How to Shop for a Network Media Player or Media Streamer

Deciding Which Network Media Player Is Right For You

Various streaming services
Matthew Keys / Flickr

Network media players and Media Streamers make it possible for you to sit in front of your TV or home theater and enjoy the photos, music, and movies that are stored on your home computers and other devices.

Most players and streamers can also play content from online partners: Netflix, Vudu, Blockbuster On Demand and Hulu for video streaming; Pandora and Live365 for music; and Flickr, Picasa, and Photobucket for photos. Also, in case you still don't have enough to watch, most media players and streamers fill out their content lineup with podcasts on many subjects, including news, sports, technology, learning languages, cooking, and comedy.

Many TVs and components have a built-in network media player with most of the same features as stand-alone network media players. Opt for a built-in media player if you are in the market for a new TV, Blu-ray Disc player, video game console, home theater receiver, or even a TiVo or satellite receiver.

As most network media players, media streamers, and network TVs and components have such similar capabilities, how do you decide which network media device is right for you, or which would make the perfect gift?

Be sure it will play the file formats of the media you own.

Most players will list the media file formats that it is capable of playing. You can find this list on the box, or in online production descriptions under product features or specifications. If some members of the household have iTunes, be sure the player lists AAC in the file formats. If you use a PC, be sure AVI and WMV are listed.

You can tell the file format of your saved media by looking at the file extension--the letters following the "." in a filename. If you use a Mac or save all of your music and movies in iTunes, consider an Apple TV, as this is the only network media player that can play copyright-protected iTunes music and movies.

Be sure it will play the best picture for your TV.

Whether you have an older "4 x 3" picture-tube TV, or a 4k high definition TV, be sure the network media player you choose is compatible and offers the best quality picture. If you are connecting the network media player to a 10-year-old square picture-tube television, don't choose an Apple TV, as it only works with a widescreen high definition TV.

Many players will only play files up to 720p resolution. If you want the best quality picture on your 1080p HDTV, look for a network media player that lists 1080p output in its product description. On the other hand, if you have an old TV and high definition doesn't matter to you, choose a Roku HD box.

What online content do you want?

This is where network media players may differ. It seems that almost every media player, video game console and TV has YouTube, Netflix, and Pandora. Different media player models--even from the same manufacturer-- may offer content from other online partners to give you more choice of movies, TV shows, music and photo sharing.

Are you a movie buff?

Netflix, Vudu, Blockbuster On Demand and Cinema Now offer a large library of films. These services will require that you pay either a membership fee or a charge for "renting" a movie, allowing you to stream a film for one or two days to play a film once you begin watching it.

Do you want to listen to the music you like without having a huge music library of your own?

Look for players with Pandora, Live365,, Slacker or Rhapsody. Note that Rhapsody is a monthly subscription service.

Do you want to view photos that your friends and family share with you?

Look for a network media player that has Flickr, Picasa, Photobucket, Facebook Photos or any other picture-sharing site that you and your friends use. Some media players will upload photos directly to the site from the player.

Do you want the convenience of connecting to social networking sites?

While it may not seem appealing to connect to Facebook and Twitter on your TV if you are already connected to your computer and smartphone, it is handy to have the option available. For those who are heavy Facebook and/or Twitter users, this may be the deciding factor.

Do you want to save media directly to the network media player?

Many network media players simply stream your photos, music, and movies from media libraries stored on your computers, NAS devices, and media servers. But some media players and some Blu-ray Disc players also have hard drives (HDD) for storing your media library. Still, other players make it easy to dock a portable external hard drive right into the player.

You'll pay more for network media players with storage, but they may be worth the investment. With a hard drive, you can buy movies and music from online and store it directly on your media player. This is good for those classic films you want to watch again and again.

Storing media from your computers onto the player's hard drive means you have a backup copy of your precious media files. It also means that you need not always have to leave your computer(s) turned on, because your player doesn't have to access your media libraries stored on those computers. If you choose a network media player with either a built-in or external hard drive, look for one that can sync with your computer to automatically find files as you add them. With syncing, the player will automatically store your most recent files. Also, you don't have to worry about whether or not all of your files have been saved to the player.

The WD TV Live Hub has 1 TB of storage and has the unique ability to function as a media server. This means that other computers or network media players in your household can stream media from the Live Hub's hard drive. In essence, the WD TV Live Hub is like having a network media player combined with a network attached storage device.

Be sure it has USB connection(s).

A network media player with a USB port is versatile. The USB connection can be used to play media from a connected camera, camcorder, external hard drive or even a flash drive. Most players allow you to connect a USB keyboard to use so you don't have to use the online virtual keyboard, making it easier enter search words or log into online accounts or network servers or enter search words. Players without wifi capabilities can connect to a USB wifi dongle--a device that lets you connect to your home network wirelessly.

Do you want to stream media from your smartphone or tablet device?

Imagine coming home from an event and playing your photos and movies on your TV as you walk in the door. Or perhaps you started watching a movie on your iPad when you were away from home and now want to finish watching it on your TV. There are smartphone apps that will stream your media to your network media player, but some network media players have this feature built-in.

Apple TV's Airplay feature lets you stream movies, music, and slideshows from your iPad, iPod or iPhone with the iOS 4.2 operating system. Samsung's network TVs, Blu-ray Disc players, and home theater systems have All Share, which will stream media directly from certain Samsung smartphones.

Would you like your network media player to help you with other tasks?

Some network media players and network home theaters include apps--games and useful applications to manage your life and home entertainment. Apps can include a number of useful tools such as cooking recipes or wedding planning. In the same way that apps revolutionized the way we use our phones, they are poised to change the way we use our TVs. Samsung has a variety of apps on its home theater components. Google TV is poised to offer Android apps like those found on Android phones. However, be aware that the first generation of Google TV cannot accomplish many of the above features.

It's a good idea to read reviews of the network media players that interest you, to be sure that the network media player you choose is easy enough for everyone in your household to use.

When shopping for a network media player, remember that these devices are the bridge between computers and home theater. When in a retail store, you may find media players in the computer department or the home theater department. Occasionally you will find some brands in one department and more in the other. It helps to do some online shopping first, to know what players you might be interested in.