The best network devices to stream media around the house
It's taken for granted that if you want to watch the World Cup in style you'll need a big telly or, even, projector and screen. You'll need at least a 5.1 surround sound system, including speakers and some form of amplification. And, you'll need one or more video sources sat underneath or nearby. Basically, you need a home cinema setup.
But, if you're going to go to all of that expense, you're going to want to do more with your system than just watch footy, so it's wise to add gizmos and gadgets that you know you'll make use of beyond South Africa 2010.
One modern, yet vital, aspect of home cinema that is often overlooked is media streaming; the concept of storing video, music and pictures remotely, and accessing them through a home network to play in the living room. It's something that pretty much every custom installer includes as part of their professional builds. And, while they tend to specify pricey systems from brands such as Imerge and Kaleidescape, which can cost in the tens of thousands of pounds, it's something you can do very simply for a fraction of the price.
Blu-ray players, set-top-boxes, games consoles and, even, many TVs now have DLNA-certification, allowing them to hook up to a router through Ethernet or Wi-Fi and play files stored on a home computer with the minimum of setup fuss. And there's a fair few dedicated bits of kit that can either stream media or store it without the need to leave the family computer on all day.
NAS (Network Assisted Storage) boxes and media players are becoming more user-friendly and getting cheaper all the time. You no longer need a Masters Degree in Computer Science to install them. We know, we've tested a few in the Pocket-lint labs and here's some of the best of them, all of which we'd happily recommend integrating into a home cinema setup, World Cup-inspired or no...
Western Digital WDTV Live HD (£110)
The WDTV Live HD is the true geek's choice for media streaming. Not only can it play and view a wild variety of video, audio and picture files stored on an external hard drive or USB memory stick, this generation of Western Digital's box includes full media streaming.
It needs to be wired into your network (unless you invest in an optional wireless dongle), and hooked up to your TV via a HDMI 1.3 socket on the back. And, once connected, you should be able to access any shared media on the network through its great looking user interface.
The WDTV Live HD is capable of playing 1080p video, as long as your network can manage the bandwidth required, and the list of file types it's compatible with is hugely impressive. It can munch on all manner of high-def codecs with consummate ease.
YouTube and other net content services are accessible through its browser, but it is the simplicity of the setup and neat form factor that make it an essential addition to a home cinema system in our eyes.
Zyxel NSA-220Plus (£150)
A NAS box is essentially a computer without a screen or keyboard. Indeed, it owes more to an office IT server than a piece of home entertainment equipment. However, adding one to a home cinema setup means that you won't have to turn on the desktop or laptop computer everytime you want to watch a movie.
Zyxel's NSA-220Plus comes without a hard drive, but has two bays for you to add your own. It can handle up to two 1.5TB SATAII HDDs, allowing for the possibility of having 3TB of storage capacity - a fair few pictures of Johnny at the seaside.
It runs independently from a computer, and plugs directly into a home network, although you will need a PC to set it up and manage files. You can plug an external drive or USB stick into it, though, and transfer files directly (with the push of one button), but it's always recommended that you tidy up your shared folders on a computer afterwards.
There's an in-built BitTorrent client to download files from the net, and the NSA-220Plus can be set to be visible in iTunes. It can also double as an FTP server, should you have leanings in that direction.
Its not cheap considering that you also need to invest in the drives, but we've had one running, without powering down, for a couple of months now and it's still going strong as the day it arrived.
Popcorn Hour C-200 ($300)
Available on import only, the Popcorn Hour has had Internet forums frothing for some time, and the latest addition to the range, the C-200 has proved quite a hit amongst the chatteratti.
Not only can the PH C-200 stream a whole multitude of file types through its wired Ethernet connection (Wi-Fi is an optional extra), and access a wide variety of net-based content providers, but it can be fitted with a Blu-ray drive, to boot. It also sports four USB ports in order to plug in any array of hard drives and USB sticks you'd care to.
And, if you decide not to opt for Blu-ray playback, you can even use the same slot/bay to add a 2.5 SATA internal hard drive, so that you can store your media files on board.
