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

December 21, 2012 06:00 AM ET

Roku LT / HD / 2 XD / 2 XS

Price: $50 for Roku LT, $60 for Roku HD, $80 for Roku 2 XD, $100 for Roku 2 XS

Roku 2 XD
Roku 2 XD (credit: Roku)

Roku's family of set-top boxes is the largest and most confusing of this roundup, ranging from the basic Roku LT and Roku HD models, which offer 1280-x-720-resolution video, through the Roku 2 XD and Roku 2 XS models, which can deliver full 1920 x 1080 resolution.

All four models have a compact 3.9-x-3.9-x-1-in. case. The LT model is purple and only sold online, while the black HD is widely available in brick-and-mortar stores as well; otherwise the two models are pretty much interchangeable. The 2 XD and 2XS add more features as the price goes up.

The LT, HD and 2 XD models come with the company's basic remote control that includes dedicated buttons for jumping to Netflix, Pandora and Crackle, while the 2 XS comes with Roku's motion-sensitive gaming remote. (The Bluetooth gaming remote is available as a separate purchase for $10, but only for the 2 XD model; the LT and HD don't support Bluetooth.)

All the boxes work with Roku's free Android or iOS app, which not only controls what you're watching on the TV, but lets you watch everything on the phone or tablet's display. It requires a Wi-Fi connection, though.

How they connect: Unfortunately, only the 2 XS model includes an Ethernet port; the others rely exclusively on 802.11n Wi-Fi to bring the Internet to the TV. All of the Roku boxes connect to TVs via either an HDMI port or a composite video connector for use with older TVs. (Cables are not included.)

What you can watch: None of the Roku systems provides a Web browser or integrates cable or local TV stations. But Roku's real strength is its vast array of online entertainment options, ranging from well-known sources like Netflix, Hulu Plus, Disney, HBO Go and MLB.tv to offbeat channels dedicated to independent films, comics, yoga, cooking videos, fishing, astrology and much, much more. While several of the big-name services are subscription- or fee-based, much of this decidedly mixed bag of content is available for free.

There are also numerous free and paid games to play, and the 2 XS model includes a copy of Angry Birds. The 2 XD and 2 XS also have two USB ports and a microSD card slot for accessing stored content.

In the coming months, look for Roku to expand the viewing possibilities for the LT and HD models by adding app-based access to the full assortment of TV channels that Time Warner Cable (TWC) offers to subscribers. The new service will be available in the 29 states where TWC operates and will be free if you already use the cable system.

Who they're best for: If you're looking for a basic set-top streamer that works with older TVs and offers few bells and whistles but a huge assortment of online entertainment possibilities, one of Roku's four set-top systems can deliver. To get full 1080p HD support and access stored content from a microSD card or USB drive, you'll want the 2 XD or 2 XS model, and for Ethernet connectivity you'll need the 2 XS.

Sony Internet Player with Google TV

Price: $150

Sony Internet Player with Google TV
Sony Internet Player with Google TV (credit: Sony)

Although its asking price has dropped from $200 to $150, Sony's Internet Player with Google TV (model NSZ-GS7) is still one of the most expensive streamers here, but it opens up a world of online content to your television.

Sony's second-generation online TV set-top box is based on the Google TV platform, which aims to roll up the entire universe of TV and online experiences into one ecosystem. Instead of connecting only to your TV, as most of the other set-top streamers do, the Sony Internet Player sits between your TV and one other device: your cable/satellite box, DVR or DVD player.

From a single interface you can watch live TV (network and pay channels), DVDs, shows stored on your DVR and online streaming content. You can also access Android apps and games from the Google Play Store, surf the Web with the Chrome browser and use Google search. As you'd expect from a device that sits at the center rather than the periphery of your entertainment system, Google TV boxes tend to be more complicated to set up than other streamers.

Able to deliver 1920 x 1080 HD programming, the Sony set-top box is an unwieldy 8.0 x 5.1 x 1.3 in., making it harder to hide than the other devices in the roundup.

While the Internet Player's remote control has four dedicated buttons for programming your favorite content providers, there's also a touchpad for moving around the screen. Flip it over and the remote has a full QWERTY keyboard with tiny keys that make it a snap to type in your password or the first few letters of what you want to watch. Sony also offers apps that let your Android or iOS device act like a smart remote control.

How it connects: Sony's streamer lets you connect your TV to the Internet via 802.11n Wi-Fi or an Ethernet cable (not included). The Internet Player has HDMI input and output connectors that can send signals to your TV and can also integrate a cable/satellite box or an external DVD/Blu-ray player. There's no composite connector for older TVs, but it can connect with a set of external speakers through its SPDIF optical audio port.

What you can watch: Although it doesn't include a TV tuner, the Sony set-top box pulls in local stations from your TV's tuner and pay channels from your cable or satellite provider. The online programming choices include a mixture of free and subscription-based Google TV options such as Netflix, Crackle, Pandora and oddballs like Flixster and Adult Swim. It is also the only box in our roundup that can display programming from Sony's Entertainment Network, which delivers music, movies and games for a fee.

Like Vizio's Co-Star, the Sony set-top box can download thousands of Android apps and games from the Google Play Store; Sony throws in three free movies to boot. And you can browse the Web with the built-in Chrome browser -- but note that several major networks block Google TV from streaming Web-based video.

Unlike any of the others here, the Sony Internet Player has the luxury of 8GB of internal storage for apps, games, home videos, photos or music. If that's not enough space, the system also has a pair of USB ports for connecting memory keys or hard drives for more storage capacity.

Who it's best for: Google fans who want to experience the company's full integration of live TV, streaming Internet TV, Web browsing and search, Google Play Store apps and more -- and who don't mind paying a premium and putting up with some complexity to do so -- may be interested in Sony's Internet Player. (Have an older TV that requires composite video input? You're out of luck.)



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