Cut the cord: 13 set-top media streamers

There are also numerous free and paid games to play, and the 2 XS model includes a copy of Angry Birds. The 2 XD and 2 XS also have two USB ports and a microSD card slot for accessing stored content.

Who they're best for: If you're looking for a basic set-top streamer that works with older TVs and offers few bells and whistles but a huge assortment of online entertainment possibilities, one of Roku's four set-top systems can deliver. To get full 1080p HD support and access stored content from a microSD card or USB drive, you'll want the 2 XD or 2 XS model, and for Ethernet connectivity you'll need the 2 XS.

Sony Internet Player with Google TV

Price: $150

Although its asking price has dropped from $200 to $150, Sony's Internet Player with Google TV (model NSZ-GS7) is still one of the most expensive streamers here, but it opens up a world of online content to your television.

Sony's second-generation online TV set-top box is based on the Google TV platform, which aims to roll up the entire universe of TV and online experiences into one ecosystem. Instead of connecting only to your TV, as most of the other set-top streamers do, the Sony Internet Player sits between your TV and one other device: your cable/satellite box, DVR or DVD player.

From a single interface you can watch live TV (network and pay channels), DVDs, shows stored on your DVR and online streaming content. You can also access Android apps and games from the Google Play Store, surf the Web with the Chrome browser and use Google search. As you'd expect from a device that sits at the center rather than the periphery of your entertainment system, Google TV boxes tend to be more complicated to set up than other streamers.

Able to deliver 1920 x 1080 HD programming, the Sony set-top box is an unwieldy 8.0 x 5.1 x 1.3 in., making it harder to hide than the other devices in the roundup.

While the Internet Player's remote control has four dedicated buttons for programming your favorite content providers, there's also a touchpad for moving around the screen. Flip it over and the remote has a full QWERTY keyboard with tiny keys that make it a snap to type in your password or the first few letters of what you want to watch. Sony also offers apps that let your Android or iOS device act like a smart remote control.

How it connects: Sony's streamer lets you connect your TV to the Internet via 802.11n Wi-Fi or an Ethernet cable (not included). The Internet Player has HDMI input and output connectors that can send signals to your TV and can also integrate a cable/satellite box or an external DVD/Blu-ray player. There's no composite connector for older TVs, but it can connect with a set of external speakers through its SPDIF optical audio port.

What you can watch: Although it doesn't include a TV tuner, the Sony set-top box pulls in local stations from your TV's tuner and pay channels from your cable or satellite provider. The online programming choices include a mixture of free and subscription-based Google TV options such as Netflix, Crackle, Pandora and oddballs like Flixster and Adult Swim. It is also the only box in our roundup that can display programming from Sony's Entertainment Network, which delivers music, movies and games for a fee.

Like Vizio's Co-Star, the Sony set-top box can download thousands of Android apps and games from the Google Play Store; Sony throws in three free movies to boot. And you can browse the Web with the built-in Chrome browser -- but note that several major networks block Google TV from streaming Web-based video.

Unlike any of the others here, the Sony Internet Player has the luxury of 8GB of internal storage for apps, games, home videos, photos or music. If that's not enough space, the system also has a pair of USB ports for connecting memory keys or hard drives for more storage capacity.

Who it's best for: Google fans who want to experience the company's full integration of live TV, streaming Internet TV, Web browsing and search, Google Play Store apps and more -- and who don't mind paying a premium and putting up with some complexity to do so -- may be interested in Sony's Internet Player. (Have an older TV that requires composite video input? You're out of luck.)

Vizio Co-Star

Price: $100

Vizio's $100 Co-Star set-top box gives your TV the Google TV treatment for a lot less than Sony's box. Like the Sony Internet Player, the Co-Star sits between your TV and a content-delivery device like your cable/satellite box, DVR or DVD player. It supports 1920 x 1080 HD as well as 3D content, and at 4.2 x 4.2 x 1.6 in., the midsize device won't dominate your living room.

The Co-Star's remote has dedicated buttons for three popular entertainment selections and a touchpad for navigating around the screen. Flip it over and you'll find a QWERTY keyboard with tiny keys for typing in everything from your password to the search term "Green Acres." The Co-Star's remote has a dedicated ".com" key to ease Web journeys and a four-way gaming control for when aliens attack.

There's also a Google TV Remote app for controlling the set-top box from your Android or iOS phone or tablet.

