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Why You Should Wait To Buy a Set-Top Box

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Warning! This holiday season you will be tempted to purchase one of those set-top boxes that deliver movies directly to your TV set. You will be lured by the idea of having this content on a digital tap, serving it up without ever needing to get off the couch. Don’t be fooled! While these devices and services are definitely getting better — and even approaching awesome — this holiday season is not the time to buy.

There are a lot of entrants in the set-top box space, but big names you’re already familiar with will grab most of the attention this season. Apple, Netflix and now Blockbuster all have set-top box solutions ready to pump piping hot video content to your TV.

Apple TVOf the three biggies, the Apple TV has been out the longest. The box costs $229 for the 40 GB model and $329 for the 160 GB one. It plays content, which is purchased or rented on an a la carte basis from the iTunes store, as well as music and other content stored on your network. New releases are available for purchase (but not always rental) day-and-date with their DVD release.

Why you should wait: Apple makes excellent products, but $229 isn’t chump change. If you watch a lot of television shows — especially in high definition (HD) — sticking with your cable or satellite provider might be more economical. Plus, MacWorld is right around the corner in January. Even though my colleagues over at The Apple Blog say a hardware update is unlikely (Apple just did a software update for the device), why take that chance?

netflix_lg_bd3002Where Apple takes a surgical approach to its set-top offering, marketing a single solution, Netflix is blasting away with a shotgun — and that’s not a bad thing. The company has worked tirelessly over the past year to get its online streaming service up and running on a number of devices including the Roku ($99), TiVo ($149 – $299), Xbox ($199), and Samsung and LG Blu-ray players ($399). Movies are streamed (not downloaded) so there is nothing kept locally on your device — and HD streams are rolling out across most of the partnerships. Content is an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord included your Netflix subscription price.

Why you should wait: Netflix offers a subscription plan, rather than a la carte rentals. Because of complexities in the licensing and release windows, that meansit doesn’t get access to new releases. So no matter what flavor box you buy, after the novelty of it all wears off, there aren’t enough titles to choose from (unless you consider Improve Your Sailing Skills must-see TV).

mediapoint_angled_frontBlockbuster’s device, launched just last week, is the latest entry in the set-top box battle. The rental chain is using 2Wire’s MediaPoint hardware to power the service. Blockbuster says the box is free, but you do have to pre-pay $99 for 25 rentals. Boxes are available through and select retailers. The video chain also said that, like Netflix, it will be integrating its on-demand service into Blu-ray players and other devices such as game consoles and DVRs. Movies use progressive downloads (not streams) for DVD-quality video, and the device supports HD. Because the movie rentals are a la carte, new releases are generally available within 30 days of the DVD release, according to Blockbuster.

Why you should wait: The service just came out last week, so it hasn’t gone through a rigorous review process. Let other people find any aggravating bugs before you plunk down your money for one.

While I may come across as a Debbie Downer, dashing your set-top dreams for this holiday season, let me offer a bit of optimism. All of these options will only get better and cheaper in the coming months, so your patience will be rewarded.

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10 Responses to “Why You Should Wait To Buy a Set-Top Box”

  1. Thanks for shedding some light into this. I am in the video publishing business but even for me it is hard to keep up with all the hardware options to “get the Internet into my TV”.

    It sounds cheesy: But I rather follow a pro like you instead of doing all this research myself.

    You let me know when I should buy device, right?

  2. Chris, will try to get it up tomorrow, Friday at the latest. Once content is downloaded completely you can ffw and rwd, but not while streaming. I had audio go out of sync twice (pause then play resolved) and I had several instances of brief picture issues, like artifacts or interference. Also it repeatedly loses my WPA2 password and needs to be manually reentered, never got a wired connection to work, some screens fill too slowly and one on occasion the whole thing slowed down to an unusable speed and I had to yank the power cord to reboot. Hmn, guess I wrote my whole post. But the BEST is the DRM photograph I snapped. That’s worth waiting for. ;) Maybe I’ll just mail it to you.

  3. Agree with Andy and others regarding problems with hardware tied to services. We have a Full HD capable SageTV HD Theater that will essentially play all the content on your PC, Mac and home network, YouTube and video podcasts. It can be a part of a whole home DVR solution with our SageTV Media Center software for PCs or Macs. It also plays Hulu and Netflix video with the PlayOn software. We have a developer community who’ve built IMDB browsers and other great applications and share most of our technology with the developer community.

    There isn’t any more capable hardware needed and the price is affordable (Full HD for less than $200 today). We’ll be able to integrate with most of the open and easy to partner with services. It may get better next year as Chris says but the pickings are pretty good right now.

  4. Andy Brown

    Set-top boxes that are tied to services (i.e. iTunes, Netflix and Blockbuster) are not the solution for this market. They will always be crippled so as not to allow access to competing, namely free internet, content. I cancelled my cable because I was tired of paying the bill and have explored a series of alternatives that all come up short. My current system is the appleTV running Boxee and that still leaves quite a bit to be desired.

    The best device is going to be a net-top box: a device intended to provide all that the internet has to offer in terms of video (especially in HD) on your TV.

    It looks like the only true device in this market was just announced yesterday: I can’t wait to get my hands on this (if the price is right).

  5. I agree it’s probably good to wait on these purchases. I want a system that will enable me to play streaming video from hulu and fancast and maybe even network sites on my tv. That’s what I’m looking for–truly on demand tv.