Your television may be the heart and soul of your home video system, but it is only as good as the programming you display on it. There are tons of options for getting quality video programming, but which ones give you the best bang for your buck?
The answer to this question lies in what you are looking for and what you are willing to pay for. Whether it is streaming media, high-definition playback, or an all-in-one machine that can handle a variety of media, there is a something out there that will fit your budget.
Best Budget Streaming Media Device
The Roku LT
Streaming media is all the rage. Being able to access the programs you want without the hassle of remembering to set your DVR or pay high cable or satellite bills is both a great way to save money and drive away the Monday night channel-flipping blues.
The Roku LT gives you the ability to access any of the hottest streaming media platforms available right now: Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Video on Demand, HBO GO, and more. All you need is a WiFi connection. See our Roku Review for
- Compact Design. To start, the Roku LT is extremely unobtrusive. The box is tiny and wireless, so not only do you not need to rearrange your home theater cabinet to make room, but you also get to reduce the cable clutter that goes along with hardwired devices.
- Versatile Connectivity. You can use the Roku LT with just about any TV, HD or not, thanks to the addition of both an HDMI jack for high-definition connections and a breakout cable connection to connect to non-HD televisions.
- Wide Variety of Services. There are premium channel services that you will need to pay for, but I find that the selection of free channels is sufficient to keep me entertained without having to pay for the additional service. The basic user interface is extremely simple and intuitive, which makes it easy to access various services and select a program.
- Intuitive Remote. The remote is small and simple to use.
- Integrated WiFi. The Roku LT connects to your existing WiFi network, so you won’t have to purchase or install any additional equipment to get up and running.
- Access to Roku Channel Store. Programming choices aren’t limited to paid streaming services – the Roku LT has a Channel Store that allows you to access a variety of channels, such as HBO GO, MLB.TV, NHL Game Center, Expix, Crackle, MOG, and Rdio, as well as many more.
- Complex Setup Process. Setting up the device is a little trying, and you should expect to spend some time in front of your TV set along with your laptop computer. You must first create a Roku account, which will require you to enter payment information (credit card or Paypal) so that you can pay for premium channel services. Then, you will have to subscribe to each of the streaming media services you want to access individually.
- Additional Cost of Subscription Services. You have to pay for your subscriptions separately each month in order to access programming. The good news is that you choose which services you want and can control the cost associated with them. Subscribing to two or more services is still significantly cheaper than what you would pay to your cable provider.
- Lack of USB Connectivity. There is no USB connection port, so you cannot use the Roku to view your personal media files.
- Lack of Hardwire Connectivity. The Roku LT lacks an Ethernet port, so wireless streaming quality is extremely important to your overall viewing experience. For the most part, if your WiFi signal is weak, your video may skip, freeze, or otherwise simply not be viewable.
The Roku LT is one of the best streaming video devices on the market today. It’s small in both size and price, and can be used by a variety of TV owners. If you are waiting for a really great excuse to cancel your cable TV service, here it is. See our Roku Review for more information.
Best All-Encompassing Home Video Device
Sony Playstation 3 Slim
Video gaming consoles have become much more than being used just for gaming. The Playstation 3 Slim is not only one of the best high-definition gaming systems, but also functions as a Blu-ray player, as well as an up-converting DVD player, an Internet browser, and a streaming media player. Paying $300 for a game console may sound like a lot, but when you consider how much this console can do, it really is a great deal.
- Full of Features. The Playstation 3 is packed full of features designed to not only provide a great gaming experience, but also to provide a great home theater and Internet browsing experience.
- High-Definition Gaming. As you might expect, all of the games offered for the PS3 are high-definition, which makes gameplay super realistic and sharp, especially when connected to a high-definition flatscreen TV.
- Blu-ray and Up-Converting DVD Functionality. The PS3 doubles as a Blu-ray player, which is a big advantage. But it’s not any old average Blu-ray player – it’s widely considered one of the best on the market. With the average cost of good Blu-ray players ranging between $100 to $300, the savings you get by investing in the PS3 quickly start becoming apparent. But that’s not all. If you have an extensive DVD collection that you haven’t tossed out yet, your PS3 can not only play them, but up-converts them to a higher quality, making them look even better than they did the day you bought them.
