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Media streamers – the future of home entertainment

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June 21, 2009

Western Digital WDTV

Western Digital WDTV

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The last 12 months have seen a swathe of new technologies and devices emerge that threaten to change the face of home entertainment forever. There can be little doubt that digital audio formats and portable players have changed the way we listen to music, and in a similar way, digital video could soon consign drawers filled with DVDs to the proverbial scrap-heap.

In the not too distant future, the most essential set-top box for the modern home will not be the Blu-ray player, freeview box or even a satellite or cable receiver, but the home media streamer. While still at a relatively early stage of development, a streamer offers a similar service to the humble MP3 player in its ability to support playback of digital media formats, most notably video.

So what exactly do these devices do, and why are they so special? Well, as is usually the case with new technology, streamers come in various shapes and sizes and vary quite wildly in the specific features they offer. Predominantly, a streamer’s job is to transmit digital video files across a network from a library stored on a computer to a television. Exactly how adept they are at doing this and what else they can offer the home user is what separates the men from the boys in this market, so we’ll take a look at five boxes that should be ticked in a successful, versatile device.

  • Connectivity: Most modern streamers now offer all-important HDMI connectivity, with some sporting version 1.3, though you’ll often find older standards included such as component, composite and digital audio connections.
  • File support: This is one area that varies quite wildly and the wide range of file formats and codecs currently doing the rounds means that versatility is paramount if an entire library is to be supported.
  • Network support: All streamers offer an Ethernet port for connection to a network but any that are worth their salt also offer wireless, with 802.11n seeing increased support. This is essential for hassle-free operation and in the case of the latest standards, is important to guarantee that high-resolution files will stream smoothly.
  • Usability: A well-supported, versatile streamer is of little use if you can’t find your way around the features and browse a library of files comfortably. A streamer should offer customizable, intuitive menus, good media control, quick and easy network setup and a decent, responsive remote control that doesn’t leave you hammering away at buttons for a reaction or squinting down at a mass of options for the desired control.
  • Support for online services: Perhaps the biggest thing holding streamers back is availability of content. Subscription or pay-to-view services like NetFlix [http://www.gizmag.com/lg-bd30-network-blu-ray-disc-player-with-netflix-streaming/9740/] and its 12,000-strong library, Blockbuster’s recent agreement with Tivo (http://www.engadget.com/2009/03/25/blockbuster-ondemand-comes-to-tivo-tivos-going-on-sale-at-bloc/) to supply digital downloads and improved access to sites like YouTube will drive the market forwards. Finding a suitable way to expand this support in a way that benefits both the consumer and the provider is essential to the future of home entertainment.

    Jukeboxes, games consoles and web-enabled TVs

    If the conventional media streamer seems like a rather expensive investment at this early stage, there are cheaper alternatives that offer direct access to media files through a TV using locally stored libraries. More accurately described as ‘media jukeboxes’, these devices often come with built-in hard drives for storing a media library or in the case of the excellent Western Digital WDTV, offer quick access to connected USB storage. Jukeboxes are often cheaper and a better option for occasional users, allowing instant playback of digital video, photos and music files through a TV.

    In addition to this, HDTVs are starting to offer support for digital video formats and built-in wireless to stream files across a network and view online content. Games consoles are improving support and even Blu-ray is getting involved so if there is any doubting the potential of this technology, these developments should put them to rest.

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