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TVs are no longer limited to watching straight television. Have you ever wanted to stream YouTube on the big screen? Wouldn’t it be nifty if you could play videos from a USB drive directly on the TV? With media players, media streamers, and HTPCs, all of that is possible.

The problem: what’s the difference between these devices, and which is best for you? They all fulfill different purposes, so it’s important that you understand what they are meant to do before making a purchase. Fortunately, it’s all rather simple.

The Media Player

In the context of this post, media player refers to a device that can play digital media files off of an internal hard drive or an externally-attached storage unit. Media players are most often connected to a television, but they can also display on monitors and projectors depending on the brand and model. Any newer device you buy will have an HDMI connection; you may find older projectors only provide VGA or composite input.

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The emphasis on digital file playback is important, which means that analog devices (e.g. VHS players) and other playback devices (e.g. set-top boxes, DVD players) are not sufficient enough to be considered media players. However, if a VHS player or DVD player could also play digitally-stored files, it would then be a media player.

The media player can often be the most convenient option due to the simple steps involved: transfer media files to a thumb drive, plug the thumb drive into the media player, and play the file you want. Or, in some cases, you can upload files directly to the media player by connecting it to your computer over a home network.

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Few devices nowadays are strictly media players; most of them incorporate media playback as just one feature among many. For example, modern gaming consoles have been trending towards home entertainment systems for some time now (as far back as the PS2 and X360). The real area of interest these days is with media players that include streaming capabilities.

The Media Streamer

A media streamer is a device that attaches to a television and is capable of streaming media over the Internet or local network, from your computer or a remote website (e.g. YouTube or Netflix). Some media streamers are only media streamers, but as we’ll see below, some are also equipped with traditional media playback functionality.

One of the more recent trends in media streaming is the smart TV What Is a Smart TV & 6 of the Best On The Market Today What Is a Smart TV & 6 of the Best On The Market Today Most televisions you look at now will be smart TVs, but what is a smart TV and which ones are the best on the market right now? Read More  – it’s difficult to buy high-end televisions that aren’t smart to some degree. They come with computer-like features such as USB ports, WiFi connection, and apps that allow easy streaming of media from all sorts of sources.

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Roku is a dedicated media streaming device, and there are lots of good things to say about it. Not only have we reviewed the Roku Streaming Stick Roku Streaming Stick Review and Giveaway Roku Streaming Stick Review and Giveaway All the features of a full Roku experience, in a small form factor that plugs straight into HDMI - does the Roku Streaming Stick deliver? Read on to find out and win one for yourself. Read More and the Roku 3 Roku 3 Review and Giveaway Roku 3 Review and Giveaway As more content becomes available online, the need for a traditional television subscription may not be enough anymore to justify the costs. If you’re already subscribed to services like Netflix or Hulu Plus, now may... Read More , but we love it so much that we think you should get one 6 Reasons Why You Need A Roku [Opinion] 6 Reasons Why You Need A Roku [Opinion] Electronics can be evil. A short time ago I wrote an article about using the Xbox 360 as a media center. I concluded that it wasn’t the best choice. Sensing my betrayal, the 360 promptly... Read More if you haven’t already. Its flexibility allows you to stream media in several ways 3 Great Ways To Enjoy Your Own Media On The Roku 3 3 Great Ways To Enjoy Your Own Media On The Roku 3 Regular television sets are a thing of the past. These days, if you set out to get a new TV, it'll likely be a smart TV. That TV will be 'smart' the same way your... Read More (USB drives, mobile apps, or Plex Setup A Perfect Media Center With Plex [Mac & Windows] Setup A Perfect Media Center With Plex [Mac & Windows] Plex is widely regarded by many as being the best media player, manager and streaming application around - available for both Windows, Mac and even mobiles (though the mobile apps are not free). If you're... Read More media servers).

