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Complete Guide to Set-Top Boxes

Complete Guide to Set-Top Boxes
If you have a high speed connection to the Internet and an HDTV set, you might be interested in checking out one of these very affordable set top boxes that can bring all kinds of interesting programming into your home for free. You may even discover that you can replace your cable service with one of these devices. Here are some set-top boxes for you to consider.
Roku Is the Strongest Apple TV CompetitorThere are several versions of the Roku box ranging from the $49 Roku LT to the $99 Roku 2 XS. Roku’s latest device is a “stick” with a special MHL connector for “Roku Ready TVs that sells for $99 and does what a Roku set-top box does. Roku’s big advantage is the large number of channels and programs available. Not only can you get the mainstream, streams like Netflix but there is a huge library of third party channels with all kinds of special interest programming. Roku also offers more connection options than Apple TV with a composite video input and USB connector both of which are only available on some of their models.
Roku’s New Cross-Internet SearchRoku may have just released what some are calling a “killer app” although it’s not really an app. What Roku is now offering on its boxes is a broad search across streaming services. You can now search for movies and programs from streaming services including Amazon Instant, HBO Go, Netflix, Vudu and more, all from your Roku screen. There are already some good program guides like Dijit's NextGuide and Clicker but there’s nothing like being able to find it and then click to watch it.
Roku Resources Roku has a lot of fans and some useful directories to help Roku users find programs. Here are a few of the ones we like:

Apple TV; Still One of the Best BoxesApple is on track to sell over 4 million Apple TVs in 2012. The Third Generation Apple TV came out this past March with upgraded hardware to support 1080p video. The Apple TV is a sleek affordable device with a clear move toward simplicity. The remote has few buttons and the box only accepts HDMI but the elegant design and benefits from the Apple ecosystem including iTunes make the Apple TV a tempting addition to any home entertainment system. In addition to movies that you “rent” from the iTunes store, you can use Apple’s Airplay to “throw” content from other Apple devices like iPads and iPhones onto the screen of your HDTV set. Apple Mirroring displays what is on your laptop (newer ones only) on your TV. We wish the Apple TV would offer a USB port which would make it possible to play videos or show pictures from thumb drives although to be fair, you can use iCloud, Airplay and Mirroring for that as well. Also, the remote uses a button cell (CR2032) which can be harder to find and might not last as long as AAA batteries.
Is Google TV Still a Player?At Google IO in 2010, Intel, Sony and Logitech joined Google in presenting an Android-based set-top box. At the time it seemed like an important move in the battle for the living room. Unfortunately, the first versions from Sony and Logitech were greeted with less than an enthusiast reviews and they never really took off. Logitech has since given up on Google TV but others including Vizio have kept up the fight. In fact, the $100, VIZIO Co-Star is back on the shelves and apparently selling very well. Meanwhile, a video appeared briefly on YouTube that might provide a hint of future Google TV features including voice-enabled search and an on-screen “mini-guide”.
Western Digital WD TV Live Plays Lots of FormatsFor $89 on Amazon, you can buy a Western Digital WD TV Live that will stream 1080p video to your TV from streaming services and will also connect using DLNA to other devices like phones, laptops and tablets. You can even hook it up to an external hard drive and play lots of different video formats on it.
Boxee TV With Unlimited RecordingsBoxee started out as a set-top box with a social networking component where you could recommend programs to your friends. At the 2009 CES, Boxee won first prize in the iStage contest. Fast forward a few years and Boxee’s latest offering is a $99 box called Boxee TV that includes a built-in antenna for receiving over-the-air (OTA) TV, a cable connector and cloud-based DVR. You can still stream video with the mainstream services like Netflix and Vudu but if you want to store unlimited video of OTA programs it will cost you $14.99 a month.
Simple TV is a Novel GadgetA product that is similar to Boxee TV (and Slingbox too) but requires local storage is called Simple TV. They call it a DVR, placeshifter and video server all-in-one. It’s a Kickstarter project that was launched last year and won an award from CNET at the 2012 CES. They charge $149 for the box and a $4.95 monthly fee for the Premier service that makes it easier to record program using a guide. It’s kind of an odd device in that it has built-in tuners for ATSC OTA programming and ClearQAM cable channels (the ones you can get without a cable box), an Ethernet connection (no Wi-Fi), a USB connector for an external drive but no direct connection to your TV. Instead you stream the shows to some other device that is connected to your TV like a PC or Roku box. If you opt for the Premier service, you can also stream programs to your mobile device and watch them in a browser or iPad app (coming soon). One of the first hands-on reviews of Simple TV pointed out some deficiencies like slow response and poor image quality on very large screen TVs but overall it looks promising and should work better after they work out the kinks.
Control Your Set-Top Box With an AppOne of our complaints about using the remotes that come with set-top boxes is they require you to use the arrow keys and OK button to input text. This can be a time-consuming operation. Using apps to control set-top boxes can not only duplicate the remote's functions but also allows you to use the soft keyboard on your mobile device to input text. Most set-top boxes including Roku, Apple, and WD TV have apps for iOS and Android. We’re not aware of an Android app for Apple TV however jailbroken Apple TVs (2nd gen) can be controlled by an Android app.
What’s the Future of Set-top Boxes?An affordable price, good looking high definition video, Wi-Fi connectivity and lots of free programming have made set-top boxes very popular. One trend is to move the set-top box into a stick such as the Roku Stick however, why stop at a stick, why not just add the set-top box right into a “smart” TV? We’ll be interested to see what shows up in that department at this year’s CES. We already expect to see lots promotion of Microsoft’s SmartGlass for the Xbox 360 which moves content onto your HDTV set. We wonder if Google TV will make an appearance at CES either built into a TV set, on a stick or in a set-top box. Meanwhile, Nintendo has a somewhat pricey alternative to Google TV with its built-in TVii app for the new WiiU. On the other hand, we have to wonder if technologies like AirPlay and DLNA which can display media playing on your mobile device like a tablet on your “smart” HDTV set will be a viable alternative to a set-top box.

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