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. Continue Reading…