Last Updated: March 15, 2013
Wireless Digital Media Players Roundup
Roku 2 vs. Apple TV vs. WD TV Live
Which represents the best multimedia streaming option?
Do you want to join in the latest home entertainment revolution? Wireless Digital Media Players and the increasing array of Internet-enabled Blu-ray players, home theater systems and HDTVs with Smart TV, can help transform your wireless networking from a simple home-office application to a fully integrated wireless home entertainment solution.
In this wireless media players roundup, we review what at present are considered to be the best wireless media players, namely the latest iterations from Roku, Apple and Western Digital, to help you pick the multimedia streaming box most suitable for your needs.
Definitely the best wireless streaming player presently available on the market...
It serves more than 750 channels; that's more content than anyone else. Performance is super-fast, and there is also a superb user interface. Other features include dual-band Wi-Fi operation, and an innovative remote control that includes a headphone jack for private listening!
More information in our Roku 3 review here.
Traditional services like cable and satellite TV are losing popularity as more viewers are picking up on the latest new trend of streaming full screen video to their TV from networked PCs and the Internet, using services like Netflix, iTunes, Amazon Instant Video and more.
This explains the success of the Smart TV, a feature that has taken a push in 2011 and that now is being embedded on most HDTVs. This success by far supersedes that of 3D TVs despite these were dubbed by the industry in 2010 as the greatest TV revolution since color TV.
Yet the real revolution in TV entertainment was brought about by the ever-expanding array of wireless Internet-enabled HDTVs, Blu-ray players, HTiBs, and AV receivers.
Complementing this trend is the latest new line of inexpensive wireless digital media players, or video streaming boxes that in the absence of an Internet enabled-TV, still make it possible to move multimedia content from networked PCs to enjoy it in its full glory on your big screen TV and multi-channel sound system. There is no doubt that among the best wireless digital media players, we find the latest Roku 2 XS, the new Apple TV, and WD TV live reviewed in this write-up.
The reason behind this success is the simplicity to install and use wireless digital media players and Wi-Fi enabled AV gear, a simplicity that enable even non-proficient PC users to go ahead with the latest trend in wireless home entertainment integration.
Setting up a wireless digital media player requires configuring the player to join the home network. Run the player set-up wizard, select or key in your wireless network name or SSID, security type (WEP, WPA, or WPA2), and security key or passphrase when instructed to do so. Some use WPS to make things easier; just press the WPS button (or a virtual button) on your media player and on your AP or router for the player to join the network; all the rest is done automatically!
Depending on your network security setup, you may need to open/unblock your firewall to allow the wireless digital media player to connect to your PC, as well as configure additional network information such as IP, channel number, and connection mode.
Most Internet-enabled AV systems with DLNA support require the installation of the accompanying software to transform your PC into a multi-media server; this is the case with Samsung Smart TVs. With the so called 'instant' wireless digital media players such as the Roku 2 XS, you do not need to install anything on your computer but you still need a PC to setup content accounts like Netflix, etc.
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Best Wireless Digital Media Players
Internet-enabled wireless home entertainment has become a true mass-market proposition, with a vast range of products that would even enable you to seriously consider cutting off that $100 TV subscription bill thanks to tens of thousands of TV shows and movies available online via iTunes Store, Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, and online portals such as Hulu and TV.com.
On our part, we have gone through what we consider the best wireless digital media players in terms of features, performance, and affordability. We hope that these short but straight-to-the-point media player reviews presented in this roundup would be of assistance in your selection process.
Way back in 2008, the original Roku wireless digital media player did prove to be a big hit. It was one of the first few video streaming inexpensive boxes that made it possible to view a vast range of movies and TV shows from Netflix and Amazon VoD without being tied up to a PC.
It is not that it was the perfect box to ditch that almost $100 monthly TV subscription bill but it provided a lot more for your dollar than most TV subscriptions from network providers. Since then, a lot has changed and Roku is now in its 4th generation - this despite the latest version is being called Roku 2.
Like the third generation of Roku players, the new line of players is available in three versions: entry-level Roku 2 HD ($60), step-up Roku 2 XD ($80), and the top-of-the-line Roku 2 XS ($100).
As with most other wireless digital media players, the new line of Roku players does not represent a major upgrade over the precious version; if you already own the XD|S 1080p 2010 Roku Player, we find it hard to justify moving on to the new Roku 2 XS. Rather, if you own the Roku XS/S, we say keep it as you will surely miss its dual-band Wireless N technology support, a feature missing on the new Roku 2.
