Home Entertainment Gift Ideas [2010 Cool Yule Tools]

Being entertained in your home is as big and popular as ever. New TVs are coming out all the time, with features like 3D, better high-definition, and even Internet connectivity. Internet streaming devices let you connect your TV to services like Pandora, Netflix, Hulu and even more. Speaker systems for your iPod and even iPad let you play the music louder than ever before. Here are write-ups of lots of home entertainment devices and options: 

Products reviewed for this category: 

  • Pure Evoke Flow portable Internet / FM radio 
  • Allegro Wireless Internet Radio (Grace Digital) 
  • Western Digital WD Live TV Plus 
  • Roku XDS 
  • Apple TV 
  • Brite-View Wireless HDMI Transmitter 
  • Sonos ZonePlayer S5 stand-alone speakers/wireless audio system 
  • GlideTV Navigator 
  • LaCie LaCinema Mini High-definition Media Center 
  • iHome iP39 speakers 
  • Gear4 Explorer - SP - portable speakers for ipod/iphone 
  • Gear4 House Party 5 ipod/iphone speaker system
  • Wowee One Gel Audio portable speaker
  • Altec Lansing Octivmini mini-speakers 
  • Gear4 SoundOrb Aurora with wireless sub-woofer 
  • Devotc Solar Sound 2 Bluetooth Stereo Speaker 
  • Coby Vitruvian speakers 
  • Memorex PartyCube speakers 
  • ViewSonic VT2300LED TV 
  • iMation Link Wireless A/V Extender 
  • Olive O3HD Music Server 
  • Samsung B2330HD Series 30 monitor/TV 
  • Gunnar Optiks Anime Onyx 3D Glasses

Evoke Flow Radio, by Pure Pure is a British company now selling its tabletop Internet radio in the U.S. The Evoke Flow that I tested did everything it was supposed to do. I could connect to my home Wi-Fi network and access Internet radio stations with no problems. I tested a similar device from Pandora last year and found that the Evoke Flow has a smoother user interface. The face of the Evoke Flow has a row of touch sensitive, illuminated circles that control a variety of options. You can do any number of things with the Evoke Flow: listen to regular AM-FM radio, listen to Internet radio and listen to music stored on your computer.

However, there were some problems with the radio. First, I didn’t really find a compelling reason to want to listen to Internet radio. I did find a station that played Russian rap music, which was a new experience. But beyond that, I’m not sure what the big attraction is. Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you would actually make it part of your daily lifestyle.

Second, it’s not mobile. We live in a world where most people who would spend $200 on a music-related piece of electronics would get an iPod Touch. Third, it’s not particularly cool. Again, people are excited about iPads. People are excited about their latest smart phone. It’s hard to get too excited about a radio, even one that does an effective job.

Cool Yule rating: 3.5 stars

Price: About $200

Company Web site

Reviewed by Neal Weinberg

Allegro Wireless Internet Radio by Grace Digital This Internet-connected wireless radio streams music from Sirius Satellite Radio, personal radio via Pandora, audio files on your computer and several other Web-based services. Out of the box, it was a clean, compact unit. But then, I found the instruction manual. Here’s where I tucked everything neatly back into the box and ignored it for a few days. When I gave it a chance, and was pleasantly surprised by the ease of setup. The instructions are not impressive, I did much of the setup by trial and error. However, if you are reasonably technically savvy, you should be able to handle this with ease.

But don’t throw out that instruction manual just yet! You will likely need the instructions on how to register the radio so you can play your Pandora stations and the like. Side note: be sure you are going to the correct Website when you register your radio. Doing a search for “Grace Audio” turned up a website for an audio equipment distributor first, followed by the correct site: www.gracedigitalaudio.com/.

Once it got going, I was impressed. The sound from this small unit is clear, crisp and strong. Its compact size means it could be easily tucked in a corner of a kitchen counter or on the end of a bookshelf. However, the remote control must be pointed at the front in order for it to function, so don’t have visions of placing it too far away. Keep in mind, this includes the volume. Speaking of which, the volume function on the remote control is poorly placed, and quite small. It’s a small gripe, considering the main button on top of the unit handles volume nicely.

As for Internet connectivity, songs took a moment to buffer, creating a few seconds of silence between songs. It also slowed my home wireless Internet connection while running.

But overall, this is an impressive little unit. It would be a great gift for a boyfriend, husband or brother who insists all their Christmas presents plug in. It definitely takes a degree of patience with electronics and a fair bit of time to get all the functions set up, but once you’re there, it’s quite easy. You can also just set up one function (such as Pandora) and gradually add the others when you have time. This would be a great unit for an office or desk, though the sound carries quite nicely over a large space as well. This is not a gift for your grandparents who still use corded phones at home. They won’t use it. If you feel the need to ignore this advice, at least have the mercy to set it up for them, create a few Pandora stations and preset them. At this point, the unit becomes a nice little gadget with strong, clear sound quality.

Cool Yule rating: 3.5 stars

Price: $170

Company Web site

Reviewed by Claire Kiely

Roku XDS Internet streaming player, by Roku I’ve been a big fan of the Roku players for a few years now, the company has done a great job of integrating new features as technologies improve. The latest version (the XDS) keeps up with things like 1080p video support, HDMI video output, dual-band 802.11n Wi-Fi and hardwired Ethernet for network connectivity, and component video and optical audio as well. The XDS also includes a USB port that lets you display photos, play music or watch videos stored on a USB drive.

The best reason for a Roku player is for the Netflix streaming app, but the company also has partnerships with others that make the box interesting as well. For example, Amazon On Demand, MLB.TV and Pandora are available, and a Hulu Plus subscription (you’ll have to play extra) makes the Roku even more appealing. The company is often updating itself with additional content partnerships, improving the box as more deals are made.

