You’re so over DVDs, right? And you’re done with trying to track down every movie on BitTorrent, only to find that it’s in Russian, has Chinese subtitles, and is only 480 x 320 resolution anyway. So you’ve subscribed to Netflix and Hulu, downloaded a few movies from Amazon, and finally caved in to your significant other’s endless complaints about having “movie night” around your laptop’s 14-inch screen. So you’ve decided to buy a set-top box, and bring the internet and all its wares straight to your HDTV.
Good decision. The harder choice, however, is which one do you buy? There’s a near-infinite number of boxes that will plug into your TV and stream Netflix — including some you might already own. Making matters even more difficult, most of the options are very similar at first blush. Prices have come down to the point that most set-top boxes are extremely affordable, so you now have to choose based on what you want to watch, and what you want to do with your box.
If you want to watch Netflix, the world is your oyster — basically every device that connects to the internet has a Netflix app installed. But if you want to watch Hulu, or sports, your options are narrower. HBO? Narrower still. What if you want to stream your own files, or use your phone as a remote rather than losing yet another controller in the couch? Picking a set-top box is a balancing game between features and content, and the right choice will be different for everyone.
In this guide, we won’t tell you which box to buy, but rather help you choose the best one for your needs. We’ll help you figure out what features and content providers are most important, because unfortunately you just can’t have it all. First up, what kind of device do you want?
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"Box" is a term you should use loosely
Calling it a set-top "box" is something of a misnomer, because you can actually get most of the same features in a device you might already have. You can buy a standalone box, which are typically better-designed for this particular feature; everything from the remote to the interface is geared entirely around set-top and streaming features, and they're usually a little simpler to figure out. But if you don't want yet another box and remote in your home theater, or another HDMI port monopolized on your TV, you can combine set-top features with another device for maximum efficiency. Hell, you might even own one already and not even know.
If you don't want to buy a set-top box off the shelf, there are three broad categories of devices that offer some or all of the features you'll find in a standalone box like a Roku, Apple TV, or Boxee Box.
If you've purchased a TV in the last few years, there's a good chance you already have a lot of streaming features already built into your device. Known interchangeably as "Smart TVs" or "Connected TVs," nearly every television manufacturer now makes TVs that can check the weather or show your Twitter feed, and a handful go further and offer Netflix and other services. Samsung's "Smart TV" interface includes Netflix, Hulu Plus, Pandora, Skype, and a bunch of other channels; LG, Sony, Sharp, and Panasonic all offer something similar. If you're feeling really enterprising, Sony also makes a set with integrated Google TV, which takes over the whole UI and integrates web and streaming features at every level.
It's certainly the most efficient system, since everything is baked into a menu system on your TV — no extra remotes, boxes, or cables necessary. The problem with TVs-cum-set-top-boxes is their interface: they're almost universally terrible, complex and difficult to navigate. They also tend to be really slow, which can kill the whole experience; TV manufacturers clearly don't spend much on processors. Some are getting better — Sony's adapting its PlayStation 3 interface for TVs, which is a marked improvement — but none come remotely close to qualifying as "user-friendly."
You might already have a set-top box
So maybe you bought a TV before they were "smart," and you're not into the idea of spending many hundreds of dollars on another set. In that case, maybe it's time to upgrade from your DVD player to Blu-ray: players are now totally affordable, Blu-ray is everywhere, and you can get all the streaming accoutrements built into your player pretty easily. Samsung, Sony, Panasonic, and LG all make Blu-ray players with these features — honestly, at this point it's hard to find a Blu-ray player that won't stream your Netflix queue.
Since Blu-ray players aren't trying to do as many different things as your TV, the interfaces are sometimes a little more usable, though they're often the same as the TV and typically suffer from the same speed problems as well. Here it's about finding the small features that help, like the dedicated Netflix button on the Panasonic DMP-BDT220, which is regarded as one of the best Blu-ray players on the market.
You could pretty easily make the case that the PlayStation 3 is the best Blu-ray player on the market — and, oh yeah, it also lets you play games. The PS3 also has a nice selection of content offerings, from the standards like Netflix and Hulu to Amazon, MLB, and — if you're a football fan — access to the NFL Sunday Ticket, which shows you every game, every Sunday.
Microsoft's Xbox 360 is a similarly content-rich machine, so much so that people actually spend more time using the media apps on the 360 than they do playing multiplayer games. There's a lot to watch on your Xbox, too: Netflix and Hulu (of course), but also HBO Go, a number of sports options, Comcast and Verizon apps (if you have cable), and many more. Microsoft recently revamped the 360's interface, too, and with a new Metro-style look the Xbox 360 is one of the easiest devices to navigate as well. One note, though: you'll need a paid Xbox Live account to stream much of anything.
