Your 2012 Guide to Streaming Stocking Stuffers
With Black Friday in the recent rear-view mirror, and 25 shopping days until Christmas, we’re (again) fielding lots of questions about which OTT streaming device to buy for the holidays. And just like last year, the answer to that question depends on the person.
There are lots of great OTT players on the market. There’s an even bigger assortment of me-too devices that look good on paper, but prove frustrating in practice. We’re guessing you don’t want to spend big chunks of next year (or at least, all of New Year’s Day) fielding tech support calls from Uncle Fred. Right?
That’s why we compiled this handy Holiday Guide to OTT Video — so that you can get into the eggnog and related whatnot, instead of poring over product specs and online reviews. (You can thank us later.)
With no further ado, here are our favorite devices for 2012 (plus one to avoid, for now.)
For almost everyone: Roku
(4 different models available, $50-$100)
Roku consistently tops our list when it comes to best all-around streaming player for the price. While it doesn’t play local files, it does host a wide variety of free and premium streaming content. (“Local files” essentially means home movies stored digitally, as well as titles not protected with “DRM.” Because this web site is called “Translation Please,” allow us to break down that acronym. “DRM” stands for “Digital Rights Management,” and is the way movie studios protect the films /shows they make. More on DRM from Leslie’s column here.)
Roku is also a good gift for the people in your life with older and even analog TVs, because it can connect via component video (the cord with the yellow, white and red connectors) to make “dumb” TVs “smart.” Note that you’ll need broadband of some sort – Ethernet or Wi-Fi.
You can also get Roku in the form of a streaming stick ($99), which provides all the same content without taking up (admittedly not very much) space in an entertainment cabinet – however, and this is a pretty big “however” — it only works with HDMI ports that are compatible with Mobile High-Definition Link (MHL.)
At the moment this technology is on only a small number of new TVs (understatement), so you’ll want to make sure to check the list here before giving a Roku streaming stick as a gift. There are MHL-to-HDMI adapters, but there’s no saying how well they’ll work with a particular TV. The Roku stick also comes bundled with a portable movie projector by 3M (for a total of $300), if the person you’re shopping for has a home theater (or an interest in outdoor movie nights.)
Movies & TV: Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon, Crackle, Vudu, Vimeo, TED, more
Sports: MLB, NBA, NHL, UFC, more (NOTE: these are all subscription services that typically allow access to past games and select live games, but sometimes local games are blacked out — so do a little research before you sign your Uncle Fred up for an MLB subscription.)
Music: Pandora, MOG, TuneIn, more
For your favorite Apple Fanatic: Apple TV
Apple TV’s user interface remains (predictably) top notch. It consistently stands out amongst the devices in the lab for its responsive hardware and integrated metadata within video apps (meaning you can browse Netflix by actor or director, for example.)
With the addition of Hulu this year and expanded AirPlay functionality (link to recent post), Apple’s content offerings aren’t as “closed” as they were this time last year. If your loved ones tend to purchase their music and video content from iTunes, Apple TV is a great choice. Plus it is just amusing as all get-out to see people’s faces the first time they go to play something on, say, their iPhone or iPad, and the option pops up to play it on the big-screen TV (connected to the AppleTV.)
Notably, Apple TV isn’t the best choice for people who prefer to get their content through Amazon (try a Roku instead.)
Movies & TV: Netflix, Hulu Plus, iTunes, YouTube, Vimeo
Sports: MLB, NBA, NHL
Music: iTunes, Pandora
(Vizio CoStar $100; Sony NSZ-GS7 $200; LG Google TV with 3D $1700-$2300)
Far be it from us to snark on GoogleTV’s failings as a TV, and as a compute/search device. Well, okay, maybe one more time, since it involves your wallet: While the Google TV devices in our lab are still lacking in terms of premium services (and are definitely not well suited for your Uncle Fred,) this could be changing.
The 2012 Google TV devices are getting an update that includes a voice search feature tied to Google’s Knowledge Graph. Practically, this means you can say “how to tie a bowtie?” into the remote control and Google TV will automatically start playing an instructional video from YouTube.
The update started rolling to LG Smart TVs with Google TV around Thanksgiving, and hits the Sony and Vizio “buddy boxes” later this month. Do stay tuned for our report on how these snazzy new features actually work in real life. (And please feel free to submit any voice search commands you’d like us to attempt. After all, neither of us wear bow ties….)
Movies & TV: Netflix, Google Play, Amazon, Crackle, YouTube, Vimeo
Music: Google Play, Pandora
For your frugal friends: Boxee TV
($99, exclusively in Walmart stores or at www.Boxee.tv)
Boxee TV is a new device that couples a scaled-down version of the Boxee Box with a built-in dual TV tuner (plus antenna) and Boxee’s cloud-based “No Limits DVR” service (Free for 3 months, $9.99/month thereafter.) While this device lacks the file-handling breadth and most of the apps on the Boxee Box, and is way, way more boring, from a physical design perspective, than the original Boxee Box, it definitely carries the advantage of less complexity. Which makes it a much better choice for Uncle Fred.
Headsup: Boxee is rolling out its DVR service gradually, so it’s only available in a few markets at this time (more information here.) Boxee TV comes with about $100 worth of savings, with 3 free months of Netflix and Boxee DVR service plus a credit for Vudu. We’re testing this one out right now, so stay tuned for an in-depth review.
Movies & TV: Netflix, Vudu, YouTube, Vimeo, TED
Music: Pandora, Spotify
($155 at Amazon.com — get it while it lasts)
This device is no longer in production, but is still being supported by Boxee and is an OTT lab favorite. Boxee Box does an excellent job of handling files of all types, on network hard drives or via USB, so it’s a great choice for people who own a lot of DRM-free video (again — home movies, for example.)
Boxee Box also has a full web browser (including Flash) that brings in TV content from the web. Plus, the Original Boxee is just such a weird shape (like a cube melting into your entertainment center) – it scores an A for effort on physical design. As a direct result, we probably won’t mind much when it becomes “tele-vestigial.”
There are hundreds of video and music apps, in contrast to the handful available on the new (and way less designed) Boxee TV, however the Boxee Box is similarly lacking when it comes to premium video services – no Hulu Plus or Amazon here.
Movies & TV: Netflix, Vudu, CinemaNow, YouTube, Vimeo, TED, and more, plus web content via browser
Sports: NBA, MLB, NHL
Music: Pandora, Spotify, Grooveshark
Keep walking / save yourself the hassle: Netgear NeoTV Max
This device, which arrived in the lab a couple weeks ago, looked excellent on paper. Netgear’s NeoTV Max combines the ability to play files from a USB drive or local network with the wide assortment of apps available on last year’s Neo TV, for a very reasonable $70.
However, in our initial tests with the NeoTV Max we found that it has trouble “seeing” files on some of our network hard drives. Worse, the hardware is slow to respond to the remote control — and the remote itself sports a poorly executed QWERTY keyboard that locks every time a button is accidentally pressed on the reverse side. Trust us: Within a few minutes you’ll want to chuck the thing out the window, or let the puppy at it. Probably best to hold off on this one, until the kinks are worked out.
Movies & TV: Netflix, Hulu Plus, CinemaNow, Vudu, YouTube, TED, more
Sports: No major streaming services.
Music: Pandora, Rhapsody
One final note: if you’re giving an OTT device for a gift this year, or if you’re ordering one for yourself, don’t forget to throw in an inexpensive HDMI cable like this one – you won’t find that included with any of these boxes.