, such as the ability to favorite shows, changing the image quality to best fit your connection, and an attractive, intuitive GUI. Of most interest to cinephiles is the news that Criterion has partnered with Hulu to provide many of their films in high quality, including a few titles that the company hasn't been able to release on disc, such as 'Eraserhead'.
Hulu is almost as popular as Netflix, meaning that device support is almost as strong, and again, many new TVs come with Hulu support out of the box. If you're looking to drop cable TV, Hulu Plus, even with its flaws, is a must have.
VUDU has taken a different approach from Netflix or Hulu. Instead of signing you up for a monthly subscription for unlimited streaming, your account is entirely free, and you pay per title. In this way, it's more like a rental service, especially because each payment is only for a predetermined period. On Netflix, because you're paying monthly for all the content, you can start a movie in January and finish it in October, provided the license doesn't expire in-between. For VUDU, you only have a few days to watch the film.
VUDU does offer many attractive elements, such as a catalogue of over 20,000 titles presented using HDX, a process that allows for 1080p24 with the least amount of compression artifacts. Even better, because you're paying per title, the studios don't enforce the 28-day waiting period, meaning that you can watch new films in 1080p the day they came out on home video. VUDU is reasonably well supported, and since the account is free, you can try it one time for a low cost (most movies are $2) to see if you like it.
Amazon, the little bookseller that become an internet commercial monolith, began offering video streaming and downloads as a competitor to iTunes, initially on a pay-per-title basis. As they've expanded their Prime offerings (which was originally unlimited 2-day shipping on any item for $79 per year), they've included free unlimited streaming for Prime members. Amazon's catalogue isn't as expansive as Netflix's, although they do have a few exclusive titles. Of course, $79 per year, paid in one lump sum, sounds awful compared to the low monthly prices of the other services, but when you divide it out, it comes out to about $6.58 per month, cheaper than the competition. And on top of it, you still get the free 2-day shipping on Amazon purchases and access to the Kindle lending library. Like Apple, Amazon wants you to play in their walled garden, but they do offer more points of access.
Crackle, a streaming service with ties to Sony, is more of a newcomer to the streaming scene. You can watch all of the content for free, and if you register you can get a slew of personalization and notification options. As Crackle is backed by Sony, the vast majority of content is Sony's, and you have far less selection than in the other streaming services. Even worse, Crackle isn't actually in HD. It's also supported by less devices. On the other hand, you can watch a lot of Sony movies completely for free, so why not use it?
Apple has been incredibly successful at turning their iTunes music player into a content delivery platform. They have a pay-per-title model. You can set up subscriptions for whole seasons of TV shows, but you're still paying a per-episode price. However, they have a large offering of titles with high quality encodes and all purchased content will immediately work on Apple devices. The problem, of course, is that they come with built-in DRM and are really designed to work on Apple-branded devices. However, if you're firmly entrenched in Apple's ecosystem, iTunes will be easy to use both for content purchasing and viewing.
HBO Go is really a supplementary service, as you cannot use it unless you currently have an HBO subscription with your cable provider. The nice thing is that there's no additional cost to use HBO Go, which allows you to stream all sorts of HBO on-demand content on a variety of devices. However, it's not useful for people who wish to drop cable entirely, because you can't access it without an existing HBO subscription. Even worse, HBO Go isn't offered by all cable providers, meaning that even if you are paying for HBO, you might not have access to it. Still, if you manage to meet the requirements, HBO Go is a nice option to have.
Epix is a TV channel offered through cable providers as well as a paid streaming service. Offering content from Paramount, MGM, and Lionsgate, Epix offers movies and specials like UFC fights and comedy shows. Like HBO Go, you have to have a cable provider and a subscription to Epix in order to take advantage of their streaming service.
YouTube is so closely associated with user-created content that it's easy to forget that there's plenty of professional-grade material on there, all for free. Of course, in this case, you get what you pay for, and YouTube offers practically no quality control. Still, as a repository of public domain material, YouTube is absolutely unbeatable. Again, as with Netflix and Hulu, YouTube is so ubiquitous that a lot of hardware supports it natively, making it the perfect go-to site for casual video viewing.
Okay, so you've reviewed the services above. You've decided which ones you want to use. Now comes the hard part: Choosing the device that will deliver all of this content to your TV. The nice part of the streaming services is that you can try them at your leisure. The price of entry is low, and if you don't like it, you can cancel at any time. Choosing a device is a much harder decision. The price of each device is much higher, so you want to make sure it does everything you need.
