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The Roku isn’t the only streaming TV box, but it’s one of the best. (Roku)
The Roku isn’t the only streaming TV box, but it’s one of the best. (Roku)

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Television and movies on demand! Without cable! It’s a beautiful dream! Unless you live in Canada where it’s kind of a nightmare.

Sure, we can depend on iTunes to provide us with movie rentals and purchases and to buy season passes to many of our favourite television series from. But not everyone wants to buy into Apple’s walled garden content ecosystem and premium-priced hardware.

And then there’s Netflix: a service you can access from any computer or mobile device, through a number of Smart TVs, set-top boxes and gaming consoles. But compared to the embarrassment of riches that Americans using the service enjoy, the library Netflix has to offer us north of the border makes Canadians look like content-poor paupers. And while we’ve got access to lesser known alternatives like VDIO, Crackle, CinemaNow, none of these services can compete with massive amount of high quality content home entertainment aficionados in the United States have access to through services like Hulu+, HBO Go or Amazon Prime Video, which, once again, we don’t have access to up here.

But it’s not all doom and gloom: despite the lacklustre selection of top drawer streaming services available to Canadians, the inclusion of a streaming media box to your home entertainment setup is a smart upgrade that can provide hours of entertainment with a relatively small investment in the hardware.

Apple

Best streaming media player: Apple TV (Third Generation)

I’m not going to lie to you: There’s more sophisticated streaming media hardware out there, and we’re going to talk about it later in this guide. But here’s the thing: When you plug a streaming device into your television, you expect it to well, stream something. Simply put, no service currently offers Canadians a larger selection of movies, or television shows to buy or rent than Apple’s iTunes Store, all of which the company’s $109 Apple TV is designed to leverage.(You can also get a refurbished one online from Apple for $85.) That’s it’s killer feature: more content than you could hope to watch in a lifetime, with more on the way every day.
A simple black box about the size of a hockey puck, the third generation Apple TV doesn’t look like much. On the front of the device, you’ll find a single white light that turns on when the hardware’s running, and blinks every time you push a button on it’s minimalistic three button and directional ring remote (you can also control it with an iOS device by downloading Apple’s free Remote app). Apple keeps things simple with the hardware’s tail end too: There’s a power port, another for plugging an optical audio cable into, an Ethernet jack for those with homes without WI-Fi connectivity and an HDMI connection to connect to your HD TV. Unfortunately, there’s no other means for hooking a current generation Apple TV to a television set or monitor, so be sure to check your television set to see if it has an available HDMI port before you buy. Under the hood, there’s a 802.11a, b, g or n networking compatible Wi-Fi adapter and a single-core A5 chip. Which basically means that it can stream and present high definition audio and video content without stuttering, provided you have a wireless router and Internet connection fast enough to support it. It handles input from a Bluetooth keyboard as well, which makes it a little more pleasant to search the thousands of films and television shows available to purchase or rent from the iTunes Store.
In addition to the streamable content available via the iTunes Store, the Apple TV can also act as a gateway to a number of other popular services and channels. Every Apple TV comes preloaded with Netflix (but you’ll need a subscription) right out of the box, as well access to YouTube, VEVO, Flickr, Wall Street Journal Live, Vimeo and a wide variety of free podcasts and Internet radio stations. users can also enjoy content free and paid from the National Hockey League and Major Legaue Baseball, Major League Soccer, concerts and music documentaries from Qello and a massive library of Asian programming from Crunchyroll. What’s more, Mac and PC users with iTunes installed on their computers can rip DVDs they own and stream them over their Wi-Fi network to their Apple TV; Making everything you own – both downloaded and imported – watchable on one device. Finally, Apple computer and iOS device owners can also stream music, video, photos and audio, or just about any other onscreen content to an Apple TV on the same Wi-Fi network, via AirPlay.
The only true downside to investing in an Apple TV is that doing so means that, in order to make it worthwhile, you’ll also have to invest in content from the Apple iTunes Store. This isn’t a problem if you never plan on watching your videos on another device. But if you want to watch a movie you bought through iTunes on an Android or Blackberry device, you’re out of luck. With the exception of downloaded music, all iTunes content is protected by strict Digital Rights Management measures that ensure it can only be viewed on proprietary Apple hardware. Bummer.
Roku