- Integrated WiFi. This console has built-in WiFi, which allows you to connect to a wide variety of streaming video services. This doesn’t save you money directly, but having access to subscription streaming services means that you could potentially cut your cable TV service and save another $50 to $100 per month. If you would rather skip the subscription services, you can easily download content (movies, games, and more) directly to your PS3 from the Playstation Store at a cost per download.
- Integrated Internet Browser. Sony even added a fully functional web browser to the mix, allowing easy access to Internet-based content such as YouTube and Facebook. Who wouldn’t want to see their profile picture on the big screen?
- Lack of Support for Previous Versions. The only major flaw with the PS3 is its lack of backwards compatibility with PS2 games. Sony’s big advantage over many of the other gaming platforms throughout the years was the ability to play past generation titles on the new platform, but not on this one.
- No Infrared Remote Support. Also, the Bluetooth connectivity of the wireless remotes isn’t really a problem per se, but the lack of an infrared detector for non-Bluetooth remotes is. This means that in order to control your PS3, you need to buy expensive remotes from Sony directly or another Bluetooth remote manufacturer.
Sony did itself a huge disservice by not making the Playsation 3 Slim a backwards-compatible console that could play PS2 games, but with all the other cost-saving features, this is something that can be easily overlooked.
Best Standalone Blu-ray Player
If the Playstation 3 Slim isn’t your cup of tea but you want to see all of your favorite flicks in super high-definition, you should consider investing in the Panasonic DMP-BDT210 Blu-ray player. While many of the Blu-ray players on the market today offer a comparable suite of features at about the same price, the Panasonic stands out as one of the best.
- Integrated WiFi. The built-in WiFi capability allows you to stream video services such as Amazon Video on Demand without the hassle of having to connect your PC to your home theater system. Of course, you must have an active subscription with any of these services to access the content, but you won’t have to buy any extra equipment.
- Netflix Optimization. On a side note, this unit comes optimized for Netflix, so if you are a Netflix subscriber, you can access your content directly through a preloaded app instead of through the web browser. This will help improve the quality of the videos you stream through this particular service, and speed up navigation. Additionally, the remote has a dedicated Netflix button, which makes access even easier.
- Hands-Free Eject. Want to impress your friends or younger family members? The Panasonic DMP-BDT210 has a hands-free motion sensor that allows you to wave your hands mysteriously over the top of the player in order to open the disc tray. Of course, it does have some usefulness beyond tricking your four-year-old into thinking you’re the next Harry Potter. It makes opening and closing the tray in a dark room a lot easier than blindly searching for the “open/close” button.
- 3D Video Support. This Blu-ray player also has support for 3D Blu-ray discs, so those of you who have invested in a 3D TV can enjoy 3D movies. One thing that the Panasonic has that many other 3D-capable Blu-ray players don’t have is the ability to convert 2D movies into a 3D viewing experience. This 2D-to-3D conversion feature is nifty, but still very primitive, so don’t expect the images to be as good as those found in a true 3D movie.
- Flexible Connectivity for Peripherals. There are a variety of connection points in several different formats that will allow you to connect a surround sound system, a gaming system, or other peripheral equipment to this unit easily. Disc loading speeds are excellent, meaning that you won’t have to wait more than a few seconds for your movie to begin. This is actually better than many of the other models on the market today, which can take up to a few minutes to load and begin playback.
- Lack of Support for Major Streaming Services. While the Panasonic DMP-BDT210 has access to all the major players in the video streaming arena, it is missing a number of services offered by some of its competitors, such as Hulu Plus and MLB.TV.
- Lack of Internal Memory. A Blu-ray player at this level should have some sort of internal memory capacity for storing downloaded media, but the Panasonic is lacking.
- Slow Disc Menu Navigation. While disc loading speeds are very fast, actual disc navigation function is a little sluggish, so be prepared to spend a few minutes getting set up to watch your favorite flick, especially on discs with complex menu systems and a lot of extras.
