Surprise! (Not All Updates Are Equal)
With all the streaming devices I’ve tested over the past couple of years, one thing I’ve noticed (or ideally, not noticed) is the way their software gets updated. These devices have a myriad of different services and applications, so minor updates happen all the time. Depending on the device and the number of bugs that week, you might see multiple updates in a single day or none for several weeks.
The majority of the devices in our lab check for updates while they’re active — or in other words, at the end of a long day when you just want to catch up on your favorite show. And while most give you the option to download the update later, this typically means your TV watching experience is going to be interrupted by frequent reminders that there’s an update available. So, the fun grinds to a halt for anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes while you watch your device update and restart itself.
Both at the lab and at my house, this is a constant problem because most of our devices aren’t being used on a daily basis. I’ve started checking for updates whenever I wake up a device, because I’d rather get it over with than be surprised while I’m trying to do something. As you might imagine, I’ve really grown to appreciate the few devices that handle their updates well.
Roku is number one on my list, because it checks for updates on a daily basis as long as it’s plugged in. The downside is that there’s no way to turn it off without unplugging it, but it doesn’t draw much power — in fact, the Comcast HD DVR box in our lab uses about 10x the power of an active Roku when it’s turned off. Because Roku checks for updates while it’s idle, I think I’ve only actually witnessed a software update once (and that was only because Hulu Plus was rolling out that day, so I was forcing it to check for updates). And with impatient people like me in mind, Roku shows not only the time of the last software update, but also the last time it checked for an update. No more wondering if a surprise update is going to hijack movie night!
The Boxee Box also handles its updates well, especially considering it has an off switch — so unlike Roku, the Boxee Box usually downloads and installs updates while you’re using it. That’s right, you can actually continue using the box it while it updates. It does display a warning that it might be slow to perform some functions while it updates, but I honestly haven’t seen much of a difference. And it’s important to note that Boxee’s updates typically don’t require a restart of the box, so your viewing won’t be interrupted when the update finishes installing.
As for the others, they all seem to handle updates about the same — that is, not very well. They update while you’re trying to use them, and don’t allow you to do anything other than watch the progress bar as the update happens. The one unfortunate standout in an our group is the Sony Streaming Media Player (SMP-N200), for the sole reason that it shuts down completely instead of restarting itself once the update is complete. What gives, Sony? By the time an update finishes installing, I’ve usually started doing something else and it’s hard enough to remember what I was about to watch. If I have to remember to turn the device back on after a 20 minute update, I’ll forget that I was even trying to watch TV in the first place.