Best Streaming Set-Top Box for Online Content

Unplggd Battle of the Boxes

With Black Friday and the holidays just around the corner, you may be wondering what nifty new gadget you can pick up for the fam. While it may be a little less than original, if you've been in the market for a set-top to make good use of that Netflix and Hulu Plus streaming subscription, there's no better time than now. Check out this first entry of an ongoing series of head-to-head set-top box comparisons to see what's worth your money and what deserves a big resounding 'pass.'

The online video and music streaming market has exploded over the past several years and we believe it's only going to get even bigger. Bigger selections. More cross-platform device implementation. Cheaper prices for even more mileage.

The problem is that there seems to be almost too many devices out there that attempt to answer this streaming bit. However, we feel we can help.

Using a very un-scientific scoring formula consisting of 1) number of popular streaming options, 2) streaming performance of native apps, and 3) general user-interface looks and feel, we set out to find out what's the best unit for online streaming out there today.

Pin it button big

Note: All items reviewed below are updated to their latest firmware as of 11/14/11.

Apple TV 2G: 6/10
Pros: Good lookin' Netflix UI, some live sports such as NBA and MLB
Cons: Only Netflix and pay-per-view content via Apple store, navigating through videos using the included Apple Remote can be a huge pain

Roku XS: 9/10
Pros: Amazon Instant, Netflix, Hulu Plus, HBO Go, Pandora One... it's all there and then some, quick and easy authorization process using a PC with an onscreen passcode
Cons: 720p navigation interface looks like poo on a big screen, but you get 1080p streaming for online video

Pin it button big

D-Link Boxee Box: 6/10
Pros: Sexy UI that integrates many streaming services together in one place, Netflix support (finally), and new Spotify app kicks major ass
Cons: Plethora of apps in library - none of which follow a standard style guide and generally disorganized, beta-feeling in some areas (especially when forced into a browser window and it doesn't automatically maximize the video), no Hulu Plus or Amazon Instant native app

Playstation 3/Xbox 360: 8/10
Pros: Both Hulu Plus and Netflix native app options, HD streaming, extremely convenient for gamers, both offer a very smooth UI that feels natural and constantly undergoing small changes that lead to big improvements
Cons: Still a very limited selection of apps compared to competition, gaming controllers feel awkward for daily TV viewing

Nintendo Wii: 4/10
Pros: Netflix available via downloadable app
Cons: Netflix only, controls are finicky, streaming is well-below HD

Samsung Smart TVs (and any other "smart TV" out today): 3/10
Pros: Offers Netflix, Hulu Plus and Pandora One
Cons: Atrocious, slow UI makes it nearly impossible to use

Pin it button big

The Winners
For online streaming content today, the Roku XS (with its breath of relevant apps) and high-end gaming consoles seem to have the best bang for buck dollar to what-you-get. The Roku XS' interface is dead simple to use and Playstation 3/Xbox 360's offerings have the competitive advantage of also doubling as a game console.

While Apple TV and Boxee both had very attractive UI's for browsing online content, both tend to fall short by offering either a small limited selection or a disorganized collection of stuff we don't really care about. Content is key in a transitioning world of cable and dish-less TV, but even though we understand native apps can be expensive to develop, it goes a long way providing more value to the customer.

Be sure to stay tuned next week where we face off the set-top boxes to see which is best for local streaming content!

13 Comments