Gizmag: In the not too distant future, the most essential set-top box for the modern home will not be the Blu-ray player, freeview box or even a satellite or cable receiver, but the home media streamer.
While still at a relatively early stage of development, a streamer offers a similar service to the humble MP3 player in its ability to support playback of digital media formats, most notably video.
So what exactly do these devices do, and why are they so special? Well, as is usually the case with new technology, streamers come in various shapes and sizes and vary quite wildly in the specific features they offer.
Predominantly, a streamer’s job is to transmit digital video files across a network from a library stored on a computer to a television. Exactly how adept they are at doing this and what else they can offer the home user is what separates the men from the boys in this market, so we’ll take a look at five boxes that should be ticked in a successful, versatile device.
- Connectivity: Most modern streamers now offer all-important HDMI connectivity, with some sporting version 1.3, though you’ll often find older standards included such as component, composite and digital audio connections.
- File support: This is one area that varies quite wildly and the wide range of file formats and codecs currently doing the rounds means that versatility is paramount if an entire library is to be supported.
- Network support: All streamers offer an Ethernet port for connection to a network but any that are worth their salt also offer wireless, with 802.11n seeing increased support. This is essential for hassle-free operation and in the case of the latest standards, is important to guarantee that high-resolution files will stream smoothly.
- Usability: A well-supported, versatile streamer is of little use if you can’t find your way around the features and browse a library of files comfortably. A streamer should offer customizable, intuitive menus, good media control, quick and easy network setup and a decent, responsive remote control that doesn’t leave you hammering away at buttons for a reaction or squinting down at a mass of options for the desired control.
- Support for online services: Perhaps the biggest thing holding streamers back is availability of content. Subscription or pay-to-view services like NetFlix and its 12,000-strong library, Blockbuster’s recent agreement with Tivo to supply digital downloads and improved access to sites like YouTube will drive the market forwards. Finding a suitable way to expand this support in a way that benefits both the consumer and the provider is essential to the future of home entertainment.