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Media Receivers: Which one is right for you?
by kp

Home theater systems have evolved significantly over the past several years. Instead of using tangible media like DVDs, next generation media receivers utilize streaming media from your home computer. Choosing the right equipment for your home entertainment can be challenging when considering the many options available. There are receivers that act solely as a conduit between your media files and HDTV and other systems that provide DVR capabilities.

The first step in picking the right media receiver is determine what purpose it will serve. Do you need something to just play movies or to access all of your movies, TV shows, photos and access the Internet too? Next, you need to take a look at the connections on your TV. Most TVs come with the standard component/composite video, S-video, or HDMI (see our HDTV glossary for examples). Some HDTVs provide proprietary connections like TOSLINK (optical cable) ports. In addition, you need to examine your LAN (local area network) for Ethernet and WiFi functions. At minimum, you need to have a 10/100 BASE-T Ethernet connection and/or 802.11b/g wireless network capabilities to connect to the Internet.

Another consideration is operating system. Most receivers are Windows XP compatible, but not all are Windows Vista or Mac friendly. Once you have a list of requirements, finding the right receiver is a much easier task.

Sony VAIO XL3 Digital Living System
Sony VAIO XL3 Digital Living System

HP MediaSmart Receiver x280n
HP MediaSmart Receiver x280n

Apple TV
Apple TV

SlingBox Solo
SlingBox Solo
LinkSys Media Center Extender
LinkSys Media Center Extender
As mentioned before, media receivers are available in many different varieties. For an all-in-one device, the Sony VAIO XL3 Digital Living System has all the features to control every aspect of your entertainment. It houses 500GB of storage space for keeping your movies, videos, photos or recorded TV programs through the DVR function. The VAIO XL3 supports Blu-ray and can burn your media in high definition to disc. Plus, it has a plethora of ports to connect about any device. The drawback to the Sony VAIO XL3 is that is has a higher price because of all the extra features.

The HP MediaSmart Receiver x280n provides similar functions as the VAIO, but slightly different storage options. This device uses HP Pocket Media Drives, an interchangeable hard disk solution. Plus, you can display your photos, music and movies from any other PC on your network. This system also has TV options utilizing Microsoft's online services to watch live or previously recorded shows.

Another option is Apple TV. This unit works along with iTunes to access movies, music and videos from your iTunes account. Apple TV works only to stream media unlike the VAIO XL3 which can read/write discs. But it does have storage capabilities to house your favorite movies or other media. It also works in HD through a WiFi network or Ethernet connection, and it is both Mac and PC-friendly.

The next option is Slingbox. This media receiver was designed more as a video streaming device than for storage. Slingbox links your DVR, digital cable, or satellite receiver to your phone or laptop from a remote location - all in HD. The best part is that there are no monthly fees associated with using it, and it is both Windows Vista and Mac compatible.

For a more cost-effective model, the LinkSys Media Center Extender wirelessly streams your media from your local networked PCs (with Windows Vista only) to any HDTV in your home. You can record your favorite TV programs or download movies from Fox, Showtime and Nickelodeon at an additional service fee. It integrates with any Windows Vista Media Center to work with your existing surround sound system and HDTV.

For a more detailed list of features, view this comparison chart.

Shop:
Media Center PCs
Apple TV 160GB
Apple TV 40GB
LinkSys Media Center Extender
SlingBox Solo
HP MediaSmart Receiver x280n
Sony VAIO XL3 Digital Living System

Reference:
Sony VAIO Digital Living System
HP Media Smart Receiver
Apple TV
SlingBox Solo
LinkSys Media Center Extender

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