2011 Streaming Player Gift Guide

November 21, 2011

If Oprah can have a list of favorite things for the holidays so can we. The exception being that our list is much geekier than Oprah’s (and I don’t have a TV show or a billion dollars). There’s no one-size-fits-all for connected devices in the living room, so we’ll help you find the right box for that special person in your life. You can help support Tech of the Hub by clicking on our Amazon links on the right. Without further adieu, here’s our streaming player gift guide

Roku LT
Roku LT: The Lowest Cost Netflix Player

It Just Works: Streaming-Only Players
If you’re only interested in getting paid video services such as Netflix, HBO Go and Amazon Instant video in your living room, the Roku is the best value out there. The entry price point is $50 for the new Roku LT Streaming Player which outputs 720P and offers surround sound. All of the Rokus are small, hardly consume any power and also offer free content channels. If 1080P is important to you, we would recommend the Roku XS at $98. The XD model also offers 1080P but does not have an ethernet port. The XS also adds the ability to play games and play media from USB drives. Here’s our unboxing of the Roku 2 XS and how its latest update makes it one of the best Netflix players out there. The Roku LT is at Amazon for $49 and the XS is available for $98. Roku has tweeted that they will announce a deal on Thursday via their Facebook page.

If your A/V receiver doesn’t have HDMI and Dolby Digital Plus, you won’t be able to enjoy surround sound from the Roku. One alternative is the WD TV Live. The WD TV Live can output surround sound via its digital optical audio port.  Like the Roku, it can also stream Netflix in 1080P. While it has fewer content choices than the Roku (no Amazon or VUDU) it can play a wide range of file formats and can stream media from a local DLNA server or Windows. If you need local storage as well, check out the 1 TB WD Live Hub. The WD TV Live is $89 at Amazon.
Apple TV 2
Apple TV 2

Another option for a box that can stream from the network is the Apple TV 2. Given it’s ease of use and user interface, Apple TV is still one of our favorites. While it’s limited to 720P, it does support Dolby Digital in Netflix and iTunes. If you have all of your music and videos in iTunes, it’s the easiest way to stream it into the living room (and DRM is not an issue). Airplay allows you to stream music, video or photos from any iOS device. At one year old, Apple continues to add new content and functionality to the box. The price at Amazon has gone back up to $95 so you may want to shop around.

No iTunes? No Problem
If you’re anti-iTunes or you’re looking for a box that streams from DLNA sources or Windows Media Player, the Sony SMP-N200 is another option. The box has the widest selection of paid streaming services out there with Netflix, Amazon Instant, Hulu Plus, VUDU and CinemaNow (soon). It supports Sony’s HomeShare whole-home audio solution as well as 3D. The current Netflix implementation does not support surround sound or 1080P. However, it has one of the better Amazon Instant Video players out there. Our hands-on review of the SMP-N200 is here. The SMP-N200 has been reduced to $78 at Amazon.

Boxee’s Welcome Screen

One other option worth mentioning is the D-link Boxee box. It’s really in a category of it’s own (in a good way). With its social sharing and iPad app, the Boxee is one of the more innovative devices out there. It also acts as a front-end for media on your local network. However, unlike some of the other solutions listed above, you simply need to point to a file share and Boxee will organize your media for you. In it’s current implementation, the Boxee is really best suited for someone who’s technically saavy.  You can read our full review of the Boxee here. The newest feature just announced for thet Boxee is the ability to watch live broadcast TV. It doesn’t have DVR functionality yet but Boxee says they may add it in the future if there’s enough demand. However, if recording live TV is really important to you, the best choice is TiVo. The Boxee is available for $174 at Amazon.

It Put the VCR Out of Business

TiVo Premiere Elite
TiVo Premiere Elite

If recording TV is important to you, don’t forget about TiVo. TiVo recently released it’s Premiere Elite model (digital cable only). It can record 4 shows simultaneously and 300 hours in HD. If you want to cut the cord and record over-the-air broadcasts, you should opt for the original TiVo Premiere or Premiere XL (which also work with digital cable). The new FCC rules mandating CableCard self-installation has eliminated the hassle of having to wait for the cable guy. While a little weak in the streaming department today, the TiVo software and its Netflix player are getting an upgrade next year. Hulu Plus and Amazon Instant Video (but not Prime!) are also on the box. A reminder that TiVo needs a lifetime or monthly subscription. The Premiere is at Amazon for $75, The Premiere Elite is just under $500.

Audio and Videophiles
If sound and video quality is as important to you as it is to me, you’ll be interested in a Blu-ray player. There’s still nothing that matches Blu-ray’s audio and video quality for your home theater. Also, most Blu-ray players today also give you access to Netflix and other streaming services. This year’s players load faster, have better streaming services but lose multi-channel analog outputs. Earlier this year, the Panasonic DMP-BDT210 was one of my favorite Blu-ray players. However, LG has raised the ante by announcing a 1080P upgrade for their Netflix player (LG already added surround sound and subtitles). You can our review of the 2011 Netflix-enabled Blu-ray players here.

Video Game Systems
It goes without saying the Playstation3 is a great value. Awesome videos games, a blu-ray player as well as access to VUDU, Netflix and Sony’s video service among other features. However, this was a tough year for the Playstation with the PSN outage and issues with the Netflix player. Microsoft, on the other hand, is pushing the envelope with bringing a large number of video services to its console. Some of the offerings include BBC, ESPN, Comcast video-on-demand, HBO Go, FIOS among many others. On top of this, there will be some cool integration with their motion and voice sensing Kinect controller. The upgraded Xbox LIVE console is due out on December 6.

Where to find some of the best deals?
Our friend Dan Rayburn at Streaming Media has put together a guide to where you can find some of the best deals for these boxes.

Happy Holidays!

Tags: Amazon, Apple TV, Blu-ray, Boxee, HBO, Home Theater, Hulu, LG, Netflix, Panasonic, Roku, Sony, streaming, TiVo, VUDU, WD

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