Set Top Box Comparision: Which one is best and why

The search for the best STB has been an ongoing saga since my first foray into streaming content to TV 7 or 8 years ago when I was introduced to the XBMC (XBox Media Center) on XBox.  Time and experimentation with many different streaming servers and set-top-boxes, test subjects (my kids), and content formats has guided my media center to what it is today.  My current requirements for STB’s are;

•    Has a Netflix interface that doesn’t suck
•    Plays my content off a server in the house, either via SMB shares, or a standards based streaming service.
•    Also plays Amazon streaming content (this is a new requirement)

Over the years I have bought and used the following platforms:
•    XBMC on XBox (3x)
•    Roku 1
•    EGreat M34A (Popcorn hour knock-off)
•    Viewsonic MP71
•    Viewsonic MP75
•    Seagate FreeAgent HD Theater+
•    Roku 3 XS
•    Apple TV

Caveats:
•    Netflix interface that doesn’t suck is completely subjective, but of the devices listed above, the only platforms that meet this requirement are the ROKU devices, or the Apple TV. All the other devices listed above use the original lame linear GUI that was originally on the roku 1.0 shipping version, sucked, didn’t last long.
•    Standards based streaming service means standards based, such as UPnP or DNLA, not Plex or iTunes.
Below I will detail positive (if any) aspects of the device and (negative) why it is eliminated as a contender:

XBMC on XBox (three times)
Limitation was the XBox hardware itself, limited to MPEG2 format, meant stored files took up 3.5 to 4 times as much space as modern MP4 encoded files. I went through 3 of these, they both perished (hardware), probably acquiring them used from gamestop for $50 didn’t help. I do not know if the software platform evolved into something useful after I gave up the platform. At the time it had no Netflix APP.

Roku 1
Great Platform, I immediately replaced mine when it died a year or so ago with the roku 3 XS (see below). I do not know if this hardware got orphaned by software dev after I discarded it. At the time it had no usable way to view stream local content.

EGreat M34A (PopcornHour knock off)
This box was pretty good for what I wanted it for, replacing a dead xbox at one tenth the size, to sit beside a netflix only roku1. This device plays local content via SMB or UPnP streaming service. No netflix in the configuration I was using. Software updates were manual and confusing, considering that they were stolen from Popcorn hour. I never risked bricking my box so I don’t know if netflix streaming ever became a feature. Add’l note: when enabling “Stream to PS3″ in the cloud GUI of my Pogo plug appliance, this appliance showed up in this device as a LAN UPnP server, even though there are no details or configuration options available in the PogoPlug interface.
Has USB and SATA ports and easily plays locally attached storage without internet connectivity (This can be useful when taking modern children to the country for vacations to torture them with “nature” which they hate. at the end of the day you can pull out TV content and make it work anywhere you have a screen)

Viewsonic MP71
I actually ordered this by mistake, It does not have Netflix capabilities, but I ran it for a day or two to test it out. It had a good SMB client, and supposedly UPnP, though at the time I was doing the testing I had not yet adopted a streaming server, so I did not test that.

Viewsonic MP75
After RMA’ing the MP71, I received the MP75, and was sad to find out that the SMB client was flawed and did not work as well as the cheaper version the MP71, after several updates, the SMB client upgraded to flaky and unreliable from non-extistant. it was this box that got me into streaming servers (TVersity and Twonkey, but that is another blog post). This box played/still plays netflix via one of the lamer interfaces available, also when switching between the local content features of the box and netflix it essentially has to reboot into the other mode, not cool. Has USB port and easily plays locally attached storage without internet connectivity (see above on “nature holiday”).

Seagate Freeagent HD Theater+
This box can do Netflix, lame-ishly, UPnP/DNLA off of a content server and SMB, it does all of these things OK, but not great. Has USB port and easily plays locally attached storage without internet connectivity (see above on “nature holiday”).

Roku 3 XS
I have had the ROKU3 XS for a while, and it has a rocking good netflix interface, can play amazon content, but until recently could only do local content via PLEX, arguably the worst streaming server ever, as well as not being UPnP/DNLA standards based. Until recently it seemed that I would continue to need to have a ROKU next to a STB that could display local content on every TV.  Has USB port but can’t do beans if not online, do not take this box on “nature vacation”.

Apple TV
After overcoming my distaste for having to log the device into itunes just to turn it on, then log it into netflix for the only application I was going to use on it… Now why did I need to log into itunes?, I used the hell out of this platform, this has the best ever, hands down best, interface for Netflix. The suggestions about “if you liked this, you might like this” type of stuff, so expertly sucked me into series after series of awesome, but obscure watching. Unfortunately this platform has 2 major downfalls, to view local content, you have to be running a Virus on a LAN PC called iTunes, and there is no amazon app, possibly because that would allow a competitor to deliver content to this platform. I learned from my Brother in law that you can work around this by putting the amazon streaming app on an iPad/pod/phone and using airplay to redirect the output… Umm no thanks, not adding another device and convoluted data path to the content flow.

