What is a Streaming Box?

A Streaming box, Streaming Media box, or Smart Set-top box, are all terms that refer to a number of products that have the primary goal of allowing online media content to be viewed on a standard television.  Although this is a rapidly growing market segment, with many products now being introduced, there is surprisingly little information presented to the non-techie consumer to explain exactly what these products are, and why someone might want one.  This article provides a straightforward explanation of what media boxes are, and why you may or may not want one. 

OK, so what is 'Online Media Content'?

I told you, no techie assumptions.  Online media content simply refers to movies, tv shows, and any other video content that is provided through the internet.  It also includes audio content such as online music providers or the audio stream provided by radio stations on their websites, etc.  No matter what the content, the information is sent over the internet to your house as lots and lots of little bits of information that needs to be put back together in your home by a device before it can be viewed.  Viewing online media content differs from a normal website in that there is so much more information that needs to be sent.  For example, if you wanted to watch a hi-def version of Lord of the Rings, and had to wait for all the content to be sent through the internet to your home, you could easily wait one or even two hours (depending on the bandwidth you have) before you could watch the movie.  Luckily, you don't need to have the whole movie available to start watching it.  Since you want to watch the movie continuously from the beginning, you only need to have the part of the movie you are currently watching available to you.  As long as the current few seconds of content are available, you can watch the movie even while the next part of it is still being sent to you.  'Streaming' is this process of viewing the current content while additional content is still being transmitted to you.  

Streaming Box - 3 Basics

1) Online Content (Channels) Choices

A Streaming Media Box, then, is any device that allows for the viewing of content even while the future content is being streamed to it.  But not all media boxes can stream the same content.  Every media provider, such as Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, etc.  send their content using different formats and encodings, etc.  This means that your streaming box needs to have all the logic built into it to communicate with each content provider.  Most boxes will be able to work with at least a few of the major content providers such as Netflix, but beyond that there is actually a great deal of variance between the different media boxes. Some will only work with a few of the major providers, while others will now provide hundreds of different channels to choose from.  You'll want to review how many and which online media sources any device will work for before purchasing.  Another important thing to look for is if the media box can perform software updates, generally called firmware updates.  If so, then your device may be able to add addition channels after you own it through such an update.


2) Graphical Interface

The second important feature provided by media boxes is the graphical interface.  The interface consists of the screens and menus you use, via a remote, to pick what you want to view.  Because there are so many potential media sources that a quality box will work with,  a nice interface will have them sorted by content type. A really nice one will let you sort them on your own, such as saving your favorite ones together.  Here's a screenshot from Roku.  Roku is known for having nice graphical interfaces and providing lots of different channels (online media providers).  Another nice features you may want to look for would be the ability to search for shows on any channel.


Roku Interface
Credit: Roku Inc.

Roku's Interface

3) Output Connections

The final required feature is  the connection to the television.  Of course all boxes provide this.  One detail that will be important is if the output is high definition or only standard.  Also, even if high def, is the output 1080 or 720?  You'll probably want the output to at least match your television.  Does is support hdmi, component, and/or coaxial connections?  Make sure the device has an output connection option that matches one of your television's inputs.  If you have an older tv this is still a concern, but most new devices  should support hdmi outputs, which are standard on all newer hd tvs.

Other Features

All Streaming boxes by definition should allow you to view content downloaded from the internet.  Another nice feature that some boxes also have is the ability to play your own digital content.  This may be something you have stored on your computer or mobile device. Some devices have a USB port that will read media from an external hard drive.  A few devices, such as  WD TV live hub, even have their own hardrive to store your digital media on.  This makes for a true 'media center' device.  You can watch live online content, watch your own digitally stored movies or video clips, and even view your home movies and photos from one device.


Do I want one?

This article attempted to give a basic overview of what a streaming box is, and some of the main features to consider when comparing them.  But the bigger question for some is if you  want to buy any streaming box at all.  After all, a PC already provides all this functionality, right?  The answer is yes, kind of.  Probably the biggest question is if you enjoy viewing content on your pc or laptop monitor, or would rather watch it on your hd television with your surround sound system.  The convenience of the steaming box's centralized menus for searching over lots of online media is another consideration.  If you're happy just watching Netflix on your pc monitor right now, I'd say there's no pressing need to invest in a streaming box.  Still, as more and more content becomes available online, more people are starting to enjoy the convenience offered by a streaming media box.  In fact, streaming boxes, aka Smart Set-Top boxes, may soon be replacing cable boxes in many homes.