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

Wondering which Internet streaming device is right for your living room? We help you weigh the options, from Apple TV and Roku to new Boxee, Google TV and NeoTV boxes.

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Vizio Co-Star

Price: $100

Vizio Co-Star
Vizio Co-Star (credit: Vizio)

Vizio's $100 Co-Star set-top box gives your TV the Google TV treatment for a lot less than Sony's box. Like the Sony Internet Player, the Co-Star sits between your TV and a content-delivery device like your cable/satellite box, DVR or DVD player. It supports 1920 x 1080 HD as well as 3D content, and at 4.2 x 4.2 x 1.6 in., the midsize device won't dominate your living room.

The Co-Star's remote has dedicated buttons for three popular entertainment selections and a touchpad for navigating around the screen. Flip it over and you'll find a QWERTY keyboard with tiny keys for typing in everything from your password to the search term "Green Acres." The Co-Star's remote has a dedicated ".com" key to ease Web journeys and a four-way gaming control for when aliens attack.

There's also a Google TV Remote app for controlling the set-top box from your Android or iOS phone or tablet.

How it connects: The Co-Star can tap into your home's broadband via 802.11n Wi-Fi or wired Ethernet. It connects to the TV via HDMI and offers an HDMI-in port as well for integrating a cable/satellite box or DVD/Blu-ray player. (Cables not included.) There's no audio-out jack or composite connector.

What you can watch: Like the Sony Internet Player, the Co-Star integrates live TV with the Google TV platform's array of free and subscription-based online programming, including Netflix, Hulu Plus, HBO Go and Amazon's Instant Video service. It also provides access to the OnLive on-demand cloud gaming service as well as thousands of Android apps and games via the Google Play Store.

Want to see what's going on at CNN's or Computerworld's website? The Co-Star has a Chrome-based Web browser as well as Google search built in. It also has a USB port for connecting a hard drive or memory key for watching home movies, scrolling through photos or listening to music.

Who it's best for: If you want Google TV but don't want to shell out for Sony's Internet Player, Vizio's Co-Star does without extras like onboard storage, an optical audio port and a second USB port -- but it still rolls up live TV, online TV and Web browsing for $100. (It doesn't, however, work with older TVs that require composite video input.)

WD TV Live

Price: About $99 ($79 TV tuner also available)

WD TV Live
WD TV Live (credit: Western Digital)

Best known for its hard drives, Western Digital also has a TV set-top box that can deliver your favorite shows and movies. It lacks the ability to browse websites, but gives freedom of choice for how you get it online.

At 4.9 x 3.9 x 1.2 in., the TV Live box is small enough to be stashed just about anywhere, and it's available in versions for the U.S. (for NTSC TVs) or Europe (for PAL sets). Like most of the others, the set-top box delivers full 1920 x 1080 HD content to the TV set.

The system's remote control doesn't have a mini-keyboard, but one of the USB ports can be used for connecting a wired or wireless keyboard to the set-top box. If you like, you can use your smartphone or tablet as a remote control with Live TV by downloading the company's free Android or iOS app.

How it connects: TV Live can get you online via Wi-Fi or wired Ethernet, and it works with TVs old (with composite video connectors) and new (with HDMI; cable not included). A bonus is its audio-out connection that can drive a set of digital speakers using the SPDIF optical standard.

What you can watch: Although TV Live doesn't have a Web browser, it can tap into online programming sources like Netflix, Hulu Plus, Vudu, and YouTube, some free, some fee- or subscription-based. It can also deliver traditional broadcast TV or unencrypted cable TV with Hauppauge's add-on 950Q USB TV tuner. The tuner, which costs $75, lets you record shows to a USB drive attached to the TV Live box.

Speaking of which, the TV Live device has two USB slots for connecting a memory key, a hard drive or a video camcorder to show your home movies, family photos or digital music archive. You can also stream videos, music and photos from a Windows 8 PC to the box, but note that it doesn't support protected formats such as iTunes music and movies.

Who it's best for: Western Digital's TV Live is for those who want a small, unobtrusive device that offers online programs, live TV (with add-on tuner) and the ability to access content from external storage -- but not Web browsing.

Making a decision

No two people like the same exact mix of TV shows, music and movies -- or desire extras like Web browsing or live TV integration. To decide among set-top streamers, start by asking these questions:

  • Are there specific sources of online programming -- say, Pandora or Hulu Plus -- that you consider must-haves? Check out our features chart for listings of each streamer's content sources, and do your initial filtering based on that.
  • Do you have an older TV that requires a composite connector? You'll need to choose from the NeoTV Pro and Max, the four Roku boxes and the WD TV Live.
  • Do you like having a vast multitude of online entertainment choices, including a variety of offbeat content? One of the four Roku systems should be next to your TV.
  • Own a lot of iTunes content and/or have an iDevice? Prefer simple controls and streamlined options to a lot of bells and whistles? Apple TV is an excellent fit.
  • Want to watch local TV channels in the same interface as Internet TV? If you don't care about nosing around the Web, then Boxee TV or WD TV Live (with add-on TV tuner) will do the trick. If you want to use your TV as a Web browser without sacrificing local TV integration, Boxee Box with its add-on tuner fits your profile -- though it'll cost you.
  • Want to bring live cable/satellite TV, Google TV's online programming and everything the Web has to offer into one interface, and don't mind enduring some complexity to get there? Sony's Internet Player, Netgear's NeoTV Prime and Vizio's Co-Star bring it all together.

Drill down into our features chart for more specifics about what each device has to offer.

Also keep in mind that new set-top boxes appear all the time and almost without warning. Since we initially wrapped up this story in mid-December, several new Google TV devices have been announced, including the Hisense Pulse, the Asus Qube and Diamond Multimedia's AMP 2000. Each adds its own particular take to an already complicated and crowded market, so if you don't have to buy now, it might make sense to wait and check them out when they're available.

Brian Nadel is a frequent contributor to Computerworld and the former editor in chief of Mobile Computing & Communications magazine.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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