The New High-Def Streaming Tools
Thursday, June 5, 2008; 12:19 AM
Seems like every day brings some new gizmo that promises to stream high-definition (HD) video from your PC or the Web to your TV. They range all the way from USB sticks and flash cards that plug directly into certain new HDTVs, to network-attached hard disks, to stylish set-top boxes that also let you rent movies.
To help make sense of the options and what they can do for you, we've divided the streaming landscape into five distinct regions. We've also limited it to solutions that offer HD playback of at least 720p. Most support up to 1080i or 1080p.
If you're a tech-savvy video hound who likes to download movies using BitTorrent or to rip all your DVDs to hard disk, a new category of streaming appliances is designed just for you.
These networked streamers make a point of supporting nearly every major video codec and streaming transport container, from MPEG-1/2/4, AVI, and H.264, to DivX, XVid, Matroska (MKS), MOV, and VOD.
Many also support DVR-MS, the file format that Media Center PCs use for recorded TV shows. If these sorts of geeked-out media streamers don't support your particular favorite now, they probably will soon, through one of their frequent firmware updates. The devices do not, however, play files with any form of DRM protection.
We reviewed three brand-new 1080p and HDMI-capable players, all of which have a 3.5-inch drive bay for notebook-sized hard disks and dual external USB ports for adding internal or external storage, or both. The USB ports are very handy for playing back files quickly copied to a flash drive from your PC. You can even attach an optical drive to play back video, music, and photo files stored on CDs and DVDs.
ThePopcorn Hour A-100was our favorite in this category, thanks to its low price ($179 as of 05/28/08), wide format support, built-in BitTorrent client, and ability to stream from many popular Web video, photo, and music sites such as YouTube, Metacafe, Flickr, Picasa, Live365, and Shoutcast. (But be warned: Like the Nintendo Wii, it's hard to get.)
TheMvix MX-780HDand theMediaGate MG-450HDalso support many formats, but they are more expensive, lack the BitTorrent client, and can't play back Web video. They do add 802.11g Wi-Fi, which the Popcorn lacks, but we don't recommend trying to stream high-def video over 802.11g wireless--it's simply not fast enough in most cases.
On paper, these Popcorn, Mvix, and MediaGate streamers should be great, with their laundry lists of playback features and their multiple storage options.