However, if you are in the market for a wireless digital media player, then the new Roku 2 is possibly the most robust wireless digital media player presently available on the market. This ultra-small and extremely simple-to-use video streaming box supports the widest range of online content - with a lineup that exceeds over 300 channels including Netflix, Amazon Instant video, Hulu Plus, live sports on MLB, NHL and more, music on Pandora, news, Facebook, Flickr, and much more.
Apart from new content, other upgrades over the previous Roku version include a new Bluetooth motion remote (optional on the HD and XD models but included with the XS version) that allows you to play games. Do not expect the same Wii-type gaming experience; this gaming feature is still extremely limited and the only title we are aware of is Angry Birds. Yet, the capability is there and makes the Roku the only media player with gaming support.
What are the differences between the different versions?
All three players support almost the same identical features and content channels with the exception that the cheaper Roku 2 HD supporting HD video up to 720p instead of the 1080p on the XD and XS. In addition, the most significant difference between the cheaper models and the higher-end Roku 2 XS is the presence of the Bluetooth motion remote with the XS version; other differences are minor and include the presence of an Ethernet port and USB on the high-end model.
In other words, if gaming is not for you, then both the Roku 2 HD and Roku 2 XS represent equally valid cheaper options - making these inexpensive Roku 2 players equally suitable alternatives to the more expensive Apple TV; the latter is on our opinion the only real competitor to the Roku line of wireless digital media players.
The Roku 2 in-detail
The Roku hardware consists of a small robust 3.25-inch square box powered by a very small power supply, extensive connectivity supporting HDMI, analog audio and composite video via a mini AV jack, USB, Ethernet connectivity, and a microSD slot. This means the Roku supports connectivity to older TVs, something that the Apple TV with its HDMI only output fails to cater for.
Unlike the Western Digital WD Live TV featured on this page, you would not be able to use the USB to mount disc images. In addition, unlike the previous version of Roku and the new Apple, the Roku 2 no longer supports dual-band wireless N operation. And as has been the case with previous Roku versions, you do not get DLNA support, meaning you would not be able to stream content from your networked PCs. Equally important, it does support a rather limited set of audio and video file formats and codecs - though it supports all the common file formats and codecs you will come across.
On a positive note, the Roku is dead simple to setup (you need a PC to setup the respective content accounts), is capable of solid 1080p HD streaming performance with superb video quality and excellent 5.1-channel audio, and comes with an extremely functional user interface and an equally functional but simple remote.
In total, you get more than 300 different program options - making the Roku 2 capable of the widest range of online content. At the same time, one has to keep in mind that many of the free channels come with the program restrictions requiring paid subscriptions. This is not a fault with the Roku player but this is the trend with all online content services and applies irrespective of the streaming box you are using.
As you may expect, you do not get access to Apple's iTunes store and strange as it may seen, there is no access to YouTube movies. But irrespective of these restrictions, the Roku remains the number 1 video streaming player for the most varied range of accessible online content.
The bottom line
If you still do not have an Internet-enabled HDTV or Blu-ray player, or simply want to join the latest trend of streaming full screen video to your TV, the Roku 2 XS is in our opinion the best Internet TV streaming box overall you can buy for under $100.
It is the ideal wireless digital media player especially for those looking to ditch that monthly TV subscription bill. It delivers more in terms of content than what you presently find on Internet-enabled HDTVs, Blu-ray players, and most of the latest streaming media boxes - including the new $100 Apple TV, despite the latter's edge in other areas.
The original 2007 Apple TV did prove to be a great product; two years down the line, the upgraded Apple MB189LL/A offered even more in terms of features with its 160Gb built-in hard disk, DLNA functionality, and digital media content support.
However, the real breakthrough for the Apple came with the 2010 Apple TV we reviewed on our site here. This represented a totally new and more compact design made possible by ditching the 160Gb internal hard disk as the main concept with respect to Internet-enabled TV content started shifting from downloading to media streaming thanks to the ever-increasing speed of Internet broadband services. The result was a wireless digital media player a quarter the size of the original Apple TV!
The new 2012 Apple TV continues to build on the 2010 version, to the point that from the outside, it just looks the same - supporting the same connectivity options and even the same remote!
