How To Buy…A Media Streaming Device (Part 2)

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Is Now The Right Time To Buy?

At this point, it’s hard to say. Media streaming devices are quite a niche product, and technologies surrounding them are developing fast. So fast, in fact, that there might not even be any need for them before much longer.

The thing is that modern TV companies – terrestrial broadcasters as well cable and satellite providers – are aware that viewing habits have changed. People like to watch TV on their own terms. That means things like time-shifting and IPTV on-demand apps are increasingly common features in standard pieces of hardware that, not so long ago, would have just been glorified decoders.

 At this point, it’s hard to say.

At this point, it’s hard to say.

So here’s the problem: media streaming devices mostly sit in a niche that’s rapidly disappearing. Sure, you can’t copy video you’ve downloaded onto your PC onto a Virgin media box, but you can access massive back catalogues of movies and TV. You can’t use your Xbox to stream media to other devices, but it’s already connected to your TV and plays Netflix/Lovefilm videos. So media streaming devices are only really worth the money if you don’t have access to a games console or existing smart-set top box.

Furthermore, there are increasing innovations in TVs themselves, some of which are capable of playing video off external storage devices, such as USB keys. Again, if you can do that, is there any need for a media streaming device that essentially does the same thing as something you already own?

Now, that’s not to say there’s no place for media streaming devices. They are still much more powerful than the average set top box, with support for things like torrent clients and web video that other hardware might lack. Those features might be especially desirable if the only other computers in your household are portable devices - like smartphones and netbooks. However, the fact is that media streaming devices seem to be a stopgap solution to a problem that’s solving itself.

If you need one, it’ll do the job, but it’s likely that the money would be better spent towards a TV (or PVR) that can read USB sticks, or a Blu-ray player that supports streaming apps. They’re unlikely to get any cheaper if you wait before buying one (and indeed, if the market starts to disappear they may actually go UP in price), but be aware that if you do buy one, it’s probably not going to be long before it’s as outdated and unnecessary as a zip disk.

What Are The Technical Constraints?

Your primary concern when checking the technical feasibility of adding a streaming media device to your setup should be the network speeds available in your home. If you have a particularly old wireless network or an aging router that can’t handle high throughputs, you may encounter difficulties when streaming video. Similarly, if the wireless signal is weak because the router is far away from the streaming media device, or the signal is being obstructed or disrupted, you may be unable to reach the network speeds required to watch TV over the network.

. It’s important to remember that just because you have a 10Mbps Internet connection, there’s no guarantee that you’ll have that much speed available to play online video, as well.

. It’s important to remember that just because you have a 10Mbps Internet connection, there’s no guarantee that you’ll have that much speed available to play online video, as well.

While these problems shouldn’t apply to a wired connection (even 100Mbps Ethernet is fast enough to stream HD video) you do also need to be aware of how good your Internet connection is, or risk being inconvenienced when it comes to online streaming services. It’s important to remember that just because you have a 10Mbps Internet connection, there’s no guarantee that you’ll have that much speed available to play online video, as well. Poor Internet speeds will mean that the video quality coming from online streaming services gets substantially downgraded, whether that’s because you have a poor-quality line or high latency because other people in the house are using the connection.

Also, while this shouldn’t apply to streaming devices that have their own storage, if you’re running server software on your PC, you will need a reasonably capable CPU. This is because the software may need to transcode video from an unfamiliar format into one that the streaming media device recognises. Transcoding is a very CPU-intensive process, so if your hardware isn’t up to scratch it’ll mean that the video simply can’t play!

What’s The Alternative?

As noted in the main article, there are several alternatives that you can turn to instead of buying a media streaming device, but crucially, buying a new TV or paying for a satellite/ cable subscription are both substantially more expensive than buying a media streaming device. So if you want to take advantages of the services they offer, are there any alternatives that cost less?

 Perhapss the cheapest way is to just use your PC

Perhapss the cheapest way is to just use your PC

Well, perhaps the cheapest way is to just use your PC. You can attach your TV and computer using a standard video cable, for example. The price ultimately depends on how far the cable needs to stretch, but a 20-metre cable component video cable shouldn’t set you back more than about $48, and if you use a laptop, you might only need a cheap 2-metre HDMI cable - the kind you can pick up for $4.8!

It’s not as convenient, admittedly, but it’s far cheaper than a media streaming device. Attaching your TV to your PC will mean that your computer detects it as a second monitor, which you can then use for playing media on. Most graphics card configuration software has an option to make this easy (it’s sometimes called ‘cinema mode’) but even at its most complicated, all you have to do is drag the video window onto the second desktop, maximise it and hit play.

Alternatively, you can use a media streaming server such as TVersity or PlayOn to turn your PC into a media streaming device compatible with most consoles and portable computers. Unlike a dedicated media streaming device, you probably won’t be able to play the signal directly to your TV, but you will be able to stream over the web and to TV-attached devices like an Xbox, PS3 or Wii, most of which are barely more expensive than a media server themselves!

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