Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Media Center Revisited Part 4 - Don't Try This at Home

The new media center is working great.
It was a fun project, and it allows me to hide another computer in the house.
XBMC is terrific software and the interface gets even better with each version.

For me, the reason for having a Home Theater PC is to watch video distributed over bittorrent, podcasts, YouTube, and internet streaming video (IPTV).
Until recently, watching these sorts of programs required a computer.

But now we're seeing televisions with some of these features, and set-top devices designed to play Internet content.
Later this year, manufacturers are scheduled to release a whole slew of Blu-ray players with internet capabilities.

There are now many alternatives to building your own system.

Small "Computers"
Marketed as general-purpose computers, these small, powerful, and quiet computers work perfectly for Home Theater PCs.
Popular choices include the Apple Mac Mini and the Dell Zino. (Although the current Mac mini lacks a Blu-ray drive.)

There are also "nettop" computers which are basically the guts from netbook computers in a very small form factor.  Lifhacker ran a nice article on using one of these as an inexpensive XBMC box.

Blu-ray Players
Many high-end Blu-ray players now come with "BD-Live," a feature that allows them to play streaming content. BD-Live isn't very compelling since the content is title-specific. But many of these internet-capable players also include Netflix streaming, and that's an excellent way to get your movies for cheap.

Most of these devices don't have extra storage, and they won't let you rip your DVD content.

Game Consoles
All three major consoles support video streaming (although the Wii is not HD). Each has some proprietary programming. ("The Guild" runs on Xbox Live before any other platform.) And the PS3 has a built-in Blu-ray player.

Internet Set-top Boxes
For me, this will be the exciting category in 2010. These boxes include all of the media features of a traditional HTPC (Home Theater PC) out of the box. Hook it up to your TV just like a DVD player, and you have access to Internet content.
Most of these boxes can connect to external drives for increased storage or have upgradeable internal drives. They are all silent or nearly so. Most support paid (Netflix, Amazon On Demand, Vudu) video streaming.

Best of all, most are priced between $100 and $200 dollars. So they make an excellent upgrade to that big flat screen you bought last year.

WD Live Plays pretty much anything.
Tivo TCD series players Strong streaming support as part of the TiVo service
Boxee Box Boxee is a variation of XBMC with strong online and streaming support.
Roku Current king of the hill for streaming and podcasts, but the competition is catching up fast.
Vudu Box Highest quality video streams currently available. The service is also available on some TVs.

As of this writing, the Apple TV is no longer a player in this category. The iTunes store integration is still nice, but the other players offer many more features at a better price.

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