Save Money and Still Get your Shows:
I haven’t had cable for a while now. So when I was talking to someone last week and they casually let drop they were spending three digits a month on cable, I was dumbstruck. That much money? In a recession? “Self, there has to be a better way” I said. Turns out there is. I tried Hulu a while back and was underwhelmed, but I haven’t messed with it since then. In the meantime, it’s grown into a surprisingly usable, full-featured platform that – most importantly – works on your TV. I found watching post-it sized videos on a laptop screen unbearable, and it seems that I’m not the only one — and that Hulu noticed that. What we have now is a wide selection of good choices, perhaps a wide enough selection to be overwhelming or bewildering. Since I’m doing this research for myself, I figure I’ll save you all, dear readers, the same effort.
The devices I’ve found so far:
- XBMC (Xbox Media Center)
- Running on an Xbox
- Running on a home-theatre PC (HTPC)
- Running on a hacked AppleTV G1
- Western Digital’s WD Live (no Hulu; canned content)
- Popcorn Hour
- Apple TV
- Boxee Box
- Google TV
- Which Hardware Vendor?
This seems to represent the best-known devices based on what’s being talked about now. Some of these don’t meet my minimum requirements, but may work for you, so I’ll mention them anyway.
The Mvix family of devices represents a pretty useful set of gadgets; see our forthcoming review of the Ultio Pro that I’d consider their flagship product. This box offers a non-contract PVR with a built in torrent client, and happily eats most modern video codecs from the 3.5” SATA hard drive you install, from a USB CD, DVD or hard drive (inquiring minds wonder about blu-ray compatibility…), or from an SD card slot on the front of the device. Its content is accessible via both USB and made available as a NAS. If you need wi-fi, there’s a USB adapter for that; while it’s not listed on the website, Thinkgeek seems to be selling an adapter for $35. You have to put this together almost from a kit, but you can get something that fits almost any set of needs. I’m quite impressed, but I’ll let our other writers weigh in on the details.
I mentioned that the Mvix almost seemed like a kit. This one absolutely is a kit. Rather, this is a piece of software that you can install on any compatible hardware… and it’s a pretty darn broad compatibility list. XBMC stands for Xbox Media Center, but ironically they’ve dropped support for the original xbox that made this thing famous (the hardware being unable to cope with modern HD media). There’s still a lone hacker coding away and back-porting new features, but who knows how patient he is… Officially though, the software supports the G1 Apple TV, Windows, Linux, and Apple’s OSX. In practice, this probably means building a homebrew HTPC, buying a Mac Mini, or repurposing your old notebook for a real computer; the AppleTV setup is a little more involved but retains the original Apple “Front Row” software; XBMC is launched only when needed.
Whichever hardware platform you choose, I strongly recommend grabbing the latest test release, code-named Dharma. This adds a robust plug-in architecture, blu-ray support, and hardware acceleration for supported (Read: recent Nvidia, Intel, or Broadcom) graphics cards. The blu-ray support doesn’t come with decryption software, so only unencrypted BD releases will play, but it’s a step in the right direction. And that plugin architecture I mentioned is what is used to run the Hulu plugin that allows internet streaming.
This may be the most labor intensive choice on the list, but if one is willing to invest a little time and effort, and to use premium hardware, could easily become the most rewarding and useful choice.
The G1 Apple TV is currently on clearance, and “refurbished” units (that may be never-used, never-sold retail boxes) can be had for less than $150; while they lack the new features of the G2, the G2 lacks a few key features of the G1 — like a hard drive. If you have an always-on computer at home to stream content from, the G2 is probably a good choice for you; if you don’t want your TV to go dead when the laptop leaves the house, the G2 AppleTV is a non-starter. Also, while the streaming video is of exceptionally good quality, someone like me with a dirt-cheap “it’s not broadband in Europe” internet connection would find the buffering time required by the G2 AppleTV unpleasant. If you have decent bandwidth, that could take as little as two or three minutes, but not everyone likes dropping three figures a month on their pipes.
Still, if a good connection is cheaply and easily available and you rent a lot of videos, the new hockey puck of a media player is probably right up your alley.
Right up front, this one’s not out yet. On the other hand, it may be worth waiting for. Boxee has its own wireless ethernet, unlike the Mvix. The remote is as simple as the famously elegant Apple ones, on the one side. On the other, it’s a QWERTY thumb-board for navigation and searching. The remote is RF, no less; there should be no line-of-sight issues… but your expensive Harmony remote may not work at all, and certainly won’t have the keyboard. That said, they support IR in their software, and “you can use any IR dongle and continue using your universal remote with Boxee.” It’s another bring-your-own-storage device though, and you are expected to have a USB hard drive you can plug in. While this is a not-entirely-unreasonable expectation, it’s still mildly annoying to spec something out, price something out, and then realize you need to drop another hundred bucks on accessories (and don’t get me started on the cable racket, that’s a whole ‘nother can o’ worms).