The box also contains an LCD front panel which allows you to navigate music files, for instance, so that you can play content without having to switch on the TV. In short, the Popcorn Hour isn't a mere media streamer, it's a media tank.
Read a full review of the Popcorn Hour C-200 here.
Sonos Bundle 250 (£800)
Sonos has crafted itself a fine heritage in the music streaming market with its series of network-ready boxes, and very little has been changed over the years; the kit is as ground-breaking now as it always has been.
The BU250 bundle comes with two receivers/streamers, both of which can be attached to your network via Ethernet or wirelessly. The smaller unit can then be plugged straight into an amplifier, or other piece of home entertainment kit that can accept digital or analogue audio connections. The larger box has the addition of speaker outputs.
They each connect to a computer (or NAS drive) and stream any music you have stored. That's it, really.
What strikes them apart from most other music streamers though, is the excellent, high-end audio performance. Obviously, poorly encoded MP3s will still sound harsh, but lossless music is delivered in poise and precision.
The pack also comes with a touchscreen remote, which also acts as the media centre when you're not at your computer, but if you have an iPhone, a free app does exactly the same job.
To be completely honest, once you've used a Sonos system, it's hard to go back to conventional music playing.
Read a full review of the Sonos BU250 here.
Logitech Squeezebox Radio (£150)
The Squeezebox range of music streamers has been highly successful for Logitech, but this small, easy-to-handle radio is, perhaps, the best example yet.
It can be wired into your home network, but is perhaps best suited to Wi-Fi use as it's more likely to be used in a room without an Ethernet socket.
You have to install some bundled software on a PC or Mac, and it scans your iTunes (or other music) folder in order to build its own, compatible library. The box can then play anything in the folder, showing album art and information on its mini LCD screen.
However, that's not the best bit. The Squeezebox Radio also has access to the entire world of Internet radio stations, which can be played at the press of just a few buttons. And they show up graphically on the little screen too.
Finally, for a small box, it gives out a decent level of bass. Its pricey, for a radio, but worth every penny.
Read a full review of the Logitech Squeezebox Radio here.
Buffalo LinkStation Mini 1TB (£250)
Another NAS box, but this time in the most diminutive of cases, Buffalo's LinkStation Mini has many of the features of the Zyxel server above, but with a tiny footprint.
Of course, there is a sacrifice; maximum capacity. The LinkStation Mini can only be bought with 500GB or 1TB of storage space (in RAID 0 or RAID 1 configuration). However, it comes with one or two drives already installed, respectively, and is also available in two different colours, black and white, so it doesn't have to be hidden in a cupboard.
Like the Zyxel NSA-220Plus, the LinkStation also has a BitTorrent client on board, allowing you to download files directly, and it too can be recognised by iTunes.
There's one last bonus to the LinkStation though; as it has no internal fan, it runs very quietly, making it ideal to sit on a desktop. It's certainly small enough.
PlayStation 3 (£250)
It would be a crime to have a round-up of media streamers and not include the PS3, even though it's not a dedicated device. Not only is it plug-and-play, and a doddle to hook up to your remote media folders, but it can play a healthy array of media files, streamed wirelessly or wired through a home network.
Admittedly, it can't play MKV HD video files, but a free piece of software, MKV2VOB, is available for download online that can convert them. Other than that, the PS3 is an excellent media hub.
Read a full review of the PS3 Slim here.
Apple TV (£223)
Dinky, sleek and white, Apple's own media streamer has recently benefited from a welcome firmware update that has dramatically improved its front-end and performance. It still relies on iTunes for all of its media, and there's a fair few common file types that just won't play, but it makes up for some compatibility issues by having the most intuitive operating system around.
Plus, if you hook it up to Apple's Time Capsule Wi-Fi router/hard drive (£234 for 1TB), the Apple TV can store a darn sight more content onboard than its 160GB internal drive allows.
Read a full review of the Apple TV here.
What do you think? Do you already stream media at home? Do you think solid state media, such as Blu-ray, is on the way out? Let us know in the comments below.
If you enjoyed this article, then head over to our World Cup Week homepage where you'll find a collection of features getting ready for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa.