One of the first things you’ll need to check on any digital media device is how it connects to your TV. HDMI ports are pretty much standard on any modern media streamer, so they should be able to connect to any recent HDTV.
What you need to be careful with, however, is finding a media box to connect up to your older SD TV. Most media boxes, including Apple TV, don’t let you do this. Find a box that comes with a composite connection if you want to connect it to your older TV screen.
Hard Drive Space
Not all digital media devices come with the ability to store files locally. Apple TV, for example, has no hard drive and no SD memory card slot at all. Most devices that don’t come with a hard drive, however, do usually have the ability to connect an external one via USB, or to store/ transfer files through an SD memory card slot.
Some devices come with a large hard drive built in, either for the purpose of recording live TV shows, or for storing your own videos, music and photographs for playing back on your TV screen.
In general, a bigger hard drive will mean a bigger device and a bigger price tag, but it’s often worth it for those with a large media collection.
The most famous options for those who want a digital media device with a hard drive are the TiVo Premiere XL and Western Digital’s WD Live TV Hub.
Included Content Services
If you’re buying a digital media device simply to share your TV screen with other devices, then it may not come with any streaming services included.
However, if you’re looking for a device that’ll add the ability to watch a whole range of movies and TV shows on demand, both free and paid, then you’ll want to take a look at the services provided by any particular model.
The most common services include:
- Hulu Plus,
- Amazon Video On Demand,
Note that many of these services will require you to be a paying member (Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Video, iTunes), but most digital media devices will also have a selection of free content already available to view.
Unfortunately, not all of the devices have all of the streaming services available. This is why it’s important to check the full list of supported services and opt for the device that includes the ones you’re likely to watch the most.
Some digital media devices come with a built in web browser, notably any Google TV device or the Boxee Box by D-Link. Having a web browser has its benefits – mainly the fact that you can pretty much browse to any website you want while sitting on your sofa. You can even watch videos on websites in all their glory on your big screen TV.
There is a caveat however, and a pretty big one at that: this is the fact that many major streaming websites (like Hulu) are blocking access to users who visit from their TV screen. Bear this in mind if you’d planned on using the web browser in this way.
The good news is that included apps on any digital media device usually make up for the fact that some content streaming websites may be blocked. Some users may even consider the apps enough, and find that a web browser isn’t necessary for the best user experience.
It all depends on whether you personally feel the need to browse to certain websites that aren’t yet included in the form of apps. The most popular sites (YouTube, Twitter, Facebook etc.) are usually available whether there’s a web browser included or not.
For most of us, the price of any gadget plays a part in whether we decide to buy it. The good news is that digital media streaming devices have come down in price by a huge degree in recent years.
In general you can expect to pay around $100 for a box that lets you stream content from popular services, but doesn’t necessarily include a hard drive.
When the box comes with its own hard drive, the price can vary from $100-$500. The same goes for devices designed to help you stream your media from the TV to computers, smartphones and tablets. It all depends on the total range of features that go into the box.
Subscription Fees & Extra Charges
Aside from the initial cost of the digital media box, it’s important to check whether there are extra charges involved for watching certain content.
One thing that pretty much all the major multimedia-streaming boxes have in common is the inclusion of paid services such as Hulu Plus and Netflix. You’ll need to be signed up as a paying member of these services if you want to use them. If not, you can take advantage of the free content instead.
Most of the popular services don’t require you to sign up to any service plan to use the free functions. TiVo is an exception: this functions primarily as a DVR recorder that also gives you access to a range of streaming services. To use the TiVo box you’ll need to sign up to a monthly, yearly or lifetime content (the latter costs around $500 at present).
The last kind of fee you need to consider is for extras, such as smartphone and tablet apps. Some digital media devices will be able to share content between your TV, computer, smartphone and tablet, but you’ll need to pay extra to download the app to your particular smartphone/ tablet.
Most digital media devices come with a range of accessories available to purchase at additional cost.
If your box comes with the ability to browse the web, then you may want to consider purchasing a Qwerty keyboard or remote control featuring a full set of keys. Even if your device doesn’t have a web browser, this will still make it a lot easier to search for the kind of content you’re looking for.
Note also that most boxes will require you to purchase your own separate HDMI cable (if you don’t have one already) to get it set up to your television.
Digital streaming devices are now smaller than ever. The Apple TV, for example, measures 0.9 x 3.9 x 3.9 inches in size, and the Roku 2 XS measures 0.9 x 3.3 x 3.3 inches in size. You’ll barely notice these boxes beside your TV, and they take up hardly any space.
Note that devices with a built in hard drive are going to take up more space, with options like the TiVo Premiere similar to a Blu-Ray disc player in size and appearance.
The Boxee Box by D-Link is an example of a media box with its own unique design. It’s shaped like a cube, and is quite tall, which could make it a little more awkward to fit on a your TV stand.
Make sure to check the size of any digital media device before you buy so you know that it’s going to fit in with your current home theater setup.
Pretty much any digital media device you buy is going to come with an internet connection, whether it’s for accessing online content services, browsing the web, or sharing your TV content over several devices.
The question is how the device connects to the internet. At the more basic level, you’ll usually find an Ethernet port for a wired connection. This isn’t convenient for some home setups, in which case you may want to check whether you can connect a Wi-Fi dongle by an included USB port.
The most recent digital media devices now include the ability to connect to Wi-Fi networks as standard, making them easy to set up as long as you have a home Wi-Fi setup.
Home Network Sharing
Many of these devices let you share media between all the devices connected to your home network, which is a big bonus for those who have a lot of content that they want to share to their big screen TV.
This can be done in a few ways:
1) DLNA: DLNA is a feature that allows you to share content between other DLNA certified devices over your home network. A wide range of different manufacturers have opted into this service, so check your smartphones, tablets, speakers and other gadgets to see whether or not they’re DLNA certified. If so, and your media box also comes with DLNA, you’ll easily be able to stream and transfer media files between the devices.
2) Your Home Network: Some digital media boxes are designed to pick up other devices connected to your home network, i.e. PCs and Macs. This is an excellent way to stream files stored on your local computer without having to actually transfer them – especially since many digital media boxes don’t even have a hard drive on them any more.
3) Apple’s AirPlay: If you’re using Apple TV then it’ll come with AirPlay built in. This feature makes it easy to send content from your iPad or iPhone directly to your TV screen (useful if you’ve downloaded a lot of music to your iPad, for example). Apple TV also lets you share to devices on the home network as per number 2 above.
The Ability To Record TV Shows
TiVo is an example of a digital media streamer that also acts as a DVR recorder. That is, you can set it up to automatically record your favorite TV shows when you can’t watch them live. These devices do tend to cost more than more basic streamers, however.
The Ability To Share Your TV Content With Other Devices
Although most digital media devices will let you access content from other devices on your home network, few will send content to other devices. The Slingbox Solo is an example of a device that will share your TV content with devices when you’re away from home, including tablets, laptops and smartphones.