The 2011 Boxes Of The Year

Dave Zatz —  December 21, 2011

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It’s that time of the year again where we run down our selection of best digital media boxes. And, surprisingly, the top 2012 recommendations aren’t dramatically different from our 2011 picks.

In the ‘all around’ category, we’re still partial to the current generation of Sony and Microsoft gaming consoles… which offer far more than HD gaming. The Xbox 360 ($200) delivered more innovation in 2011 than the PS3, with (another) massive UI overhaul and new video services including Verizon FiOS TV and YouTube. Yet, despite Sony’s well documented security lapses, we’re nevertheless giving the PS3 ($250) the edge this year for two reasons. First, despite the proliferation of Internet video, there continues to be a void of compelling content that can’t be sourced (legally) online via services like Hulu or Vudu – making the PS3’s integrated Blu-ray player just as compelling as ever. Next, many desirable Xbox features, like Netflix streaming, require a $60 annual subscription. For gamers who play collaboratively online, it’s a sunk cost. But for everyone else, the Xbox 360 carries a recurring premium that’s hard to justify when a fee-free media streamer like the the Roku LT runs a mere $50.

Roku LT

Speaking of that 720p Roku LT, the digital media streamer massively undercuts the competition in price and is our box of the year. It still lags the WDTV Live line ($100 and up) and Boxee ($180) in local media playback capabilities, doesn’t offer the polish or ecosystem of Apple TV ($100), and YouTube is still notably absent,  but Roku provides arguably the largest selection of apps — combined with the LT’s dirt cheap pricing, it’s hard to argue against them for online staples including Netflix, Pandora, and Amazon VOD. On the other end of the spectrum, Google TV continued to disappoint in 2011 despite a significant Android operating system update. Perhaps we’ll have more positive things to say in 2012 as new gTV hardware is released and their marketplace expands. Likewise, while Apple’s AirPlay functionality didn’t quite live up to our expectations in 2011, we anticipate improvements in the new year.

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On the audio front, we continue to recommend Sonos. They out-Apple in terms of simplicity and elegance. Not to mention one doesn’t actually need to partake in Apple’s ecosystem to enjoy a Sonos whole-home audio solution. Our biggest concern remains their somewhat pricey proposition to outfit even a few rooms of one’s home. Which is why the new, lower cost Sonos Play:3 ($299) makes our 2011 boxes list. Not only does it sound good, the smaller size allows it to comfortably blend into additional environments. However, we still pine for a rechargeable battery as seen in the iHome AirPlay Speaker or Jawbone Jambox and await home theater integration.

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Thanks to the work of the FCC, the golden age of CableCARD arrived in 2011. And, while rolling your own digital cable solution remains the province of geeks, the HDHomeRun Prime ($250) is the most clever of solutions. Unlike traditional PC CableCARD accessories, Silicon Dust’s solution is neither a USB appendage nor PCI card. Like the original HDHomeRun, the Prime sits anywhere on your home network – allowing LAN computers to remotely access any of its three digital cable tuners. Of course, the most common use case would be Windows 7 Media Center clients for live or DVR-ed television duties. Yet, I managed to pipe digital cable onto an iMac W7 virtual machine and El Gato sells an iPad app that wirelessly receives SD channel streams… with no computer required (beyond initial setup). Which may just foreshadow a native OS X client in 2012?

15 responses to The 2011 Boxes Of The Year

  1. Well, since content is still king, I’ll say that PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake is the CD box of the year, and Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia is the Blu-Ray box of the year.

    (Since HBO’s recent content doesn’t come in boxes, I thankfully don’t have to pick between Boardwalk Empire and Mildred Pierce.)

    “El Gato sells an iPad app that wirelessly receives SD channel streams… with no computer required (beyond initial setup).”

    That’s a pretty nifty toy.

  2. Very nifty, but still somewhat imperfect – it’s SD only (and looks it) plus any channels/providers with locked down content (CCI Byte) can’t be viewed. However, El Gato tells me they’re working on a different transmission method (much like TiVo) and decoding the HD on the fly. So… nifty and promising.

  3. “plus any channels/providers with locked down content (CCI Byte) can’t be viewed”

    There’s a simple workaround. Just move to a spot where Verizon has laid down fibre.

  4. I’m disappointed you left Ceton out of the mix. While it isn’t a standalone box, there is a usb version now. It also has four tuners instead of three. The Windows Media Center experience works so well with the XBox 360 you also mentioned.

  5. “I’m disappointed you left Ceton out of the mix. While it isn’t a standalone box, there is a usb version now.”

    I’m disappointed you left Plex out of the mix. While it isn’t a standalone box, it does work quite well with boxes.

