Is there a good alternative to the AppleTV?
January 15, 2008 3:45 PM   Subscribe

Is there a good alternative to the new Apple TV 2? We just got a new HDTV as a gift for the holidays, and I've been connecting my laptop (Windows) to it in order to watch downloaded TV shows & movies. It works ok, but the gfx card on the laptop's a bit old, & doesn't really support HD resolution. Now that the Apple TV's (re)released today, I was wondering if there's a good alternative ....something small that'll playback hd video files in divx, xvid, etc, super easy to connect to the wireless network, plays back in full hd res., etc. Storage space isn't really an issue, just a few gigs is ok considering we usually delete a video file or backup to dvd-r after watching it. I'm also concerned the AppleTV won't playback all the random video formats that VLC & a codec pack handle with ease. ...oh, and definitely cheaper than the AppleTV - think grad student income. Thanks!
posted by itchi23 to Technology (13 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Whoa, this is exactly what I've been thinking about. So far, I know only two people with a device of that sort, the Netgear EVA8000. They like it, but I don't know how it handles updating codecs at all. If they get back to me on that, I'll post the answer here.
posted by ignignokt at 3:55 PM on January 15, 2008

I'll just copy and paste my answer from this recent thread.

The DSM-520 (D-link Medialounge) does 1080i, wireless, and has an HDMI output. They can be found on sale for $100-200. I have one and love it. It streams photos and music as well and has some online capability. It can also play video from flash or hard drives connected to its USB port.

Actually its getting better all the time as the company continues to release new firmware and server software which adds new features and improves existing ones. And with UPnP compatibility there are plenty of choices for servers if you don't like theirs. TVersity is one that works well.

There are a few issues though. It doesn't play back H.264 files natively and the audio sometimes falls out of sync with the video when seeking. I haven't tried streaming HD content wirelessly yet so I'm not sure how well that works. As a product it is 90% of the way there and requires a bit of fiddling to get working well.
posted by euphorb at 4:10 PM on January 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

XBMC. Get an old XBox (not 360), chip it, install XBMC. It does everything and the whole setup will be around $100 total.
posted by kcm at 4:14 PM on January 15, 2008

Seconding XBMC. I just set it up, it only cost about ~$120 and it plays anything I can throw at it. I have an extra computer in a closet that downloads torrents so it just reads movie files off that over the wireless network.
posted by bradbane at 4:33 PM on January 15, 2008

I have the Mvix Wireless HD Media Center and I love it.
posted by thilmony at 4:42 PM on January 15, 2008

kcm, bradbane: XBMC won't solve itchi's problems as he specifically mentions that the reason his current solution doesn't work is because it doesn't support HD well. XMBC, while awesome, is definitely not powerful enough for playing HD files.

Unfortunately, I don't think there's much at the below AppleTV price range (less than $229?) that will do what you want. Most of the best dedicated devices (using the latest Sigma chips that support mkv's) like the TVIX-HD M-6500A or the limHD200i are in the $4-500 range (about the price you could pick up a used/refurbed Mac Mini). You could also build your own HTPC for around that price and XMBC for Linux...
posted by lhl at 4:43 PM on January 15, 2008

Outside of XBMC and the likes - which are basically PCs anyway - there's not really anything. Problem is, there's just too many permutations of file formats (e.g. .MKV), codecs (e.g. XviD, DivX, H264), and encoding parameters (e.g. B-frame # & ordering, H264 profiles, etc) to be handled by standard hardware decoder chipsets, so handling them all pretty much requires software splitters & codecs on real PC hardware.

That said, there was a hack to install the Perian codec set on the original Apple TV (simple, but required opening the Apple TV & hooking the drive up to a normal Mac), so I'd imagine the same hack or similar will be possible with v2. AFAIK the only real limitation was the original AppleTV didn't have the grunt to decode 720p & above (I haven't compared the specs with the latest iteration) - but then, neither does the Xbox.
posted by Pinback at 4:49 PM on January 15, 2008

For a review of the EVA 8000 with a codec guide check this out.

Personally I have used XBMC many years and it is awesome although sadly running out of grunt for HD.

Now I use a Xbox 360 - streams divx/xvid avis seamlessly = (in my case from a DNS 323 rendering a PC unnecessary) and plays HD WMVs AND various other formats (See here for details). I do accept it's not as bulletproof a solution as XBMC was but you do get a kick ass games console into the bargain for about $300.

I was thinking about buying / building an HTPC but with the 360 working so well it's hard to justify the expense now.
posted by eb98jdb at 4:59 PM on January 15, 2008

Pinback: the new AppleTV is actually just a price-drop and software rev, so it's still as underpowered as before. (as expected, the HD rentals are 720p not 1080i/p)

I do have to take back what I said though about finding a cheap dedicated device. It looks like there's a new one that just started shipping, the Popcorn Hour A-100 that is $179 (you have to put in your own HD) and has good container and codec support. Of course, when you add that up, it's not that much cheaper than an AppleTV but it's much more likely to handle the video formats you want. You should do your own research though, as I don't have personal experience w/ those (AVSForum, Doom9, MPC Club are good places to start).

For the reasons Pinback mentioned about the number of file formats/codecs and since I'm not on a grad student anymore, I just have my old MacBook Pro hooked up to my projector.
posted by lhl at 5:01 PM on January 15, 2008

Good find, lhl - definitely an interesting device. Looks like it supports almost everything on my list. From the specs as published I'm not sure how it handles some of the odder permutations (e.g. 3+ B-frames, half/quarter-PEL, packed bitstreams, etc) that are out there, but standard H264 profiles in .mkv, .mov, & .mp4 containers is a big plus for me.

I'm off to find and read the tech docs on that Sigma chip...
posted by Pinback at 5:38 PM on January 15, 2008

FYI: Perian.
posted by chunking express at 6:24 PM on January 15, 2008

As repeated earlier, XBMC on the original Xbox does NOT play HD content.

The Xbox 360 is the best solution, but its not cheaper than the ATV. I believe the 360 arcade is the cheapest of the line at $279.

It plays full HD videos, H.264, WMV, Divx, Xvid without any hacks. (So far, I haven't found any Divx or Xvid files it can't handle). I'm not sure you want to stream HD over wireless unless you are using 802.11n. Personally I stick with a wired connection.
posted by mphuie at 6:25 PM on January 15, 2008

Nthing the 360. When they announced DIVX support, I was all over it. stream video and audio from all sorts of sources. supports HD, which is great. I have to believe that the 360 will handle more of the codecs you will find out there than anything locked down by apple.
posted by Amby72 at 6:46 AM on January 16, 2008

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