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Surveying the Set-Top Boxes

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Sony PlayStation 3
PS3Game consoles are an easy way for streamed movies and shows to enter the living room since they're already in so many homes. The three main players-Xbox, PlayStation 3 (PS3), and the Wii-have all gotten in the action to some degree, and we got our hands on a PS3 for testing. (Microsoft and Nintendo weren't as forthcoming as Sony.) While the unit is quite a bit larger and heavier than the average set-top box, it's easy to connect to your set, and, hey, it even plays games. The package comes with a composite video cable, although it has an HDMI port for a hi-res connection.

There are a few extra steps to setting up a PS3 that you won't get with other devices. Besides connecting it to a wired or wireless home network, we needed to create a PS Network account with user ID and enter all of our contact data. The PS3 controller isn't ideal for entering text and numbers, and doing so became a little tedious.

Once connected, we were able to view online content in two ways. The PlayStation Network store lets users download a library of titles a la carte. If you have a Netflix account, you can sign in to that as well and use your unlimited streaming subscription.

The PS Network store suffers from interface problems and feels like it was designed for massive screens only. The text is small, and on-screen menus waste a lot of space. Perhaps it would look better on a wall-filling flat screen. Categories are well-thought-out, however, and let users browse by genre, studio, or other filters. You can also enter a word or two and search by title or artist. The listings include TV shows, and there seem to be plenty of new releases. You can click on a movie to see if it can be bought, rented, or both, or you can view filter pages that only show rental content or purchasable content. Prices are inline with what we found with other stores: about $3.99 to $5.99 for rentals and about $19.99 for purchases. We were impressed with the quality of the video we saw, which looked bright, clear, and detailed, even over an analog connection.

Using Netflix on the PS3 can be a little trickier, as you'll first need to visit www.netflix.com/ps3, sign in to your account, and get your PS3 instant streaming DVD. It's free, but it's a nuisance. You won't be viewing Netflix movies in minutes as with other boxes, but in days, after you've received your disc.

Considering that this set-top box is also a game console and a Blu-ray DVD player, it's the obvious choice for families with children. Why connect several devices to your television when one can do so much?

Roku excels in price and simplicity. It offers three boxes, with the lowest-priced version starting at $79.99. Connect one to your TV, and in minutes you'll have streaming Netflix. Sure, it offers a small collection of other viewing options, but Netflix is the real attraction.Roku

We tested the base-price Roku SD, which offers standard-definition video for people without an HDMI connection. There's also the Roku HD ($99.99), which delivers high-def content over an HDMI cable, and Roku HD XR ($129.99), which adds extended range wireless-N connectivity for an especially strong and far-reaching signal. All the options are attractively priced, as is the $9.99 per month Netflix level of service that delivers unlimited streaming content.

Connecting the Roku was as easy as advertised, although setting up service and activating channels required entering codes several times on webpages. It's best to have a computer at your side as you work so you don't need to make repeated trips to another room.

After we'd connected our Netflix account, we were a little surprised to find that we couldn't browse the Netflix library through the television. Instead, we needed to add movies to an online queue through the Netflix site. While we would have preferred the ability to work through the TV, working through a browser was easy and probably faster. The site creates two queues, one for streamed content and one for mailed DVDs. Netflix offers about 20,000 titles currently for live streaming, and it's easy to see which are available for instant viewing.

The biggest downside of going this route is that Hollywood studios have forced Netflix to not offer new releases for streaming. The mailed DVD library feels much more current. While we loved being able to choose a movie and stream it instantly (add a movie to your streaming queue and it shows up in about 5 seconds on your TV), we didn't love the selection. Other products discussed here, such as the VUDU service or the PlayStation Network, deliver more current movies.
Netflix subscribers can watch anything in the streaming library as often as they want, so there's no timed window to worry about. Content is wonderfully well-organized in categories and subcategories, so if you're into British TV comedies or independent dramas, you can zoom in on just the video you want.

Free channels on Roku include Blip.tv, Revision 3, Facebook, Flickr, Pandora, and SmugMug. Other paid channels include Amazon Video on Demand and MLB.com. While we like having other options so that this isn't just a Netflix box, we weren't blown away. The Blip.tv videos especially are poorly organized, so finding something you might like is a challenge. Once you do find a favorite, there's no way to bookmark it for easy access later. If Roku could deliver access to streamed premium content already offered for free online, as Boxee does, the viewing options would feel a lot less limited.

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