Help me pick a great streaming device for my Canadian living room!
April 17, 2012 9:13 AM   Subscribe

Roku vs AppleTV3 vs WDTV Live vs Boxee in Canada?

I'm looking to add a streaming media device to my home entertainment setup, but I am finding it hard to find data in the flood of information out there. Of primary note - I am in Canada, so awesomesauce streaming services like Hulu Plus and Amazon Prime aren't relevant to me. I've looked at a bunch of the other AskMe's regarding this topic but none of them were at all Canada-centric, and I don't recall any of them being posted since the AppleTV3 or Roku XS were launched

Here's my current setup, which I am finding somewhat cumbersome:

- A Western Digital My Book Live, which stores most of my video files (of various formats, mostly divx/AVI but now trending more towards h264/mkv (or mp4). Has a built in DLNA server, but it's Twonky 5.1.9, which has somewhat limited file format support. It *is* possible to update the built in Twonky server but a) I've checked, and it still doesn't help with most of my file formats and b) it costs money, and is a bit unreliable for everyday use.
- My laptop in the living room, where I download/convert my content. Also runs PS3 Media Server to stream movies that aren't supported by the DLNA server in the network connected hard drive (or that aren't natively supported by the PS3, and therefore require transcoding)
- A PS3 which serves as a DLNA player on the big TV

As my video files trend more towards HD content, my current setup is becoming less and less useful.

The options I'm considering right now are:
  1. The new Roku 2 XS that was just announced for Canada.
  2. An Apple TV 3rd gen, with XBMC or Firecore (although I am HUGELY reluctant to shell out cash for Firecore, as I have a feeling it doesn't provide much). Obviously this requires waiting for the jailbreak which doesn't exist yet, as far as I know
  3. A WDTV Live
  4. A Boxee Box
My MAIN requirement is that the device be able to stream avi/divx and ESPECIALLY h264/mkv (or mp4, mkv2vob does a pretty good job of transcoding very quickly and easily) directly from a network share. If a device can't do this, it's out of the running. HD content is quickly becoming king in my household, and this nonsense of requiring DLNA servers and receivers and unsupported file formats and transcoding and blah blah blah has to stop.

Having said that, a "nice to have" would be a good selection of free online streaming content. I've played around a bit with Boxee and XBMC on my PC, to get a feel for the interfaces and the streaming internet channels they provide. I quite like the flexibility of both, but the fact that the Boxee box sells for $190 here, vs the ~$100 range of the other three, sorta puts it out of the running. I can't remember which one of them had it, but there was a "Canadian Channels" addon for one of Boxee or XBMC that basically had a list of all the streaming online content available to people in Canada. This was AWESOME, and basically exactly what I'm looking for when it comes to streaming media. Bonus points for HGTV online on demand, as that's a huge one in my house these days.

Hackability and the ability to add stuff on the fly are also great "nice to haves" for me, but my wife cares not at all about these things. But I'd be interested to see what kind of hacking communities exist around each of the devices.

I've also considered the htpc option, but realistically? I want to be able to control the device with the same Logitech Harmony that I currently use for my setup, and the ~$100 price tag of these devices (and their portability, being able to put it on any TV in the house pretty easily) makes them HIGHLY seductive.
posted by antifuse to Technology (20 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I can't speak to the formats, but I've found the Roku Forum to be valuable for these kinds of questions.
posted by audi alteram partem at 9:32 AM on April 17, 2012

My MAIN requirement is that the device be able to stream avi/divx and ESPECIALLY h264/mkv (or mp4, mkv2vob does a pretty good job of transcoding very quickly and easily) directly from a network share.

Then Boxee is probably your best bet. Its roots are in XBMC it pretty much always recognizes my shares and has streamed very video format I'm thrown at it (including AVI and MKV).

My company does development across these boxes so I've got most of them. The Boxee is the one I use most at home for streaming content off my local network.

Roku streams content well off the internet but I don't yet like any of the current crop of local network streaming.

I'm not terribly familiar with the Jailbroken AppleTV's but I've heard good things.
posted by bitdamaged at 9:34 AM on April 17, 2012

oh shoot.

Major issue with the Boxee is that it won't likely work with your Harmony (depends on model). Boxee boxes use RF (Which is actually nice since you don't need line of sight) instead of IR so I'm stuck using my Harmony and still using the Boxee remote.

