Technology

A Fresh Look at the Set-Top Box Scorecard


In just a year, more ways have cropped up for consumers to access premium content via their TVs without using a cable or satellite provider

The notion of cutting the cable cord has gotten a lot of hype lately, but that's because there are now more ways then ever for consumers to access premium content on their TVs without using a cable or satellite provider. In fact, the landscape has changed dramatically even since we did our first Internet set-top box scorecard last year. Here's a rundown of the major players in the space right now.

ROKU

What's good: The tiny li'l set-top box is (relatively) cheap at $99 and easy to install. It now features 40,000 titles (including new releases) available for à la carte rental or purchase through Amazon VOD, in addition to the 12,000 library titles available through Netflix's all-you-can-watch video buffet. All content is streamed, so there is instant watching and no downloads to clog up a hard drive.

What's not so good: Amazon content is not in HD, and only a handful of random titles are available in HD through Netflix. Notably for video enthusiasts, there isn't support for surround sound, either.

VUDU

What's good: Movies on Vudu are available on the same day as they are released on DVD. Vudu offers 1,300 titles in 1080p HD and has opened up its box to enable other services beyond just movies. The price was recently lowered to $149.

What's not so good: The company has been through some turmoil in recent months with a couple of rounds of layoffs, making those price cuts seem like a desperate ploy to gain some traction in the marketplace. Who knows if Vudu will survive another year?

APPLE TV

What's good: This is a solid product that's been out for a while, and it comes from a trusted brand. Movie and TV content (including HD) is available from all the major studios. It also allows you to access your photos and music through the TV.

What's not so good: At $229 for a 40GB model, it's not cheap. And there's no streaming, so if you purchase any content (especially HD content), the hard drive space available will be whittled away quickly. Plus, Apple has made clear it still considers this device a "hobby."

BOXEE

What's good: Boxee lets you access online content from Netflix, CBS, ABC, and Joost, as well as your music and other media through one central interface. It's free and open source, so developers are adding to it and improving it all the time.

What's not so good: There is no "box" in Boxee; it runs on PCs, and hooking up a computer to a TV is not for everyone. And as we recently learned, Boxee is not entirely in control of its own destiny, either, as it had to remove Hulu from its service, drastically reducing its appeal.

TIVO

What's good: Not only is it a DVR, but it also provides access to Amazon VOD, CinemaNow for Disney movies, and independent movies from Jaman as well as Web video content such as podcasts and YouTube. Plus, TiVo is a reliable product that's easy to use.

What's not so good: An HD TiVo will set you back $299, and the subscription fee is $12.95 a month just for the service. The company has been hemorrhaging subscribers, so who knows what's in store for it?

This isn't a comprehensive list. There are other players out there, such as Microsoft's Xbox 360 and Sony's PlayStation 3 game consoles, as well as smaller set-top players and an assortment of PC media extenders. Plus, what's available is constantly changing. More Net-connected Blu-ray players and television sets will hit the market this year, and just this week a new entrant called ZillionTV stepped onto the set-top playing field with the backing of major Hollywood studios and Visa.

I'm loving the Amazon/Netflix combo on the Roku. It's got a good price point, has a small footprint, and it's easy to install and use. I haven't cut the cable cord yet, but I'm close, and if Netflix offers a streaming-only subscription service, I may not ever rent another DVD.


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