Digital TV Media Player Buyers Guide?
What Is A Digital TV Media Player?
Functions Of Digital TV Media Players
Key Specifications To Look Out For In A Digital TV Media Player
Digital TV Media Boxes Vs. Other Options
What Is A Digital TV Media Player?
A digital tv media player is simply a box-like device that can be plugged into your television
to bring a wide range of various media files to the big screen.
Up until recently, most of us have been used to playing all of our downloaded videos,
photographs, home movies and music collections on our personal computers. A digital tv media player will bridge the
gap between the computer and the TV by letting you view your digital files on a high quality HD screen.
As more and more of us favor digital files, such as MP3s, downloaded movies and so on, over
physical CDs and DVDs, digital tv media players are playing a much bigger role in our lives by helping to keep
everything connected through our home networks.
Different Digital TV Media Players Do Different Things
Note that “digital tv media player” is a very broad category of gadget. Not all devices will be
able to perform all of the functions listed in this buyer's guide. It's up to you to figure out your needs and
choose a device that meets them.
Some of the broad categories of digital tv media player include:
• Those that can stream from online content services such as Netflix or Hulu (like Apple TV or
• Those that can let you stream music and videos from gadgets like tablet computers (like Apple
TV or WD TV Live)
• Those that let you easily play your downloaded media from your computer on your TV screen
(like Netgear NeoTV or WD TV Live)
• Those that can record TV to a hard drive to watch later (like TiVo)
• Those that can share your TV content with laptops, smartphones and tablets (like Slingbox)
Is A Digital TV Media Player Really Necessary?
Although there are ways to view content on your TV without a digital tv media player, these
devices usually make it easier. They help to add to the experience by…
• Allowing you to transfer files over the home network
• Avoiding the need for connecting up to your TV using wires across the living room
• Letting you access online streaming services directly from your TV
• Giving you access to extras like internet radio or social networking sites, avoiding the need
to login to your computer just to use services such as this
• Giving you the ability to share your content between a range of different devices (such as
computers, smartphones, tablets and so on)
Without a digital tv media player, you might have to watch your Netflix movies on your computer
screen instead of your TV, or spend time connecting a laptop using cables to your TV screen.
Using a digital tv media player not only saves time by making the connections easy, but it also
presents all of your media in a format that's easy to browse through.
Many digital tv media players will even come with search functions that let you search through
standard TV listings, online content and your own media in one location.
Keep reading to find out more detail about the main functions of digital tv media players.
Functions Of Digital TV Media
One of the most popular types of digital tv media player is the kind that can stream online
content directly to the big screen TV. This is exactly what devices like Apple TV, Roku and WD TV Live are designed
There are so many ways to watch movies and TV shows that more and more of us prefer to watch
things in our own time rather than whenever the TV schedule dictates. Traditionally, we'd need to do this on our
computer, either visiting network websites to catch up on TV shows, subscribing to services like Netflix, or
renting media through iTunes.
Multimedia streaming devices bring this content directly to the TV screen. They are usually
small, unobtrusive boxes that hook up to your HDTV through an HDMI cable (some boxes can connect to older standard
definition screens). You'll then need to connect the box to your home broadband which will allow you to search
through a whole range of content, both free and paid.
Some extra services sometimes included on these devices include the ability to stream music to
your TV, through services like Pandora, access online radio, listen to or watch podcasts, play games or browse the
Combining Standard TV Content With Online Media
When a digital tv media player has the ability to stream content from the internet, it'll
usually combine this with better search functions for your standard content too.
For example, when you use a Google TV streaming device (such as the Logitech Revue), and want to
watch a certain show, you can do one single search for that show. Simply type in the name of the show you want to
watch and the media box will show you:
• Upcoming episodes of that show on your standard TV
• Options for streaming that show from paid services such as Netflix
• Options for watching clips on free online video sources like YouTube
It takes no extra effort on your part: your digital tv media player will search through all the
services it comes with and help you find exactly what you're looking for. This is a lot easier than searching the
internet on your computer for one show, and then going back to your TV to show if it's available in the regular TV
Other digital tv media players are designed with media sharing in mind. They may not have access
to the range of online media that multimedia streaming devices do, but they will allow you to watch your TV no
matter where you are.
Again, they work by connecting up to the internet via a box that hooks up to your big screen TV.
Then you'll be able to watch your TV on a range of devices (PCs, Macs, tablets and smartphones) as long as you can
connect up to the internet.
Even if you don't want access to your TV on the go, this is useful for sharing TV in different
rooms of the house, or simply for sending your home video connection to the big screen from your smartphone or
laptop, without having to hook up various cables.
Recording To DVR
You may also choose to buy a digital tv media player that records to DVR, such as TiVo. This is
useful if you want to automatically record shows based on a particular season, your favorite genre, favorite actors
Note that DVR recorders make up a whole extra category devices in their own right: this buyer's
guide is primarily focused on digital tv media players that give access to content, or stream media between
devices, but that may also have an extra DVR element to them.