  6. I’m going to be looking at the HDHomeRun Prime & Sonos come 2012. My computer(s) and cable TV runs are in two different parts of the house so the HomeRun is perfect for here and I’ve been jonesing after a Sonos system for a while and the latest stuff brings it into my price realm.

  7. Dave,

    love the review, my question is do/ how well can these boxes implement espn 3? pushing online content to TV?

  8. Casey, yep I’m familiar with the the Ceton unit and it’s impressive for having such a tiny form factor (compared to the massive first gen ATI tuner). Yet it’s not as versatile or unique as the Prime. I’ve had mixed luck with the 360 as an extender over the years and continue to shy away… however, with the death of MC extenders it’s really the only game in town.

    Steve, if ESPN3 is a must-have, the Xbox is probably your solution. There really is no one perfect box with selection dependent on goals and priorities.

  9. Dave, I have to be honest. I have been wanting to try out a Prime for a while. But I never get review units. :-)

  10. “(The Roku) still lags the WDTV Live line ($100 and up) and Boxee ($180) in local media playback capabilities”

    Meh. If you want anything more than very occasional local media capabilities, you want to run a local media server on your LAN. Since Plex handles that part of the equation nicely, and since Roku seemingly plays well with Plex, then I’d say the Roku actually beats the competition in local media capabilities, as long as you want to use it that way more than once or twice a year.

    “Roku provides arguably the largest selection of apps — combined with the LT’s dirt cheap pricing, it’s hard to argue against them for online staples including Netflix, Pandora, and Amazon VOD.”

    Meh, again. I’ll argue against Roku sheerly on their refusal to provide a 5ghz radio receiver anywhere in their current lineup, which, from a video streamer box, genuinely shows contempt for their customers.

    Sure, you can shell out the $99 for an ethernet wired port, but who wants to run another wire when 5ghz WiFi would take care of the task quite nicely. Plus, when you get that model, the unboxing looks like this. I mean, wouldn’t marketing consider that a bug rather than a feature?

    Roku does have the best channel selection, however. Which makes the lack of an appropriate receiver so much more galling.

  11. Its cool all the things some of these boxes can do without energy guzzling spinning disks inside.

  12. Yes, most of these only require an Internet connection with a monthly subscription fee. In addition to an entire world of wired infrastructure that interconnects between hundreds of thousands of businesses and Internet service providers. None of that uses spinning disks or electricity.

    Before I get into a flame war. Yes I understand it is way more efficient for spinning disks to exist in a data center than all of our homes. And we should all be doing our part to consume less of everything, including electricity.

  13. Still no perfect box from my point of view. Still waiting (for a while?) for HBO Go on Roku since Comcast is still blocking/not enabling it. Still waiting for Comcast to enable their VOD on XBox. Is there a theme here?

    (And PO’d by all of this and HBO’s cancellation of my beloved Bored To Death I’ve just cancelled HBO again)

    I may have to try the new Roku box since they claim they “now” support MKV’s. If I could know ahead of time whether they can handle the high bit rate Top Gear encodes I’ve got it would be helpful…

    Tivo… still love ya but gave up waiting and just upgraded the drive in my existing HD unit. The ‘random reboots’ thread on the Tivo Community forums suggests that Tivo hasn’t made any progress in fixing this problem since I made this call. Happy with the decision for now, but it means Tivo ain’t getting any more of my money any time soon.

    Still waiting for ‘apps on the TV’ to fulfill its promise. Hoping in the new year Apple or Google starts to fill out this space. Right now Yahoo Widgets are about as far as we’ve come, which ain’t very far.

  14. “And PO’d by all of this and HBO’s cancellation of my beloved Bored To Death I’ve just cancelled HBO again”

    It had a nice run. The first season was inspired and special. The initial concept was pretty wonderful. After that, it seemed to slowly run out of concept. I’d have made the same call.

    I don’t use this term lightly, but Enlightened is massive on the half-hour front. And they’ve still got one and a half inspired hour-long dramas…

    “Tivo… still love ya but gave up waiting and just upgraded the drive in my existing HD unit. The ‘random reboots’ thread on the Tivo Community forums suggests that Tivo hasn’t made any progress in fixing this problem since I made this call.”

    FWIW, my upgraded 1TB TiVo HD runs like a charm. Random reboots about three times a year, which seems reasonable to me. Perhaps a fresh platter drive will fix your issue, cuz the underlying hardware is solid from my experience.

    “Still waiting for ‘apps on the TV’ to fulfill its promise.”

    We are perpetually eighteen months away from this. Check back in 2020…

  15. I have a Laptop running Win 7 and want a PC/Tv adapter to stream all content from my laptop. I have Win Media Media Center and it makes reference to an EXTENDER. Is this what i need for web streaming or something on the order of “Warpia Wireless PC-To-TV Media Adapters “. If i understand WMC, it only streams whatever is in your downloaded computer files. Can you advise? thanks in advance………