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Cut the cord: 14 set-top media streamers (update)

December 21, 2012 06:00 AM ET

Boxee TV and Boxee Box

Price: $99 for Boxee TV (plus $10/mo. for cloud DVR storage), about $180 for Boxee Box (TV tuner $50 extra)

The two streamers in D-Link's Boxee lineup do something many of the others can't: Pull in broadcast TV, from the 6 o'clock news to that late-night horror movie marathon. Having a TV tuner attached to the set-top box means you can watch digital TV broadcasts on a computer monitor or on a TV that doesn't have a digital tuner. And you don't have to switch out of the box's interface to watch live network TV.

Boxee TV
Boxee TV (credit: Boxee/D-Link)

Just released in November, the Boxee TV is typically sized for a set-top box at 6.7 x 3.8 x 1.6 in. The older Boxee Box is a larger 4.7-in. cube set at a rakish angle (see below); subtle it's not. Both can send 1920 x 1080 HD video to your TV.

The Boxee Box comes with a remote control that has a full QWERTY keyboard on the other side; the Boxee TV's remote lacks the keyboard but has a pair of dedicated buttons for popular online services. You can also connect an external keyboard to either box via USB.

Both devices can use the company's free iOS app that lets you control the device and type in passwords or the name of your favorite show. There's also a third-party Android app called Boxee Wifi Remote that works with the Boxee machines.

How they connect: Both Boxees use an HDMI connector (a cable is included with Boxee Box but not Boxee TV), and both offer the choice of using either 802.11n Wi-Fi or wired Ethernet to get online. Neither offers a composite video port for connecting to an old TV. The Boxee Box adds an audio-out optical connection for an external speaker set.

What you can watch: Both devices can display local TV stations and unencrypted cable TV, but they take different routes to do so. While the Boxee Box has an $50 add-on USB tuner, the Boxee TV has two tuners built in so you can watch a show on one channel and record another show at the same time.

Going a step further, Boxee TV lets you store recorded shows on Boxee's cloud servers for watching later from your TV, computer or mobile device. The optional service costs $10 a month (first three months free) and has no storage limitations; think of it as a bottomless DVR that never runs out of space. Note, however, that the service is currently available in only a handful of cities, and it works only with broadcast TV, not pay channels. You can sign up to be alerted when it rolls out to your neighborhood.

Boxee Box
Boxee Box (credit: Boxee/D-Link)

Either Boxee device can tap into online programming sources including Netflix, Hulu Plus, YouTube, Vimeo, Pandora and MLB.tv; most of these services are subscription- or fee-based.

Tired of watching online TV? Both models have a pair of USB ports so that you can attach a memory key or hard drive to play stored personal media. The Boxee Box adds an SD card slot for playing music, photos or that clip you just saved on your digital camcorder -- and it also includes a built-in Web browser.

While the Boxee TV system costs $99 wherever you buy it, it pays to shop around for the Boxee Box: It lists for $230 but can be found at many retailers for about $180.

Who they're best for: Like having local TV mixed with Web-based TV? The Boxee TV delivers both, and its ability to record and store an unlimited number of shows in the cloud is a big bonus -- if the service is available in your area. If you want local TV and Web surfing (but no DVR service), the Boxee Box with add-on TV tuner is a sound (albeit expensive) choice. (Note, however, that neither device works with older composite-input TVs.)

Netgear NeoTV / NeoTV Pro / NeoTV Max and NeoTV Prime with Google TV

Price: $50 for NeoTV, $60 for NeoTV Pro, $70 for NeoTV Max, $130 for NeoTV Prime

NeoTV
NeoTV (credit: Netgear)

With four models to choose from, Netgear's NeoTV set-top boxes serve up 1920 x 1080 HD programming to your TV and provide freedom of choice for how you connect.

The NeoTV, NeoTV Pro and NeoTV Max all look the same and offer a range of features and services. At 3.6 x 3.6 x 1 in., they are among the smallest devices in this class and cost between $50 and $70.

The newest model, launched at CES 2013, is the NeoTV Prime. Slightly larger than the others at 4.7 x 4.1 x 1.5 in., it costs $130 and adds the Google TV platform to the mix. Like the other Google TV devices in this roundup, the NeoTV Prime sits between your TV and a content-delivery device like your cable/satellite box, DVR or DVD player.

The remote controls vary based on model. The NeoTV and NeoTV Pro systems include a basic infrared clicker that has six dedicated keys for popular programming. The Max model has a more advanced remote that includes a full QWERTY keyboard with chiclet keys on the back, which makes entering passwords much easier than using an on-screen keyboard and arrows.

The high-end Prime model has an even more advanced remote with touchpad, QWERTY keyboard and dedicated buttons for specific apps including Netflix and YouTube. You can also control all four NeoTVs from your smartphone or tablet via Android and iOS apps.

How they connect: All four connect to the Internet via 802.11n Wi-Fi or wired Ethernet, and they connect to your TV with an HDMI cable (not included). The Pro and Max models add an audio output port for driving external speakers, plus an AV-out port that can feed an older TV with composite audio and video signals. The Prime lacks the AV port but adds an HDMI-in connection for integrating a cable or satellite TV box or a DVD/Blu-ray player.

What you can watch: While the NeoTV, NeoTV Pro and NeoTV Max don't integrate live cable or network TV, some of their online programming sources (some subscription- or fee-based, many free) include Netflix, Hulu Plus, YouTube, Pandora, Facebook and Cinema Now. The NeoTV Max system also includes a microSD card slot and a USB port for playing back videos, photos and music from external devices.

Although the NeoTV, NeoTV Pro and NeoTV Max software is based on the Opera browser, the systems don't include a browser for surfing to individual websites. The Pro and Max models do, however, have a trick up their sleeves: Using Intel's WiDi technology they can wirelessly mirror anything that's displayed on a WiDi-enabled laptop (including a browser) on a TV. It's easy to set up and transmits audio and video over the air for a range of about 30 feet.

In contrast, the NeoTV Prime integrates live TV with the Google TV platform's free and subscription-based online programming offerings, including Netflix, Hulu Plus, HBO Go and Amazon's Instant Video service. It also adds the Chrome Web browser to the mix, along with access to thousands of Android apps and games via the Google Play Store. Finally, it provides 4 GB of built-in flash storage for games and apps.

Who they're best for: The NeoTV, NeoTV Pro and NeoTV Max trio are for budget-minded users who crave online TV and movies, don't care about roaming around the Web from a TV, and don't mind switching interfaces to watch live TV. If you want to connect to an older TV or access content from a microSD card, USB drive or WiDi-enabled laptop, look to the NeoTV Max model.

The pricey NeoTV Prime model, on the other hand, is for those who want the Google TV experience complete with Web browsing and live TV integration -- and who don't mind shelling out $130 to get it.



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