Roku has been in the streaming hardware game for a while. Their boxes have a small footprint and start at some of the lowest prices on the market. If you're content with 720p output, you can go for the $60 Roku HD. If you want 1080p, you'll have to add $20 to get the Roku 2 XD. There is a higher end model with some gaming options, but if you're actually interested in gaming, we wouldn't recommend doing it through a Roku.
Roku offers hundreds of channels, from free to premium. Most of the aforementioned services are offered, including Netflix, Hulu Plus, VUDU, Amazon, Crackle, HBO Go, and Epix. It also offers several music services, such as MOG.com and Pandora. It does not offer YouTube, nor does it play iTunes content. However, for under $100, the Roku is a cheap and easy introductory player that will serve many streamers well.
Jumping up $20 from the Roku 2 XD, you can get an Apple TV for $100. Also sporting a small footprint (you may hear users affectionately refer to the device as a "hockey puck"), Apple TV is best used by people who are most enmeshed in Apple's ecosystem. You can browse iTunes offerings through the device, or you can stream previous Apple purchases to it from your Mac, iPhone, iPod, or iPad using AirPlay. You can also download the remote app on your iDevice to control the Apple TV without having yet another remote control cluttering up your coffee table.
Offering 1080p output, Apple TV supports Netflix and Hulu Plus, but not Amazon Instant Video. There is an Amazon Instant Video app on the iPad, which allows you to view free videos but not purchase new ones, nor does that app support AirPlay for the Apple TV. The device does offer YouTube support as well as support for several sports websites such as MBL.com and NHL.com, although you have to have subscriptions to the sports sites in order to access their content. With iOS at its core, the Apple TV is also one of the easiest, most stable, and most well-supported streaming devices on the market, all for one bill.
A somewhat unexpected entry into the HD streaming market comes from Western Digital, best known for making hard drives (you might even have one in the computer you're using to view this site right now). The WD TV Live will run you $90, and supports Netflix, Hulu Plus, VUDU, YouTube, as well as other services like Pandora and Spotify. Amazon Instant Video, HBO Go, Crackle, and others are absent. The real draw of the WD TV Live is that it can play a wealth of file formats, such as MKV, MOV, MP4, XVID, AVI, and more. You can plug in all sorts of sources through the USB port, whether it be a flash drive, hard drive, camcorder, camera, and so on, and play the files directly. Or you can use the built-in wifi to connect to your home network, where the device will search all networked drives for compatible media files. You can also download the WD TV Live app on an iPhone or Android phone to control the device. If you choose not to go that route, a programmable remote is included.
Western Digital also offers the WD TV Live Hub, which has all of the same features as the lower priced option, plus includes a built-in 1 TB hard drive, media server for streaming to other rooms in the house, and HDMI 1.4 connection (the WD TV Live offering HDMI 1.3). For the privilege of getting all these extra features, you'll have to shell out $170, which doesn't seem quite worth it, as Western Digital bizarrely neglected to include on-board wifi in this model, meaning you'll have to buy an adapter or plug it in via ethernet. At almost double the price of the base model, this doesn't seem like a great value.
If your goal is to play a wealth of files you already have stored digitally, something the Roku and Apple TV don't specialize in, then the WD TV Live is an excellent, versatile choice for under $100.
The Boxee Box is an interesting attempt to combine the high-end power of a Home Theater PC with the ease of use of a set-top box. Boxee aims to be your sole entertainment hub, with a very attractive GUI that automatically pulls in content information. Like the WD TV Live, Boxee streams and supports existing files. If there's a file format the WD TV Live can't handle, chances are Boxee can. With a unique remote that offers basic controls on one side and a full keyboard on the other, Boxee integrates internet content seamlessly. Unfortunately, despite grand ambitions, Boxee falls short in several important areas.
Boxee supports Netflix, YouTube, and VUDU out of the box, but still has yet to offer support for Amazon Instant Video or Hulu Plus, two major streaming services. And the price, $175, is significantly higher than the Roku, Apple TV, or WD TV Live. Boxee does have a new product, the Boxee TV, which strives to combine the experience of the Boxee Box with a working DVR and cable box. At $99, it's certainly a more attractive proposition than the Boxee Box, but it's still missing Amazon Instant and Hulu Plus, and currently is only available from a few select retailers, so reviews from real-world users are still sparse. If you need something to work with your cable service, Boxee TV might be a good solution, but as of right now we can't give a recommendation until we hear more about it. As for the Boxee Box, we admire its ambition but the missing features, combined with the high price, make it a miss.
