The perfect set-top box

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

If only someone made the products we actually want to buy! This article is more of a rant about good products that fall short and how I believe they can be fixed. If you’re frustrated by today’s set-top box offerings, then please, read on.

For starters, it would be best to state the major features that a set-top box should have. My view of a set-top box is a device that streams media from your computer to your HD television. That’s it (well almost). I suppose in an ideal world, having a DVR (digital video recorder) would be nice, but I due to the complexities of dealing with the various different cable / satellite companies, etc. I don’t really consider this a requirement.

Also, this article is not meant to be an in-depth review of existing products by any means. Likewise, please forgive the generalizations made during this discussion.

Windows Media Center based devices

There have been many devices to choose from over the years, but none have been good enough for me to buy yet. I’ve played with a few of the earlier Media Center Extenders (MCX) from HP and Linksys. Microsoft took an early lead in this arena, but the end results have always felt like more of a novelty than something I had to buy.

The Xbox 360 seems to be a significant improvement. On the PC side, it’s about as good as you can ask for. HP even has a TV with built in MCX capability, though I haven’t tried that one yet.

Apple TV

The problem for Microsoft (and me) is that Apple has beaten them to the punch with iTunes / iPod. That is, most people don’t want to have their media content in multiple places for multiple applications. It’s not a matter of disk space; it’s a matter of convenience and principle. While Microsoft isn’t likely going to be able to license Apple’s DRM in order to play their protected content. However, they could do things like parse the iTunes library for music, video, etc.

Apple came out with the AppleTV product earlier this year. While this is much closer to what I’m looking for, it still misses the mark. On positive side, it does integrate with my media files better. On the negative side, its support for HD lags behind Microsoft MCX devices. Come on Apple, 720p is good, but I want 1080p support. Also, I want 1080p content from the iTunes music store. This is another area where Microsoft has the edge over Apple.

These devices are also just begging for a web browser. Microsoft has Explorer and Apple has Safari. Microsoft has an obvious need to maintain marketshare. For Apple, like the iPhone, the AppleTV could be a means of extending the use of the Safari web browser without increasing Mac marketshare. This should be a “no brainer”.

Finally, I’d like to have cheap USB external storage as an option on all of these devices.


Microsoft currently has the lead for set-top boxes. With the Xbox 360, you even get the bonus of having a nice video game console. If you’re knee deep in Microsoft technology and just love your Zune, this is by far the best choice for you. However, for the rest of us that prefer the iPod / iTunes to manage most of our media, the solution is less clear.

Apple made a decent showing with its AppleTV product this year, but it’s clearly a 1.0 product. My main gripe is the weak HD support for a product that actually requires an HD connection (component video or HDMI). With the lack of an HD standard for physical media such as Blu-ray and HD-DVD, Apple is missing an opportunity to sell 1080p content. That’s a shame. It’s not a far fetched scenario to see both Blu-ray and HD-DVD formats pushed aside in favor of an on-line only format.

Web browsers should be standard features on these devices. The AppleTV already has access to YouTube content. Why not a web browser? A keyboard could be optional. Microsoft bought WebTV but hasn’t done anything with it. It seems to me this purchase hasn’t been profitable for them. Why not take the expertise learned from this system and add it to the Xbox? Either way, both devices fall short of their potential.  Web browsing from an HD based device is much more practical than surfing the web on standard defintion television.

Finally, device makers shouldn’t assume everyone has 802.11n routers and instead provide a means of extended built in storage via inexpensive USB external hard drives.

This is my wish list for 2008! The current devices aren’t far off from what I’m looking for. Based on sales of the AppleTV and common usage of the Xbox, neither Apple nor Microsoft has delivered what consumers are really waiting for. Let’s hope 2008 brings us to the next level of set-top boxes.


One Response to “The perfect set-top box”

  1. fact fun Says:

    You are so much like me, or i’m like you, well anyway, if we knew each other we’d make a good team, hehe, keep up the good work

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