The Missing Link: Streaming Connections
Successful streaming is about making the right connection.
If you’ve just read “Streaming for the Masses”, you’ve got some idea of the range of hardware that lets you stream video and music from the Internet to your home entertainment system. The primary options include HDTVs, Blu-ray players, A/V receivers, game consoles, and various DVRs and dedicated streaming appliances. To some extent, it does matter which you choose, both in terms of the content you can access and your ability to connect it for the best picture or sound quality.
I’ll go through some attributes of each category below. But unless you’re buying a dedicated media player, the component’s primary A/V qualities will take precedence in your purchase decision. In other words, if you’re shopping for an HDTV and know you want streaming capabilities, you’ll be making sure first and foremost that you’re getting a swell HDTV before you worry about whether the streaming platform offers a specific service (we’ll call them apps) that you’d like to access.
If you want VUDU streaming for its highquality picture and sound, you might start by targeting brands that you know offer VUDU. Then you can try to find a set within that universe that meets your over-the-top, obsessive, Home Theater magazine–fed demands for image quality. The Streaming Media Devices chart on page 26 lists which apps are currently available on specific brands and models within each product category. It should help you shop. (Unfortunately for your significant other, it will do nothing to help you stop messing with the Brightness control while the movie is playing.)
It’s also worth repeating how important it is to make a solid and ideally hard-wired Internet connection to your streaming device. If you’re not terribly distant from your router or access point, a Wi-Fi connection can work fine most of the time for music services, photo archives, and maybe even low-resolution YouTube videos. But for the best and most consistent quality with movie apps, you’ll still want a wired Ethernet cable. If you absolutely can’t make that happen and you’re having trouble with getting a strong Wi-Fi signal, start with a Wi-Fi booster that bridges the distance to your router (the one I like is from Hawking Technologies, about $75). Another option is a kit that sends Ethernet over your power lines. Some claim to pass HD bit rates, but they’re expensive (typically $100 to $150), and if you read the online user reviews, they can be hit or miss.
Keep in mind as you’re shopping that a device’s onscreen graphic user interface (GUI) can greatly affect your experience accessing online content and managing your subscription services. Some GUIs are more powerful than others, even with the same services. In particular, the Netflix interface can vary from piece to piece, with some providing greater ability to manage your account without having to boot up a computer. Some GUIs are also just prettier to look at or more intuitive to operate. Unfortunately, there’s no real way to know in advance without firsthand experience or a solid third-party recommendation.
Another feature to keep an eye out for is DLNA compliance. DLNA, which stands for Digital Living Network Alliance, is the current industry standard that links your home computer or a home network attached storage (NAS) drive to your entertainment system through your home network. DLNA has been widely adopted now and is appearing (often renamed) in all manner of streaming HDTVs, Blu-ray players, and set-top boxes.
It will give you access to the photos, home videos, music, or other content you’ve got built up on your hard drives. Our chart will tell you if a device has DLNA on board. Apple AirPlay, for streaming an iTunes library, is also starting to appear.
If you’re in the market for a big-screen flat panel these days, there’s a good chance it will have the ability to stream content. For several reasons, though, your HDTV is probably the least desirable place to situate your streaming functions. Putting aside any issues with getting an Ethernet wire to an HDTV location that might be remote from your network router or A/V rack, the bigger concern is routing audio from the HDTV back to your sound system. If, like most HT readers, you’ve got a separate audio system, you’re probably feeding the audio from your cable box, Blu-ray player, and other video components straight to your A/V receiver or surround processor. When you stream content directly to your HDTV, you’ll have to find a way to funnel the audio back to your AVR so you’re not stuck listening through the HDTV speakers. That means you’ll need an available input on your AVR and either an undesirable two-channel analog connection, an optical connection from the HDTV’s digital audio output, or—if you’ve got both an HDTV and AVR that meet the new HDMI 1.4 standard—possibly a loop through the HDMI Audio Return Channel.