Roku also has the best remote control in the business – the new XDS remote includes an instant replay button that jumps the content back 30 seconds (or so, I haven’t timed it), and the menu interface is very easy to use. The box is so easy to connect and use that my 4-year-old knows how to use the remote, and they both love “the Roku box” because they can watch older kids’ shows on Netflix.

Cool Yule rating: 5 stars

Price: $100 (versions with fewer features start at $60)

Company Web site

Reviewed by Keith Shaw~~

Apple TV Shocker - I actually liked the old Apple TV, overpriced though it was. But the sleek – indeed, tiny – new 2010 Apple TV and its amazing $99 price got me to take out the old credit card once again. I like video entertainment, but not watching TV; overpriced cable programming loaded with commercials clearly isn’t resonating with the public. So, will instant access to movies and TV programs change the way America (and the rest of the world) watches TV? After trying the new Apple TV, I think it just might.

It’s not so small that you’ll lose it between the cushions of a sofa, but the compact new Apple TV produces great 720p/5.1 output that requires just an HDMI connection to your television or home-theater receiver. You’ll soon have access to lots of media on the Web (yes, you have to pay for the good stuff), plus Apple TV can act as a server for your local media, both audio and video. It can display photos, and you can control it (via the “Remote” app in the iTunes Store) from an iPod Touch, iPhone, or iPad. You do have one of those already, right? And you can also stream content off of one of those and onto the big screen via AirPlay and your Apple TV.

Setup is mostly a breeze, provided you don’t mistype your Wi-Fi key – gosh, it would be nice to configure (and control) Apple TV via HTTP. No matter. Operation is simple, and the video quality is excellent. There are lots of options and things to explore, but almost anyone should be able to have a movie on the big screen in no time (OK, a half-hour after opening the box, tops).

I haven’t done an extensive comparison of media players, but Apple TV is a great product at a great price. I don’t think anyone will be disappointed to receive one as a gift this year.

Cool Yule rating: 5 stars

Price: $100

Company Web site

Reviewed by C. J. Mathias

HDelight Wireless HDMI Transmitter, by brite-View With HDMI now the norm for high-def (and often PC) video, there’s that age-old question: how the heck am I going to run an HDMI cable between my PC or Blu-Ray player and my display or projector? In Farpoint Group’s Wireless Media Facility, for example, we’ve had to place some equipment in a less-than-optimal location just so the that the HDMI cable wouldn’t create an even bigger problem. But wireless HDMI is problematic – In order to achieve 1080p at 60 Hz., you need more than 3Gbps. You may recall that the best 802.11n links today peak out at 450 Mbps, with 600 on the way, and, again, that’s peak.

Enter the HDelight from brite-View, which promises full 1080p/60 at a rock-bottom price. The HDelight uses Amimon’s WHDI video-processing chips, which promise outstanding (“uncompressed”) video quality – and, in this case, at a price far below that of a good HDMI cable, let alone any cable installation required for aesthetic or other purposes. HDlight really is a wireless HDMI solution – it’s just two boxes, powered by USB or (for the receiver only) a wall wart (cube transformer), both with HDMI connectors. Just connect cable (short HDMI cables are included) between HDMI source on one end and a display or projector on the other, power the boxes on, and that’s it.

So, how does it look? Using some HD clips via the VLC player on the ARTIGO PC (see (link to computers)) as a source and a 1080p display on the other end, well, outstanding with an asterisk. We did have some issues with freezing and breakup, but slightly altering the position of the receiver cured these pretty quickly. We didn’t test for maximum range, but it’s safe to say that sending video across an average room shouldn’t be a problem. If you need more range, the company makes a more expensive version that they advertise as a “multi-room solution”.

In short – this is pretty amazing technology, and we’d challenge anyone to tell the difference between HD over the HDelight and an HDMI cable. Put mine under the tree.

Cool Yule rating: 4.5 stars

Price: $160

Company Web site

Reviewed by C. J. Mathias

WD HD Live Media Player, by Western Digital The WD HD Live Media Player is my new favorite tech toy. This device lets you access various types of media through your television. With a variety of connections, including HDMI, composite and component video, you can connect this to almost any TV to enjoy Internet TV and audio services, as well as photos and videos stored on your computer or storage device.

First, you can access your Netflix account, if you have one. I have to admit, this feature was the only one that WD didn’t nail for me. For some reason I couldn’t get the aspect ratio to be correct, and I felt like I was missing a few inches of each movie, or was stuck with the annoying black bars framing a smaller movie. The movie quality was top-notch though.

I could also access my Pandora account, so that my computer could add some mood music to a party. The machine itself comes with a free test period of Live365. I don’t have my own account, but the free trial of the music software was pretty sweet.

It also comes with a YouTube setting! With one click of a button, you can access YouTube on your TV and view all of your favorite videos. If you have a YouTube channel, the media player can remember that.

The WD HD Live Media Player networked with my computer so I could view all of my stored photos and videos on my TV. It has a photo slide show function, which is like a digital photo frame, but larger. You can also do this with videos, and it just cycles through them. Speaking of videos, if you have a video camera, similar to the Kodak PlayTouch, you can plug it into the media player through its USB connection and view all of your videos and pictures directly. Just as with viewing through the computer, the videos can cycle through if you wish.

Finally, you can plug a hard drive into the WD HD Live Media Player. I’m not saying I did this, and I’m not saying that you should do this, let’s just say you could download movies and TV shows to a hard drive, play them through the media player, and watch them like regular TV. Or you could just download home movies to the hard drive and be able to access them at any time.

For most of its functionality, the media player will need to be connected to the Internet. If your Internet connection is not next where the box will live, you will also want to get the WD LiveWire adapter, allowing the machine to tap into your wireless network.

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