Even though it seems like everyone these days are acting like they're reading to throw out their external hard drives as everything starts transitioning into 'cloud,' some of us in the office are still skeptical this whole 'trusting your files into the hands of someone you've never met' business. For those who are old school like us, here's the second part of our set-top box review series, with today's focus being on the best box to view local content.
Continuing with our very un-scientific scoring rubric, the criteria for best set-top box for local streaming content are based on the following: 1) breakdown of content 2) general user-interface look and feel, and 3) degree of maintenance (because we're lazy).
Let's see how the boxes fared in this round:
Apple TV 2G: 8/10
Pros: AirPlay works flawlessly with iTunes and iOS devices, very attractive 'screensaver' modes to share photos while playing music, iTunes purchased movies stream perfectly with no hitches (not even once)
Cons: Tedious manual tagging in iTunes required for local movie files, picky encoding requirements and no subtitles support, requires iTunes to be running on a computer somewhere to access local files, 720p only
Roku XS (via PlayOn): 5/10
Pros: It works... with some hacking
Cons: Underwhelming navigation experience going through your own personal content, no metadata pull, quite the convoluted process to get all up and running
D-Link Boxee Box: 9/10
Pros: Strong browsing UI, automagically pulls audio and video metadata, streams nearly any type of media file you throw at it, full lag-free 1080p output
Cons: Requires renaming of files for proper metadata to be pulled, doesn't know to ignore deleted files in Recycling Bin
Playstation 3/Xbox 360/Wii (via PlayOn): 7/10
Pros: Streams reliably in HD, files accessible via native interfaces
Cons: Compression can be pretty apparent even at 1080p, straight dump file structure doesn't look very eye-pleasing unless you enjoy simply rummaging through your files on a larger screen
The winner here is clear. Boxee, while taking lots of heat from Hulu and broadcasting companies in the realm of online streaming, is the champ in the world of streaming a local library full of media files you've acquired over the years via the Interwebs. By pulling metadata to create a 'smarter' and more attractive-looking library, Boxee allows you to 'do whatever it is that you do' with your file structure and they'll take care of the rest. No other tool comes close to this kind of low maintenance workflow yet still manage to keep information open, allowing for the full Boxee experience regardless of personality.
AppleTV manages to contribute to a very satisfactory experience, despite still being called a 'hobby box' by many in the industry. With the help of AirPlay, which allows any iPod/iPhone/iPad connected to the network the ability to stream directly to the home theater system, you can create a no-hitch experience that continues to blow our minds even today. If it wasn't for the closed structure of the software, requiring more maintenance that we'd like (especially when it comes to movies), it's near-perfection with a huge pile of salt.
For the Roku and the gaming systems, the PlayOn Media Server software was a nice idea on paper, but due to its vast implementation on several different devices, it almost feels like they're trying to boil the ocean rather than perfecting a couple hardware platforms before moving on to the next. In the end, the user experience seems a bit lacking, even if it manages to work on the technology side.
All in all, if you're looking for a box that'll stream all those movies and TV shows you've acquired and will stream regardless of format, Boxee's the way to go. If you're into more of a lifestyle product and have already bought into the Apple universe, Apple TV 2G isn't such a bad idea ither. Plus, with jailbreaks and hacks such as aTV Flash (black) you might be able to make Apple's 'hobby box' your own personal pastime.
Stay tuned next week for the final face-off between our favorite set-top boxes!