The ability to connect your TV to the Internet or to your digital media library isn't exactly new. Microsoft's failed WebTV existed over a decade ago, and people have been attaching Macs and PCs directly to televisions for years. Apple's Front Row environment, which displays iTunes and iPhoto libraries as well as DVD content through a simple remote, has been around for half a decade. Windows Media Center has offered similar features and more (including Internet content) for just as long.
However, 2010 has seen a huge uptick in the number of relatively inexpensive non-computer devices that can connect a high-definition television (HDTV) to your home network; access an array of video, photo, and music content from your collections; and use various forms of web content with minimal effort. One thing driving the development and adoption of these devices is the ability to access streaming video and audio content from services such as Netflix streaming, Pandora, or Last.fm; specific broadcast and cable channel websites; YouTube; and others.
The ability to have instant free or low-cost access to thousands of movies, TV shows, and web videos plus all your home movies, music, and photos is the Holy Grail of home entertainment. There are so many devices, web services, and setup options that finding the best device to meet your specific needs can feel like searching for a needle in a haystack.
That's why I've put together this guide for choosing the best set-top box this holiday season. You want to get the most bang for your buck, but you also want something that won't take you all day on Christmas to hook up, or is so complicated that your family won't want to use it.
Begin with the Basics
Before we start examining individual devices and options, I have a crucial piece of advice: Determine exactly what you want in a set-top box before starting the decision-making process. As you'll see, set-top boxes vary widely in capabilities and cost. Having a solid understanding of what you need from a set-top box (as well as how much you're comfortable spending) will help to make sure that you get exactly the features you want.
Focus on Features
To determine the features you need from the set-top box, consider the following questions:
- Do you need a device that can give your TV all the Internet capabilities of a computer—web surfing, Facebook and Twitter, audio/video chat, and so on?
- Do you want to play games and/or expand the device with additional interactive applications?
- Will you record TV programming? If so, do you prefer to burn the programs to DVD, or export them to a computer, iPad, or smartphone?
- Are you looking for something that's easy to use, giving you access to common streaming media services and little else?
- Is having access to your home movies and photos a major priority?
The various devices all excel in different areas. Having a clear idea of what you want or need will help you to stay focused, rather than being attracted to features that you may not use once you purchase your set-top box.
Consider Your Connections
Look at the various connections on your HDTV and the receiver of your sound system (if you use a separate system) to find out what types of connections you have available. Some devices offer limited options. If you'll be replacing your current devices, you'll need to know what connections the new equipment offers. Find out whether you can use alternate connections for your existing or new devices, if that turns out to be necessary to connect with the set-top box you want.
Check the packaging contents of whatever devices you choose, to see whether they come with the appropriate cables (some do, some don't). If not, you'll have to pick up the cables as well.