So many little black boxes
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What is a streaming media player/stick?The last few years has seen a big surge in usage and sales of Windows and Android media streaming players that are (usually) compact little devices you connect to your TV or projector. As the name would suggest, these boxes, or sticks, are used to stream media from either local storage or from internet services such as Netflix, YouTube or BBC iPlayer. As the years have gone by, technological advances have meant that these dedicated media players are now able to playback Ultra HD 4K video - as well as 3D - and some are even capable of hi-res audio playback too.
Advances in chipset manufacturing have also meant media streamers now run on more operating systems than ever, including Android, Windows, Linux and Apple’s new TVOS which is based on their, wildly successful, mobile operating system, iOS. In fact, if you own a smartphone or tablet you will already have a good idea of what these things can do but instead of swiping or tapping on a small screen, you’ll be controlling the apps using a TV style remote. Also, If you already own (and use) a Smart TV at home, you will be familiar with a lot of the features a streaming media device can provide but there can be advantages in a dedicated player (see below).
How do I setup, connect and use a media player?For local media playback only, you’ll at least need some storage device attached or inserted (USB, SD card etc.) in to the streamer with some video, music or photos saved to it. Obviously, in this day and age, most folks have internet and home network connections meaning you can playback your media from networked storage or even ‘the Cloud,’ i.e. files saved on an internet based server.
Clearly, if you plan on using internet based music or video streaming services, you will need to ensure your media streaming device has a working internet connection. For high definition video, you will need up to – and ideally more than – a 10Mbps download speed; for Ultra HD streaming, a minimum of 25Mbps is recommended. The connection between the media player and your TV, or projector, is usually made through one of its HDMI ports, and this is a prerequisite for hi-def video streaming, but some allow for a composite video connection, too. We must stress that you should only use a composite as a last resort as it’s the lowest possible video quality.
How does streaming media work?In the dark ages - pre broadband internet - if you wanted to watch something stored online, you would really need to (slowly) download it prior to playback. As internet speeds have increased, there is no necessity to do that any more as most homes in the UK now have sufficient bandwidth for HD video, so it can be played directly through your broadband connection.
Which is the best streaming media player for me?How long is a piece of string? There is no one size fits all solution, unfortunately, it’s a matter of assessing which features, apps and services are important to you and then picking the best platform and device to deliver them. For instance, if it’s the major video streaming and catch-up services, i.e. Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, NOW TV, YouTube, iPlayer, ITV Hub, All 4 and Demand 5 is what you’re after then the Roku family would give you best coverage, if you only need HD and not 4K streaming. For Ultra HD Netflix, you will need to look at an NVIDIA SHIELD Android TV or if you want both, Amazon Instant Video and Netflix in 4K, the 2015 Amazon Fire TV is currently (December 2015) the only box solution.
There is also a large sector of people for whom paid-for streaming services are unimportant and they simply want a box to playback their locally stored content. There are a number of ways to achieve this, using various media player hardware and software solutions and if this is what you’re looking to accomplish, you’re probably best served by choosing a device running Windows, Android or one of the varieties of Linux. The most popular software solution is KODI, which is free, open source and very versatile; it also runs on just about every operating system out there. We also strongly recommend checking out devices with OpenELEC support, which is a branch of Linux dedicated to running KODI and, as a result, places low overheads on the processor, meaning even relatively low-powered (and priced) boxes can run it well. The Raspberry Pi 2 is one such choice and you can achieve a really good setup for as little as £50 using one of those, although set up is more complicated than your typical out-of-the box solution.
As your needs for file type support increase so the choices of player become more limited. For example, if you want a box with any combination of 3D ISO, HD audio pass-through and 4K playback you will need to check closely that you can do so with your chosen device. For those with more simple needs, the majority of media streamers support all the ‘standard’ file types and containers so you won’t need to be so choosy. One thing we would always recommend is checking that your prospective box manufacturer keeps their devices well supported with software updates as, all too often, the no-name brands you see on Amazon or eBay pump out non-optimised and buggy boxes.
Smart TV vs Media StreamerAs with everything, there are pros and cons in choosing to use a dedicated media streaming player against the Smart TV features built-in to your TV. The major disadvantages are that it’s yet more expense, an additional remote for the coffee table and another user interface and system to learn and explore; those are all valid reasons to stick as you are, provided your Smart TV offers all that you need. Certainly the very latest Smart TV platforms offer pretty much everything that most folks need but if you own an older one the services available and support will not be as good as they are on the better boxes and sticks. It’s also certainly cheaper to buy a media streamer than it is a new Smart TV. You could also add in portability and the fact you can use a dedicated device with multiple displays and if you’re running on Windows, Android or Linux you will have a great deal more freedom in what you can do over the majority of smart TV platforms, from the TV manufacturers, who generally offer a more walled environment; notable exceptions to this would be the recent Smart TVs running Android from Sony and Philips.
We hope this has given you a good outline of what a media streamer can do but if you have any further questions and comments please don't be afraid to post them in the discussion.
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