The advent of digital downloads and music / movie streaming have made the HTPC scene quite popular. While pundits keep on debating the reasons as to why the HTPC remains a niche market, companies have recognized that a new market has opened up, namely, that of the media streamer. While streaming conventionally refers to communication of the IP variety, it is customary to include playback of media from local sources while discussing this market. The selling point of the media streamers lie in the fact that, unlike HTPCs, they do not consume a lot of power and they are supposed to work right out of the box. For the purpose of this article, we will not cover media streamer platforms which consume more than 50W in detail.

Before we get to the nitty-gritty details of the various media streamer platforms available, let us trace the history of media streamers briefly. Towards the middle of the last decade, DVD players started sporting USB ports, off which music, photos and videos (in the DivX and Xvid formats) could be played. One of the pioneers in this space was the DP-500 from KiSS Technology. With the decreasing popularity of optical media, the possibility that the player's size could be shrunk emerged. Starting around the end of 2004, companies like RCA put forward standalone media streamers, which could play local content as well as network media. The first HD capable media streamer was the Roku HD1000, but it received unflattering reviews. and did not have any optical media support. Offerings in the first two years were largely ignored by the public not only because of issues with reliability and user friendliness but also probably due to the fact that optical media wasn't completely out of the picture yet (it isn't even now, and is in fact making a come-back of sorts with the gaining popularity of the Blu-Ray format).

Apple, as is its wont, tried to put its own touch on a device for this market. In early 2007, they introduced the Apple TV. Unfortunately, in probably their only blot of the decade, they failed miserably with their approach. Fundamental to the failure was the fact that they couldn't identify their target market. In its incipient stages, the media streamer market relied heavily on tech-savvy people in order to take off. These were the people who would migrate from HTPCs to new gadgets (or, at least keep them side by side). By taking a not-easily-upgradeable HTPC (more on this later) and bundling it with a proprietary software stack, they took out the main advantage viz. the freedom to tinker around with various hardware and software components without resorting to documentation from the hacking community. It is then no wonder that most of the HTPC community (except for the hardcore Apple fanboy segment), and, as a result, the target market gave the Apple TV a poor reception. However, credit needs to be given to Apple for being the first mainstream company to bring a media streamer into the market, thereby opening the floodgates for more firms to pitch in with their own offerings. The last three years or so have seen products from top tier manufacturers such as Samsung, LG, Netgear, Western Digital, Seagate and others enter the fray in one guise or the other.

Any streamer able to handle HD content is also capable of handling similar content at SD resolutions, while the reverse scenario is not always true. There are dedicated devices for SD media, but it is pretty evident that the market for those devices is going only one way, and that is down. With studies suggesting that 82% of all US households would end up with a HDTV by the end of 2010, it only makes sense to restrict this article to media streamer platforms which support high definition content. Present day HDTVs also support DLNA, local media playback and streaming from sites such as Netflix in the US. However, they do not have the capabilities of dedicated media streamers (such as HD audio bitstreaming). Since the media streamer platform is a minor component of the television system as a whole, we will not cover these in much detail.

Though the term 'Media Streamer' may encompass a wide range of devices, they may all be classified under one of the following categories:

1. HTPC Based Platforms
2. Blu-Ray Player / Media Streamer Combo
3. Pure Internet Service Media Streamers
4. Internet & Local Media Streamers
5. Game Console & PMP / App Processor Based Media Streamers

The rest of this article will cover the various platforms in each of the above categories in detail.

HTPC Based Platforms
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  • ganeshts - Tuesday, June 15, 2010 - link

    Modeverything, We are aware of the good reviews of Brite View on other channels and good user feedback too on AVS Forums. We will try to get reviews up for their upcoming product(s), but no guarantees :) Reply
  • Mumrik - Wednesday, June 16, 2010 - link

    Crap! When I read the headline I anticipated a roundup-style review. Not an overview of the field :-/ Reply
  • Montrey - Thursday, June 17, 2010 - link

    I was a little surprised that the Seagate FreeAgent Theater+ (emphasis on the "+") was not mentioned in the article. I purchased one about 2 months ago after a fair amount of research on products that fit my needs. I have been extremely pleased with it so far. With it you can:

    Directly plug in a Seagate FreeAgent portable drive for hidden storage or transport
    Use the USB port on the back for another storage device
    Stream media over your home network (minor registry fix in Win7 to make it work)
    Access YouTube, Netflix, and a variety of other streaming media that I never use, but Netflix works great

    The main selling point for me at the time of purchase was that it can handle pretty much any kind of video file you can throw at it. I have yet to find anything it cannot read. You can even play a ripped DVD folder just as if it were a DVD. In fact, you can share a DVD drive on a networked computer, and play a DVD from that, eliminating a stand alone DVD player.

    Best of all, for a 1080p USB and streaming media player, it is fairly cheap. I bought mine on NewEgg for $90 shipped.
    Reply
  • ganeshts - Thursday, June 17, 2010 - link

    Montrey,

    The Seagate FreeAgent Theater+ also uses a Realtek chipset (similar to what is on Xtreamer). The platform is covered, but the product in particular may be investigated in detail in a future review.
    Reply
  • shuck76 - Thursday, June 17, 2010 - link

    A couple additional features for your comparison list would be:

    ISO playback ability for DVD and Blu-ray
    Blu-ray menu support
    Reply
  • ganeshts - Thursday, June 17, 2010 - link

    shuck76,

    Thanks! Will add the following to the test suite:

    (1) DVD / Blu Ray ISO Support
    (2) DVD / Blu Ray Menu Support
    Reply
  • fzzzt - Thursday, June 17, 2010 - link

    Please consider adding ISO images to your list of containers. Myself and others I know simply use images to play discs, getting all the features without any hassle. Reply
  • ruzveh - Thursday, June 17, 2010 - link

    Apart from flawless 1080p support for all files and codec we also want some more hardware support incl. Bluetooth 3 + HDMI 1.4 + 7.1ch support + better graphics and audio components and capacitors Reply
  • ganeshts - Thursday, June 17, 2010 - link

    ruzveh,

    We will probably see many features that you want in the next gen products.

    7.1 channel support already exists on most players support HDMI 1.3 ; We will keep an eye out for the graphics capabilities.
    Reply
  • ruzveh - Thursday, June 17, 2010 - link

    I also believe that todays media players should also support next level IPv6. And support all major online video and radio sites. What else can we ask in a media streamer.. ummmm??

    Maybe capability to add more accessories :D
    Reply

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