The Panasonic DMP-BDT210 is one of the better mid-range standalone Blu-ray players. Blu-ray playback both in 2D and 3D is good, and the streaming video access via integrated WiFi is excellent.
Best Streaming Media Box for Apple Fans
There is simply no way to avoid including an Apple product on any consumer electronics “best of” list. Apple has a reputation of making some of the best-loved consumer electronics, and the Apple TV streaming media box is no exception.
For the most part, this particular unit works in much the same manner as the Roku LT, but because it’s an Apple product, the ability to interface with the iPhone and iPad devices wirelessly is a standard feature.
Price: $100 – $200
- Large Library of Content. iTunes offers one of the most comprehensive libraries of both audio and video content. Apple TV allows you to access any of the literally hundreds of thousands of videos on iTunes on a pay-per-view basis.
- No Monthly Subscription Fees. The main benefit to this is that you won’t be saddled with a monthly subscription bill to streaming services like you are with the Roku LT.
- iCloud Storage. Any purchase you make will be stored on iCloud for easy access, so there’s no need for any external memory storage device.
- Netflix Support and AirPlay. Apple TV provides access to Netflix and a few other subscription streaming video services, just like with the Roku LT. You can also wirelessly access any content you have stored on any iOS device via the integrated AirPlay application or your computer that has iTunes running.
- Price. The Apple TV gadget costs anywhere from twice to four times as much as the Roku LT, and the Roku LT provides many of the same services. Of course, with the Roku LT you don’t get iTunes access or instant wireless streaming from other iOS devices, but are these perks really worth the extra cost?
- Lack of Support for Non-HD TVs. Apple TV does not have the capability to connect to older, non-HD TVs, so this will limit the number of customers who can use the device.
The Apple TV streaming media box is a truly capable machine. You can get access to all sorts of content, and you can even access content from iTunes on a pay-per-view basis instead of via subscription and iCloud storage. But there are other streaming media devices that are just as capable that cost a lot less.
Best Universal Remote
Logitech Harmony 650
While not technically a home video device per se, you can’t have a great home theater system without a clicker that can run the whole show for you. Besides, who wants to have five remotes to control each component of your system?
Price: $50 – $115
- Support for Up to Five Separate Devices. The Logitech Harmony 650 is the remote you want if you are looking for a powerful command center for your home entertainment system. You can easily program five separate devices into this ultra-sleek universal remote, leaving you the ability to store your manufacturer remotes for emergency purposes.
- Easy to Program and Recharge. You can connect this device to your PC or Mac via USB for easy programming, and recharge its batteries at the same time.
- Excellent LCD Display. The color LCD screen will allow you to see “channel art” instead of text-only channel indicators. Plus, each of the remote’s functions are labeled with easy-to-understand action commands, such as “Watch TV,” “Watch DVD,” or “Listen to Music.” The questionnaire-based programming software makes programming this universal remote a lot easier than using a standard code-driven programming interface. I often lose the accompanying code sheet and have to hunt for it for hours every time I change the batteries in cheaper models, so this is a nice touch. Logitech also added backlighting to all the keys, which is excellent for usage in dark rooms.
- Additional Components Require Step-Up Model. You can only add five devices to this particular remote, so if you have additional components, you will either need to choose the more expensive step-up model or live with several remotes on your coffee table.
- Lack of Programming Flexibility. You don’t have a choice in how you program this remote – it’s Internet-connected computer or nothing. If you don’t have a computer in your home, this remote won’t do you much good.
The Logitech Harmony 650 is one of the best universal remotes you can buy for less than $100. Period.
Home video systems start with a great TV, but without some well-thought-out components, you’ll fall short of making the most out of your investment. Streaming media boxes, physical media players, gaming systems, and high-tech command centers are all essential devices when it comes to creating a fully functional home theater experience. The idea here is that you identify which features are the most important to you and invest in the best device possible that can deliver what you are looking for. And while the old adage “you get what you pay for” is extremely important when it comes to consumer electronics, the best isn’t always the most expensive.
How have you constructed your home video system? Do you have any of these devices in your home?