This appliance has no expansion ports, do not take this box on “nature vacation”. It also has the unfortunate habit of sitting contentedly by itself for days on end with no user input and a fast internet connection, only to decide it needs to do a massive upgrade after you have been out of town for several days and just want to sit down and watch some Dr Who episodes. To compound this issue, it doesn’t say/display that it is busy downloading/upgrading, it just performs very poorly, streams choppy video, problems persist through several reboots, with no indication that an upgrade is happening… until you go to the settings -> upgrades -> and try to initiate an upgrade manually, then it shows the status of the one already in progress. What in the world was doing for the last 96 hours with my high-speed connection I have no idea, but it wasn’t upgrading.   Even Bill Gates figured out to have PCs check for activity at 1:30am and if no activity, do upgrades.

Extra: FireTV
Although I have never hands-on tested this box, recently, I saw the announcements that Amazon was coming out with the Fire TV, but I haven’t bought one yet, mainly due to the early reviews indicating that all content would be cloud based, except that if you wanted to view local content, your option was Plex or Plex (see above for my opinion of Plex). Having read the reviews, this looked about equal to ROKU, and why change from the limited platform you know to the limited platform you don’t know?

So, due to my recent life change situation, moving from a 3000sf house with a basement and attic to a 1500sf apartment, I have made some changes. As I finished loading the truck last weekend, I shut down my media server for the last time (When I can accommodate I am replacing that platform with a virtual environment in better hardware) and pulled the primary data drive. Here in the tiny apartment I put that drive into a USB <–> SATA chassis and connected it to the ROKU. I then went to the roku channel store to install the ROKU USB Channel” app to allow playing of local content directly connected to a ROKU via USB. I discovered that the APP has been renamed “Roku Media Player”, dropping the USB designation, but not dropping the USB functionality, but gaining functionality that dwarfs the USB limitation in the APP name. According to the links below, they indicate that the streaming client portion of this app is supposed to be compatible with most streaming apps, Twonky (my home standard) is listed by name.

At this time, I haven’t rebuilt a test twonky, but plugged a drive into the pogoplug, booted the pogoplug in my core switch, and restarted the ROKU media Player app on the ROKU… there was the POGO plug media server listed as a source in the ROKU app. it is not the most efficient server, it lists off all files ignoring the existing file structure (1250 in this case), which slows down the processing, and after it is done indexing, slows down the browsing (If it is not clear, I don’t recommend a pogoplug as your streaming server). But after the indexing, scrolling to a filename and starting the content brought up the video stream promptly, expected quality, no blocking, stuttering, etc… This validates the ROKU hardware and app as a UPNP client.

(Note: The VMP75 in use elsewhere in this apartment, connected via a powerline networking module pair, is able to “see” the pogo plug under the UPnP tab, indexes the content (all 1250ish files) but is unable to start the content. This is inconclusive as powerline networking is known to have QoS issues with LAN video, and the Viewsonic appliance is dated and was weak at its best.)

Roku USB Channel becomes Roku Media Player:
http://forums.roku.com/viewtopic.php?p=419109&sid=3c418482ba7877ae019fa2f264a17f27

Official info on the rokyu channel guide:
http://www.roku.com/channels/#!details/2213/roku-media-player

So, that is the end of this review. Roku is the galactic overlord winner of the Universal STB battle, there is no second place.

I currently have for sale the following devices to finance a current generation ROKU for all my remaining TVs:
•    EGreat M34A (Popcorn hour knock-off)
•    Viewsonic MP75
•    Seagate FreeAgent HD Theater+
•    Apple TV
I may keep one of the above (not the AppleTV) so I have something for that “nature vacation”, but they are all about average in that regard, so they are all available until there is only one left.

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2 Responses to “Set Top Box Comparision: Which one is best and why”

  1. Serge July 28, 2014 at 1:53 PM #

    A PS3 has Netflix and Amazon Video. That works for me.
    For local content, I have a ASUS router(RT-AC66U) with a hard drive and a DLNA capable TV. My PS3 is wired to my router and I have a ethernet capable HDMI cable(Amazon Essential cables are cheap and great) to avoid having the TV wired to the network as well. I have an Apple TV too that is wired to the router with the same kind of HDMI cable. Not sure which one is sharing the ethernet connection but even with both devices turned off, the TV can access the network. The router is not powerful to do transcoding on the fly but worst case, I can convert the video in minutes with VLC on my i7 laptop.

    That might be a bit expensive as a solution but with the PS4 out, the PS3 prices are going down plus my TV is 3D and the PS3 can play 3D content without issues where the PS4 can’t yet. :)

  2. Tim August 21, 2014 at 5:40 PM #

    HDMI networking is definitely the way to go. Just cutting down on the amount of cable run is a huge contributor.

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