How To Buy…A Media Streaming Device (Part 1)

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Want to watch movies and television on your TV rather than your computer? We help you choose a media streaming device that lets you do just that

The digitisation of TV and increasing popularity of alternate delivery methods such as download stores and online streaming services like Lovefilm and Netflix has made data-driven entertainment more popular than ever before. Once the preserve of the enthusiast, there’s now a solid market for media streaming devices: small set top boxes which allow you to connect your TV (and other devices) to all manner of online services otherwise restricted to PCs and ‘smart’ devices.

How To Buy…A Media Streaming Device?

How To Buy…A Media Streaming Device?

In the years since their inception, media streaming devices have become both affordable and simple to use. But that doesn’t mean they’re simple to buy. They’re still unfamiliar hardware, and their place in the home is far from assured. Buying one means that you’ll have to learn what they are and what they can do, probably from scratch, before deciding which one is best for your particular needs. Unless, of course, you read our guide first…

How Much Should You Spend?

The price of media streaming devices starts relatively high; even the cheapest on the market have an RRP around $80. For this, you’ll get a device capable of interacting with online services, but which doesn’t contain any substantial onboard storage. They may have a USB port or card reader to allow you to connect external storage, but even this isn’t guaranteed.

Once you add onboard storage, the price quickly skyrockets depending on how much there is available. The most expensive Buffalo Linkstation Live model (which has a 3TB hard drive under its hood) has an RRP of $377. Not exactly casual buyer territory.

Buffalo Linkstation Live model

Buffalo Linkstation Live model

However, both of these devices are at the extremes of the price range. If you budget around $160 for a media streaming device, you’ll get a fairly capable model with a reasonable amount of storage and software included for all popular streaming services.

Note that retailers are likely to sell streaming media devices below RRP, so if you shop around you should be able to find low-end models going for as little as $48 without too much trouble. We strongly advise that you at least read reviews of them before slapping down your hard-earned cash, though. The cheapest devices are often made by unreliable manufacturers and contain buggy, poorly translated software. It’ll probably do the job, but not well.

At the other end of the spectrum, don’t be too tempted to pay a huge amount extra for storage space alone. Remember, streaming devices don’t normally record media, and the presence of a network connection means that even if it does gets full up, you can just copy the contents onto your PC for more long-term backup.

What Make/Model/ManufacturerShould You Look For?

It’s difficult to find a stand-out manufacturer in a field dominated by cheaply made and technically dodgy products, but there are a few models we can recommend.

The Roku 2400EU LT is a $80 streaming media server that has almost all of the features entry level users could want: Wi-Fi, remote control apps for iOS and Android, support for Netflix… but not Lovefilm, sadly. The lack of an Ethernet option might put people off, and if you’re big on picture quality, beware than the output is limited to 720p. However, it’s compact and easy to use, and the lack of external storage support is compensated for by its ability to stream off a networked PC. Indeed, even though you might be unfamiliar with the brand, all of Roku’s streaming media devices are worth looking at.

Roku 2400EU LT

Roku 2400EU LT

If you’re already on the Apple bandwagon, you should definitely consider an Apple TV, due to its seamless integration with services common to Macs, iPads and iPhones. You can pick up the 2012 model for $128 on Amazon, but again, there’s no Lovefilm support. The Apple TV works with iCloud, AirPlay and iTunes, though, so you have a good range of options for getting media onto your TV from wherever you want it. There’s even support for 1080p video. It’s not a bad choice even if you don’t have other Apple devices, admittedly, but you won’t get as much out of it if it’s the only one in your home.

If neither of those devices fulfils your needs, take a look at those from the likes of Xenta and Cyclone, both of which create strong hardware with simple yet fully featured software. Western Digital’s TV Live range is also well-reviewed, although given that they’re at least twice as expensive as many of their competitors, you can be forgiven for looking elsewhere.

What Technology Should You Look For?

Since the market is quite a recent invention, there’s no such thing as a ‘standard’ media streaming device. This means that capabilities vary wildly depending on price and manufacturer. There are, however, a number of features we advise that you check for before buying any media streaming hardware.

First and foremost, check the networking capabilities. Your media streaming device will need to be connected to your TV, so ask yourself: how will it then connect to the Internet? Wired and wireless connections both have their own advantages and disadvantages (which we discuss in depth in the technical limitations section) but don’t assume that every device supports both types of connection. Some will be wireless, some will be wired, and others will have both Wi-Fi and Ethernet.

Secondly, look for support for streaming media services, especially those you have a subscription with. The majority of devices are compatible with Netflix and Lovefilm isn’t out of the question (although it is less popular), but what about iPlayer, 4OD or the ITV Player? What about YouTube? If there are services you make particular use of, ensure that the player has the necessary software to interface with them before you buy it, because there are no guarantees that you’ll be able to install some afterwards.

Finally, consider the storage capabilities of the device. Some devices are streaming only (although they may come with server software to let them stream media from your PC), some support external storage like memory cards or USB sticks, and others have their own internal storage that you can copy files onto using your home network. The most sophisticated devices even have their own built-in torrent clients and RSS readers, allowing you to download video directly from the web (from legal sources, naturally). It’s also worth checking format compatibility: can it transcode media, or will you have to provide it with compatible video from the outset? Does it have the ability to output 1080p over HDMI-out, or are video resolutions capped at 480i because it has support for composite-out only?

If you’ve found the answers to these questions, all of the most important bases should be covered by the time you get it home. You may also want to check for a remote control, just in case some manufacturer has really decided to cut corners, but other than that, these are the attributes to care about.

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