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How new Blu-ray players killed the Nettop

Caught between fast budget PCs and cheap new Blu-ray players with content streaming support, Nettops have little room to stand out.

We haven't been kind to Nettops since they emerged in the PC market in 2008. Their one intriguing scenario involved connecting a small form factor Nettop to your HDTV as a Windows-based set-top box.

In that kind of setup, you could access every major online video service, from Amazon Video on Demand to YouTube, and play video files stored on your home network or on the Nettop itself. Throw in the DVD player built into the system, a cable box if you must, and we'd challenge you to find a program, a movie, or a Web-based video clip you couldn't queue up in short order.

The concept sounds promising, but if such a system showed up in our lab today, we still couldn't recommend it. The reason? New Blu-ray players from Sony and LG.

Gateway's Nettop-killer, the SX2840-01 slim tower. Sarah Tew/CNET

One of our chief criticisms of Nettops, which range from $200 to $500, has been that you can get a far more capable slim tower PC for a similar price. Gateway's quad-core SX2000-series, available in configurations ranging from $450 to $600, has almost made this point for us by itself since we first reviewed one in July 2009.

Asus' $475 Eee Box EB1501, for example, is the Nettop that's come closest to satisfying our living room PC scenario, but it chokes on 1080p QuickTime video, and has only a 250GB hard drive. For an extra $100, Gateway's SX2840-01 will handle any video format you throw at it, and gives you 1TB of drive space.

If Nettops bump up against more traditional PCs at the high end of their price range, the lower end of the spectrum held some promise until recently. The $199 Acer Aspire Revo R1600 made a reasonable case for itself because of its low price. It won't play HD content, and the lack of a DVD player was annoying, but it can handle the breadth of Web-based standard-definition content, a not-insignificant library.

The Sony BDP-S570 can do almost anything a Nettop can. Sarah Tew/CNET

We argued in our Revo review that the $199 Xbox 360 Arcade was a legitimate home entertainment competitor to that system, but since neither device is 1080p-capable, both felt like a compromise for true home video enthusiasts with large HDTVs. The Sony BDP-S570 and the LG BD570 Blu-ray players solve the 1080p problem, and by integrating support for various streaming services as well as DLNA file support, these $250 devices make life difficult for lower-end Nettops.

Neither the Sony nor the LG player offers as wide an array of content services as you'll find from the Web. But in addition to playing Blu-ray discs, both can stream NetFlix and YouTube content from their built-in Wi-Fi connections. The LG supports CinemaNow, Vudu, Pandora, and DLNA. The Sony player comes with Amazon Video on Demand out of the box, with Pandora, DLNA, and other features coming within the next few months via firmware update.

These Blu-ray players aren't the first to ship with Wi-Fi connections and support for various content services, but at $250 or so they are the most affordable. They also leave low-end Nettops few advantages, especially in light of Nettops' HD difficulties.

With pressure on both ends of the Nettop price range, we see even fewer reasons for the category to exist. Perhaps you can still justify a $199 unit like the Acer Aspire Revo for the extremely budget conscious or as a light duty Web kiosk. Short of adding Blu-ray drives and solid 1080p video support, more-expensive Nettops have little argument.