The timing was right when Tim asked if I wanted to compare a couple of inexpensive home multimedia players. For the last several years, I've been using a hacked first-generation Apple TV that has fit my needs well. But, it's four years old now and I know it won't last forever.
My Apple TV handles most standard-def content I throw at it and it has a great user-interface with full IMDB-based metadata support for my movie collection. But it doesn't do so hot with online content and its ability to handle HD content is non-existent. If I want to start using HD and access online content, I need to start looking for a replacement.
In this article, I'll try out two well-reviewed boxes that can stream full high-definition content from the Internet, play local content and retail for around $100. Which one is the better box? Let's dig in.
Box number one in my comparison is the latest version of the WD TV Live that I last looked at in February of 2010. Box number two is the Roku 2 XS, the latest generation of Tim's go-to Netflix and HuluPlus player. Both players can play an array of online services including Netflix, HuluPlus, YouTube and more. And if you'd rather use your own media, they can play that too.
This article won't be a complete review of these products, as we've covered them before and the basic features haven't changed much. Instead, I'll give a just a brief overview and then focus on how they do with respect to handling video content using their latest software builds. I also can't cover all the online services that these products support since both have a very large set. So I'll just concentrate on the most popular content providers for movies.
WD TV Live
The first box up is the WD TV Live. WD recently released an updated version of its entry-level streaming media player. The company has also trimmed the product line down to just the Live and its diskful sibling, the WD TV Live Hub.
The new TV Live has a more up-to-date squared-off look vs. looking like a WD MyBook NAS lying on its side. Figure 1 shows the back panel where you can see the connectors you'll use to hook it up.
Figure 1 : WD TV Live Back Panel
Along with the power, there's optical audio out, Ethernet, HDMI, USB 2.0 and a jack for composite AV. You'll find no vent, as the box runs silently without a fan and draws a paltry 5 W in use and 4 W when idle. An additional USB 2.0 port is located on the front panel. If you're looking to use one of the USB ports, supported disk formats include FAT32, NTFS and non-journaled HFS+.
If you're not prepared to use Ethernet for getting online, the box also has built-in 802.11b/g/n (2.4 GHz only). But, as usual for HD streaming, I'd recommend using the Ethernet connection. Contrary to this advice, I ran a quick wireless test that had no problems playing 720p content from the Internet. But that's because 720p from the Internet is coded so that it has a much lower bitrate.
Figure 2 shows the 38-button(!) remote used for the WD TV Live.
Figure 2: WD TV Live Remote
As far as supported services, check out the product page for the complete list. But in general, you'll find music, movies, and photo services along with weather and Facebook support. For access to local content, the Live is DLNA certified, allowing you to stream videos, photos and music from local servers on your network.
Roku 2 XS
Next up is the Roku 2 XS. Figure 3 shows the connectors available on the back panel of the Roku 2 XS.
Figure 3: Roku 2 XS Back Panel
There's a bit of a difference here between the Roku and the WD TV Live. For starters, the Roku only has a single USB 2.0 port and it's located on the side instead of on the back. But similarly to the WD TV Live, there's HDMI, Ethernet and composite AV jacks.
Also like the WD TV Live, the Roku runs fanless and has internal 802.11b/g/n support for those who don't have Ethernet handy at their entertainment center. I didn't do extensive testing with wireless use, but a quick test showed a few Netflix buffering pauses when displaying HD content vs. none seen when using Ethernet.
A unique feature on the Roku is a slot for a micro SD card, which can be used to expand the internal channel/app storage. But unlike drives plugged into the USB port, you can't play content from the card.
As far as power draw, I initially suspected that I was measuring wrong as my Kill-a-Watt meter was showing only 1 W both active and idle. But a Google search turned up others reporting the same draw, so this box is efficient!
One oddity that struck me with the Roku is boot time. I originally thought that something was broken because after it was powered on, it took nearly 2 1/2 minutes before it was usable. Luckily, since it draws so little power, you'll likely just leave it on all the time. If you're going to plug in an external USB drive, FAT, FAT32, NTFS, and HFS+ disk formats are all supported.
For content support on the Roku, check out the product page where you'll find a more extensive set of channels than the WD TV Live. Along with content channels, games such as Angry Birds are also available. The remote for the Roku 2 XS (Figure 4) even has gyroscopic capabilities for game playing.
Figure 4: Roku 2 XS Remote
One big upcoming channel announced recently for the Roku is HBO Go. But you have to be an HBO subscriber on your cable or satellite service to get it. Unlike the WD TV Live, the Roku doesn't support DLNA, so you won't be streaming content on your local LAN.