Find out which of these tiny boxes comes closest
All that said, a top-shelf HTPC can set you back a couple of grand, and they can be difficult to fit into an entertainment center—especially given their cooling requirements. Luckily, the digital media players in this roundup can perform many of the same tasks as an HTPC. They’re tiny and passively cooled, so they’re dead quiet. And best of all, they’re relatively cheap.
We rounded up four of the strongest contenders and integrated them into our entertainment center to see which one comes closest to replacing an HTPC.
Roku HD XR
The Roku HD XR takes a very different tack to media streaming, in that it accesses Internet content only, unlike the other boxes we tested. It will stream audio and video content from a vast array of free and subscription online services, but it won’t play any of your own content on your TV.
If you’re a Netflix subscriber, you can stream movies on demand from that service. More importantly, you can browse and search through the company’s streaming library. With earlier models, you had to browse with your PC, adding titles to a queue before you could stream to a box such as this.
Roku has aggressively sought out deals with a variety of premium content providers—including Major League Baseball—but the company's hardware is all but oblivious to the content you already own.
Roku maintains an online “channel store” where its customers can choose from dozens of free and subscription streaming services, many of which—including Amazon Video on Demand, Major League Baseball TV, and Ultimate Fighting Championship—are not available on the Seagate, ViewSonic, and Western Digital boxes. A Roku box will stream Pandora Internet radio and photos from your Flickr account, too, but you can’t use it to watch any of those wacky YouTube videos.
The Roku HD XR’s video resolution tops out at 720p. That’s not terrible, but if you don’t have a TV or A/V receiver with a good scaler, you’ll wind up with black borders all around the video. The box does have a built-in wireless networking adapter—an added-cost option on the competition—as well as a 100Mb/s Ethernet port. Roku has developed a very strong user interface, too; its remote control, on the other hand, is extremely basic.
The Roku HD XR is very inexpensive (when you take the integrated Wi-Fi adapter into account), and Roku offers the strongest content lineup (assuming you don’t care about YouTube). But the absence of any means of accessing your own media via either your network or local storage is baffling.
Diverse collection of content in addition to Netflix, including MLB; integrated wireless network adapter.
Can't stream YouTube videos or your own content; max resolution of 720p.
Seagate GoFlex TV
The feature that separates Seagate’s GoFlex TV from the competition is its ability to harbor one of Seagate’s own 2.5-inch GoFlex portable SATA hard drives inside the device. What’s that, you say? All your portable hard drives use USB? Not to worry, as the GoFlex TV will host external USB drives, too, much like the media streamers from ViewSonic and Western Digital.
If all you care about is getting your Netflix fix, Roku’s HD XR is your drug (if you can get over its 720p max resolution). The GoFlex TV will stream Netflix movies—and it offers 1080p resolution—but you’ll need to access your account on your PC and add movies to your Play Instantly queue, first. In that regard, it’s the weakest offering in this field. Beyond Netflix, however, Seagate’s box is much stronger than Roku’s: You can view or listen to a variety of content stored either on an external hard drive plugged directly into the GoFlex TV or on a PC, NAS box, or server on your network.
Seagate's GoFlex TV is superior to the Roku when it comes to streaming your own content, but it's inferior to the rest of the field on most other counts.
The GoFlex TV supports slightly fewer video codecs and container formats than the Western Digital and ViewSonic devices, but it’s compatible with nearly all the important ones, including the MPEG-2, MPEG-4, and h.264 codecs and the AVI, MKV, and VOB containers. If you’ve taken to ripping your DVD movies and storing them as ISO images on a hard drive or server, the GoFlex TV can mount those images, giving you full access to the DVD menus, chapter-selection tools, subtitles, commentaries, and other special features included on the disc.
The GoFlex TV supports the most common audio file formats—including AAC, MP3, and FLAC—but it excludes some of the more esoteric formats, such as AIFF. It supports all the same digital photo formats as the ViewSonic and Western Digital boxes, and it was the only product in this field to support the MJPEG format that some digital still cameras use to record video.
In addition to Netflix, the GoFlex TV can stream content from YouTube, MediaFly, and Picasa, but it’s dead to Live365 and Pandora. The box supports Flickr, too, but not in the way you might expect: You can view random Flickr photo streams, but you can’t log into your own Flickr account to display your photos.
