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Thursday, December 9, 2010

Part III: Media center hardware

OK, so now you've got TV and movie content streaming onto your home computer, and you've found a good application to keep all your content organized, but now — where to store all these gigabytes of glorious data? Or what to do if you don't have a computer? Ah, the solutions, they abound ...

One of the simplest devices and least expensive is the Roku. Starting at $59 with the basic 720p capability, the device comes with built-in WiFi, an Ethernet port and an HDMI connection that allows you to stream via online services such as Netflix, Hulu Plus, NHL and others. Moving up the pay scale, the $79 Roku comes with full, 1080p high-definition viewing, an enhanced WiFi antenna and instant replay. The top-of-the line Roku comes in at $99 and offers a true way to organize your data by linking it to a storage device with the built-in USB port. This allows you to keep all your downloaded content in one place.

The peculiar-shaped Boxee is one of the more popular media boxes available now. As Boxee states on its website, it can play "almost anything that you can play on a computer," and is more versatile than the lower-priced Apple TV. Boxee can be plugged into your HDTV via an included HDMI cable and connected to the Web via WiFi or Ethernet. It comes with a very unique two-sided remote that includes a QWERTY keyboard on the back. The main advantage is that Boxee is very adept at working with the gazillion video file types out there; however, one big disadvantage of Boxee is that it will not work with older TVs. Also, some of the features are still rather new and need tweaking. If you're thinking of going the Boxee route, it'll set ya back $199.

Apple TV
One of the more affordable media boxes, and also one of the more popular, is Apple TV.  As with the other devices, Apple TV is a standalone unit, meaning no computer is necessary. Coming in at $99, Apple TV can be connected to newer HDTVs and stream rented TV shows or movies from Apple via WiFi or Ethernet or through Netflix. The main disadvantage of Apple TV right now is that it only streams at 720p and requires a newer TV. One of the main advantages, however, is simply the price. At $99, it's one of the most affordable on the market. Plus, you get the backing of a company like Apple.

Is that all there is?
Of course not. And I know I've left out many viable boxes, such as Google TV — via Logitech Revue or Sony Internet TV — but space limitations prevent me from listing them all. Stay tuned to my blog as I'm sure Google TV will be the topic of many a future blog.

And finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the most expensive — but most appealing — media server hardware, which is simply a computer. For example, at home I built a media center simply using a Mac Mini (starting at $699) and loaded Boxee, Plex, XBMC and a few others onto it and attached a few My Book Studio (pictured at right) hard drives to store the content. While this route can get expensive, it's by far my favorite option and gives me the most control over my digital content. Check back soon when I will discuss how to set up your own media center with the computer you already have or buying a new one to serve as a dedicated media server.