The $99 second-generation Apple TV is sleeker, smaller, faster, and less expensive than its predecessor—and focuses entirely on streaming content. In addition to playing content from your iTunes library, your iOS devices using AirPlay, the iTunes Store, Netflix, and other sources, Apple recently added MLB.TV and NBA League Pass to the Apple TV’s growing list of streaming choices. Or as one analyst puts it, the Apple TV is moving from from avocation to vocation.
The Roku family of products picks up where the Apple TV leaves off, offering support for a growing collection of multimedia “channels,” including Amazon Instant Video, Netflix, MLB.tv, Pandora, Hulu Plus, Ultimate Fighting Championship, and more.
Unlike Apple’s one-size-fits-all offering, Roku’s got three different models. All of them offer composite and HDMI outputs, as well as Wi-Fi and ethernet networking. $60 gets you the base model Roku HD, which supports streaming video up to 720p. The $80 Roku XD adds support for 1080p video and 802.11n networking. The $100 Roku XDS ups the ante with dual-band 802.11n networking, support for component video and Toslink optical audio out, and comes with a USB port that lets you serve up your own hand-picked content.
The $300 Logitech Revue with Google TV is nothing if not ambitious. Accompanied by a keyboard that incorporates a universal remote as well as mouse functions, this Android-based set-top box brings to your TV search capabilities and an honest-to-goodness Web browser along with solid media-playback and streaming services. With the addition of an optional USB video camera, the Revue also turns your set into a video-chat monitor. It’s not perfect, however. Key TV-network sites are blocking the Revue’s Chrome browser from playing their content, and its searches are sometimes confusing.
D-Link Boxee Box
The $199 Boxee Box arrived on the market after a long wait, and the streaming landscape it entered had changed dramatically since the box was first announced in late 2009. The Boxee Box works much like other set-top boxes that stream media from your network and the Internet to your TV— you connect the box to your TV using the included HDMI cable, and to your network wirelessly using 2.4GHz-band 802.11n Wi-Fi or ethernet—but it stands out in other ways.
What distinguishes this streamer is its impressive range of Web video offerings, both free and paid (including Vudu and Netflix, although Hulu Plus is still missing); a slick, videocentric user interface (elements of which you can try out on your computer by downloading Boxee’s free software); and an attractive industrial design that includes, besides the box itself, a petite, candy-bar-style remote.
At $699, the 2010 Mac mini may be a more expensive option than the others, but it offers a flexibility that no pure set-top box can. It’s a Mac, after all, and can play content from myriad Websites and apps. Connect it to your HDTV using the thoughtfully included HDMI output port, and you’ve got an unriveled media streamer (or media center, if you want to be picky).
When you connect the Mac mini to a TV via HDMI, the Displays pane of System Preferences and the systemwide Displays menu automatically show available TV resolutions for that TV: 720p, 1080i, 1080p, and so on. In addition, Apple has tweaked the Displays pane of System Preferences to let you adjust the underscan level so the mini’s video output better fits your TV screen.
The included Front Row software continues to provide only the most basic of media-center functionality, but with an iOS app or Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, you’re in complete control.