Netgear NeoTV NTV300 review:

Roku alternative costs less, but offers less

But the NeoTV is in direct competition with the $50 Roku LT, and that box bests the Netgear channel lineup with hundreds more. Yes, there's a lot of "filler" on Roku, to be sure, but that's also a fair description of dozens of the Netgear channels. (The full list is on Netgear's Web site.) Netgear has the edge over Roku with YouTube and (for those who need it) SlingPlayer. That just-added Slingbox app makes it possible for owners of the newer Slingbox streamers to stream and record from a remote cable box. Bootup time for the app is slow, but it works -- making the NeoTV a cheap way to get cable or satellite TV in another room -- or another location altogether.

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.

The TuneIn app lacks an onscreen keyboard. Sarah Tew/CNET

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 Apple TV, and those who need a Sling-compatible box should opt for the WD TV Live.

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