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Ditching cable? Don’t buy a smart TV and don’t mess around with Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV or any set-top box. These devices severely limit what you can and can’t do with them, and are usually no more powerful than a mid-range PC from a few years ago. Give yourself the flexibility of a regular computer – you won’t regret it.
James outlined why you don’t need a smart TV, saying basically that the “smart” bits will be obsolete long before you should be buying a new TV. I’d say the same goes for set top boxes.
It’s not complicated to hook up a desktop computer to your TV and set it up as your XBMC media center. If you try XBMC and don’t like it, that’s okay: you could set up Plex instead, or look into other options. Setting up a computer is a little more work than an out-of-the-box solution, but the advantages far outweigh the downsides.
Here are a few reasons to use a computer as your media center.
No One Can Tell You What To Watch.
You just want to watch stuff; media companies want to control what you watch, and where. A computer means you can watch whatever you want, because clever developers work hard to ensure these sites work with software like XBMC. Even better: if that fails, the option of simply opening the browser is always present. You’ll never be completely blocked.
Hulu, to use an American example, offers thousands of shows and movies online for free (with ads). You can watch them on your computer without a subscription, but if you want to watch them on an Apple TV or a Roku you need to pay up.
Hulu, which is owned in part by the major broadcasters, don’t want you using their service on a TV without paying. The workaround? Plug a computer into your TV, then use your browser to watch. Hulu can’t block that without blocking all the browsers on Earth.
Any company producing a device specifically for streaming television needs to deal with media companies for content – and media companies, at the end of the day, prefer you pay for cable, instead of watching their content online for free. A computer hooked up to your TV gives you flexibility, even if the user interface isn’t always ideal.
You Can Upgrade And Replace Hardware
Dedicated set top boxes are appliances, which is to say they’re not designed for you to upgrade or repair at home. Want a bigger hard drive? That’s going to be tricky on an Apple TV, to say the least.
A desktop computer, on the other hand, is easy to upgrade piece by piece – by design. You’ll have the freedom to upgrade your graphics card if your picture is choppy, to install more RAM if performance is slow, to add a TV tuner if you want to record live TV. Running out of storage space? Add as much hard drive space as you want. Want to play some games? Buy a cheap USB gamepad, or set up your console controllers to work with your PC.
Set-top boxes are designed to do one thing; computers are designed to do everything. If you want hardware options, get a computer.
You Won’t Get Screwed
Here’s the main reason a computer is better than a consumer device: it will keep working.
I was a pretty huge Boxee fan back in 2010. I had the Linux version of the software installed on an old computer, and the old computer plugged into my TV – and I loved it. From playing back local media to streaming shows from across the web, it was pretty close to perfect. I used the software every night, and wrote almost a dozen Boxee tutorials for this very site.
Then, in late 2011, Boxee announced they would stop updating their Windows, Mac and Linux versions. One final – extremely buggy – version of the software was released, along with a blog post saying there will be no updates.
Boxee said we could get support by buying their dedicated device, the “Boxee Box”. I was skeptical.
“If Boxee can’t support its desktop users anymore,” I wrote in early 2012, “How do I know they’ll keep supporting their box users?”
At the time I wasn’t sure that was a fair question, but it didn’t even take a year for Boxee to stop supporting their Boxee Box altogether.
Now, there are devices on the market that had a much longer shelf life than Boxee ever did: Roku and Apple TV, for example. But the fact remains that these platforms are useful only if the ecosystem surrounding them provides ways for you to access the online content you care about – and that’s something that can stop. If you have a dedicated device, you’re basically stuck with a brick.
When Boxee died on the PC, I switched to XBMC. If XBMC dies, I’ll have other options.
You Have A Choice Of Software Platforms
Which brings me to my next point: choice. If you buy an Apple TV, you basically need to stick to the software that comes with it. If media content you want to watch isn’t supported, you’re mostly out of luck. Sure, you can hack the older models and run alternative software, but a regular computer gives you such flexibility without the need for tutorials.
If you have a computer you’ve got a diverse range of options. I’ve already mentioned XBMC and Plex, but there’s more. You could try Windows Media Center, which we’ve called the best PVR software.
You Probably Already Have A Viable Device
But here’s the best part of this approach: you’ve probably already got a device for the job.
An old Mac Mini is perfect for this – it’s the right size, and in some cases even comes with a remote. But if you’ve got a desktop computer from the past ten years gathering dust in your closet, there’s a good chance it can run XBMC without issue. It doesn’t take a lot of power to run XBMC – an underpowered Raspberry Pi can run it just fine.
You can certainly find a computer for the job without breaking the bank. Setting it up won’t be instant, but in the end, you’ll have a setup with a lot more flexibility than anything else on the market.
Am I Completely Wrong About Everything?
Have I persuaded you, or is there something great about dedicated media devices that I’m missing? Let’s talk more about this in the comments below.
I know that dedicated devices are better in some ways, including ease of use and price (if you’re comparing to a brand new PC). But I believe the choice offered by an actual computer offsets this. If I’m wrong, tell me why below.
Image Credits: Hand with scissors Via Shutterstock