It does not represent a major upgrade over the 2010 version but unlike the Roku 2 player, it retained all the goodies found on the older version, while doing everything the older version did but better!
So... What's the 2012 Apple TV version all about?
In simple terms, the new Apple TV is the Apple TV (2010) version we reviewed on our site but with a few upgrades; at this point, we suggest revisiting our review of the 2010 model for the relevant details.
Main upgrade is streaming of HD content up to 1080p, a feature that has been on offer on most of the competition since 2010. While from most users' perspective, this represents the biggest upgrade over the 2010 Apple TV version, yet do not expect to see some significant difference in picture quality between 720p and 1080p content streaming over even a 55-inch HDTV - least imagine on smaller TV screens. In other words, it would be hard to justify upgrading to the new Apple TV if you already own a 2010 Apple TV version but...
Other features include improved user interface that is more in line with iOS users; the result is that the browsing experience on the Apple TV is one of the best in its class. AirPlay has become better, making it easier to stream content from other Apple devices like iPad, iPod Touch and iPhone, thus giving you access to a wider range of online content not accessible directly over the Apple TV menu.
And directly related to Airplay is Airplay Mirroring which lets you stream anything on your computer screen to your TV; the catch here is that only the latest Macs support AirPlay Mirroring. Whatever is the case, AirPlay Mirroring opens new possibilities that let you stream web video on compatible devices to your TV via the Apple TV - thus giving you access to services like Pandora and HBO Go.
The Apple TV Hardware
The new Apple TV hardware (at least from the outside) looks just the same as the 2010 version. This means that you get the same limited connectivity options, namely HDMI, optical audio, and Ethernet; there is also a Micro-USB slot for servicing only. This means that unlike the Roku 2 player, there is no way of connecting your Apple TV with a non-HDMI enabled HDTV.
On the other hand, the Apple TV comes with dual-band Wi-Fi 802.11n support and its network connectivity is DLNA enabled - giving it an edge in this respect over the Roku option.
Like most of the completion, the Apple TV is extremely simple to setup. Streaming performance is best in class, delivering a picture quality that is somewhat better than that of the new Roku 2 wireless digital media players. In a similar manner, the Apple TV user interface is also a bit better than that of the Roku, with a menu that is somewhat quicker and more intuitive.
With Internet enabled content TV devices, content is the name of the game, but this is still an area where to new Apple TV still lacks behind the Roku competition, with the latter offering more streaming services, the most important being Amazon Instant Video (formerly referred to as Amazon Video on Demand), Vudu, HBO Go, and Pandora. The Apple TV content list is surely a strategic one, leaving out anything that is in direct competition with the iTunes store business.
However, the new Apple TV still comes with improved third party support, and apart from access to the iTunes store for movies and music, you also get services like Netflix (a standard feature that is present on almost all wireless digital media players available today), ABC, Fox, Disney, BBC, MLB TV, NBA, YouTube (missing on Roky), Hulu Plus and a few more.
Directly related with this content issue is the rather limited ability of the Apple TV to play different media formats stored on your computer; anything that plays in iTunes will play on Apple TV but that is all.
The Bottom Line
Admittedly, these are all issues Apple can fix with a firmware update anytime. In the meantime, at just $99, the new Apple TV is the wireless digital media player to opt for if you already own other Apple hardware - rather it is a must have device which thanks to AirPlay make it possible to stream your multimedia content on an iOS gadget straight to your big screen HDTV.
And for non-Apple gadget owners? Well, the Apple TV is surely an excellent streaming box for even non-Apple users but if you do not own any Apple TV device, we think that cheaper options like the new Roku 2 HD and Roku 2 XD can deliver more content for less.
The Western Digital WD TV Live streaming media player represents an updated the WD TV Live HD player, with the most important being the presence of built-in wireless connectivity.
Housed in a small package, the new player falls within the same category (in terms of features and price) as the Roku 2 XS and the new Apple TV.
However, the new WD TV Live comes with a few important differences. Like the Apple TV, it can stream multimedia content straight from your networked PCs, except that this Western Digital wireless digital media player comes with better file support than the Apple. In this respect, it can literally be defined as the wireless digital media player that plays anything others won't.
As expected, you cannot play protected premium content such as movies or music from the iTunes® Store but otherwise it supports practically any type of media file you can think of and provides full HD video playback up to 1080p.
