The Boxes of the Year

With the last holiday shopping weekend of 2009 upon us, it’s probably time to list my favorite home entertainment boxes of the year. This list is by no means exhaustive, these are just some of my faves – top picks, suitable for mainstream audiences and geeks alike. Keeping in mind, that for the second straight year, the Xbox 360 ($300) is still my #1 digital media powerhouse – the one box I cannot part with. Take my TiVo. Take my Roku. But you better come armed if you want this 360. Not only does it feature the best online gaming experience, it also boasts THE best Netflix instant streaming client – in addition to offering a variety of other media playback options.



In the video category, there are two standouts for those sticking with physical media – and a higher quality of HD. But the snappy LG BD 390 set-top box (<$300) and the redesigned PS3 gaming console ($300) are much more than capable Blu-ray players. Both offer a variety of connected services (and 802.11n), including Netflix instant streaming. Those who have current or potential gamers in the house should probably look to the PS3 (and budget another 20 bucks for a remote), while everyone else would be quite happy with the Vudu-streaming LG. If you’re less picky and/or on a tighter budget with a higher tolerance for networking pain, look to the Samsung BD-P1600 (~$150) for similar features.



I’ve been waiting a few years for Sonos to put out some sort of all-in-one connected music system, containing an amplifier, speakers, and the network brain which takes their solution to the next level. And they delivered impressively earlier this year with the Sonos S5 ($400). It’s not inexpensive (although competitive with higher-end iPhone speaker docks), but Sonos provides a sophisticated, elegant solution to pipe iTunes, Rhapsody, Pandora, Sirius, etc around the home — remotely controlled via an iPhone, iPod Touch, or their own controller. I’m no audiophile, but I will say my pair of evaluation units sound great and the volume can be cranked to painfully loud, although not distorted, levels. The S5 hardware blends well into most living spaces. As does the technology. Sit back, relax, and enjoy the music.

Multifunction Budget Boxes


Both the Roku ($100) and the WD TV HD (<$130) boxes offer compelling functionality at extremely reasonable prices, neverminding their uninspired, pedestrian physical appearance. The Roku efficiently provides cloud-based content (Netflix, Amazon VOD, Pandora, etc), while Western Digital’s box excels in delivering a wide variety of local home media. However, as we head into 2010 and as these product lines evolve, I expect to see quite a bit more overlap in functionality. And, at these prices, you could put one in each room.

9 thoughts on “The Boxes of the Year”

  1. It is good to see the Roku make a “year end” list as I have three of the boxes myself and I love them. I think you are right on the money in noting that we will probably see an overlap in functionality (Internet streaming and LAN streaming) with these type of devices. If Roku elects not to incorporate LAN streaming, they will need to offer more premium content (e.g. Disney, ABC, CBS, NBC, SHowtime, a deal with a major sports league, ect.) in order to remain a leader among STBs. It is even probable that they will have to do both to really remain a leader.

  2. vw, Mari’s a big Squeezebox fan – we’ve both owned units over the years and written about their product line here. However, in my opinion, the Sonos S5 is a superior solution to the Squeezebox Radio, technically and sonically — especially when considering whole-home audio, assuming your budget permits.

  3. I’m hoping by next year’s awards we have a box that can handle internet streaming sites like Hulu or CBS/ or Fancast Xfinity.

    I’m personally hoping for an Apple TV update and a new Tivo…

  4. Wow, between my 360 and my TiVo there is no choice, my TiVo S3 is the most important box I have (after my computers that is). If Netflix and Roku were available here, they (and the 360) might start to rival the TiVo I guess, but even still, I couldn’t imagine life without my TiVo. I use it every day whereas I use my 360 once a week on average.

    I would say that if I could get Netflix on my 360, that I’d toss the Apple TV pretty quickly. But until then AppleTV is pretty important.

    My iPhone is also right up there. I order of importance for me:

    – PCs
    – TiVo
    – iPhone
    – 360


  5. I dunno about the Samsung Blu-ray player. I find it hard to take it seriously when it’s not compatible with DL DVD media.

  6. Glenn, James – Agreed. I’d like to see some significant AppleTV and TiVo update next year. It seems inevitable with TiVo – they spend tens of millions a year on R&D and we haven’t seen a new box (or UI) in years.

    dwgsp, yeah I’m not overly fond of that Samsung box. But it’s (now) pretty inexpensive for what it offers as long as folks temper their expectations. (Wireless Ready is NOT wireless, you will have to pull the plug to reboot after firmware updates, etc.)

  7. I have to say that my xbox360 is the centerpiece for most of my tv shenanigans. After getting the demo for the new upgrades such as Last.FM and such, It really set the mood for how much more I was going to be using it.

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