Google’s latest offering will be an interesting one; not only are we talking set-top boxes, but it will come running on TV hardware, built in. There’s not much technical data that’s been confirmed about this yet, but since they’re allowing apps from <strike>day 1</strike> sometime 2011, catastrophic lack of features isn’t going to be a dealbreaker.
If you’re still rocking an SDTV, this is probably the one you’ll end up with; not only does it sport HDMI for use with flat-panels, it still does composite (red-white-yellow plugs) video unlike most of these gadgets. And not that you’re likely to mind being “stuck” with one – although it is only a streaming box, so like the G2 AppleTV, you’ll need better than bargain-basement internet tubes. They recommend 1.2 megabit for most programming, 3 megabits for live events, and 5 megabits for HD. These are real megabits too, not “up to” advertised megabits. (My DSL is advertised at 1.5 megabit, but really pulls in bout 200 kilobits per second… caveat emptor.)
Popcorn Hour is a company I’d not heard of until I started looking around and doing research for this article. The good news is they make some very interesting devices; the bad news is they run toward the pricy side. Like the Mvix, they don’t come with a hard drive but will accept one. Unlike any of the other devices I’ve seen, they offer one with newsgroup download capability (where pirated TV is available first) and blu-ray support… sort of. Sadly, there is no drive built in, but you can mount your own BD drive if you want, using the provided 5.25” slot on front. Given that their device, when configured with optional IR remote support and optional wi-fi clocks in at a hair over $360 with neither hard drive nor optical drive, you can expect this to cost somewhere north of $600 when kitted out nicely; nearly as much as a Mac Mini with a lot less flexibility. Speaking of which…
Front Row on Mac:
Apple’s been bundling a basic HTPC program with new macs for more than half a decade now. While fairly barebones on its own, a Mac Mini will also run XBMC, Boxee, and any number of other choices. It’s also got a DVD drive and it’ll play games. And surf the internet. While it lacks blu-ray, that can be fixed via USB, if you want to go that route. While codec support is a little lousy out of the box, Perian will fix that, quickly cheaply (free!) and easily. But not to appear partisan, I suppose I should mention…
Windows Media Center:
If you want to make your computer play nice with broadcast TV, this is a fairly solid option. Integrated DVR function (with the optional TV tuner hardware), remote support (with optional IR hardware), and fairly confusing “internet TV” support, this is the best choice I found if you actually want to keep your cable subscription. Microsoft found an unfilled niche here and ran with it; more power to them. On the other hand, I’m unwilling to spring for a Wintel machine and TV tuner hardware to support the cable subscription I don’t have. On the other hand, if you’re willing to buy an aftermarket remote (there’s many more options if you don’t want the WMC-sanctioned ones) you can run Boxee and XBMC on there – I’m not thrashing Wintel machines in general, just the WMC software itself.
Lastly, we come to Western Digital’s offering. This looks a lot like the rest of their “My Book” line of USB drives, but unlike them it ships with a remote. This is a relatively cheap device at only about $150, but as far as I can tell you need to bring your own USB drive full of videos. With a disappointingly small selection of online content (youtube, pandora, flicker, live365 – note the lack of online video services) and no wi-fi, this is a case of getting what you pay for. I’d call the Mvix a better all-around deal than this, at about the same price. It’s also got better online support, more expandability, (optional) wi-fi, and a boatload more.
I’m inclined to go with either the hacked AppleTV G1 or the Mvix Ultio Pro right now. The Boxee Box is fairly compelling, but it’s not out yet. Also, the Mvix’s built-in torrent client will appeal to anybody who enjoys downloading unlicensed anime straight from fans’ translation efforts like I do (amazingly, still legal!). Its PVR functions are another nice feature, if you don’t just get all your broadcast content on Hulu (key assumption being no cable or satellite, once again). The AppleTV offers access to the world’s biggest online content store, and if you like getting movies online as soon as they come out, this is probably the more appealing choice. With XBMC or Boxee’s software to provide Hulu streaming, I can get my “cable” content online that way. It’s also cheaper than the Mvix for the moment, and comes with 160gb of storage built in, though its expansion options are correspondingly limited; hard-drive swaps are plenty doable for the tech-head, but it’s a rather involved procedure. Watch my Twitter (Ian_TWL) to see what I end up picking up in the end.