Lend me your up-to-date media center knowledge
December 10, 2010 9:57 AM   Subscribe

What's the latest in small, cheap media centers?

Recently, the future Mrs. veryoldworld threw up her hands in disgust
at our various patchwork tv solutions and still having to watch Hulu and anything we've downloaded on a laptop instead of our tv.  I'm
interested in buying or building a nettop-sized media center pc that
would solve the problem.  The optimal solution would include access to
Hulu and Netflix, incorporate a remote, and cost less than $250.  We
could jettison Netflix if need be as we do have it via the Wii.  We
don't have cable, and our antenna options are slim and uninteresting,
so we don't need DVR functionality or a tuner.  I do need some
advice about hardware and software.  I've heard good things about
XBMC, but I'm unsure whether Hulu/Netflix will reliably play on it.  I
know there are Silverlight issues with Netflix depending on the
underlying OS, and possibly a plugin is needed for Hulu.

There's also this wrinkle: We presently have a standard def tube
television.  It only has composite a/v and component video
connections.  At the same time, I'd like to be able to seamlessly
upgrade if we move to HD in the next year.

I've read some of the media center posts in the last year, and have
particularly noted the links to Lifehacker's guides (many of which use
an Acer Revo, which doesn't seem to be sold anymore), and to mini ITX mobo/CPU/VGA combinations that rely on Nvidia Ion for graphics, but I'm still not entirely clear on what the latest in hardware is.

Summing up, I'm looking for guidance on what components or
hardware/software combinations will:
1) Play Hulu (and hopefully Netflix) and normal video files;
2) Via composite or component at present, and HDMI in the future;
3) Take a remote;
4) Be reasonably small and quiet;
5) Cost $200 - $250.

I'm spinning my wheels looking.  Any advice, please?
posted by averyoldworld to Computers & Internet (17 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Do you currently have a desktop machine and a good (wired or 802.11n) connection? If so, I'd get a Roku player (< $100), which does Netflix, Hulu, Pandora, etc etc etc, and plays streams from your computer.
posted by mkultra at 10:06 AM on December 10, 2010

(BTW, Netflix on the Wii may be fine for your SD set, but once you move to HDTV it's sorely lacking)
posted by mkultra at 10:07 AM on December 10, 2010

This thread from a couple of weeks ago might be beneficial (in case you missed it).
posted by backwards guitar at 10:35 AM on December 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Burhanistan: You can plug an external HDD full of media files into the USB port.

True, but then you've got the problem of how to get media on to the drive. Which is fine for the initial setup, but incrementally adding new content can become a chore, depending on your tolerance for that.
posted by mkultra at 10:36 AM on December 10, 2010

I've been researching this too. Sadly I haven't found exactly what I want. I want a player that will play any video file I throw at it (like the WD TV Live). My wife wants to stream Netflix and Hulu for TV shows, basically replace our cable.

The closest is the Seagate Freeagent player. It plays anything you throw at it, and streams Netflix. Sadly, it doesn't do Hulu Plus, which is a must for the wife.

I think we've just settled on the Roku. It has all the streaming stuff we want, but its video playback through a USB input is very limited, it only plays MP4 and M4V video files. I think I might add the WD TV Live later so I can watch the TB or so of video files I have.
posted by sanka at 10:39 AM on December 10, 2010

I've mentioned this in other similar threads (including the one linked to by backwards guitar), but if you want full access to free Hulu, you need to use a device that is actually a Windows/Mac/Linux computer.
Or something like the PlayOn service, which requires a server running on a Windows computer that you connect to, and is not free.
Anything else is blocked or otherwise incapable of using plain Hulu, currently.

"Hulu Plus", their pay service, is available across the board, but it doesn't have access to 100% of the content that the free site provides.

If you must have the free Hulu stuff on your TV, I'm not sure you're going to find an acceptable device under about $350. Your baseline is basically something like the Acer Aspire Revo with a media-focused Linux distribution on it.
If you can settle for living without Hulu, you can go a lot cheaper with the Roku.
posted by jozxyqk at 10:41 AM on December 10, 2010

Best answer: If you want to homebrew, Ars Technica just came out with a guide just for you. Their HTPC guide discusses this in detail and provides build recces.

That said, and as an owner of an home-brew HTPC, myself, I'm not certain that it's optimal anymore. Between the Roku, AppleTV and the Google TV systems, it looks like the bitty boxes are the more cost-effective solutions right now.
posted by bonehead at 10:47 AM on December 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Does the Roku work with a NAS? We've found that works really great a file dumptank. Many come with DNLA now too which makes streaming easier.
posted by bonehead at 10:49 AM on December 10, 2010

Just my two cents on the Roku: It doesn't work, period. It's terrible. I got the "HD" model, and apparently there is a known issue with the HDMI where you have to reset it every time it's idle for 15 minutes because it gets stuck on a greenscreen.

It then stopped working altogether after I had had it for about a month.
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:54 AM on December 10, 2010

I've recently set up a decent cheap system from scratch. I got a Boxee Box, this NAS, and two 1 TB hard drives. Works great. Total cost was $200 for the Boxee, $150 for the NAS, and 2x$50 for the hard drives. You could save some money by getting a Roku instead of the Boxee (saving $100, and Roku actually has Hulu and Netflix, instead of just promising it later this month. This also assumes Roku's work with NAS though, i haven't tried). Also, you only really need one hard drive if you don't need care about a RAID. Doing that, you're down to $300 for a completely stand alone system - no need to store anything on your laptop, etc.

I also have a WD HD Live in the bedroom to get the files of the NAS, and it works decently. Not as great a UI (and no netflix/hulu), but functional for watching your own content.

I'm cancelling my cable next month.
posted by cgg at 11:05 AM on December 10, 2010

I very much doubt the Roku can read directly from a NAS, since you have the location + security hurdles to get past. Actually, I'm pretty sure that the Roku can't "read" files at all, only stream them. That's one of the main reasons I went with a ReadyNAS, which streams media on its own, and is hackable to do a lot more.
posted by mkultra at 11:30 AM on December 10, 2010

Response by poster: This is great information, folks. It looks like the Roku might be the best I can get at this price point. I don't mind signing up for Hulu. And really, I mind a lot less when the box is sub-$100. Especially after looking at the Ars Technica guides (thanks, bonehead!), where the total prices are in the $1100-$1500 range.

Good catch on that thread, backwards guitar, I'd totally missed it, and it was helpful.

It's too bad that the file types are so limited, but I can live with conversion, I suppose.
posted by averyoldworld at 1:27 PM on December 10, 2010

I don't mind signing up for Hulu.
With a Roku (or whatever) box, you still get a very limited selection from Hulu's offerings.

Please check out hulu.com's own description of the difference between Hulu (the free version) and Hulu Plus (the pay version). "Plus" is a misnomer; Hulu Plus is *only* recent stuff in higher resolution, and complete series of very few things.
Hulu (the free version, which you can only get on a "computer") has like 800 more shows available (literally). Granted, a lot of that content sucks, and most of the good stuff falls into the "nostalgic" category, but there is definitely a huge gap in content.
posted by jozxyqk at 1:56 PM on December 10, 2010

Disagree on the Ars Technica article as it completely dismissed ion based nettops and then went on to build a "budget" box for around $1,000 which is way too much.

If you do decide against the Roku (never tried it) then consider the ASRock ION 330HT (or 330HT-BD if you're desperate for bluray). It's operating system free, has good specs for 1080p playback, comes with remote, small, quiet and will happily sit under the TV. Prices are pretty reasonable too.
posted by mr_silver at 2:05 PM on December 10, 2010

What's the best for playing video files off a NAS that's cheap? I am using a Xbox+XBMC but I'd like HD content. I do not watch any streaming Hulu or Netflix so all I care about is nice, organized menu preferably with auto-metadata (like XBMC) for my own video files.
posted by bradbane at 2:39 PM on December 10, 2010

Response by poster: With a Roku (or whatever) box, you still get a very limited selection from Hulu's offerings.
That's part of the reason I was hoping to build my own, but unfortunately I'm not seeing much in the $200 price range that would fit the bill. I know Lifehacker was on about one of the older Acer Aspire Revos (1600, I think), but that was over a year ago. The new ones that I've found are all above $300, which is just out of my budget. Same with the ASRock mr_silver mentioned, sadly - I just don't see it for below $400.

posted by averyoldworld at 3:44 PM on December 10, 2010

Think about it this way: You pay an extra $200-$300 just for the privilege of watching "free" Hulu on the TV screen (since you can already do everything else with a $100 box). Is that really worth it to you?

In my case, it was worth it because we dumped our cable TV in favor of an all-internet solution. So, not only Hulu is out there, but the other streaming websites that hate Internet Appliances.

But for you, I think you might be better off settling for not watching reruns of Alf on the big screen :)
posted by jozxyqk at 4:16 PM on December 10, 2010

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