The new WD TV Live also includes access to Internet driven content headed by Netflix and BLOCKBUSTER on-demand services, Hulu Plus, Spotify, YouTube videos, Facebook, Live 365, Pandora radio and the like. But the list of accessible content is rather limited — in a similar manner to what one finds on the new Apple. It is definitely a case that when it comes to content, the Roku is at present the king of wireless digital media players. Still we say that the new WD TV Live is one of the best digital media players for streaming content to your HDTV.
The WD TV Live Plus comes with significantly improved user interface over what one used to find on previous WD media players, with an interface that is smooth and functional. The WD player also comes with a better connectivity suite that unlike the Apple TV also supports standard analog TV connection thanks to the presence of composite and component video outputs.
However, the real edge of the Western Digital WD TV Live wireless digital media player is that you can connect multiple USB2.0 mass storage devices (practically any USB mass storage device will work) to its two USB ports. The media player will then collect the content on all the drives into one play list sorted by media type.
Interesting is that Western Digital has WD TV Live Plus version that includes a built-in hard drive. It is known as the WD TV Live Hub Media Center and comes with a 1 TB built-in hard drive, which can be used also as a network hard drive.
With the WD TV Live Hub, you can easily transfer, copy, or delete files stored on the built-in drive as well as download movies and TV shows straight to the player hard disk. At 7.8 x 6.1 x 1.3 inches it is not much bigger than the WD TV Live Plus player, and the hard drive gives you the added advantage of having all your media files as a centralized collection.
In addition, the WD media hub comes with HDMI 1.4 and can be used as a multi-room media server streaming to any TV in your house equipped with a WD TV Live or WD TV digital media player, or in that case to any TV or Blu-ray networked player that comes with DLNA support. In addition, the system is powerful enough to handle multiple streams so you can stream a movie to your Blu-ray disc player while viewing photos on your TV elsewhere in the house.
There is only one caveat though... The Western Digital Media hub comes as wireless-ready rather than a true wireless media player. Not much of an issue when considering its streaming performance, but this also means if you want a wireless Internet connection, you will have to buy one of the many compatible wireless USB adapters listed on the Western Digital website to transform the WD TV Live Hub into a wireless digital media player.
The Bottom Line
Content is still relatively limited in comparison to what you get with Roku 2 HD and XD players. However, the WD TV Live player supports a wider array of file formats; in addition, its ability to integrate multimedia files from multiple USB 2.0 storage devices connected on its ports, into one playlist - sorted by media type - gives it a definite edge in this respect.
Still cannot make your mind as to which wireless digital media player is best for your needs? Well, here is a summary of where each of these media players fits best.
The Roku 2 line is the player of choice for anyone looking for the vastest range of online streaming content. Simple to install and use, the Roku 2 HD is the ideal player to opt for if you are looking for ways to ditch your monthly TV subscription bill. If gaming is on your cards, well, the Roku 2 XS comes with the Wii-type motion remote for a better gaming experience.
Editor's Update March 15, 2013: The Roku 2 XS has just been replaced by the new Roku 3; if you are after the ultimate in streaming performance, the Roku 3 is definitely the way to go; otherwise, the Roku 2 HD (now being called Roku HD) remains the 'best-value' streaming box on the market for those who have not invested in iTunes content.
More information on the latest Roku player is available in our Roku 3 Review here.
The Apple TV is equally simple to install and use but lacks the wide range of online content - with a content lineup that has been strategically planned to protect the Apple iTunes store. But the new Apple TV with its superb streaming performance and AirPlay feature - now with Mirroring, makes it a must for anyone with an iOS gadget.
The Western Digital media player lacks the content lineup of the Roku though it still supports the most important streaming services like Netflix, Pandora, Hulu Plus, BlockBuster on Demand, Cinema Now and Facebook. In addition, unlike Roku, it includes DLNA networking support with a wide range of supported file formats. Yet, the real plus of the WD TV Live over the other two is that you can connect multiple USB2.0 mass storage devices to its two USB ports.
All digital streaming players featured in this write-up are available from amazon.com
You may submit your comments on the wireless digital media players covered in this roundup using the comments box here...
If you have not already done so, we suggest going through our Guide to Wireless Digital Media Players. This should give you a better insight as to what wireless entertainment is all about, as well as introduce you to the different wireless standards and related security issues.