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Thursday, Dec. 15, 2011 07:02 am

The stream team

All it takes is an Internet connection to turn an ordinary set-top box into an entertainment library that knows no limits. Here are the season’s most desired devices

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There are few things in this world more irritating than paying an oversized cable bill (OK, paying an oversized gas bill comes close). Thankfully,  TV fans don’t have to suffer the indignity of paying a monthly bill for thousands of shows and movies they don’t watch. Services like Netflix and Amazon Instant Video can deliver the latest movies and TV shows at modest subscription fees over a high-speed Internet connection. These services can land in the living room through a media player/set-top box, a Blu-ray player or even popular gaming consoles. They use either a Wi-Fi or Ethernet connection to hook up to a router, and they can multitask, too. In addition to Hollywood fare, they can usually connect to a home network to view digital photos, videos and music on an HDTV.

D-Link Boxee
D-Link’s Boxee ($199) certainly is the most uniquely designed set-top box on the market. Beyond its cutting-edge design, the Boxee can stream movies from Netflix and Vudu to a TV via an HDMI cable, which is included. It connects to the Internet using either Wi-Fi or Ethernet and supports applications like Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, Pandora Internet radio, Vimeo, MLB.com and CNN. When digesting other people’s content becomes tiring, the Boxee can access digital photos, videos and music stored on a networked computer. When you are at work or on the road, send online videos and TV shows to the Boxee with a “watch later” feature. They’ll be ready to play on the TV once it’s time to relax. Boxee supports full 1080p high-def video playback and comes with a double-sided remote with standard controls up front and a QWERTY keyboard in the back for easier browsing.

Roku 2
Few media players offer the depth of content that Roku packs into its tiny Roku 2 set-top box. Choose from Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant Video and Crackle to stream movies and TV. Users can tune into Pandora’s Internet radio or watch live sports on several channels (NHL, NBA, MLB and MLS).
The Roku 2 is available in three varieties:
•%u202FThe Roku 2 HD ($59) features built-in Wi-Fi and 720p HD playback.
•%u202FThe Roku XD ($79) adds the ability to play back 1080p high-definition video content.
•%u202FThe top-of-the-line Roku 2 XS ($99) has all the features of the XD, plus built-in Bluetooth to allow wireless gaming with the Roku remote (it’s not yet enabled for wireless headphones). A microSD card slot and a USB port are built in for viewing personal digital content. The XS also includes an Ethernet port and a free copy of the popular game Angry Birds.



WD Live Hub
For the avid photographer or videographer on your shopping list, the WD Live Hub ($199) combines a streaming set-top box with a built-in 1TB hard drive to offer the best of both media worlds. With a USB port, users can hook up camcorders, cameras and other digital devices to back up files on the Hub. In addition to personal blockbusters, the Hub can stream from Netflix, Hulu Plus, CinemaNow, and Blockbuster on Demand. Other Internet services are available too, including YouTube, Facebook, Flickr and Pandora. The Live Hub can connect to and display digital files from a home network through an Ethernet connection to a router or via Wi-Fi with an optional wireless USB adapter (around $30).

Sony BDP-S780
Give a Blu-ray disc playback and online movie streaming with Sony’s BDP-S780 ($250). This player has built-in Wi-Fi for accessing Sony’s Bravia Internet Video service, which includes Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and YouTube, among others. It’s ready for a home network with DLNA technology to enable easier wireless hookups and even supports Skype calls (though a web cam is not included). The BDP-S780 is 3D-ready and can upscale DVDs to squeeze every last drop of resolution. Rounding out the feature set is a free app that turns mobile devices (Apple or Android) into a remote control for the player.

Power Up
It’s possible to stream high-def video over a Wi-Fi connection, although older 802.11g wireless networks might struggle with the heavy data load. To ensure a smooth stream, new set-top box owners can either upgrade their router to an 802.11n version or make a hard-wired connection to their router using an Ethernet cable. If they can’t connect their new media player directly to an Internet router using an Ethernet cable, they might consider a Powerline adapter. Netgear’s AV 200 adapter kit ($125) lets them establish a high-speed connection from the media player to the router using the electrical wiring in their home. Set up is simple – just plug both adapters into a wall outlet and connect one to the router (via Ethernet) and the other to the set-top box (again, via Ethernet).

Video Game Consoles
If there’s a gamer on your holiday shopping list, all the major platforms – PlayStation 3 ($249), Wii ($149) and Xbox 360 ($199) – support Netflix. PlayStation 3 also can stream from Vudu (including 3D movies) and Sony’s own collection of titles in the PlayStation store. Xbox offers both Netflix and Hulu Plus through its subscription-based Xbox Live program.


App happy

Thanks to smartphones and tablets, we’re going to have to retire the venerable term “couch potato”;  you no longer need to be reclined at home to channel surf. The same video applications that stream content to the big screen also support sending movies to mobile phones or tablets.

Hulu Plus
Hulu’s known for boasting an extensive selection of current television shows – but it also delivers a huge library of movies. For $7.99, users get unlimited streaming with “limited” commercial interruptions via Android and Apple mobile phones and devices or on a personal computer.

Netflix
The leader of the streaming pack, Netflix offers unlimited streaming for $7.99 a month. A Netflix app is available for Apple, Android and Windows Phone operating systems, too, so users can enjoy the latest Hollywood fare on mobile devices.

Vudu
Vudu’s claim to fame is a large collection of high-definition content available on a pay-per-view basis, not a subscription. Rental fees start at $2 for two days, and recent features can be downloaded at $3.99 in standard definition or up to $5.99 for a full HD stream with Dolby Digital surround sound audio.

Vevo
If music is your passion, Vevo streams a steady – free – supply of music videos your way. Aside from music videos, several musical-themed shows also are available. The service is available on Apple devices and promises an Android app any day now.

Crackle
If monthly fees rub you the wrong way, Crackle makes all of its movie and TV content available for free. The catch –  it’s almost all from Sony Studios, so the selection is limited. But, did we mention it’s free?

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