How it connects: The Co-Star can tap into your home's broadband via 802.11n Wi-Fi or wired Ethernet. It connects to the TV via HDMI and offers an HDMI-in port as well for integrating a cable/satellite box or DVD/Blu-ray player. (Cables not included.) There's no audio-out jack or composite connector.

What you can watch: Like the Sony Internet Player, the Co-Star integrates live TV with the Google TV platform's array of free and subscription-based online programming, including Netflix, Hulu Plus, HBO Go and Amazon's Instant Video service. It also provides access to the OnLive on-demand cloud gaming service as well as thousands of Android apps and games via the Google Play Store.

Want to see what's going on at CNN's or Computerworld's website? The Co-Star has a Chrome-based Web browser as well as Google search built in. It also has a USB port for connecting a hard drive or memory key for watching home movies, scrolling through photos or listening to music.

Who it's best for: If you want Google TV but don't want to shell out for Sony's Internet Player, Vizio's Co-Star does without extras like onboard storage, an optical audio port and a second USB port -- but it still rolls up live TV, online TV and Web browsing for $100. (It doesn't, however, work with older TVs that require composite video input.)

WD TV Live

Price: About $99 ($79 TV tuner also available)

Best known for its hard drives, Western Digital also has a TV set-top box that can deliver your favorite shows and movies. It lacks the ability to browse websites, but gives freedom of choice for how you get it online.

At 4.9 x 3.9 x 1.2 in., the TV Live box is small enough to be stashed just about anywhere, and it's available in versions for the U.S. (for NTSC TVs) or Europe (for PAL sets). Like most of the others, the set-top box delivers full 1920 x 1080 HD content to the TV set.

The system's remote control doesn't have a mini-keyboard, but one of the USB ports can be used for connecting a wired or wireless keyboard to the set-top box. If you like, you can use your smartphone or tablet as a remote control with Live TV by downloading the company's free Android or iOS app.

How it connects: TV Live can get you online via Wi-Fi or wired Ethernet, and it works with TVs old (with composite video connectors) and new (with HDMI; cable not included). A bonus is its audio-out connection that can drive a set of digital speakers using the SPDIF optical standard.

What you can watch: Although TV Live doesn't have a Web browser, it can tap into online programming sources like Netflix, Hulu Plus, Vudu, and YouTube, some free, some fee- or subscription-based. It can also deliver traditional broadcast TV or unencrypted cable TV with Hauppauge's add-on 950Q USB TV tuner. The tuner, which costs $75, lets you record shows to a USB drive attached to the TV Live box.

Speaking of which, the TV Live device has two USB slots for connecting a memory key, a hard drive or a video camcorder to show your home movies, family photos or digital music archive. You can also stream videos, music and photos from a Windows 8 PC to the box, but note that it doesn't support protected formats such as iTunes music and movies.

Who it's best for: Western Digital's TV Live is for those who want a small, unobtrusive device that offers online programs, live TV (with add-on tuner) and the ability to access content from external storage -- but not Web browsing.

Making a decision

No two people like the same exact mix of TV shows, music and movies -- or desire extras like Web browsing or live TV integration. To decide among set-top streamers, start by asking these questions:

Are there specific sources of online programming -- say, Pandora or Hulu Plus -- that you consider must-haves? Check out our features chart for listings of each streamer's content sources, and do your initial filtering based on that.

Do you have an older TV that requires a composite connector? You'll need to choose from the NeoTV Pro and Max, the four Roku boxes and the WD TV Live.

Do you like having a vast multitude of online entertainment choices, including a variety of offbeat content? One of the four Roku systems should be next to your TV.

Own a lot of iTunes content and/or have an iDevice? Prefer simple controls and streamlined options to a lot of bells and whistles? Apple TV is an excellent fit.

Want to watch local TV channels in the same interface as Internet TV? If you don't care about nosing around the Web, then Boxee TV or WD TV Live (with add-on TV tuner) will do the trick. If you want to use your TV as a Web browser without sacrificing local TV integration, Boxee Box with its add-on tuner fits your profile -- though it'll cost you.

Want to bring live cable/satellite TV, Google TV's online programming and everything the Web has to offer into one interface, and don't mind enduring some complexity to get there? Sony's Internet Player and Vizio's Co-Star bring it all together.

This story, "Cut the cord: 13 set-top media streamers" was originally published by Computerworld.

| 1 2 Page 9
ITWorld DealPost: The best in tech deals and discounts.
Shop Tech Products at Amazon