How to Build the Perfect Set-Top Box

It’s the holidays — a time to give, right? Right. Which is why I’m making a list of what I’d like someone to give me this year. This isn’t a gift guide (I’ve already written one of those), but more of a fantasy. I’m making a list of all the features I’d like to see in the perfect set-top box.

What does the perfect set-top box do, you ask? A little bit of everything: It’s a DVR that records my favorite shows. It’s a media extender that lets me watch the video content I have stored on my PC. In a true fantasy world, it also replaces my cable box (but still lets me access my cable provider’s On Demand library) and plays back Blu-ray Discs.

Remember, this is a fantasy. I know that it’s not possible to get everything I want; some of the technology is simply not ready. But some of these features should already be options, such as the first item on my list:

EASY SET-UP/NETWORK CONNECTIONS: It shouldn’t take four days, a box of power tools, and repeated calls to tech support to install anything — never mind a gadget that I’m going to use to watch TV.

It should connect to my network easily. I’ll take a good wireless connection, but if you’re going to make me type my passcode on the screen, use common sense. Don’t slap a virtual phone keypad up on a big TV screen (I’m talking to you, Kiwi); just give me a nice, big keyboard that I can navigate easily. If wireless doesn’t work, I’ll gladly use a powerline ethernet extender — as long as it’s included. I don’t want to pay $100 extra for it. And I don’t want to invest in an ethernet cord that’s 100 feet long.

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A SOLID, SENSIBLE REMOTE:  Don’t give me a flimsy piece of plastic with hard-to-press buttons. Take a good look at the TiVo remote control. It’s comfortable in your hand and easy to figure out. Plus it has the cute peanut shape. (Hey, looks matter!)

A GOOD-LOOKING, LOGICAL INTERFACE: Speaking of TiVo, let’s talk about the user interface. Make it lively, just don’t go overboard — and don’t leave me with a DOS-like interface, either. Menus should be logically laid out. So should the search function. If I search by show title, the results should be show titles — not actor names. (Now I’m talking to you, Verizon FiOS DVR.)

Another request: Make it difficult to accidentally delete shows. (I am still talking to you, Verizon FiOS. I still haven’t forgiven you for allowing me to delete that episode of Mad Men when I meant to zap the Barney my kids had watched…repeatedly.)

INTERNET ACCESS: Luckily, I got that episode of Mad Men online, but I had to watch it on my laptop. With my new set-top box, I could stream it right to my big-screen TV — in HD — for it would let me scroll through the contents of my computer and play back any audio, video or image files. File compatibility is not an issue in my fantasy world, and HD files look just as good on my big-screen TV as they do on my itty-bitty laptop. 

Oh, and when I access these files, don’t mess with the aspect ratio. Too many media extenders shrink or expand video windows in ways that leave the content unwatchable.

I also want access to web sites that play back videos, like Hulu and ABC.com — and I want to watch their videos in HD, please. I’d also appreciate a nice interface that would help me keep these sites organized. And a scheduling guide would be great. ABC is pretty prompt about posting its recent episodes online, but the CW, not so much. That’s why I’d like an alert when they finally get around to making the last Gossip Girl episode available.

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LOOKS DO MATTER: I want both a good-looking interface and remote, but don’t stop there. I want the whole device to be attractive and as small as possible. I know it has to be big enough to hold a hard drive, a fan, and the Blu-ray drive. But it should be a simple, sleek box that won’t look out of place sitting next to a big-screen TV. Talk to the people at Sling Media; they know how to design attractive set-top boxes.

WHAT I DON’T WANT: I don’t want ( or need) a full-fledged web browser; I’m not interested in seeing my Facebook page on a big-screen TV. And I don’t need any on-screen chat features to appear while I’m watching my shows.

I’m sure I’ve forgotten a few things, but all of these features are a pretty strong start on the perfect set-top box. I know we’re not likely to see this product anytime soon. But here’s hoping some of this fantasy will become reality in 2009.

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