Some devices may not come with the ability to stream content from online media sources, but they
do give you the ability to playback content that you may have already downloaded.
For example, many of us have bought digital movie files, or burned old DVDs to our computers so
that we have a more accessible digital library of movies that doesn't require the need for DVDs.
If you have a large library of these kinds of files, then media playback devices will let you
easily play them on your big screen TV, instead of watching them on your computer.
You simply connect up an external hard drive via USB to transfer the files, or play them over
your network from a connected computer to your connected digital media box.
Some digital tv media players may not record TV to a hard drive, but they do still come with a
hard drive for you to store your own videos, music, photographs and so on. This can be useful if you already have a
large collection of downloaded media on your computer that you'd like to watch on the big screen.
A hard drive isn't always necessary for this purpose, however, as you can also use an SD card,
USB stick, or network streaming (see the specs section below for more information on these functions).
A Combination Of The Functions Mentioned Above
In reality, most digital tv media players are going to combine several of the features mentioned
in the list above.
Unfortunately, there isn't a single digital tv media player that does all of the things listed
above, which is why it's important to know what you would personally like to do on your TV.
Many users don't mind that they can't record live TV to DVR, instead they just want to stream
from services such as Netflix. In this case they would look for a media streamer that doesn't come with an included
Some users, however, don't want to stream content from the internet. They'd rather find a device
that has the ability to play all their downloaded movies and other files. In this case they'd opt for a media
player that can connect to the home network.
Key Specifications To Look Out For In A Digital
TV Media Player
One of the first things you'll need to check on any digital tv media player is how it connects
to your TV. HDMI ports are pretty much standard on any modern media streamer, so they should be able to connect to
any recent HDTV.
What you need to be careful with, however, is finding a media box to connect up to your older SD
TV. Most media boxes, including Apple TV, don't let you do this. Find a box that comes with a composite connection
if you want to connect it to your older TV screen.
Hard Drive Space
Not all digital tv media players come with the ability to store files locally. Apple TV, for
example, has no hard drive and no SD memory card slot at all. Most devices that don't come with a hard drive,
however, do usually have the ability to connect an external one via USB, or to store/ transfer files through an SD
memory card slot.
Some devices come with a large hard drive built in, either for the purpose of recording live TV
shows, or for storing your own videos, music and photographs for playing back on your TV screen.
In general, a bigger hard drive will mean a bigger device and a bigger price tag, but it's often
worth it for those with a large media collection.
The most famous options for those who want a digital tv media player with a hard drive are the
TiVo Premiere XL and Western Digital's WD Live TV Hub.
Included Content Services
If you're buying a digital tv media player simply to share your TV screen with other devices,
then it may not come with any streaming services included.
However, if you're looking for a device that'll add the ability to watch a whole range of movies
and TV shows on demand, both free and paid, then you'll want to take a look at the services provided by any
The most common services include:
• Hulu Plus
• Amazon Video On Demand
Note that many of these services will require you to be a paying member (Netflix, Hulu Plus,
Amazon Video, iTunes), but most digital tv media players will also have a selection of free content already
available to view.
Unfortunately, not all of the devices have all of the streaming services available. This is why
it's important to check the full list of supported services and opt for the device that includes the ones you're
likely to watch the most.
Some digital tv media players come with a built in web browser, notably any Google TV device or
the Boxee Box by D-Link. Having a web browser has its benefits - mainly the fact that you can pretty much browse to
any website you want while sitting on your sofa. You can even watch videos on websites in all their glory on your
big screen TV.
There is a caveat however, and a pretty big one at that: this is the fact that many major
streaming websites (like Hulu) are blocking access to users who visit from their TV screen. Bear this in mind if
you'd planned on using the web browser in this way.
The good news is that included apps on any digital tv media player usually make up for the fact
that some content streaming websites may be blocked. Some users may even consider the apps enough, and find that a
web browser isn't necessary for the best user experience.
It all depends on whether you personally feel the need to browse to certain websites that aren't
yet included in the form of apps. The most popular sites (YouTube, Twitter, Facebook etc.) are usually available
whether there's a web browser included or not.
For most of us, the price of any gadget plays a part in whether we decide to buy it. The good
news is that digital media streaming devices have come down in price by a huge degree in recent years.
In general you can expect to pay around $100 for a box that lets you stream content from popular
services, but doesn't necessarily include a hard drive.
When the box comes with its own hard drive, the price can vary from $100-$500. The same goes for
devices designed to help you stream your media from the TV to computers, smartphones and tablets. It all depends on
the total range of features that go into the box.
Subscription Fees & Extra Charges
Aside from the initial cost of the digital media box, it's important to check whether there are
extra charges involved for watching certain content.
One thing that pretty much all the major multimedia-streaming boxes have in common is the
inclusion of paid services such as Hulu Plus and Netflix. You'll need to be signed up as a paying member of these
services if you want to use them. If not, you can take advantage of the free content instead.
