SageTV's HD Theater
I like a lot of things about the new SageTV HD Theater, a set-top box that lets you view computer- and Internet-based content on your TV. But if it had access to more sources of Internet content and was a little easier to use, I'd like it a whole lot more.
SageTV's $200 HD Theater connects to your home network via Ethernet (so if your TV and router are not in the same room, you'll need a long cord or a set of powerline network extenders), and then to your TV via HDMI, S-Video, or composite A/V cables.
Like its predecessor, the HD Media Extender, the HD Theater lets you use your TV to play back audio, video, and photos stored on a computer running SageTV's Media Center software. The HD Theater adds the ability to play back content without connecting to a computer; on its own, it can play back a limited amount of Internet-based content, such as videos from YouTube and Google Video, and various news, weather, and sports clips. Performance is good—and HD clips look stellar—but the selection is very limited.
Also new in the HD Theater is the ability to play back content from computers that are not running the $80 SageTV software (a $250 package includes the HD Theater and the Media Center app). You can browse your local network for content or connect USB storage devices directly to the HD Theater. The process of navigating through all the devices on a network isn't difficult, exactly, but it would be easier if the on-screen menus were more clearly labeled. For example, to scan your network for files, you select "Configure Media Center Import Directories." Why not just label it "find video files on your network"?
This kind of confusing language can also be found in SageTV's Media Center app, which you run on your computer. It finds and manages all of your non-DRM-protected media files, and, when used with a TV tuner card, turns your computer into a full-fledged DVR. But it, too, makes things more difficult than they should be, often using phrases like "configure directories" when "choose folders" would suffice.
To view the contents of your computer on your TV, you must enable the application's server option (how about just calling it "sharing"?). The HD Theater then gives you direct access to the SageTV application from your TV; it's almost as if you were sitting in front of your computer. Almost. Because while you can control the SageTV software, you can't access your browser, surf over to ABC.com, and watch last night's episode of Ugly Betty.
more sources, less control
You can install PlayOn, a beta app from MediaMall, on your Windows PC, and it will allow SageTV's HD Theater to access a few more online video sources, including Hulu, CBS.com, and Netflix (but not ABC.com or many others). In my testing, its performance was inconsistent: Some videos played fine, while many stuttered and buffered for so long that watching them was more annoying than enjoyable.
If you want to watch a lot of Internet-based video content on your TV, the HD Theater isn't the best choice. Sling Media's $300 SlingCatcher would be a better option, as it can display on your TV any video that plays on your PC. But while the SlingCatcher offers you access to more online video sources, it doesn't provide you with the same level of control that the HD Theater does. The SlingCatcher lets you start and stop videos on your TV, but anything else will have to be done at the computer. The HD Theater, meanwhile, lets you browse through your media collection right from your TV using the included remote control.
Which approach is better? Depends on the type of content you like. If you watch only content that you've downloaded and saved to your computer, SageTV's approach may suit you fine. And if its menus were a bit easier to understand, it would be even better.