If you’re looking to enjoy your movie download library on your television, a streaming media box could be the answer.
Streaming media boxes are designed to live alongside your television, hooked up to the TV while also connected to your home network (via Ethernet and/or Wi-Fi). They come with a remote control and make it easy to pull music and video files from USB sticks, computers and network storage drives around your house and even from the internet.
In short, they let you watch movies on your television in the lounge room rather than the monitor in the study.
Western Digital’s WD TV Live and QNAP’s NMP-1000 are just two of a wide range of streaming media boxes, a range which obviously includes the Apple TV. If you live an iTunes-centric lifestyle then the Apple TV might be the perfect streaming box for you, but if you want to stray beyond Cupertino’s walled garden you’ll find the Apple TV is useless.
In terms of networking and format support, the WD and QNAP boxes are best of breed. The WD is compatible with Samba (Windows), NFS (Linux) and Bonjour (Apple) networking, along with Universal Plug and Play (UPnP) servers such as media centres and software like PlayOn and TVersity.
The WD TV Live will also play files from a USB device, with the option to use a USB Wi-Fi adaptor instead of Ethernet. HDMI, component and composite video outputs are on offer.
The QNAP extends these features to also include Gigabit Ethernet (optional Wi-Fi via USB), FTP access, Dynamic DNS support, internet radio (including ShoutCast) and access to Apple’s library of movie trailers.
The QNAP also takes an optional 3.5in SATA hard drive, plus it includes eSATA and USB ports (host and client) for playing files via HDMI, component, composite and S-video.
These Swiss-Army-Knife media players also handle a wealth of music, image and video formats including MPEG1/2/4 (ASP and AVC), DivX, XviD, H.264, MKV and Windows Media Video files. Add to this ripped DVD and Blu-ray movies (using AnyDVD HD), ISO DVD images, MOV and M4A iTunes audio files (without DRM).
The WD TV Live also plays unprotected M4V iTunes video files. Resolution support ranges from low-res files right up to 720p and 1080i/p.
In typical Apple style, the Apple TV is seriously outgunned in terms of features but excels in terms of reliability, usability and easy access to online content. Apart from YouTube, the only way to watch movies online using the WD or QNAP is to use UPnP media server software hooked up to a movie rental service – which generally requires running a Virtual Private Network on the server to access US-only movie services.
The WD TV Live offers a slick and responsive interface very similar to the PlayStation3′s XMB menu system and was very reliable during our testing. It’s support for iTunes M4A and M4V files makes it a handy companion to your iPhone/iPod, as movies ripped using HandBrake will happily play on the WD box.
Unfortunately for the QNAP, it’s plagued by mediocre picture quality and major stability issues. Hopefully future firmware upgrades will improve the situation.
Australian Macworld’s buying advice.
If you own an Apple TV you can extend its network and format by applying a simple software hack and installing the Boxee or XMBC media player applications. Of course the Apple TV lacks a composite video output, meaning it won’t connect to most old televisions (a real hassle if you’re travelling).
The tiny WD box is perfect for throwing in your travel bag and, considering its big feature set, small price tag, tiny footprint and impressive M4A/M4V support, it could make a great addition to your arsenal of gadgets – especially if you need composite video support.
This review originally appeared in the March issue of Australian Macworld magazine.