Most of the popular services don't require you to sign up to any service plan to use the free
functions. TiVo is an exception: this functions primarily as a DVR recorder that also gives you access to a range
of streaming services. To use the TiVo box you'll need to sign up to a monthly, yearly or lifetime content (the
latter costs around $500 at present).
The last kind of fee you need to consider is for extras, such as smartphone and tablet apps.
Some digital tv media players will be able to share content between your TV, computer, smartphone and tablet, but
you'll need to pay extra to download the app to your particular smartphone/tablet.
Most digital tv media players come with a range of accessories available to purchase at
If your box comes with the ability to browse the web, then you may want to consider purchasing a
Qwerty keyboard or remote control featuring a full set of keys. Even if your device doesn't have a web browser,
this will still make it a lot easier to search for the kind of content you're looking for.
Note also that most boxes will require you to purchase your own separate HDMI cable (if you
don't have one already) to get it set up to your television.
Digital streaming devices are now smaller than ever. The Apple TV, for example, measures 0.9 x
3.9 by 3.9 inches in size, and the Roku 2 XS measures 0.9 by 3.3 by 3.3 inches in size. You'll barely notice these
boxes beside your TV, and they take up hardly any space.
Note that devices with a built in hard drive are going to take up more space, with options like
the TiVo Premiere similar to a Blu-Ray disc player in size and appearance.
The Boxee Box by D-Link is an example of a media box with its own unique design. It's shaped
like a cube, and is quite tall, which could make it a little more awkward to fit on a your TV stand.
Make sure to check the size of any digital tv media player before you buy so you know that it's
going to fit in with your current home theater setup.
Pretty much any digital tv media player you buy is going to come with an internet connection,
whether it's for accessing online content services, browsing the web, or sharing your TV content over several
The question is how the device connects to the internet. At the more basic level, you'll usually
find an Ethernet port for a wired connection. This isn't convenient for some home setups, in which case you may
want to check whether you can connect a Wi-Fi dongle by an included USB port.
The most recent digital tv media players now include the ability to connect to Wi-Fi networks as
standard, making them easy to set up as long as you have a home Wi-Fi setup.
Home Network Sharing
Many of these devices let you share media between all the devices connected to your home
network, which is a big bonus for those who have a lot of content that they want to share to their big screen
This can be done in a few ways:
1) DLNA: DLNA is a feature that allows you to share content between other DLNA certified devices
over your home network. A wide range of different manufacturers have opted into this service, so check your
smartphones, tablets, speakers and other gadgets to see whether or not they're DLNA certified. If so, and your
media box also comes with DLNA, you'll easily be able to stream and transfer media files between the devices.
2) Your Home Network: Some digital media boxes are designed to pick up other devices connected
to your home network, i.e. PCs and Macs. This is an excellent way to stream files stored on your local computer
without having to actually transfer them - especially since many digital media boxes don't even have a hard drive
on them any more.
3) Apple's AirPlay: If you're using Apple TV then it'll come with AirPlay built in. This feature
makes it easy to send content from your iPad or iPhone directly to your TV screen (useful if you've downloaded a
lot of music to your iPad, for example). Apple TV also lets you share to devices on the home network as per number
The Ability To Record TV Shows
TiVo is an example of a digital media streamer that also acts as a DVR recorder. That is, you
can set it up to automatically record your favorite TV shows when you can't watch them live. These devices do tend
to cost more than more basic streamers, however.
The Ability To Share Your TV Content With Other Devices
Although most digital tv media players will let you access content from other devices on your
home network, few will send content to other devices. The Slingbox Solo is an example of a device that will share
your TV content with devices when you're away from home, including tablets, laptops and smartphones.
Digital Media Boxes Vs. Other
Digital Media Streaming Vs. Standard TV
The difference between the experience of watching standard TV with cable, to watching TV with a
multimedia-streaming device attached is a big one. It basically means adding a huge library of internet streaming
services to your fingertips.
Instead of having to stream your TV shows on your computer or laptop, or going to the effort of
hooking up devices, you can simply stream them directly on your TV screen.
In addition to this, you'll usually have extra features such as access to Facebook and Twitter,
the ability to view YouTube videos, and maybe even the ability to transfer your media to the box so that you can
access it on your television whenever you like.
Digital Media Streaming Vs. HDTV/ Blu-Ray Player Functions
Before buying a digital tv media player, it's certainly worth taking a look at the functions
that come as part of your TV or Blu-Ray player as standard.
Although HDTVs are becoming more and more complex, at present it's only the top-end screens that
come with a range of internet features that can even begin to match a multimedia-streaming box.
Consider it this way: you can either pay a few hundred extra dollars for multimedia functions on
your TV screen/ Blu-Ray player, or you can spend just $100 on a streaming box such as Apple TV or Roku 2. The
digital media box is a lot more cost effective, and in many cases will beat any internet functions that an HDTV or
Blu-Ray player has to offer.
Unless you want to upgrade to a top-end HDTV or Blu-Ray player, a digital media box is the best
Read more Digital TV Media Player Reviews.