The Nintendo Wii isn't really a set-top box — it's mostly just a Netflix-and-Hulu machine. Both are implemented nicely: it used to require a separate disc and be a bit kludgy, but now it's a much simpler and more streamlined process to set up. You can't stream anything in HD, though, which could be a dealbreaker — the streaming features are really more of a nice additional feature than a reason to buy a Wii.
What do you want to watch?
Ultimately, no set-top box is of any use unless it can help you find what you want to watch. Unfortunately, finding the right combination of channels and services is a lot harder than it should be. Netflix is pretty much everywhere at this point, and Hulu support is coming to more boxes every day. Between the two, you're relatively covered for both movies and TV shows, but what if you want to watch sports? What if you want to rent new-release movies rather than waiting forever and crossing your fingers that they'll show up on Netflix? And what about music? Odds are your TV is hooked up to the best stereo in your home, so it's only sensible that you'd want a way to play music, too.
Unfortunately, you're not likely to find a device that has everything you want — though Roku tends to be the closest, broadly speaking — and it's a mess trying to figure out which box gives you the best mix for your needs. So we've compiled this handy chart, with the most important content sources and the best set-top boxes, so you can figure it out for yourself.
Streaming TV and movies is obviously the primary purpose of any set-top box, or any of the "smart" features embedded in another device. But that's not all these devices can do, and in fact very few set-top boxes are used only for streaming TV and movies. Some are also, well, TVs. Some are Blu-ray players. But even among the traditional set-top group, there's a lot of variation in extra hardware and functionality among devices. Whether you want the ability to watch some live TV channels without paying for cable, or want a place to put all the movies and songs you've accumulated over the years, different boxes will serve you properly. As always, there's no solution that offers every feature (though in this case consoles like the Xbox 360 and PS3 are the closest), so you'll have to pick and choose what matters to you.
A set-top box goes a long way toward obviating the need for an expensive cable account, but it's not quite there. There's a $49 add-on to the Boxee Box called the Boxee Live TV that gets a little closer, though — it lets you connect an antenna or a coaxial cable to your Boxee Box, and start watching whatever channels are available to you over the air. Typically those channels include the broadcast networks (Fox, ABC, CBS, and NBC), along with a lot of public access and foreign-language channels, and a smattering of others depending on where you're located. It's a great feature, one that makes it possible to channel-surf even without cable — though you'll definitely still miss some of the advanced features like DVR.
There are a handful of standalone devices that do something similar, like the Elgato EyeTV Hybrid or EyeTV Home Run, both of which can also plug into a set-top box and capture streaming content onto your hard drive, but those don't usually include the streaming services. Google TV supports a lot of cable boxes and DVRs, and is trying to basically be the new interface for your live TV in addition to everything else, though you'll need an existing cable connection. If you're looking to cut the cord but don't want to completely let go of live TV watching, these are your best options.
If you're just interested in streaming, you may not need any storage, but if you've built up a library of music and movies over the years you might want a device that can store and play those files too. If you're in the latter camp, buying a set-top box with internal storage has a bunch of benefits: you can throw all your own stuff onto the device, and watch it all on its rightful screen — your TV. It also gets huge movie files off your computer, and onto the typically cheaper (and less likely to be dropped and broken) drives inside a set-top box. The Western Digital WD TV Live Hub or Seagate GoFlex TV give you 1TB or more of local storage, if you want a hard drive inside; if you've already got an external drive, make sure you get a set-top box with a couple of USB ports, like the Roku 2 XS or the Boxee Box.
Wireless / DLNA
If you have an iOS device, it's hard to beat the AirPlay's ease of use. It's popularity showed how great wireless playback could be when properly implemented. Of course, if you own an iPhone or iPad, an Apple TV becomes a perfect conduit for sending photos, videos, and songs straight to your TV, if you're not invested in Apple's ecosystem you should look into replicating some of those features with DLNA. DLNA is a nightmare of compatibility and manufacturer implementations, but when it works well it nicely replicates a lot of the best features of AirPlay. DLNA lets you access files from one device on another — so you can grab files off your computer, for instance, and then send them to your TV — and makes it easy to connect all your devices. AirPlay is certainly the easiest and most elegant solution, but you can get wireless capabilities out of a handful of Blu-ray players and set-top boxes as well.
In a perfect world, all your devices — your phone, your TV, your tablet — would play nicely together. Our world’s not perfect, but if you’re smart about it, you can engineer it so that your phone can control your TV, or at least work with it. Apple’s devices are the classic example: you can download the Remote app and use your iOS device to control your Apple TV, or you can use AirPlay to send all kinds of content from your hand to your TV. Samsung devices offer a similar, slightly messier system using DLNA, and if you buy one of the Galaxy Tabs with an IR blaster inside, you can use the Peel app to control your whole home theater stack. Roku has remote-control apps for iOS and Android, and Western Digital lets you control your box with your smartphone as well.
