How to choose a media streaming device

Features James Hunt Dec 21, 2012

Want to watch movies and television on your TV rather than your computer? Here's how to choose a media streaming device...

The digitisation of TV and increasing popularity of alternate delivery methods such as download stores and online streaming services like Lovefilm and Netflix has made data-driven entertainment more popular than ever before. Once the preserve of the enthusiast, there’s now a solid market for media streaming devices: small set top boxes which allow you to connect your TV (and other devices) to all manner of online services otherwise restricted to PCs and ‘smart’ devices.

In the years since their inception, media streaming devices have become both affordable and simple to use. But that doesn’t mean they’re simple to buy. They’re still unfamiliar hardware, and their place in the home is far from assured. Buying one means that you’ll have to learn what they are and what they can do, probably from scratch, before deciding which one is best for your particular needs.

Unless, of course, you read our guide first…

How much should you spend?

The price of media streaming devices starts relatively high; even the cheapest on the market have an RRP around £50. For this, you’ll get a device capable of interacting with online services, but which doesn’t contain any substantial onboard storage. They may have a USB port or card reader to allow you to connect external storage, but even this isn’t guaranteed.
Once you add onboard storage, the price quickly skyrockets depending on how much there is available. The most expensive Buffalo Linkstation Live model (which has a 3TB hard drive under its hood) has an RRP of £234. Not exactly casual buyer territory.

However, both of these devices are at the extremes of the price range. If you budget around £100 for a media streaming device, you’ll get a fairly capable model with a reasonable amount of storage and software included for all popular streaming services.

Note that retailers are likely to sell streaming media devices below RRP, so if you shop around you should be able to find low-end models going for as little as £30 without too much trouble. We strongly advise that you at least read reviews of them before slapping down your hard-earned cash, though. The cheapest devices are often made by unreliable manufacturers and contain buggy, poorly translated software. It’ll probably do the job, but not well.

At the other end of the spectrum, don’t be too tempted to pay a huge amount extra for storage space alone. Remember, streaming devices don’t normally record media, and the presence of a network connection means that even if it does gets full up, you can just copy the contents onto your PC for more long-term backup.

What make/model/manufacturer should you look for?

It’s difficult to find a stand-out manufacturer in a field dominated by cheaply made and technically dodgy products, but there are a few models we can recommend.

The Roku 2400EU LT is a £50 streaming media server that has almost all of the features entry level users could want: wi-fi, remote control apps for iOS and Android, support for Netflix… but not Lovefilm, sadly. The lack of an Ethernet option might put people off, and if you’re big on picture quality, beware than the output is limited to 720p. However, it’s compact and easy to use, and the lack of external storage support is compensated for by its ability to stream off a networked PC. Indeed, even though you might be unfamiliar with the brand, all of Roku’s streaming media devices are worth looking at.

If you’re already on the Apple bandwagon, you should definitely consider an Apple TV, due to its seamless integration with services common to Macs, iPads and iPhones. You can pick up the 2012 model for £80 on Amazon, but again, there’s no Lovefilm support. The Apple TV works with iCloud, AirPlay and iTunes, though, so you have a good range of options for getting media onto your TV from wherever you want it. There’s even support for 1080p video. It’s not a bad choice even if you don’t have other Apple devices, admittedly, but you won’t get as much out of it if it’s the only one in your home.

If neither of those devices fulfils your needs, take a look at those from the likes of Xenta and Cyclone, both of which create strong hardware with simple yet fully featured software. Western Digital’s TV Live range is also well-reviewed, although given that they’re at least twice as expensive as many of their competitors, you can be forgiven for looking elsewhere.

What technology should you look for?

Since the market is quite a recent invention, there’s no such thing as a ‘standard’ media streaming device. This means that capabilities vary wildly depending on price and manufacturer. There are, however, a number of features we advise that you check for before buying any media streaming hardware.

First and foremost, check the networking capabilities. Your media streaming device will need to be connected to your TV, so ask yourself: how will it then connect to the Internet? Wired and wireless connections both have their own advantages and disadvantages (which we discuss in depth in the technical limitations section) but don’t assume that every device supports both types of connection. Some will be wireless, some will be wired, and others will have both wi-fi and Ethernet.

Secondly, look for support for streaming media services, especially those you have a subscription with. The majority of devices are compatible with Netflix and Lovefilm isn’t out of the question (although it is less popular), but what about iPlayer, 4OD or the ITV Player? What about YouTube? If there are services you make particular use of, ensure that the player has the necessary software to interface with them before you buy it, because there are no guarantees that you’ll be able to install some afterwards.

Finally, consider the storage capabilities of the device. Some devices are streaming only (although they may come with server software to let them stream media from your PC), some support external storage like memory cards or USB sticks, and others have their own internal storage that you can copy files onto using your home network. The most sophisticated devices even have their own built-in torrent clients and RSS readers, allowing you to download video directly from the web (from legal sources, naturally). It’s also worth checking format compatibility: can it transcode media, or will you have to provide it with compatible video from the outset? Does it have the ability to output 1080p over HDMI-out, or are video resolutions capped at 480i because it has support for composite-out only?

