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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  • Handi P - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    Can you please add some comments about these new toys that you are going to line-up, about their ability to handle picture scaling modes for use with a projector and an anamorphic lens?
    Also can you keep an eye if there's any feature on it that can manipulate subtitles location in terms of the use of an anamorphic lens ?

    Handi P.
  • ganeshts - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    Handi, Thanks for your feedback. We will note the following points for future reviews:

    (1) Picture scaling modes test
    (2) Subtitle location / size modification ability
  • daskino - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    I would still say that K.I.S.S: Technology was the first company to make media players.

    they launched a player back in 2002 based on the early Sigma processor the 8620
  • ganeshts - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    daskino, Thanks for the excellent information.

    I would have to say, I didn't pay much attention to KiSS's players since I always had the impression that they were just fancy DVD players :) Also, since their products are long discontinued, I couldn't dig up much information on their specs during market research.

    Thanks again for the eye opener. Just goes to show how much Sigma Designs has been dominating this market in the last 8 years or so!
  • The0ne - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    Haven't read it yet but I'm thankful this has finally come out. Much appreciated!
  • The0ne - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    doh, only a small preview :(
  • DieterBSD - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    > 2. Video codecs (H264 / VC-1 / Real Media / VP8 etc.)

    Don't forget mpeg2.

    > 4. Multiple subtitle formats

    And closed captions (e.g. from recorded broadcast TV) support.
    If you can't make out a word when someone mumbles, how easy is
    it to rewind a few seconds, switch closed captions on, read
    the word, then switch closed captions off again? This could be
    a real pain if buried deep in a menu system. Is it possible to
    put the subtitle/captions in the letterbox black band area
    rather than blocking the picture?

    Quality of interlacing and de-interlacing. Since sources
    come in both interlaced and progressive formats, and AFAIK all
    displays are fundamentally one or the other, everyone has to deal
    with this. Poor quality interlacing/de-interlacing is really
    painful to watch. Add in pull-down and some of the bizzare
    things being broadcast and it is a mess.

    Ability to keep audio and video in sync.

    > What is the use of 1080p without HDMI?

    > Any media streamer worth its salt interfaces with the rest of
    > the AV components using HDMI.

    All the world is not HDMI. Ever hear of DVI or Displayport?
    IIRC component can do 1080. Many people have TVs or monitors
    that they are very happy with that don't have HDMI.
    How is the quality of the output on component, s-video, composite?
    I would love a device that can output s-video with more
    than the DV standard 720 pixels horizontally.

    Measured specs such as signal/noise, distortion, etc. would be nice.

    Quality of scaling, both up and down. I've read that many
    HDTVs have poor quality scalers.

    Ability to seek to a specific spot, skip forward/backward,
    freeze frame, step through frame by frame forward/backward,
    playing slow/fast at various speeds. I've read numerous
    complaints about boxes that do poorly at these things and
    are only good at normal playing.

    Ability to zoom in/out easily (mainly to deal 4:3 vs 16:9
    issues). Ability to compensate for source material that is
    squeezed or stretched. (Amazing how much they get wrong...)

    When you say "local media" do you mean "stored on a computer
    (or NAS) on the local network", or "stored on a device
    (e.g. an e-SATA/firewire/USB disk) connected directly to the media streamer"?
    Perhaps scrap the term "local" and using:

    attached (e-SATA, firewire, USB, ...)
    internal (inside the box: hard drive, CD/DVD drive, ...)

    How well do these streamers deal with the variety of
    computers, protocols, filesystems, found on LANs? (FreeBSD,
    OS-X, Plan-9, Linux, ...)

    Network: wired 100 Mbps Ethernet is more than fast enough for
    a single stream of compressed 1080 or less. If you have a
    lot of stuff happening on your network you'll want a gigabit
    switch and probably gigabit ports on the computers. The
    wireless stuff is problematic, I'd advise against it. A cat6
    cable is dirt cheap and far more reliable, As far as I'm
    concerned, wireless built into a video streamer is a *negative*
    feature. Runs up the cost just to pollute the airways.
  • ganeshts - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    DieterBSD, Thanks for your extensive comment.

    We will keep your points in mind. Ability to keep A/V sync is a really important feature which many streamers fail at.

    While I agree with almost all of your points, I beg to differ with respect to HDMI. DVI and DisplayPort are not aimed at the multimedia market. DVI is unable to carry audio signals, while DisplayPort connectors are not present on TVs / AV receivers which are common parts of a home theater system. Like it or not, home theater enthusiasts seem to be stuck with the HDMI standard rather than the royalty free DisplayPort :|
  • UltimateKitchenUtensil - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    "the main advantage viz a viz the freedom to tinker around"

    "Viz." is an abreviation for the latin videlicet. It means "that is to say". The French expression meaning "relative to" is "vis à vis".
  • ganeshts - Tuesday, June 15, 2010 - link

    Thanks for bringing this to my notice :)

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