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The Google Chromecast Google Chromecast Review and Giveaway Google Chromecast Review and Giveaway We're giving away a Google Chromecast, so read through our review, then join the competition to win! Read More is also worthy of attention, but it’s not a standalone device and does require another device to initiate playback (such as a phone, tablet, or laptop). It’s a small dongle that plugs directly into the HDMI port of a television and makes it easy to “cast” media over a WiFi network. On top of its low price, there are so many creative uses for Chromecast 8 Creative Uses for Google's Chromecast 8 Creative Uses for Google's Chromecast We've come up with 8 unique uses for Google's Chromecast. Read on to find out just how you can make even more use of your Chromecast. Read More that the bang-for-the-buck ratio is simply superb.

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And then we have one of the pioneers of television media streaming: the Apple TV Apple TV Review and Giveaway Apple TV Review and Giveaway Apple introduced its set-top digital media player in 2007, and it's currently on its third generation of hardware. Read More . Suffice it to say that this device is sleek and stylish with a lot of performance. If you’re an Apple nut, it should fit right in with any existing Apple environment.

If you’re digging the idea of these devices but can’t decide which one you want, hop on over to our comparison of media streamers Chromecast Vs Apple TV Vs Roku: Which Media Streamer Suits You? Chromecast Vs Apple TV Vs Roku: Which Media Streamer Suits You? Media streaming devices are simply awesome. Those little boxes that connect to your TV can add a wealth of entertainment options to your living room. But which device is best for you? Read More . It should give you a good starting point for decision making.

The Home Theater PC

Home theater PCs, or more simply known as HTPCs, are computers specifically designed and built to integrate with a home theater system – typically with silent fans so as not to detract from the media watching experience. It’s an all-in-one solution for those who are tired of dealing with dozens of different devices, each having their own unique functions.

With an HTPC, all you have to do is hook it up to your TV Your First Home Theatre PC: YouTube Videos on Your TV And More Your First Home Theatre PC: YouTube Videos on Your TV And More This article will give you an overview of how to set up an HTPC, the amazing power it offers, ways to personalize yours, and how to control your system with ease. Read More and you’re good to go. As long as you have the right software installed, it can perform whatever functions you need from it: CD playback, DVD playback, digital media playback, media streaming, and more.

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For Windows-based HTPCs with TVR/PVR functionality, Windows Media Center is a good choice. Linux HTPCs (or Raspberry Pis) do well with Kodi Entertainment Center How to Set Up Your XBMC/Kodi Media Center How to Set Up Your XBMC/Kodi Media Center Discs on your shelves. Files on your computer. Websites around the web. You, the modern media consumer, don’t get your entertainment from just one place: you get it from many different sources. Read More (formerly known as XBMC). Or if an alternative is desired, Plex Home Theater Your Guide To Plex - The Awesome Media Center Your Guide To Plex - The Awesome Media Center Love your digital collection of movies, TV shows and music, but hate using clumsy interfaces to play them on your TV? It's time to check out Plex, the ultimate media center software. Read More is available for Windows, Mac, and Linux.

If you miss being able to control your entertainment from afar, have no fear. There are plenty of options to control your media center remotely 7 Amazing Kinds of HTPC & Media Center Remote Controls 7 Amazing Kinds of HTPC & Media Center Remote Controls Got a media center? Ever get tired of fumbling around with a full sized keyboard and mouse while trying to watch Hulu or Netflix? Not only can some controls dispense with the nasty tangle of... Read More .

Final Thoughts

While HTPCs offer the most power and flexibility (such as better support for a wider variety of file formats), they also require a good deal of technical knowledge for proper setup. If plug-and-go is more your style, you’ll want to look into media players and media streamers — or, ideally, a device that does both.

Which one do you like best? Have you ever used a Roku, Apple TV, or Chromecast? What did you think of them? Share with us in the comments below!

Image Credits: Media Player Via Shutterstock, Xbox 360 Via Shutterstock

  1. MayJessie
    November 27, 2014 at 2:36 am

    I have Macgo installed on my Windows 8, which allow me to enjoy blu-ray discs and movies. Besides, I can enjoy files with almost all formats. I can also listen to beautiful music. So I like Media Player more.

  2. WinDork
    November 18, 2014 at 9:41 pm

    I have Vuze installed on my Windows 7 home media server. I copy media from the EHDD to the detected PS3 library and view/listen via the PS3 on the HDTV in the living room. Otherwise, music and video from the media server are accessible by the homegroup and can be viewed/listened to from any of our connected computing devices.

