It’s that time of the year again where we run down our selection of best digital media boxes. And, surprisingly, the top 2012 recommendations aren’t dramatically different from our 2011 picks.
In the ‘all around’ category, we’re still partial to the current generation of Sony and Microsoft gaming consoles… which offer far more than HD gaming. The Xbox 360 ($200) delivered more innovation in 2011 than the PS3, with (another) massive UI overhaul and new video services including Verizon FiOS TV and YouTube. Yet, despite Sony’s well documented security lapses, we’re nevertheless giving the PS3 ($250) the edge this year for two reasons. First, despite the proliferation of Internet video, there continues to be a void of compelling content that can’t be sourced (legally) online via services like Hulu or Vudu – making the PS3′s integrated Blu-ray player just as compelling as ever. Next, many desirable Xbox features, like Netflix streaming, require a $60 annual subscription. For gamers who play collaboratively online, it’s a sunk cost. But for everyone else, the Xbox 360 carries a recurring premium that’s hard to justify when a fee-free media streamer like the the Roku LT runs a mere $50.
Speaking of that 720p Roku LT, the digital media streamer massively undercuts the competition in price and is our box of the year. It still lags the WDTV Live line ($100 and up) and Boxee ($180) in local media playback capabilities, doesn’t offer the polish or ecosystem of Apple TV ($100), and YouTube is still notably absent, but Roku provides arguably the largest selection of apps — combined with the LT’s dirt cheap pricing, it’s hard to argue against them for online staples including Netflix, Pandora, and Amazon VOD. On the other end of the spectrum, Google TV continued to disappoint in 2011 despite a significant Android operating system update. Perhaps we’ll have more positive things to say in 2012 as new gTV hardware is released and their marketplace expands. Likewise, while Apple’s AirPlay functionality didn’t quite live up to our expectations in 2011, we anticipate improvements in the new year.
On the audio front, we continue to recommend Sonos. They out-Apple in terms of simplicity and elegance. Not to mention one doesn’t actually need to partake in Apple’s ecosystem to enjoy a Sonos whole-home audio solution. Our biggest concern remains their somewhat pricey proposition to outfit even a few rooms of one’s home. Which is why the new, lower cost Sonos Play:3 ($299) makes our 2011 boxes list. Not only does it sound good, the smaller size allows it to comfortably blend into additional environments. However, we still pine for a rechargeable battery as seen in the iHome AirPlay Speaker or Jawbone Jambox and await home theater integration.
Thanks to the work of the FCC, the golden age of CableCARD arrived in 2011. And, while rolling your own digital cable solution remains the province of geeks, the HDHomeRun Prime ($250) is the most clever of solutions. Unlike traditional PC CableCARD accessories, Silicon Dust’s solution is neither a USB appendage nor PCI card. Like the original HDHomeRun, the Prime sits anywhere on your home network – allowing LAN computers to remotely access any of its three digital cable tuners. Of course, the most common use case would be Windows 7 Media Center clients for live or DVR-ed television duties. Yet, I managed to pipe digital cable onto an iMac W7 virtual machine and El Gato sells an iPad app that wirelessly receives SD channel streams… with no computer required (beyond initial setup). Which may just foreshadow a native OS X client in 2012?