Gaming. On your TV. Novel, right? Well, if you want to play games in addition to everything else on your set-top box, there are a couple of great options. First and foremost are obviously the Wii, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3, which are industry-leading game consoles that are rapidly adding set-top box-like features. If you're only going to add one box to your home theater stack, those three are great places to start.
If you want streaming first, gaming second, you've still got some options, though the games you'll encounter are little more than fun gimmicks. The Roku 2 XS has an optional remote with an accelerometer inside, and you can use it to play games like Angry Birds and Pac-man. They're Wii-style games with barely Wii-level graphics, but they're surprisingly fun to play. If you buy an Apple TV, you can use AirPlay to play a game using a TV and your iOS device — though only a few games support the feature so far, like FIFA 12 and Real Racing 2.
If you have a 1080p TV and neglect your DVDs in favor of newer, better Blu-ray discs, you're going to want to stream the best-quality content possible. A number of set-top boxes will now stream 1080p content, though it typically depends on the source — not every device is able to stream Netflix at 1080p, for example. Video quality actually becomes really important in these cases: if you want to stream Netflix at 1080p, you're stuck with a Roku 2 box, a PlayStation 3, or the latest revision of the Apple TV. If you're not as picky about your resolution, or if you only have a 720p TV anyway, you can often save a decent chunk of money just by giving up 1080p video, which is typically reserved for only high-end models in a particular lineup.
What good is having a box if you can't control it? Gone are the days when you could walk up to your TV and change the channel — now if you lose your remote, you're out of luck. Some remotes are more powerful than others, too: the Boxee Box's remote has a full QWERTY keyboard on the back, and the Logitech Revue has an entire trackpad and full-sized keyboard. If you do a lot of searching, browsing, and organizing, having a feature-filled keyboard is really useful.
On the other hand, you might just want to flip through a few movie options, pick one, and watch it. The Apple TV's remote is impossible to misunderstand, since all you can do is go in a direction, select, or go back. The remote that comes with a Roku box is much the same way. Of course, both of those ecosystems also have companion smartphone apps, so you can control your box with your iOS or Android device. That's a nice option, since you're probably not going to lose your phone in the couch cushions.
The "Babysitter Test" is often mentioned when talking about remotes, and it's every bit as important when it comes to user interfaces for a set-top box. Could you turn on the TV, put the remote in someone's hand, and have them figure out how to use the box? Could you figure it out yourself? There's a balance to be struck between simplicity, features, and usability, and where you land in that tri-circled Venn diagram is awfully telling.
Take the Apple TV, for instance. Anyone could pick up the Apple TV’s remote and figure out how to watch something in your Netflix queue, but if you want to search the iTunes store (or even enter a Wi-Fi password), it becomes a huge hassle. (Fortunately, the iOS app is a huge help in these cases.) The Apple TV also doesn’t have as many channels as Roku, though Roku’s interface is much more complex and not nearly as nice to look at. If you have content in a lot of different places, Boxee’s semi-universal search might be the way to go. There’s a lot to be said for finding the simplest experience possible, but make sure you’re also getting the features and functions you want as well.
If you buy a device with internal storage, or one with local wireless streaming support, make very sure it can actually play your files. A huge number of set-top boxes don’t even recognize the existence of the AVI file type — given how popular AVI files are on not-so-legal downloading sites, that could be a bit of a problem. MP4 and MOV video files are pretty much universal, as are JPG and PNG pictures and MP3 songs. With other files, it’s hit-or-miss, so make sure you’ve got the file support you need. The Boxee Box and WD TV Live devices both support a huge range of different formats, so if you’re looking to play your giant collection of media through your streaming box they’re good options to start with.
There are a lot of different things to think about when you buy a set-top box, and it can be difficult since everything feels so similar. If you follow a simple series of steps, though, the choice becomes a little easier. First: what do you want to watch most? Second: what else does your set-top box need to be able to do, in addition to streaming from the likes of Netflix and Hulu? Third and last: does it fit in with the systems and devices you already use? Once you find something with all the ports, channels, and features you need, the choice should be a little more clear.
Unfortunately, the answer’s never totally obvious, because there’s little chance you’ll find an option that ticks all your boxes. Overwhelmingly, set-top boxes have terrible user interfaces. That’s why the Apple TV is so compelling — its interface is both usable and attractive. The Apple TV doesn’t have basic content sources like Hulu, though, so you have to decide what you want more. These tradeoffs are the reason speculation about an Apple-made TV has been so rampant: Apple has a history of taking good ideas, and being the first to implement them properly and well. Until that comes, though (and probably even then), there’s no good one-size-fits-all answer for buying a set-top box. You’re always making tradeoffs — it’s just a matter of figuring out which you’re most willing to make.