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Netgear has been in the business of making digital media-streaming boxes longer than most of its competitors, with its MP101 audio streamer appearing way back in 2004. Of course the streaming market has changed drastically since then and the move to "the cloud" has meant that streaming PC-based media within the home isn't as crucial any more. Services like Netflix and Pandora mean that you no longer need a home library of digital files, and can stream them remotely instead.
While its competitors still include some sort of in-home streaming support, Netgear jettisoned it some time ago with the entry-level NTV200, and this trend continues with the NTV300. However, you can upgrade to the NeoTV Max, which includes WiDi laptop mirroring, DLNA (streaming media from networked Macs and Windows PCs), and a QWERTY keyboard remote for $69.95. And new for 2013 is a Google TV version, the NeoTV Prime GTV100.
At its current sale price of $39.95, the NTV300 is 10 dollars cheaper than the basic Roku. But the Netgear offers far fewer channel choices, with only YouTube and the SlingPlayer app (for streaming content from Slingboxes) as major differentiators from the Roku. Moreover, the Netgear's interface is a step down, too; the Roku LT's simplicity wins it extra points.
Design and features
Unless you buy a (now discontinued) Boxee Box or a Roku Streaming Stick, then most streaming-media boxes are interchangeable from a design standpoint. They're roughly square, a little bigger than a hockey puck, and usually black. This is the case with the NTV300, and while ports may differ on each box, the Netgear has a minimum of an HDMI port and an Ethernet connection. If you have a legacy TV without HDMI or want to play back media from a USB key (or even anywhere else in the house), this isn't the model for you; upgrade instead to the aforementioned NeoTV Max for those features. Thankfully, though, the most affordable NeoTV does offer Wi-Fi, so you can also connect to the Internet wirelessly.
The remote control has its good points but they're outnumbered by its bad ones. While most users will appreciate the remote's shortcut keys for popular services such as Netflix, and its relatively ergonomic feel, the eight-way pad needs some attention. It gives you the usual up/down/left/right, but in the corners -- and with no clear delineation -- you also get RGBY buttons, which can actually interfere with navigation if accidentally pressed, and while I'm at it, they're very squishy.
Content: What you can watch
The NeoTV is strictly a cloud-streaming device but has a decent selection of services. Netflix is here, along with Hulu Plus, Vudu, YouTube, Rhapsody, and Pandora. Indeed, there's even a CNET channel, too.
But the NeoTV is in direct competition with the $50
But, though it doesn't have YouTube, Roku offers all of the other important NeoTV channels, as well as Amazon Instant, Crackle, HBO Go, Slacker, and Spotify -- all of which are no-shows on the NeoTV. And Roku has already announced more channels on the way for 2013, including one that will let it double as a virtual cable box for Time Warner Cable customers.
When you're paying $50 for a set-top box, what does "performance" mean to you? While it's easy to determine the difference in picture quality between a cheap DVD player and a more expensive Blu-ray spinner -- the type of media used to test them is a known quantity -- a streaming box is dependent on the vagaries of Net streaming. Most of the players that come out now feature the same services and similar playback quality, so it's the interface that counts for most of the player's performance evaluation.
In the case of the Netgear, it's had a few years to get its interface right, but it still looks a bit cluttered compared with simpler interfaces like those on the Apple TV and Roku boxes. What you get is rows and rows of icons, though at least the first section is customizable. But this also creates its own problem, as it's easy to accidentally move icons around by pressing the colored buttons (in this instance blue).
As I alluded to, it's difficult to evaluate playback performance of this unit, but mostly it worked as you'd expect, with Netflix movies scaling up to look quite impressive on the Sharp Elite Pro television with excellent contrast, detail, and color. That said, I did find that there were occasions when the unit would slow down, which meant the interface would become sluggish, or, worse, the stream would stutter, causing audio sync issues. I tried three different networks (home and work, plus wired) and had some intermittent issues with all three, and didn't have the same problems streaming the same content with a Samsung D7000 television or WD TV box. As this is just dependent on the performance of external factors, it's difficult to pinpoint the cause exactly, but it didn't make me feel as confident about this unit as I am about its competition.
Some of the apps are only half-baked at this point; for example, there is a search bar in TuneIn, but no QWERTY keyboard appears to enable text input, and the new Slingbox is practically unusable. There are no onscreen controls and you need to use the Options button to access the controls. However, the lag from commands is almost intolerable with 15 seconds between press and action, while by comparison the lag on the desktop app is a much friendlier 2 seconds.
The Negear NeoTV NTV300 is cheap, and if you don't want to do anything more complicated than listen to Pandora, it could be a good way to do that. However there are plenty of other devices that do what this box does and better -- most notably and obviously, the Roku LT for just $10 more.
With that in mind, we'd recommend that everyone in this price range get the Roku. Those who need an Apple-friendly option can opt for the $100