When Sony introduced the Playstation 3, it was considered the best Blu-ray player on the market. Now that the format has matured, the gaming console still retains its status. Aside from being a top notch Blu-ray player, the Playstation 3 also offers many streaming options, including Netflix, Hulu, VUDU, Crackle, YouTube, and Amazon Instant Video. It does not currently support HBO Go, although that could always come in the future. As the Playstation Network is free, you can download and use all of these services at no extra charge (although of course you must pay for those services that require a paid account). The PSN offers HD movies and shows that you can buy or rent right through the console. You can also plug in flash drives to watch existing files, or stream them through your wireless network, although its file support isn't as robust as the WD TV Live or Boxee Box.
Of course, the Playstation 3 is a game console first, meaning you'll have to pay extra for a remote. Although, if you do, the PS3 remote is well designed and connects via Bluetooth, which means it does not require a line of sight connection to work. If there's any real issue with the system, it's that the wifi connection is notoriously slow. Downloads and updates take far longer than other devices will over wifi, and streaming services may suffer because of this. If you do choose to get a PS3, you'll get a lot more out of it by plugging it in via ethernet. The other issue is price, with the console starting at $250, pricier than even the Boxee Box. However, for that price you get a Blu-ray player, gaming console, and media streamer all in one.
The other gaming option would be the Xbox 360, which offers all of the streaming options that the PS3 does, plus HBO Go and others as well. It's also cheaper, starting at $200 (although at that price you only get 4 GB of storage space). Like the PS3, you can also buy and rent content through the console itself. However, unlike the PS3, you have to pay for an Xbox Live Gold account in order to use the streaming apps, at a cost of $25 for a three-month period, or $60 for thirteen months. Further, the 360 can play DVDs but not Blu-rays. On the other hand, it has much better wifi performance than the PS3. If your goal is to use a console mainly for media with a little gaming, the PS3 is the better choice. On the other hand, if you're a big gamer that does a little media consumption, the 360 may be the better option, depending on what games you prefer.
At the highest end of this spectrum you find the Home Theater PC, or HTPC. HTPCs are exactly what they sound like, a computer that you plug in to your television. The benefits of this approach are immediately obvious. You can play any service without restriction because you're using a computer. No more worrying that your device may not support one service or another, and as new options pop up, you'll be able to use those as well.
The downsides should also be obvious. HTPCs are by far the most expensive and complicated option, ranging anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars. And, just like any computer, the components you use will greatly affect your performance. You'll have to deal with drivers, antivirus protection, and more. You'll need to buy a wireless keyboard and mouse combo as well. If you are willing to invest the time and money into it, though, an HTPC will be the last device you'll ever need for your home theater.
You may not think that a mobile tablet would appear in a list of HD devices, but 720p and even full 1080p displays are becoming more and more common. The new iPad with retina display features a 2048x1536 display that is absolutely gorgeous. The upcoming Google Nexus 10 sports a 2560x1600 display. Acting much like a computer, these tablets offer apps for every streaming service you can think of, and as long as you stay within the Apple or Android ecosystems, you're guaranteed to get support from future services as well. These tablets also support a variety of movie files, and you can download apps to view files that the tablet doesn't natively play. Many tablets offer options for connecting to a TV, although not all content will be compatible. Of course, the starting price for a tablet with an HD display is even higher than it is for some of the lower end HTPCs, with the 16 GB Nexus 10 at $400 and the iPad with retina display starting at $500, but you can take a tablet anywhere.
Before you go looking to add new devices to your home theater, you might want to take a look at the ones you already own. Many Blu-ray players come with streaming services included, and even offer built-in wifi. Of course, these won't have offerings as robust as dedicated streaming devices, but with Blu-ray players now at reasonable prices, and the convenience of having one device for all your media consumption, it's not a bad idea. Panasonic offers a 3D Blu-ray player with Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, VUDU, and Amazon Instant Video support for $100.
Similarly, many new TVs, dubbed Smart TVs, now include streaming apps as well, no need for a separate device at all. For example, Vizio offers a 60-inch LED TV with Netflix, Hulu, VUDU, and YouTube support for $1,000. If you're a fan of keeping things simple, streaming through your Blu-ray player or TV might be the perfect solution.
As you can see, the HD streaming field is vast, and growing every day. We couldn't include every possible option on this list, but this guide should provide a good primer to help get you started. Do you use one or all of these services? Have a particularly strong opinion on which device is the best? Tell us all about it in the forums!
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