You are very unlikely going to find cable content like HGTV on any of these devices for free. Most of the free content you get is niche programming. Most of the Roku content seems to be religious or southeast Asian. But Netflix or Hulu is nice on most of these platforms and relatively inexpensive (note these services may not work on Jailbroken AppleTV)
posted by bitdamaged at 9:39 AM on April 17, 2012

This is kind of tangential to your request, but if you plug any kind of storage into your PS3 and it has a /Video directory on it, the PS3 will play almost* anything you throw in there

*.mkv containers are the one, stubborn exception, but it's a quick transcode (usually audio-only) to a h264/AAC .mp4 file
posted by Oktober at 9:43 AM on April 17, 2012

I've had a Boxee since the hardware was new. The Boxee is great at streaming local media. It's easy to set-up, plays well with local, shared drive and NAS storage and can play just about any format you throw at it. The Boxee can certainly handle all of the formats you mention. I've never run across a file format that it can't play, come to think of it.

Options for streaming on the Boxee are not so great. There's Neflix, which works pretty well and Youtube, and, in Canada, that's pretty much it. There are scraped flash videos from some of the network websites, but I've never found them to hold much interest.

Music and other media playing (pictures) on the boxee is primitive to say the least. This has not received significant attention since the box was sold. Disappointed here.

Boxee started out great, but it's been a very rough ride. There were some terrible bugs on sound play-back and both local media and streaming have had audio sync issues. Bugs have been addressed in updates, but the system seems less stable today than when I bought it.

The thing that absolutely takes this from a useful device to a don-buy for me however, is their incomprehension of what the device is for. It was sold as a media centre, on device to rule them all, one remote on your coffee table. For streaming media, they've broken that promise. Remotes control playback but not volume---you still need a TV remote to control the TV. It's not a technically impossible feature, indeed this is something they've actually removed as a capability in software updates. Why would a designer think that volume control is a bad thing? It's baffling, incomprehensible. Actually it seems to be an inability to get their third-party "app" writers to follow their UX.

My experiences with the Boxee are distincly mixed. Great capabilities for home network configuration and local video, poor for other local media, mediocre streaming options, especially in Canada, some nasty bugs, crazy-making UI decisions. Personally, I'm not going to consider buying another one, nor would I recommend one to a friend.
posted by bonehead at 9:52 AM on April 17, 2012

The Boxee used to be able to pull HGTV shows, but they took that capability away about 6 months ago. This is typical of our Boxee experience.
posted by bonehead at 9:54 AM on April 17, 2012

I have a My Book Live, a PS3, and an Apple TV2, and I live in Canada. So maybe I can offer some useful perspectives!

I used to stream media using the MBL twonkyserver to my ps3, which was fine, and I did it for about a year. I really wanted metadata for my movies and tv shows, however, which the PS3 cannot provide. So about 8 months ago I purchased a ATV2, jailbroke it, and installed atvflashblack from firecore -- completely, and totally worth it. I decided to run an ethernet cable from my router straight to the ATV2, bypassing the need for the twonkyserver and wifi (the MBL is also plugged into my router, and the ATV2 sees it as a network share), but I assume that would still work too.

It is a huge step up from the PS3. All the metadata is there, the ATV2 starts up instantly and is totally silent (unlikely the noisy power hog that my PS3 slim is). I realise you cannot install firecore yet on the ATV3 (though I'm sure it will be along soon enough), but if you don't want to wait, unless you have a dramatic need for 1080p downloads from iTunes, i'd just get a refurbed ATV2 and use that. It really is incredibly simple once firecore has been installed -- I have absolutely no complaints about shelling out the extra $20 or whatever it was.
posted by modernnomad at 10:40 AM on April 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: modernomad - it's not so much 1080p downloads from iTunes as much as it is *other* 1080p downloads. Does the ATV2 with Firecore handle that? (and I'm all hardwired for all my streaming connections as well. Even with 802.11n, HD streaming tends to stutter for me - at least on the PS3 as a DLNA playback device)

I just checked on my home PC - it *was* XBMC that had the Canadian streaming stuff there. I presume it's all scraped content from the websites (I actually just looked at the code, and it appears that CTV properties, at the very least, have a really handy dandy webservice that can be used to get up to date info on streams), but there's a ton of it and it all works pretty nice on the PC side, at any rate. As a developer myself, I feel like I could convert it for

My concern with Boxee is that it's a good bit more expensive than the other devices, and I've heard a LOT of complaints along the same lines as bonehead's - the box becoming LESS functional over time. I'd hate to pay a 50% (or more!) premium for a box that's going to be complete shit in a year's time.

