With the deluge of streaming and downloadable video options the Internet has to offer, it's become obvious that computer and iPod screens can't hold a candle to the wall-size HD monster in your living room.
To plug this gap, a burgeoning market of streaming set-top boxes has cropped up. Google recently made a well-publicized entrance into this market, while Apple and an up-and-coming company called Roku have been lighting up TVs for a couple of years now.
All these boxes tap into your Wi-Fi network or wired Ethernet to stream Net-based video and radio services to your TV. They all use the HDMI interface, though Roku also provides composite and RCA jacks for older TVs or video projectors. And they all provide access to a combination of free and fee-based video sources.
To a certain extent, these devices duplicate services you may already have. Your cable company offers on-demand shows and movie rentals, and some Blu-ray players and games machines such as the Xbox 360 and Wii provide Netflix subscribers with access to on-demand movies. What this new wave of set-top streamers brings to the show is a greater pool of video and radio from online sources -- the iTunes Store, Flickr and podcasts from the Apple TV; Pandora and Amazon Video On Demand from Roku's XD line; and almost everything on the Web from the Google TV-based Logitech Revue.
How we tested
To evaluate these three devices, I installed them on two separate Wi-Fi networks: a cable-based home network and a load-balanced corporate network. I fed the results through several different models of LCD and plasma televisions and gathered a small jury of photography students to evaluate the results for clarity, color and audio fidelity by switching between HDMI inputs.
I configured each machine to connect to Netflix and (where possible) Amazon Video On Demand (or, in the case of the Apple TV, iTunes) to gain access to identical HD television shows for ease of comparison. I also spent several days getting a feel for the usability and entertainment value of each device.