Set-top boxes can upgrade your 'dumb' television

Sep 18 2011 - 12:04pm

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Smart TVs are the fastest growing segment of the TV market, adding Internet-based content to standard TV and cable offerings. But for those who aren't ready to spring for a new TV with a so-called smart connection, set-top boxes can be an affordable device to upgrade a "dumb" TV.

A set-top box sits between your TV and Internet router. All come with a remote control. Some boxes are wireless and can pick up a signal from a router without the need for a cable, which gives you more flexibility in device placement.

Each manufacturer offers a different bundle of content, so compare before buying one.

Here are five boxes to consider, listed from least expensive to most expensive.

Roku this summer released its lineup of palm-size wireless set-top boxes. The $80 mid-priced XD model offers full 1080p HD streaming, 300 channels, including Netflix, live sports and Facebook. Like any Internet-connected TV or device, some channels are free, but others you'll have to pay for. Roku also offers a $60 model that supports 720p playback and otherwise is the same as the XD.

AppleTV may be the best choice for Apple households because the $99 device automatically syncs iTunes content across iPods, iPads, iPhones and Macs, so users can stream content between their devices and the TV. However, AppleTV can be connected to any HDTV and synced with iTunes on a PC.

The compact device supports 1080p streaming and is wireless. In addition to the iTunes library, AppleTV offers Netflix, YouTube, Vimeo, Major League Baseball and NBA on demand. The remote resembles an iPod with its distinctive navigation wheel.

Logitech slashed the price of its Revue with GoogleTV set-top box from $249 to $99 on July 31 after months of disappointing sales. At $99, the Revue may represent the best value in the set-top marketplace, if -- and it's a big if -- Google can overcome its content hurdles.

The box promises "all of the Internet" compared with the slice of content provided by $99 competitor AppleTV, which is limited to pricey iTunes selections and a handful of other channels. However, major broadcast players Fox, CBS and others blocked Google TV users from accessing their websites. If those restrictions are lifted, GoogleTV could indeed deliver more of the Internet than any of its competitors.

A Honeycomb update to Google TV's operating system is imminent, according to CEDIA attendees who saw the new OS in operation at the recent home theater show. This could improve navigation.

Made by D-Link, the $200 Boxee is a box that adds a "watch later" feature. The device comes with a QWERTY remote and is billed as a true media computer replacement. Boxee supports playback from a home network, a USB drive, or an SD card. It offers 400 apps compared with Roku's 75 apps and also supports full 1080p streaming video.

TiVo has amped up its iconic DVR and turned it into an expensive, loaded set-top box. The TiVo Premiere Elite was unveiled this week.

The new device will be available by the end of the year for $500 plus a $20 monthly subscription fee.

Billed as a TV junkie's dream, it allows simultaneous recording of four different shows while viewing a fifth recorded program and boasts 2 terabytes of storage, equivalent to 300 hours of HD programming. Netflix, Pandora, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant Video and YouTube are built in.

If you have an Xbox 360, a PlayStation 3 or a Wii, you already have a set-top box. Each of these game systems offer an online service for access to movies, TV, music and, of course, games. Microsoft's Xbox Live service costs $60 a year and its content model is most similar to the set-top boxes mentioned above.

Sony has taken a different approach and offers its service for free. Movies and TV episodes are available in the PlayStation store starting at $1 apiece for a Tuesday night movie rental to $9.99 for purchasing a movie. Nintendo provides free access to Netflix through the Wii and also has a free Internet channel.

However, free refers to access. A Netflix subscription at $8 a month and a high-speed Internet connection through a service provider are additional expenses with any Internet-connected device.

Netflix has done a tremendous job of making its service available on just about every device from tablets to big screen TVs, but it's not the only entertainment provider. Amazon.com has an on-demand store and offers free streaming from a 5,000-title subset of its movie collection to its Prime customers. For $79 a year, Prime subscribers also receive free 2-day shipping on Amazon purchases.

If you're more of a reader than a TV viewer, news leaked this past week that Amazon is working on an agreement with book publishers to create an e-book lending library for its 5 million Prime customers. Lending digital books has become a thorny issue with publishers, but a Netflix for e-books could be a boon to book lovers.

Ogden-based TopTenREVIEWS.com guides consumers by comparing products in the world of technology, including electronics, software and Web services. Have a question for TopTenREVIEWS? Email Leslie Meredith at lesliemeredith@technewsdaily.com.

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