In five years, industry experts are predicting the death of physical media as we move towards digital downloads of movies, books and music.
The WD TV Live Hub is one of our favourite media players, but it's still not perfect.
(Credit: Western Digital)
While the digital download industry has yet to really hit in Australia, one of the main problems with buying digital formats is that there's no single universal player for use in the living room. Instead, the industry seems content to just serve the media up to your laptop. However, laptops are lousy for parties or if a group of people want to sit down to watch a movie. You bought an expensive TV, why not watch your media on it?
There are media streamers on the market that do some of the things we list below, but there is not one that does them all. We are sure that a player that ticks all of the boxes will one day emerge, and once it does we think people will flock to it. To quote Field of Dreams here, "if you build it, they will come".
While connectivity is an important part, most of the streamers support at least RCA, digital optical and HDMI, and if you have a home theatre system or an external DAC this should be sufficient.
Here's our list of features that the "ultimate" media player should have. Consider these points if you're looking for a media player for yourself.
If you just want to listen to music, why should you have to turn on your TV? The most usable media streamers currently have easy-to-read displays that make them easy to control from the couch. From there you can see track names and artist details, and even navigate folders without needing to touch the television remote. If you add the right number of controls to the front of the unit, it also makes it easier to operate if you lose the remote.
One thing that media streaming manufacturers seem to forget is that some people have really large collections of digital files. If your only choice is to scroll through them one at a time with a remote then the streamer will end up back in its box.
The Sony PlayStation 3 is one of the few devices that makes it easy to scroll through long lists by accelerating when you hold the button down, and it also gives you shortcuts based on the first letter. We'd like to see more of this, because not everyone has a smartphone...
Universal smartphone and tablet app
...but for those that do, a smartphone control app is a necessity. Being able to swipe through large swathes of content is tremendously satisfying, and once you go there you can't easily go back.
There's one roadblock, however: all of the manufacturers have their own stand-alone apps, and to do something as simple as play an MP3 you may have to use up to four or more different apps — and even a couple of remote controls — to get your music playing. If one universal DLNA remote could let you choose the music from one of your network devices, wake your components and get them to play, we'd throw more than a few dollars to developers.
Universal format support
At the moment in our test bunker, we use three different streaming devices depending on the type of media file we want to play. This is kind of ridiculous. At the moment, there is no one device that can support even the most common file types. The sticking points seem to be lossless music like FLAC, Apple Lossless and WAV and the widespread, but heavily associated with piracy, video format MKV.
But even Sony, with its interests in stemming piracy of its music and movies, currently supports MKV on its "smart" TVs. Strangely, there's no such love on the PlayStation 3.
At the moment it seems that Apple Lossless is a tough one because: a) it involves dealing with Apple, and b) it uses a lot of processing power to decode. Until the iPhone supports FLAC, Apple Lossless is the only lossless format that supports naming tags.
Services such as Hulu could revolutionise media streaming in Australia.
Streaming services: good for the consumer, but unfortunately terrible for the local distributor. There are dozens of different distribution houses in Australia with the rights to release overseas content in the cinemas, on TV or on a physical disc. With digital distribution dealing with all of these companies, it means things have got to change, and fast. If people don't get what they want then piracy is ridiculously easy. Distributors have got to start making deals with overseas production houses now, or find another line of work, as in five years the media business as they know it will no longer exist.
We've heard whispers that services like Hulu are starting to eye Australia, and while the Music Unlimited service by Sony may have been hobbled before it can begin we welcome more services of this type.
While we think there will always be a market for physical media — and the recent rise of "dead" technology vinyl has proved that — music shops had better start looking at their business models. Either go niche, or get into digital media right now.
No on-board storage
We're fans of the WD TV Live Hub, and think it's one of the best attempts yet at a universal streamer, but we do wonder why it needs a 1TB hard drive. Especially when it's designed to connect to your network.
Media streamers, like Network Attached Storage devices, are still niche, but in the next five years that will change. When it does, we believe that routers and NAS devices will become interchangeable for most people, and so most homes connected to the net will also have a home-based server.
While some futurists predict everyone will store everything in the cloud by then, this is no good if you have a slow or malfunctioning connection, or even if the server goes down for a month. For convenience, we see most people having an on-site collection in addition to a server somewhere in Albania. Either way, people will have a multitude of different devices they keep their media on and won't need on-board storage. A USB slot could be helpful, though.
DLNA and AirPlay
Every year a handful of new technologies come along, and while some never make it, some become indispensable. We think one of these "killer" applications is Apple's AirPlay. Sure, it's proprietary, and Apple charges customers a hefty premium to use it (about AU$60), but it just works! DLNA may be a great feature but it can be very flaky. We're yet to have problems with AirPlay, but it's not quite everything we could hope for. We'd love to see the ability to be able to control an iPod (which might be sitting on a dock) with iTunes via AirPlay. Then nothing could touch it.
Meanwhile, for most people, DLNA support is sufficient, but we'd love to see reliability improve.
While the serious system builder knows that wired connections are the best way to go for reliable media streaming, it's not always convenient. Currently, the way to get internet to your streamer is to buy an AU$100+ wireless adapter for your device, which is a rort. To whom it may concern: please include one on-board, as well as 802.11n while you're at it.
No bogus features like web-browsing or Facebook
Attention manufacturers! Facebook and Twitter on a TV is horrible! Typing on a remote control number-pad is not even fun for two minutes, and don't even get us started on web browsing! While proprietary QWERTY remote controls and keyboards are fun, they can get lost or broken and can't be easily replaced with universal models. We're perfectly happy with using smartphones or the netbook on our laps. Thank you.
While it may seem we're asking for a lot here, we don't think so, but the last thing we want to see is a reasonable price. Our case in point is the excellent Pure One Flow. It boasts not only a legible LCD screen, but streaming services, decent format support and a digital radio. All for under AU$250.
If Pure could make a box like that without a speaker and ship it with a remote control and a video output, the company would have a sure-fire winner on its hands.
Are there any features you'd like to see in a media player? Or do you have a favourite streaming device? Let us know below.