If you’ve found the answers to these questions, all of the most important bases should be covered by the time you get it home. You may also want to check for a remote control, just in case some manufacturer has really decided to cut corners, but other than that, these are the attributes to care about.

Is now the right time to buy?

At this point, it’s hard to say. Media streaming devices are quite a niche product, and technologies surrounding them are developing fast. So fast, in fact, that there might not even be any need for them before much longer.

The thing is that modern TV companies - terrestrial broadcasters as well cable and satellite providers - are aware that viewing habits have changed. People like to watch TV on their own terms. That means things like time-shifting and IPTV on-demand apps are increasingly common features in standard pieces of hardware that, not so long ago, would have just been glorified decoders.

So here’s the problem: media streaming devices mostly sit in a niche that’s rapidly disappearing. Sure, you can’t copy video you’ve downloaded onto your PC onto a Virgin media box, but you can access massive back catalogues of movies and TV. You can’t use your Xbox to stream media to other devices, but it’s already connected to your TV and plays Netflix/Lovefilm videos. So media streaming devices are only really worth the money if you don’t have access to a games console or existing smart-set top box.

Furthermore, there are increasing innovations in TVs themselves, some of which are capable of playing video off external storage devices, such as USB keys. Again, if you can do that, is there any need for a media streaming device that essentially does the same thing as something you already own?

Now, that’s not to say there’s no place for media streaming devices. They are still much more powerful than the average set top box, with support for things like torrent clients and web video that other hardware might lack. Those features might be especially desirable if the only other computers in your household are portable devices - like smartphones and netbooks. However, the fact is that media streaming devices seem to be a stopgap solution to a problem that’s solving itself.

If you need one, it’ll do the job, but it’s likely that the money would be better spent towards a TV (or PVR) that can read USB sticks, or a Blu-ray player that supports streaming apps. They’re unlikely to get any cheaper if you wait before buying one (and indeed, if the market starts to disappear they may actually go UP in price), but be aware that if you do buy one, it’s probably not going to be long before it’s as outdated and unnecessary as a zip disk.

What are the technical constraints?

Your primary concern when checking the technical feasibility of adding a streaming media device to your setup should be the network speeds available in your home. If you have a particularly old wireless network or an aging router that can’t handle high throughputs, you may encounter difficulties when streaming video. Similarly, if the wireless signal is weak because the router is far away from the streaming media device, or the signal is being obstructed or disrupted, you may be unable to reach the network speeds required to watch TV over the network.

While these problems shouldn’t apply to a wired connection (even 100Mbps Ethernet is fast enough to stream HD video) you do also need to be aware of how good your Internet connection is, or risk being inconvenienced when it comes to online streaming services. It’s important to remember that just because you have a 10Mbps Internet connection, there’s no guarantee that you’ll have that much speed available to play online video, as well. Poor Internet speeds will mean that the video quality coming from online streaming services gets substantially downgraded, whether that’s because you have a poor-quality line or high latency because other people in the house are using the connection.

Also, while this shouldn’t apply to streaming devices that have their own storage, if you’re running server software on your PC, you will need a reasonably capable CPU. This is because the software may need to transcode video from an unfamiliar format into one that the streaming media device recognises. Transcoding is a very CPU-intensive process, so if your hardware isn’t up to scratch it’ll mean that the video simply can’t play!

What’s the alternative?

As we've previously noted, there are several alternatives that you can turn to instead of buying a media streaming device, but crucially, buying a new TV or paying for a satellite/cable subscription are both substantially more expensive than buying a media streaming device. So if you want to take advantages of the services they offer, are there any alternatives that cost less?

Well, perhaps the cheapest way is to just use your PC. You can attach your TV and computer using a standard video cable, for example. The price ultimately depends on how far the cable needs to stretch, but a 20-metre cable component video cable shouldn’t set you back more than about £30, and if you use a laptop, you might only need a cheap 2-metre HDMI cable - the kind you can pick up for £3!

It’s not as convenient, admittedly, but it’s far cheaper than a media streaming device. Attaching your TV to your PC will mean that your computer detects it as a second monitor, which you can then use for playing media on. Most graphics card configuration software has an option to make this easy (it’s sometimes called ‘cinema mode’) but even at its most complicated, all you have to do is drag the video window onto the second desktop, maximise it and hit play.

Alternatively, you can use a media streaming server such as TVersity or PlayOn to turn your PC into a media streaming device compatible with most consoles and portable computers. Unlike a dedicated media streaming device, you probably won’t be able to play the signal directly to your TV, but you will be able to stream over the web and to TV-attached devices like an Xbox, PS3 or Wii, most of which are barely more expensive than a media server themselves!