Network media players and Media Streamers make it possible for you to sit in front of your TV or home theater and enjoy the photos, music and movies that are stored on your home computers and other devices.
Most players and streamers can also play content from online partners: Netflix, Vudu, Blockbuster On Demand and Hulu for video streaming; Pandora and Live365 for music; and Flickr, Picasa and Photobucket for photos. Also, in case you still don't have enough to watch, most media players and streamers fill out their content lineup with podcasts on many subjects, including news, sports, technology, learning languages, cooking and comedy.
Many TVs and components have a built-in network media player with most of the same features as stand-alone network media players. Opt for a built-in media player if you are in the market for a new TV, Blu-ray Disc player, video game console, home theater receiver, or even a TiVo or satellite receiver.
As most network media players, media streamers, and network TVs and components have such similar capabilities, how do you decide which network media player is right for you, or which would make the perfect gift?
Be sure it will play the file formats of the media you own.
Most players will list the media file formats that it is capable of playing. You can find this list on the box, or in online production descriptions under product features or specifications. If some members of the household have iTunes, be sure the player lists AAC in the file formats. If you use a PC, be sure AVI and WMV are listed.
You can tell the file format of your saved media by looking at the file extension--the letters following the "." in a filename. If you use a Mac or save all of your music and movies in iTunes, consider anApple TV, as this is the only network media player that can play copyright-protected iTunes music and movies.
Be sure it will play the best picture for your TV.
Whether you have an older "4 x 3" picture-tube TV, or a 1080p full high definition TV, be sure the network media player you choose is compatible and offers the best quality picture. If you are connecting the network media player to a 10-year-old square picture-tube television, don't choose an Apple TV, as it only works with a widescreen high definition TV.
Many players will only play files up to 720p resolution. If you want the best quality picture on your 1080p HDTV, look for a network media player that lists 1080p output in its product description. On the other hand, if you have an old TV and high definition doesn't matter to you, choose a Roku HD box.
What online content do you want?
This is where network media players may differ. It seems that almost every media player, video game console and TV has YouTube, Netflix and Pandora. Different media player models--even from the same manufacturer-- may offer content from other online partners to give you more choice of movies, TV shows, music and photo sharing.
Are you a movie buff?
Netflix, Vudu, Blockbuster On Demand and Cinema Now offer a large library of films. These services will require that you pay either a membership fee or a charge for "renting" a movie, allowing you to stream a film for one or two days to play a film once you begin watching it.
Do you want to listen to the music you like without having a huge music library of your own?
Look for players with Pandora, Live365, Last.fm, Slacker or Rhapsody. Note that Rhapsody is a monthly subscription service.
Do you want to view photos that your friends and family share with you? Look for a network media player that has Flickr, Picasa, Photobucket, Facebook Photos or any other picture-sharing site that you and your friends use. Some media players will upload photos directly to the site from the player.
Do you want the convenience of connecting to social networking sites?
While it may not seem appealing to connect to Facebook and Twitter on your TV if you are already connected on your computer and smartphone, it is handy to have the option available. For those who are heavy Facebook and/or Twitter users, this may be the deciding factor.
Do you want to save media directly to the network media player?
Many network media players simply stream your photos, music and movies from media libraries stored on your computers, NAS devices and media servers. But some media players and some Blu-ray Disc players also have hard drives (HDD) for storing your media library. Still other players make it easy to dock a portable external hard drive right into the player.
You'll pay more for network media players with storage, but they may be worth the investment. With a hard drive, you can buy movies and music from online and store it directly on your media player. This is good for those classic films you want to watch again and again.
Storing media from your computers onto the player's hard drive means you have a backup copy of your precious media files. It also means that you need not always have to leave your computer(s) turned on, because your player doesn't have to access your media libraries stored on those computers. If you choose a network media player with either a built-in or external hard drive, look for one that can sync with your computer to automatically find files as you add them. With syncing, the player will automatically store your most recent files. Also, you don't have to worry about whether or not all of your files have been saved to the player.
The WD TV Live Hub has 1 TB of storage and has the unique ability to function as a media server. This means that other computers or network media players in your household can stream media from the Live Hub's hard drive. In essence, the WD TV Live Hub is like having a network media player combined with a network attached storage device.