HOW DO THEY STACK UP?
Any one of these DMRs will give you access to the rapidly expanding online world of on-demand content. Whether you're looking to cut the cord or just broaden your viewing horizons, you can't really go wrong. But there are a few differences in what the various boxes offer.
The Roku and Apple TV are the most economical, coming in just sub-$100 (or significantly less in the case of the basic Roku XD) but offer all that DMRs promise: near-infinite streaming content. The Western Digital WD TV Live Hub and Boxee Box by D-Link offer a bit more: a hard drive in the case of the WD, and a more computer-like experience from the Boxee.
The Roku XD|S's USB port makes it a contender, and it accesses significantly more content available from outside your home than either the Boxee Box or the Western Digital WD TV Live Hub, but has a lot less ability to play content that's already in your home. The XD|S's USB port helps a little, but doesn’t entirely make up the difference (it's not as versatile as the Boxee and WD Live Hub, which support a huge range of media file types — whatever you have, they'll likely play back). The Live Hub—like the Boxee—actually outputs 1080p, so if you have 1080p content on hand, that plus the Hub's hard drive — to my mind — totally justify its higher price.
If you already have a networked backup, of course, there may be little to recommend the Live Hub over the Boxee, with its more extensive streaming options, or the Apple and Roku, which give your rental access to recent TV episodes (and come in at a lower price point). If you've got a big iTunes music library that you'd like to be able to access from your home theater, the Apple TV is probably a no-brainer.
With its extensive streaming options — dubious picture quality notwithstanding — the Boxee comes closest to the dream of a device that lets you cut your cable/satellite tether. But "comes closest" is a lot like saying I'm an Olympic diver because I hit the water when I jump at a pool. It still leaves a lot to be desired. As far as how I'd use it — well, there really aren't a lot of things here that would make me give up my Apple TV. That said, there are a lot of little things I like on the Boxee, like 1080p/24 output of Netflix and the cool art-based, network music-streaming interface. Were someone looking to start from scratch, I'd suggest seriously considering the Boxee. Not sure if it's worth more than twice as much as an Apple TV, but it does have a lot to offer.
The real competitors for these boxes are other connected devices — many newer TVs and Blu-ray players deliver similar access to on-demand content without the need for a separate box, and Blu-ray discs still offer a superior image to anything you can stream from the Web (so long as you're willing to use a mechanical transport now and again).
Most new Blu-ray players are DLNA-compliant (a wireless sharing protocol as usable — in theory — as the Apple TV's AirPlay network streaming, though your mileage may vary), most have Netflix, and many have Amazon Instant Video. For $50 or so more than a Roku XD|S or Apple TV (and significantly less that the Boxee or Live Hub), you can have the added bonus of Blu-ray. Something like the Samsung BD 6700 or Oppo BDP-93 could conceivably cover all your bases. Just a thought. But if you're otherwise happy with your current setup and want more options, one of these boxes should certainly be on your shopping list.
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