I've heard pretty good things about the WDTV Live - whenever a thread about these things comes up on any of the gadget sites, people are always raving about it - local network streaming, just about every file format supported, etc. Haven't heard too much about the developer community surrounding it though (aside from WDLXTV) , whereas Roku and XBMC seem to be pretty well supported.
posted by antifuse at 10:55 AM on April 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Although yeah - looking at the various Roku options, local network streaming seems... Not great. I thought Plex was the solution to that, but looking more into it, it seems that you need a Plex *server* somewhere on your network. So nope.
posted by antifuse at 11:07 AM on April 17, 2012

the jailbroken atv2 will play 1080p downloads but output them only in 720p, is my understanding (just confirmed by looking firecore's FAQ).
posted by modernnomad at 11:30 AM on April 17, 2012

The Boxee has been a disappointment, I'm afraid. It's not just me: here's a typical bunch of comments off their user forums. Lots of promise to start, but they just can't seem to manage their development process well, or get the third-parties to buy in and support them properly (eg Netflix, Adobe Flash is the other big problem). For all that, the Boxee is still more capable in many ways that either GoogleTV or AppleTV. It's fully 1080i and 1080p capable, for example.
posted by bonehead at 11:50 AM on April 17, 2012

If you use a service like Unblock-US, being in Canada won't be as big of a limitation - you can get access to Netflix US and Hulu Plus and Amazon Prime and BBC iPlayer, etc. Actually paying for some of those things can still be tricky without a US credit card though.
posted by Gortuk at 11:53 AM on April 17, 2012

Response by poster: I'm aware of services like that, Gortuk, but at the moment we're not interested in cutting the cord on our cable, more just adding to what we already have. :) I only mention the lack of Hulu Plus/Amazon Prime as I didn't want people to recommend specific devices that might be better with one or the other of those services. :)
posted by antifuse at 12:19 PM on April 17, 2012

Response by poster: And bonehead - that's exactly it. Why pay $190 for a device that seems to be getting less and less functional over time, vs $100 for any of the other 3.
posted by antifuse at 12:20 PM on April 17, 2012

Response by poster: Another solution that I didn't consider, but somebody at work brought up, is picking up a Raspberry Pi device and running XBMC off that. An interesting proposition indeed!
posted by antifuse at 1:06 PM on April 17, 2012

You may wish to post in for further feedback.
posted by dgeiser13 at 1:33 PM on April 17, 2012

Is AirPlay something you want to consider? AppleTV supports it, of course, and I think Boxee has limited support (no mirroring). Does Roku offer it?
posted by backwards guitar at 1:57 PM on April 17, 2012

I bought a refurb ATV2 last year for our bedroom TV. I think they're still $99. Jailbroke it and put on XBMC. I have an old LaCie USB drive downstairs in the living room that's set up as an AirDisk over the Airport Extreme and we play stuff from that on the upstairs ATV. XBMC will play almost everything from it. The AirPlay is cool too.
Between these things, Netflix and an antenna pointed at the CN Tower, we totally don't miss having cable in the bedroom.
posted by chococat at 7:58 PM on April 17, 2012

Response by poster: Nope, no Apple devices in the house at the moment, so Airplay isn't something that is really needed.
posted by antifuse at 5:55 AM on April 18, 2012

Best answer: Just as a final note, for anybody coming across this post in the future - I've decided to pick up a refurbished AppleTV2 (if I can get my hands on one - they add stock on the Apple page, and they're gone within minutes because people are jailbreaking and re-selling for twice the price on Kijiji - grrrr.) and jailbreak it to throw XBMC on there. Yes, it's only 720p, but on further research I've decided that my TV size/viewing distance combination puts me in the zone where I'm not seeing the *full* benefits of 1080p any way. (For future folks referencing this thread, here's a page with a good chart showing combinations of viewing distance/screen size:
posted by antifuse at 8:33 AM on April 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

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