Consider Adding This Tech to Your HDTV Experience
You have a nice big HDTV set, cable or satellite service and an Internet connection, so what’s the next thing you might want to consider adding to that whole experience? It just so happens we have a few recommendations and some tech to consider that includes everything from place shifting products to media servers to a TV super guide.
Time and Place Shifting Lets You Watch Things When and Where You WantTime or place shifting products are in pretty good supply; among them, Sling Media is one of the leaders offering their $299 Slingbox 500 to viewers who want to watch what’s on their TV at home on other devices at other places. A Slingbox takes the output from a source like your cable or satellite box, sends it to your Wi-Fi router and then streams it out to your computer’s browser or mobile devices. That means you can control your cable box through an IR blaster and watch whatever you would be recording and watching at home anywhere you have Internet access. A “virtual” remote control that looks like the real one makes it even easier. The Slingbox 500 has an HDMI port but you may be better off using its component video connectors so you don’t get hung by copyright issues on premium content because of HDCP on HDMI. Slingbox also sells a less expensive model called the Slingbox 350 that lacks Wi-Fi and HDMI but only costs around $179. One common use we keep hearing about is Sling box owners giving their kids access to the stream so they can watch the shows they like at school or wherever they live.

Slingbox recently announced a partnership with Dish to put a Slingbox inside Dish’s Hopper HD DVR system which “hops” over commercials. This is the device that got CNET into a little trouble when CBS management wouldn’t let them give it the top award at this year’s CES. One nice thing about the Hopper with Sling is you don’t have to pay for the apps like you do with Slingbox. The built-in 2TB hard drive on the Hopper can store up to 500 hours of HD video. You can also move shows from the Hopper over Wi-Fi to an iPad for later viewing.

A competitor to Slingmedia, Monsoon Multimedia, offers three models; Vulkano Flow ($99.99), Lava ($199.99) and Blast ($249.99) that offer some of the same capabilities as a Slingbox as well as the ability to record shows. An interesting newcomer, simple.tv offers a device and service for $199 (includes 1 year of Premier service) that takes a signal from an antenna or clear QAM basic cable and sends it out to a mobile device, computer, or Roku box. Reviews from this past fall say it might have some potential especially for cord-cutters but it also has some deficiencies at the moment.

Set-Top Boxes; An Affordable Way to Add Extra ProgrammingThe latest Roku boxes; the Roku 2 XD ($79) and Roku 2 XS ($99) both support 1080p video, the XS has an Ethernet port in case you don’t think your Wi-Fi network is up to the task of streaming high definition video. The Roku set top box is one of our favorites not only for the way it works but for all the “channels” that are available for it. You know a product is successful when it spawns a “community” of third party “private” channels that specialize in everything from politics to religion. A product we use that goes well with a Roku box is PlayOn which is an application and a service that runs on your PC and streams video to any number of devices including a Roku box. The fact that it runs on your PC offers a big advantage with Hulu which can’t stream a lot of programs directly to devices like the Roku but can stream them through PCs to the Roku. In fact with PlayOn you get lots of channels for the included price that you might have to pay for; here’s the list. You can get a lifetime subscription to PlayOn for $44.99 or for $59.99 you also get PlayLater which offers the ability to record programs. Other set-top boxes worth considering include WD TV HD and of course Apple TV.
A Media Server Can Hold Lots of Content to Be Played AnywhereMicrosoft has been promoting the idea of a home media server for a long time. You get a copy of Windows Media Center in many versions of Windows that allows you to record and play video from lots of different sources. HP tried to make a product out of it with a multi-drive bay PC called MediaSmart Server which you can still find for around $500. Although, we always liked the idea, for some reason, a Windows home media center in a PC never took off however, recently, a media server called Plex Media Center that is based on the open source XMBC Media Center has been gaining popularity fast. The Plex media server runs under Windows, Mac OS or Linux and supports lots of audio, video and other types of media file formats. The server can “transcode” content, i.e. adjust the resolution to suit the playback or client device which runs Plex client software. There are Plex client apps for iOS, Android, Windows Phones and lots of other devices including the Plex for Roku, Apple TV (Jailbroken) and game consoles like PS3 and Xbox 360 through DLNA. It has a reputation for being easy to install, easy to use and having a lot of cool features.
Remote Controllers and a TV Super GuideGriffin Technology’s Beacon talks to a smartphone or tablet using Bluetooth and then transmits an IR signal to your TV, cable box or other devices you want to control. The Beacon which can now be found for around $40, is a cool product although it’s not perfect. Beacon owners complain about the lack of an ability to power it from the wall and its short battery life otherwise, it works as advertised. You can buy other remote controllers for smartphones and tablets including the L5 Universal Remote which sells for around $35.

The app the Beacon uses comes from Dijit Media who recently released a free iPad-only app called NextGuide which offers a TV “super guide.” It’s been getting great reviews and includes listings for shows from lots of sources. They call it “hyper-personalized” as it combines your own preferences along with input from Facebook friends to offer recommendations best suited to your TV viewing likes and dislikes.

Consider Upgrading Your Router for Better StreamingIf your router is more than a few years old, there’s a good chance your streaming experience could benefit from a router upgrade. For under $200, you can add a lot of speed and range. Newer dual-band routers use both the 2.4 GHz and 5 Ghz channels to deliver transfers up to 900Mbps (450 from each band) while their Gigabit Ethernet ports can get you high speed data transfers to devices that support it. Some of the newer routers are adding USB 3 ports for adding a NAS (network attached storage) hard drive so everyone on your network can access media files stored on it. Some of the top-rated routers include the Linksys EA4500 Media Stream 900 Smart Wi-Fi Wireless Router ($159) which has an app that lets you control and change settings on the router, the ASUS RT-AC66U ($190) which includes a draft version of the next Wi-Fi standard called 802.11ac and the NETGEAR AC 1750 ($199) which is another 802.11ac dual-band router.

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