Mounts ISO images; supports MJPEG; can harbor a drive inside its enclosure.
You must use a PC to manage your Netflix queue; no Pandora support; weak Flickr support.
Next Page: ViewSonic NexTV VMP75 and WD TV Live Plus Reviews »
ViewSonic NexTV VMP75
Given that ViewSonic’s core business revolves around computer monitors and business-oriented video projectors, we weren’t expecting all that much when we unboxed their NexTV VMP75 media streamer. Wow, did we ever underestimate.
Like the Roku, the VMP75 enables you to play any title in Netflix’s streaming library, not just the ones in your queue. But like the Seagate and Western Digital devices, View-Sonic’s outputs video at full 1080p resolution. And like those devices, it plays all your own media, whether it’s stored on a portable hard drive or on another device on your network. The VMP75 doesn’t limit you to USB devices, either, as it has an eSATA port, too.
The feature that really sets ViewSonic apart from the competition is the inclusion of a full-fledged web browser. The other boxes keep you in a walled garden: You can use only the web services the manufacturers allow, and the user interface for those services is one the manufacturers developed, not the one you’d see on a computer. With the ViewSonic, you can go anywhere you want on the Internet and use whatever services you fancy.
ViewSonic's VMP75 comes with a fabulous remote, but if it doesn't float your boat, you can plug in a USB keyboard.
Take YouTube, for instance. Seagate and Western Digital provide lists (Newest, Most Popular, Most Commented, etc.) and thumbnail images linked to videos. ViewSonic’s browser takes you to the YouTube website and delivers the very same experience you’d get if you visited YouTube on a PC. The same goes for Flickr, ShoutCast, and Facebook (although the VMP75 does not support Flash content, including games).
The VMP75’s user interface is vastly superior to the ones on all three of the other products, and it comes with a best-in-class remote control. The remote has dedicated buttons for navigating to your music, video, or digital photo content, displaying DVD menus from ISO images, and more. It also has a D-pad that doubles as a playback controller (play/pause, forward/reverse) when you’re streaming media, and serves as a cursor controller when you’re navigating menus or websites.
The VMP75 supports all the important media file formats and containers. It’s not quite as strong as Western Digital’s product on this count, but it’s much better than Seagate’s (with the exception of MJPEG). This is the streamer we want in our entertainment center.
Fabulous remote; 1080p resolution; integrated Web browser; eSATA.
Doesn't support rich Flash content or quite as many container or file formats as the competition.
Western Digital WD TV Live Plus
Western Digital manufactures three similarly named media streamers, but this is the only one that supports Netflix. The WD TV Live Plus comes a very close second to ViewSonic’s VMP75, by virtue of supporting the widest array of media file formats and containers in this field, being the only box to support Windows 7’s Play To feature (more on that in a moment), and having the second-best user interface, after ViewSonic’s.
If you have a PC running Windows 7, you can use Microsoft’s Play To feature to “send” media from your PC to the WD TV Live Plus. Simply add songs or videos to the Windows Media Player 12 playlist, click the Play To button, and choose the WD TV Live Plus from the list. That media will then start playing through Western Digital’s box. You might find this a little easier than searching for the same content using the WD TV Live Plus’s user interface.
Like the rest of the field, the Western Digital WD TV Live Plus features HDMI, digital and analog audio outputs, and composite and component video outputs.
Western Digital supports just a few more media codecs than Seagate and ViewSonic (although Seagate’s is the only one that supports MJPEG). Unlike View-Sonic’s box, Western Digital doesn’t include a full web browser, but its user interface comes a close second (Seagate’s UI looks primitive by comparison).
The WD TV Live Plus offers two USB ports, so you can connect older portable hard drives that draw more power than a single USB port can deliver. Most people, however, will use one of those ports to plug in a USB Wi-Fi adapter so they can connect the media player to their network and the Internet. Western Digital supports a wide range of third-party adapters, while View-Sonic currently supports just two and Seagate expects you to purchase theirs. The Roku, as mentioned earlier, has one built in.
The WD TV Live Plus will play just about any media, but if you don’t anticipate needing support for some of the more esoteric formats and containers, the ViewSonic VMP75 is the better buy.
Best file/container format support, ISO images; DLNA compliant; broad Wi-Fi adapter support.
File browser doesn’t provide enough information; no love for Hulu, LastFM, or Slacker.