Our second annual ‘boxes of the year’ column doesn’t dramatically differ from the 2009 edition. Which is somewhat surprising given how quickly the tech sector iterates and innovates. And my favorite all around box is still the Xbox 360 ($199). It’s been redesigned for 2010 with a sleeker, home theater-friendly form and color (black) that hopefully contains more reliable and intelligently designed hardware. ESPN3 is also new for ’10, rounding out a nice selection of content offerings including Netflix and Zune HD video rentals. Additionally, the 360 is quite capable in handling local media playback – via USB, LAN, and as a Media Center extender. Last, but not least, Xbox Live is the best online gaming solution. As long as you’re prepared to fork over $50-$60 a year for access (also required for Netflix, etc).
Having said all that, Sony’s seriously closed the gap in recent months and I can also recommend the PS3 ($299). New this year are native Netflix access, Hulu Plus, and Vudu HD video on demand. The PS3 also has decent local media playback capabilities (USB, DLNA) but, of course, what sets it apart from the Xbox is its built-in Blu-ray drive – and Sony’s done a good job keeping that functionality current and competitive through software updates.
Online Video Streamer
In the more traditional (if we can call it that) digital media device category, top honors once again go to Roku. It’s the little box that could. Featuring perhaps the broadest array of online streaming options. Although you may only care about the biggies like Netflix, Pandora, Amazon VOD, Hulu Plus, YouTube, and NHL. If local media playback is your priority, Roku is the wrong solution. But for everyone else the inexpensive Roku seems like a no brainer for at least one room/television. Roku refreshed their lineup in 2010 and most folks would be best served by the middle unit ($80), which includes the new, more fully functional remote and 802.11n over the lower end unit ($60). Given the current state of USB video playback, you can probably skip the $100 model… unless you intend to share your Flip video on the HDTV. (Roku’s offering free shipping through the 5th if you’re ready to join in or pick up a second.)
Local Media Playback
For a budget device with solid local playback capabilities, I’m still fond of the WDTV Live Plus ($130). And, not only will it play your rips, it pipes in the likes of Netflix, YouTube, and Pandora. But, if you’ve got a little more money to spend and are willing to take a flyer, the D-Link Boxee Box ($200) is worth a look. I’ve got a lot of confidence in Avner and the rest of the Boxee team to carefully walk that line to meet our needs while appeasing the studios. Of course, at Boxee’s price point, you’re getting close to a more flexible and powerful small form factor computer. But along with those additional capabilities comes additional complexity.
In addition to the Boxee Box, the new Apple TV ($99) seems to have a decent amount of potential. If they manage to expand and smooth out AirPlay functionality. More importantly for the platform, it seems like an app store is a no brainer and would blow up the market. However, it doesn’t yet exist and Apple may stay the course with curated services like Netflix and YouTube.
Google TV products ($300 and up) are also new this year, and like Apple, the first iteration lacks a marketplace which — limiting its potential. Also limiting is the studio website blockade – truly unfortunate as Google TV brings the very best browser experience to the television (even if this is an intermediate need). While I enjoy Google TV and discover something new just about every time I use it, I can only recommend it to the geeky with plenty of disposable income. At its current price point and level of polish, it’s just not ready for the typical consumer. But, assuming Google (and partners) stick with it, there’s some serious long-term potential here. And hopefully I’ll find the time and motivation to blog it separately.
Lastly, the new TiVo Premiere (now zero dollars, up front!) could eliminate the need for many of these boxes if they get around to modernizing and adding to their selection of third party apps (like Netflix and YouTube). TiVo’s obvious and primary advantage is that it’s a “first input” device that integrates digital cable tuning and recording. So, provide more content and a more sprightly (HD) app interface, and folks may choose to entirely bypass “second input” devices.
On the connected audio front, like 2009, we still recommend the Sonos S5 ($400). It’s not the cheapest solution by a long shot, but it’s the most elegant. In fact, as I trade our two bedroom temporary housing for a five bedroom house next week, I’m contemplating the purchase of two additional units. I’m still bummed I can’t pipe Slacker or XM through Sonos, but their new iPhone dock is a reasonable stop-gap solution. However, I expect the dynamics to change shortly as Apple AirPlay-compatible speaker systems (like this iHome iW1 unit) hit the market. Which is why Sonos needs to fast track an Android controller… and maybe a home theater system, too.