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Surveying the Set-Top Boxes

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Will 2010 be the year of the set-top box? This category (sometimes called "broadband-enabled devices" since the term "set-top box" used to refer to a product rented from a cable company) includes a variety of devices that deliver streamed or downloaded online video to the television, and it was a huge topic at this year's Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. Blu-ray players, connected televisions, and game consoles can also do the job, however, so there's a great deal of competition in a category that hasn't really taken off yet.

To get an idea how the options compare, we sampled five of the leading players: Apple TV, Boxee Box, PlayStation 3, Roku, and VUDU (on a Blu-ray DVD player).

None of them was a dud, and they all delivered movies and TV shows quickly and easily. Read on for the details, though, because they provide vastly different content. Which device you choose depends on what you want to watch and how much you want to pay.

Apple TV
Could Apple have big plans in store for a revised Apple TV? We hope so, because the unloved current version has been on the shelf for far too long. While it was cutting edge when it first launched, its lack of support for outside services makes it feel dated.AppleTV

The Apple TV currently comes in only one configuration-160GB for $229. That storage is so you can sync the media files from all of your networked computers to the Apple TV. If the files are synced, you can play them even when those host computers are off; if the computers are on, you can stream any content stored in iTunes on those machines.

The Apple TV looks similar to a Mac Mini, but it's larger and flatter. You connect it with a composite, an optical, or an HDMI connection, although the device doesn't include the cables for any of those. We bet a lot of people make an angry run to an electronics shop after getting the Apple TV home and discovering it doesn't include cables.

Connecting the Apple TV to a home network is quick and easy: Just choose your Wi-Fi network and enter your password. A simple walk-through helps you link up to your networked computers. Once that's done, you can display all the media in your iTunes libraries on your Apple TV. The fact that Apple TV can sync to iTunes accounts is a strength and a weakness. While it's easy to play anything you have stored in iTunes, you're limited to the online purchases and rental options that
Apple offers. Apple TV seemed a lot cooler before Netflix stole the internet movie market with its unlimited streaming option.

Purchases or rentals you make through the Apple TV are automatically downloaded to your main computer, so you can watch them there as well. We were pleased at how quickly purchased content came through. We could start viewing it 2 or 3 seconds after making a purchase.

While it doesn't include cables, the Apple TV does come with its own remote. In keeping with Apple's clean and simple aesthetic, it has only a few buttons. The remote is easy to use, but entering text with the online keyboard is tedious.

The iTunes Store interface is easy to navigate, with sections for movies, TV shows, and music. It's best for browsing, although there's a search box if you're looking for something in particular.

Free content here is limited to podcasts and the occasional sample TV show, while paid TV shows are available per episode or by season. Movies can be rented or purchased. Apple TV offers access to HD movies, something that the desktop iTunes lacks.

Apple PR was pretty unhelpful with this article, leaving us to procure a unit on our own, and we can see why. Compared to a newer generation of set-top boxes, the options on the Apple TV are sorely limited. With the set-top box market finally reaching a mass audience, we hope that Apple becomes a contender soon with a greatly expanded online selection.

Boxee Box
We did our testing for this story in early February, so we had to fudge a bit on the Boxee Box. Boxee was still going through production revisions with D-Link, which was creating the hardware, and there was no preproduction model for us to test. Instead, we visited the company's new office on West 16th St. in New York City and tested one of the first Boxee Boxes. A Boxee employee confessed that it had been hot-glued together in a hotel room the night before CES. The glue held, and the company got lots of attention: The Boxee Box was one of the most celebrated gadgets at the show. Boxee

The Boxee Box is a lot smaller than you'd think from looking at its pictures. It's more compact than any set-top device we've tried, including the Roku SD. The glossy surface of the Box was a fingerprint magnet, but company head Avner Ronen told us the company was working on that in production. We hope the final version is better because the sleek black Box is great-looking when it's smudge-free. The rear of the Boxee Box holds an Ethernet port, HDMI out, an optical port, and left and right audio jacks. Below that sits two USB ports, at least on the model we tried. Ours also had a USB port on the front, but Ronen wasn't sure that would stay. There's no composite or component video, so you need an HDMI-equipped set to use the Box. One side holds an SD card port, while another holds a hidden power/reset button. It comes with a radio-frequency remote, which doesn't require a line of sight, so you can place the Box anywhere that's convenient.

The Boxee Box runs the same Boxee software that you can download online for free, but it makes the experience of using it easier for the nontechnical. There are many who couldn't handle connecting a notebook or Mac Mini to their televisions, so the Box is a shortcut. The software was in beta when we tried it, but it had recently been overhauled for ease of use. Still, we don't think it's easy enough. Boxee's open software relies on apps created in-house or by third parties. Go to an app, and you can find shows or audio streams held by that site or service. The approach is valuable in that any company or individual can create an app but tricky in that nontechy users will want a simple interface that lets them go to all the shows or movies that are available. It's nothing that couldn't be ironed out by a software upgrade, and we hope it will be soon.

As for content, Boxee provides access to a strong selection of free ad-supported TV programs and free podcasts. Hulu shows will play through the included web browser instead of an app, since Hulu has a well-documented grudge against Boxee. Netflix account holders can get easy access to premium movies.

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