BLACK FRIDAY: What to Get for the Person Who Has Everything
This holiday season, a streaming video player could be just the gift for the person on your list who has everything. After all, “everything” probably includes at least one TV and a streaming subscription or two, right?
But there are so many devices on the market right now that selecting one for a gift can be overwhelming. Even if you’ve had the opportunity to try a few out, your favorite device may not be the best one for the person you’re shopping for – it really depends on what they like to watch.
Well have no fear this Black Friday, because you’ve come to the right place! We’ve sampled lots of streaming players over the past year, and logged many hours observing their individual strengths and weaknesses.
This list is far from exhaustive — there are other players we’d include if we could, and also tablets and game consoles — but we know you have other things to do and read today. So without further delay, here are our favorite streaming boxes this holiday season:
Great for kids of all ages.
Roku is one of the easiest boxes to set up and use (Disclosure: My parents got a Roku for Christmas last year). Roku also counts the best streaming content selection of the boxes listed here – it offers Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Amazon Instant Video, as well as a huge variety of free channels.
Roku’s streaming player comes in four different flavors, all of which include the same access to streaming content, but with slightly different specs:
* The LT ($50) is a little purple box with component out, perfect for connecting to an older TV.
* The HD and XD ($60 and $80, respectively) stream HD video – up to 720p for the HD, and 1080p for the XD model.
* The Roku XS ($100) is perfect for your favorite Angry Birds addict, with a motion-sensitive remote and a free copy of the game included.
Not the best choice for:
Someone who is primarily interested in watching digital content they already own. The Roku XS includes a USB port for playing media files, but the file support is sorely lacking. Roku devices don’t have DLNA [Digital Living Network Alliance] or uPnP [Universal Plug and Play] capability, so they are also unable to access files stored on your home network.
Boxee Box ($180)
Buy one for your favorite illegal downloader, cord-cutter or Slingbox owner.
If someone on your list owns a lot of home video or downloaded content, the Boxee Box really shines, in terms of file support. Boxee expertly handles video files on a network (it plays every file type we throw at it), and even pulls in cover art and metadata where it’s missing from your files. A built-in SD [Secure Digital] card reader makes it an ideal choice for viewing photos and home videos, too.
Boxee also does a great job of combing the web for free content, and puts it all into one place for easy browsing . Plus, it isn’t blocked from as many content provider sites as are GoogleTV devices. Boxee plans to support live TV next year – meaning that cord-cutters will be able to connect an antenna to their Boxee with a USB dongle, and Slingbox-owners will be able to access their content through its forthcoming SlingPlayer app.
Don’t buy it if:
You don’t favor frequent tech-support calls. The Boxee Box isn’t the easiest device to set up or troubleshoot, but it’s great for people who like to tinker. I love my Boxee, but I’d think twice before getting one for my parents.
Boxee’s handling of subscription video content is lackluster at best – Amazon video can’t be played, even through the Boxee browser, and it doesn’t include support for Hulu Plus either (though the Boxee website says it’s coming soon).
Recommended for the Macophiles on your list.
While the Apple TV is severely lacking when it comes to streaming video content, the user experience is everything you’d expect from an Apple product – attractive and well thought out. The iTunes integration is excellent, and the Netflix experience is the best I’ve seen on any connected device.
Not a good gift for:
The friend who recently told you about cancelling his Netflix subscription, and who refuses to buy content through iTunes. Netflix is the sole unlimited streaming service on the Apple TV — the only other option is to purchase video through iTunes, and that quickly adds up, by way of $1.99, $2.99 and $3.99 per title charges or $25+ per-season fees to purchase, say, the first full season of Modern Family. Plus, what you can purchase on iTunes is very likely not current. Note we said the first full season of Modern Family. For people who have already given up on Netflix, the Apple TV might just become an expensive paperweight.
Google TV devices ($99 and up)
Recommended for the Android enthusiasts on your list.
Google TV’s navigation is widely criticized as confusing, but for me it suddenly became easier to use after I switched to an Android phone. Google TV also added access to the Android Market and other app stores with a recent update, and the currently limited selection of TV-compatible apps is likely to grow.
And for someone who owns a lot of physical media, the Sony Blu-ray Player with Google TV ($199) is an excellent choice – it packs more processing power than some of the more expensive connected Blu-ray players on the market.
Don’t bother buying it for:
People who watch a lot of video through Hulu or Amazon Prime — all Hulu content is completely blocked on the Google TV, while Amazon Instant Video is accessed through a web browser and is difficult to navigate. Virtually all service providers have blocked Google TV’s browser from playing video from their websites, too.
And one more thing: Only Boxee and GoogleTV come with HDMI [High Definition Multimedia Interface] cables, so you’ll probably want to throw in one of those too. After all, nothing ruins a great gift like finding out you have to buy an overpriced cable before you can use it. It’d feel like you felt back when you discovered the Rockem Sockem Robots under the tree, then realized you needed batteries.
And while I’m on the subject, don’t bother with those gold-plated HDMI connectors — if you spend more than $6 on an HDMI cable, you’re paying too much.