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.
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.
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 – 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.
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 and the Roku 3, but we love it so much that we think you should get one if you haven’t already. Its flexibility allows you to stream media in several ways (USB drives, mobile apps, or Plex media servers).
The Google Chromecast 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 that the bang-for-the-buck ratio is simply superb.
And then we have one of the pioneers of television media streaming: the Apple TV. 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. 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 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.
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 (formerly known as XBMC). Or if an alternative is desired, Plex Home Theater 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.
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!