Building the perfect set-top box
The complex set-top box market is filled with several devices that don't quite appeal to every consumer's desires. What would the perfect one feature?
that it signed on with Major League Baseball to deliver MLB.tv Premium to
But like many other set-top boxes on the market, the services the Roku box offers aren't unique to that device. Netflix streaming is available on a large and TiVo DVRs, the Xbox 360, and all newer LG and Samsung Blu-ray players and home theater systems. In addition to the Roku, MLB programming is , and through various cable and satellite TV packages., including
Indeed, many TVs, Blu-ray players, DVRs, and home theater systems now have a baseline configuration that makes it relatively easy to add streaming services via postpurchase firmware upgrades. At this point, adding content seems almost as simple as calling the content provider and having lawyers work up an agreement between the parties.
The problem is, those partners are not necessarily working together. The hardware providers want those streaming or download services to be exclusive to their boxes. The content providers want their entertainment to be made available on as many devices (STBs or otherwise) as possible. Those very different goals are causing set-top boxes to provide most, but not all, the services that consumers want.
One of the most glaring omissions in most STBs (excluding TiVo and Moxi) is DVR functionality. And although it's a feature many consumers want, it probably won't be coming to those products.
The DVR space is currently dominated by cable companies. Cable DVRs are cost-efficient, in that they require no up-front cost but instead require you to pay a monthly fee for using them. They also have both free and paid "streaming content" (pay-per-view, video-on-demand) that compares nicely with streaming services on other set-top boxes.
And although they don't quite boast the same software quality or the array of services other DVRs provide, it's a hard sell for many consumers to choose an $800
At the same time, Apple, which might have the easiest time breaking the trend by building DVR services into its
Are HDTVs the future?
There's another problem facing STBs: streaming content is being built into HDTVs. Those HDTVs aren't nearly as ubiquitous as set-top boxes, but there's a good chance that HDTV integration could replace STBs. Samsung and have or are planning to add streaming options to some of their TVs. Netflix is already available on LG Broadband HDTVs (with and soon to follow). It's extremely convenient. And with access to more than 12,000 films and television shows, it's quite attractive from a consumer standpoint.
The search for perfection
Before those sets become ubiquitous, the set-top box will reign supreme. But whether it's Vudu's streaming service, the Apple TV device, the Roku box, or the TiVo, there isn't one set-top box that currently hits the mark.
The Apple TV is a fine product, if you use iTunes, but you're forced to pay for each show or movie you download. Vudu's streaming service is great, but it provides a finite number of streaming movies that, for the most part, you're probably not going to watch. And Roku is offering Netflix streaming and MLB Premium. It could do more.
TiVo is the closest to providing the kind of content consumers really want. It has Netflix, it will soon have Amazon.com, and you can stream music from . Even better, it's a DVR, so you can quickly and easily switch to television and start recording your favorite shows., it allows you to watch video podcasts, you can watch films you download from
It's a full-featured product. But it's expensive (HD-capable TiVos start at about $250). And it requires a subscription fee on top of the fees you would already be paying to Netflix, Blockbuster (when it's made available), and Amazon for accessing their content, in addition to your cable bill. (Depending on whether you pay the monthly, yearly, or "lifetime" TiVo subscription, the monthly outlay could range anywhere from $8.31 to $12.95.) It's an expensive proposition.
We also can't forget about the Xbox 360. Its Xbox Live features are certainly far ahead of any other gaming platform. You can download films and television shows on Xbox Live. You can also stream Netflix content and--live TV streaming is said to be on deck adds an interesting alternative--at least for the United Kingdom and Ireland markets, where it's scheduled to roll out first.--access Last.fm online music. (Disclosure: Last.fm, like CNET, is a division of CBS Interactive.) And although it lacks DVR features, the fact that
So it seems that building that perfect set-top box will be difficult. It requires many of the features you'll find on the TiVo, combined with some nice elements of the Apple TV. Even a set-top box containing Xbox 360 features would be nice. That perfect set-top box also needs to be affordable.
Right now, we just don't have it. We have multiple boxes providing all those elements, but no single box is doing it all. Will it happen soon? Your guess is as good as mine. But we can hope.