Streaming media set top boxes
These devices connect to the Internet and stream pre-recorded content to your TV from mostly paid services like Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Video, etc. There are some free channels on these devices, but nothing to write home about. The biggest use for these boxes is the ability to watch video on-demand from one of the paid services. None of these boxes offer true unfettered Internet access. Think of them like a video rental store in your home. By themselves, none of these are a replacement for cable TV.
If you are interested in getting one of these boxes, my recommendation is Apple TV for those who own other Apple products, and Roku for those who don't own any other Apple products. I personally own both.
Note that recent TVs and DVD players are coming with streaming functionality built-in, so look for that. It's like getting one of these boxes included in the TV. Also, if you have an XBox 360, Sony PS3 or Nintendo Wii, you can subscribe to Netflix. If you have an XBox, you'll need a XBox Live Gold account to do so.
If you want true Internet connectivity on your TV, I suggest hooking up your computer to your TV. That's what I do, and it use it much more than my Roku or Apple TV. Read how to do that here.
Please also note that these boxes don't record. If you want recording capability, check out my page on DVRs that you can use with an antenna.
Finally, please note that these boxes are not for watching shows in real time. You usually watch recorded shows after they've aired. For many this is a plus, since they can watch at their convenience. Some readers have been confused about this however.
Roku - recommended!
The Roku box has been around for a while and is highly-rated. If you don't have Apple products like the iPad, this is a good choice. There are three versions starting for less than the cost of Apple TV. With the Roku player, you can stream Netflix, Amazon Video, Hulu Plus, and other pay services. The Roku 1 has composite video output, so it will work with your old tube type of TV, whereas Apple TV won't.
Note that support for YouTube on Roku is precarious at best. They can't seem to decide whether they want to offer YouTube or not. The current answer from their official website is that Roku does not support YouTube, which for me is a big minus. On the bright side, you get Crackle.com, which is a totally free site with some older movies and TV shows. Apple TV does not offer this (unless you view on your iPad and mirror to your TV).
Read my full review of Roku.
Apple TV - recommended!
Apple recently introduced the new 1080p Apple TV. Of course, it is intimately connected with the iTunes store, so you can rent shows from there for 99 cents and movies for $4.99 (about a bit more than other services). It also offers Netflix and You Tube.
If you own a lot of other Apple products, like iPads, iPods, and iPhones, Apple TV offers tight integration with those devices. You an stream content wirelessly from your iPad to the Apple TV box and watch it on your TV. This is pretty cool - almost true Internet access on your TV. Apple TV also offers YouTube out of the box.
For more info, read my complete review of Apple TV.
If you are debating between Apple TV and Roku, take my quick test here to see which one is best for you:
Unlike Apple TV and Roku, TiVo Premiere allows you to record 75 hours of broadcast shows right in the box. You hook your antenna right up to it. In addition, you can watch shows from Hulu Plus, Netflix, and Amazon Prime (for additional charge, of course), not to mention YouTube. TiVo also has one of the best user-interfaces around, in my opinion.
All of this is great until we get to the cost of TiVo: $15/month or $550 for lifetime service. That is where they lose me. I am a cheapskate and hate paying $150 for the base unit plus $15 monthly fee, or alternatively, $700 for the base unit with no monthly fee. But, if you need to record shows, this is the best way to do it without using a computer.
The Logitech Revue has created much excitement because it has the Google TV interface, enabling you to access most of the Internet in an elegant manner. However, media sources such as Hulu, ABC, and CBS proceeded to block content to Google TV, seriously hindering this product. You can read more about it and see reviews here:
D-Link Boxee Box
The D-Link Boxee Box (which is different from Boxee TV) is best at playing video from your computer's hard drive over your local network but is missing access to Hulu Plus, Amazon Video and iTunes of course. If you don't have a lot of video on your computer's hard drive, go for the cheaper Roku or Apple TV, which can stream some video formats. The Boxee Box is rated lower than Roku or Apple TV on Amazon. Read more about it here:
Western Digital TV Live Plus/ TV Live Hub (1TB)
The WD TV Live Plus comes in at $99, and has support for Netflix, You Tube, and other services. A big downside for some is lack of Wi-Fi on this device, meaning you'll have to run an Ethernet cable from your router to this box. The WD TV Live Hub has the same features but with 1 Terabyte of onboard storage, and comes in at $199.99. This doesn't have Wi-Fi either unfortunately. Still, if you want onboard storage, this could work for you.
Seagate Free Agent GoFlex TV
The Free Agent GoFlex TV supports Netflix and has a port for a Seagate GoFlex drive for onboard storage. Street price is around $99. Unfortunately, Wi-Fi adapter is sold separately. This unit seems to be on par with the Western Digital units with regard to features, but the reviews are mediocre at best as you can read below:
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