Contact and Coil | Nearly In Control



On Media Boxes in the Living Room

I’ve mentioned before that we first had a TiVo, and after getting an HDTV (TiVo doesn’t support an HD model compatible with Canadian cable TV) we got a Boxee Box and dropped our cable TV subscription. Basically we decided to stream all our TV from the internet. Now that Boxee got bought out and stopped updating the firmware for its rather outdated hardware we decided to move on. I think a lot of people are considering the leap away from cable or satellite and into streaming their TV and movies from the internet, so let me share our experiences.

First of all, I’m not convinced that a smart TV or embedded device like the Boxee Box or Roku is the answer. The Boxee Box was great for streaming content from other PCs in the house, but not for streaming stuff from online. These embedded set-top type devices, whether they’re built into the TV or not, suffer from two major drawbacks: one is that they’re usually underpowered for the price you pay, and two is that the software is typically some kind of highly customized embedded Linux with some custom user interface software built on top of it. On the Boxee Box, the web browser always seemed to be a bit slow, flaky, and the flash was typically out of date compared to what the online TV streaming sites were using. Our relatives recently purchased a brand new smart TV, and the web browser didn’t seem to support the latest flash that they needed to visit some site. Given the premium you pay for smart TV features, that seems a bit hard to swallow. Flashing the firmware was the next step, but I’m not sure how that went.

Given that background, we decided to take the plunge and just buy a PC and hook it up to the TV, then get a wireless keyboard and mouse combination. You can get a pretty good PC (Core i5) on sale for less than $500, and I’m pretty sure that even a $300 bargain model would probably do everything you wanted, and that’s less than the premium you might pay for a smart TV.

We couldn’t be happier with the new PC solution. The Windows software just stays up-to-date. It’s fast (much faster than any other set-top-box hardware you’ll see today), the interface is familiar, and all your hard-won Windows knowledge will come in handy if you have any problems. Netflix and other Hulu-like services work great. I also like that the kids can have their own login that’s limited by the parental controls feature of Windows (which I’d never used before, but is actually quite advanced).

I know one issue is where to locate the PC. We actually already had a place in the entertainment cabinet where a full desktop tower could fit, so it wasn’t a big deal, but if that’s an issue for you, there are other smaller (more expensive) options like the Zotac ZBox out there, which is just a full blown PC in a small form factor. I have also seen a wireless HDMI device (it works line-of-site) so you could hook it up to a laptop that you have on a table beside the couch (the TV would show up as a second monitor). Another issue is having the wireless keyboard and mouse out on the coffee table. That’s not a big deal if you have somewhere handy to stow it when not in use. Having a full keyboard certainly makes certain things a lot easier (searching for content, entering passwords, etc.).

One final caveat – the one bit of content that’s very hard to find online is sports. If you’re really into sports (we’re not) then you’ll need to keep some kind of paid TV subscription. That’s just the way it is.

Plus you get the benefit of a full-blown PC handy in your living room. Overall I think it’s the best solution we have right now, and it’s what I’d recommend if you’re looking to take the plunge.


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