By Harry McCracken | Friday, September 18, 2009 at 3:47 pm
This is a long article. It’s technical and at times downright complicated. [I never knew I had attention deficit disorder until I started reading about media streaming devices. –Tech Edit.]
I know some of you are going to skipit. At the same time, I get e-mail kvetching that I’m not writing enough about technology. So there it is: I ain’t gonna satisfy everyone. And in a way, that’s the pleasure in doing my own stuff: I write for myself, sharing with you what gives me a kick in the pants, and take delight when some of you enjoy coming along for the ride.
Enough editorializing. Here’s my long, tedious, sometimes boring story about the new way to watch TV.
“Watch movies on my PC? No way.” I was talking to one of my cousins, not one of the brightest bulbs in the family. It took me a few minutes to explain how he could send downloaded movies — as well as other Internet content, such as TV shows — to the TV in his living room.
For the last few months, I’ve tried two devices that sit near your TV and grab video content from your PC. Even in this dreadful economy, neither one I tried is terribly expensive — and there are no monthly charges.
Over the next couple of weeks I’ll explain how these media streaming devices work. To help you decide if you want one, I’ll talk about the pros and cons of how each model works, and some of the setup hurdles. I’ll also show you where to get movies and other video content, both legal and — hold onto your seat — illegal.
This week I’ll cover the hardware; next week I’ll tell you where to find movies and TV shows on the Internet. I’ll also tell you about a MediaGate portable media player.
I tried two devices: Sling Media’s $200 SlingCatcher, and MediaGate’s MG-800HD, about $240 discounted. I’ll have specs and descriptions for you in a minute. Of the two, the MG-800HD is the hands-down winner.
The two are roughly the size of an external hard drive and come with remote controls with the usual array of features; the MediaGate includes bookmarking and fast-forward to speeds of 16X. Each device connects to your TV using component, composite, S-Video, or (if you have a hoity-toity big screen) HDMI inputs, and each supports both standard Pal and high-definition video, up to 1080i.
Audio-out is a typical left-right stereo or (if your TV has it) coaxial or optical digital. Each device has USB and network inputs, and supports Windows XP and Vista.
Understanding the five ways these products–and others like them–push a movie from the PC to your TV will help you understand which one is the best fit for you.
External Hard Drive: Copy the video files onto an external hard drive or Flash drive, and connect it to the device’s USB port.
Positives: About the easiest method — literally plug and play. The movie starts almost immediately. The hard drive can store lots of movies; the size of the Flash drive limits you.
Negatives: You’ll need to buy an external drive, or Flash drive, and schlep it to your computer to delete movies you’ve watched and refill it with new movies; the drive can be noisy.
Internal Hard Drive: Install a hard drive into the device.
Positives: Installing the drive isn’t difficult; again, the drive can store lots of movies and the movie starts almost immediately. It’s handy to take the device with you to, say, a hotel, or a friend’s house, and connect it to their TV to watch movies. (You can do this with an external hard drive, too, but it’s not as convenient.)
Negatives: You’ll need to buy a hard drive– mine is 40GB; detaching the device from the TV and bringing it to your PC to load more movies is a hassle; the drive, and small fan in the device, can be noisy.
Hard-wired Network: Movies are sent from your PC or server over your network, hard-wired from your router, using standard network CAT 5 wiring.
Positives: You don’t need an extra internal or external hard drive; all file management is done on your PC; with a network connection, and access to the Internet, you watch YouTube and view other content directly from the Internet.
Negatives: You’ll need to have a network cable running from your router to the device at the TV. Configuring the device to recognize the network ranges from a five-minute job to being lengthy and challenging. You’ll also need to have an available port on your router.
Wireless Network: Movies are on your PC or server and beamed over your wireless network.
Positives: You don’t have to crawl under the house to lay cable; as with the wired network, you won’t need an internal or external hard drive; all file management is done on your PC; access to Internet content.
Negatives: Like the hard-wired option, setup can be difficult — or surprisingly easy — depending on your computing skills and the complexity of your network. Streaming can sometimes stutter if the distance between your Wi-Fi router and the device is great, or if there are walls blocking the signal.
Screen Capture: Whatever is displayed on the PC’s monitor is captured and streamed to the TV.
Positives: The device doesn’t need codecs, so you can watch any video that displays on your PC’s monitor — YouTube, Windows Media Player output, Netflix streaming video, and even PowerPoint presentations. (For details on codecs, read A Fix for “My Video Won’t Play!”). Installing the device is straightforward.
Negatives: You’ll need to have a network cable running from your router to the device at the TV; Wi-Fi isn’t available. Poor-quality video on the PC looks worse when displayed on the TV. The PC has to be turned on and you have to start capture software from the PC; it takes a while to get used to the interface.