  3. virus
    November 18, 2014 at 6:07 pm

    I have switched from expensive HTPC to Raspberry Pi and still using XBMC, nothing else needed. Full HD/DTS, cost nothing to build and nothing to run ;)

    • Rod
      November 24, 2014 at 3:41 pm

      I'm interested in this. I would like to know what you setup is capable of. And then details on how to set it up.

  4. maven2k
    November 18, 2014 at 4:23 pm

    I am currently using a Windows 7 computer as an HTPC. I have a Silicon Dust dual tuner that runs over my network to watch over the air tv. I use Windows Media Center to PVR and watch tv. I also run Ubuntu on my laptop and I've wanted to reformat the HTPC in Ubuntu just because I like it better and it will give my aging HTPC some extended life. The Silicon Dust has Linux support (that's why I bought it), but I am having a devil of a time figuring out how to get Myth TV and/or XBMC to stream the tv signal (or do much of anything really). I love more than anything to ditch Windows and go comepletely Linux, but I need a better resource for figuring this stuff out. Any suggestions?

  5. jamieg
    November 18, 2014 at 2:03 pm

    Maybe this has changed but the reason I got away from a HTPC was the lack of DD DTS from media streaming services. I switched to a WD live TV for its best in class local media streaming, but it's streaming service options were limited. Now I have a Roku 3 and haven't been happier. Plays everything and easy for the family to use.

  6. likefunbutnot
    November 18, 2014 at 1:44 pm

    I use an Intel NUC with a Logitech k400 keyboard. Mine runs Windows 8.1; a 60" TV is one of the places where Modern UI applications make a lot of sense, particularly for Plex and Netflix. I use a Logitech k400 if I need it, but most of the control I need can be handled with XBMC or Plex remotes on my mobile devices.

    There's really no cost for me to use Windows or the NUC (I have spare licenses and the hardware besides the NUC chassis was spare as well), but I'd be just as comfortable running XBMC on OpenElec and a slightly lower-spec device than a NUC. An HP Chromebox would probably do just as well, albeit with a slightly less comfortable 10' interface. I really don't have to mess with Windows on that machine if I don't want to. My roommate isn't even aware that it's a PC.

    Since I'm local to my main media server, I most typically use XBMC or just directly access the files I need from Windows. That's a whole other can of worms, but I've posted some thoughts about it elsewhere on MUO.

    I do have Plex Media Servers set up. I mainly use them to direct media to various streaming clients (tablets and STBs) scattered around my home and office. My semi-permanent houseguest, however, LIVES on Plex, as does my expat brother. Plex support is my main interest for any streaming client.

    I also have a collection of STBs. Roku 2 and 3, Nexus Player, FireTV., Chromecast, Pivos Xios, Boxee Box, WD TV Live et al. Of those, I really like the FireTV best. It has a powerful CPU and a good amount of RAM. Even with the stock firmware, it's a great Plex client and it has a sensible UI, though I sideloaded XBMC onto mine so that the STB UI is functionally identical to the PC in my living room.

    Roku does definitely have an advantage in terms of pure content streaming options, though I personally don't care as much about that as the fact that the UI can keep up with my button-mashing on the remote.

    I can also say that many people will struggle to get an STB running. Having a box tell them they need to http://netflix.com/activate to make Netflix work will result in a call to a support line about half the time; STBs aren't for everyone yet.

    STBs also have some inconsistencies in streaming quality. It's entirely possible that the content stream delivered to a PC will be different on one service from the stream delivered to a box. I've seen this in my house, where my FireTV is only sent a stereo audio track or 720p video instead of 5.1 , 1080p on my HTPC, despite being on the same network connection and connected to similar output hardware.

    At the end of the day, STBs are still a better choice for getting internet content in most people's homes than something like HTPCs. I know that. I don't think they're the best experience, but because they're generally a huge step up from the crummy, slow UIs and limited access options currently found on smart TVs and cable boxes, they're definitely a good compromise.

    • Joel Lee
      November 25, 2014 at 6:00 am

      Wow, you really have a lot of experience here. Lots of interesting tidbits and I do agree that STBs are better than HTPCs for most people. Do you think that will always be the case?

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