Warning: This holiday season you will be tempted to purchase one of those set-top boxes that deliver movies directly to your TV set. You will be lured by the idea of having this content on a digital tap, serving it up without ever needing to get off the couch. Don't be fooled. While these devices and services are definitely getting better—and even approaching awesome—this holiday season is not the time to buy.
There are a lot of entrants in the set-top box market, but big names you're already familiar with will grab most of the attention this season. Apple, Netflix, and now Blockbuster all have set-top box solutions ready to pump piping-hot video content to your TV.
Of the three biggies, the Apple TV has been out the longest. The box costs $229 for the 40GB model and $329 for the 160GB one. Both play content, which is purchased or rented on à la carte from the iTunes store, as well as music and other content stored on your network. New releases are available for purchase (but not always rental) day-and-date with their DVD release.
Why you should wait: Apple (AAPL) makes excellent products, but $229 isn't chump change. If you watch a lot of television shows—especially in high definition (HD)—sticking with your cable or satellite provider might be more economical (BusinessWeek.com, 10/12/08). Plus, MacWorld is right around the corner in January. Even though my colleagues over at The Apple Blog say a hardware update is unlikely (Apple just did a software update for the device), why take that chance?
Where Apple takes a surgical approach to its set-top offering, marketing a single solution, Netflix is blasting away with a shotgun—and that's not a bad thing. The company has worked tirelessly over the past year to get its online streaming service up and running on a number of devices, including the Roku ($99), TiVo ($149 to $299), Xbox ($199), and Samsung and LG Blu-ray players ($399). Movies are streamed (not downloaded), so there is nothing kept locally on your device—and HD streams are rolling out across most of the partnerships. Content is an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord included in your Netflix (NFLX) subscription price.
Why you should wait: Netflix offers a subscription plan rather than à la carte rentals. Because of complexities in the licensing and release windows, Netflix doesn't get access to new releases. So no matter what flavor box you buy, after the novelty of it wears off, there aren't enough titles to choose from (unless you consider Improve Your Sailing Skills must-see TV).
Blockbuster's device, launched just last week, is the latest entry in the set-top box battle. The rental chain is using 2Wire's MediaPoint hardware to power the service. Blockbuster (BBI) says the box is free, but you do have to prepay $99 for 25 rentals. Boxes are available through Blockbuster.com and select retailers. The video chain also said that, like Netflix, it will be integrating its on-demand service into Blu-ray players and other devices, such as game consoles and DVRs. Movies use progressive downloads (not streams) for DVD-quality video, and the device supports HD. Because the movie rentals are à la carte, new releases are generally available within 30 days of the DVD release, according to Blockbuster.
Why you should wait: The service just came out last week, so it hasn't gone through a rigorous review process. Let other people find any aggravating bugs before you plunk down your money for one.
While I may come across as a Debbie Downer, dashing your set-top dreams for this holiday season, let me offer a bit of optimism. All of these options will only get better and cheaper in the coming months, so your patience will be rewarded.