Best for non-Apple folks: Roku 3

If I were writing this roundup for people living south of the border, the $110 Roku 3 would be my top pick, due to its reasonable price, clever hardware and access to services like Amazon Prime Instant Video, Hulu Plus and HBO Go. Sadly, none of these services are available in Canada. But despite having been hamstrung by a lack of services and top shelf content and licensing deals that force it to play second fiddle to the Apple TV, the Roku 3 is still worth your attention, especially if you’re not interested in buying into Apple’s ecosystem of hardware, media and apps.
In Canada, a Roku 3 can provide users easy access to Netflix, MLB.com, MLS and NHL, Crunchyroll and Vimeo content just like an Apple TV can. But in addition to this, it’s also capable of bringing other streaming channels like Sony’s Crackle, CNN, TED, Flixter, UFC TV and audio services like Slacker, Tunein Radio and RDIO into your living room. Right now, Roku’s offering over 450 different channels of content for viewers to try on for size. Are they all worth your time? Most likely not. But you’ll likely find at least a few things to make everyone in your household happy. UPDATE: Until recently, you could not find a YouTube channel, but that changed Dec. 17 according to an announcement from Roku (good news, because the lack of Google’s video site could have been a deal breaker for many people).
Additionally, Roku 3 comes with a USB port and support for a number of popular file formats such as MKV (H.264), MP4 (H.264), AAC, MP3, PNG and JPG. All of this can be viewed through the popular open-source media player PLEX, which can be loaded onto the Roku 3. Just plug in a USB drive full of your personal movie collection and photos and you’re in business.
One of the more interesting features of the Roku 3 is it’s Wi-Fi connected remote control, which unlike an IR remote, doesn’t need line of sight to work. This makes it possible to stash your Roku 3 out sight in a cabinet or behind your TV. The remote has a built-in headphone jack, a feature which I’d love to see brought to more devices. It makes it possible to listen to what your watching without bothering anyone else in the house, making it the perfect late night companion for insomniacs who share a home with folks that have to get up and work in the morning.
But there’s a few things that the Roku doesn’t do well. If you own a large number of videos purchased from iTunes or the Google Play Store, you can forget about watching them with a Roku device. The same goes for anyone that has a library of movies saved to their computer’s hard drive – the Roku 3 can connect directly to an external USB drive, but that’s it.
Western Digital

Best for the sprawling digital library: WD TV Live Media Player

I’ve got a personal library of over 300 DVDs that I’ve taken the time to rip into a single format and add to my iTunes library. I can watch any of them on my iPhone, iPad or Apple TV. It makes me happy. But not everyone’s that obsessive about how their video files are encoded. Many personal media libraries are a hodgepodge of multiple file formats downloaded from the Web, acquired from friends or ripped using different pieces of software over the years. All of that content’s not doing anyone any good just sitting there on your computer’s hard drive. That’s where the Western Digital Live Media Player comes in.
Like the Roku 3 and Apple TV, the WD TV Live can hook you up with a few online services, such as Netflix and YouTube. But the ability to access these services isn’t the reason to buy one of these instead of the other two devices we’ve already covered. Rather, the biggest thing that the WD TV Live has going for it is to play just about any video file under the sun, drawn from wide number of sources. MKV, AVI, MOV, ISO/VOB, JPG, WMV, DTS, and MP4 can all be played on your television set through a WD TV Live, making it possible to make the most out of your personal media library. What’s more, all of that content can be drawn from a wide variety of sources. The WD TV Live can stream content from Windows or Mac computers, a USB flash drive, connected external hard drive or a network-connected hard drive. It’s easy to wrangle and use all of the media files in your life without having to first pool them all in one place. It’s even possible to connect a camcorder or digital camera directly to the WD TV Live: a definite bonus for individuals who own older HD television sets that often lack the inputs or ability to do so. That’s a lot of functionality for around $100.
But there’s a few downsides to the device. For starters, while you can watch Netflix with the WD TV Live, the app that gives you access to the service can be frustratingly slow when compared to Apple TV, Roku 3 or even Playstation 3. And while we’re on the topic of software, the device’s on screen keyboard is frustrating to use, especially when paired with the WD TV Live’s remote, which looks as cheap as it feels. Those shortcomings can be overcome by swapping them out with a wireless Bluetooth or wired USB keyboard and universal remote control, but that will add to the cost. Despite these small complaints, if you’ve got a massive, varied media library that you want to view on a high definition television, there’s few better or more cost-effective options out there right now.
Sony

Best for Android: Sony Internet Player with Google TV

Priced at $200, Sony’s Internet Player with Google TV (that’s the full name, really) costs twice as much as the other three devices profiled in this round up, but if you’re a Canadian Android device user hungry to use the content you’ve bought in Google’s Play Store, short of hooking your smartphone or tablet up to your television set, it’s pretty much the only show in town.
Designed to be hooked into your cable box HDMI connection instead of directly into the back of your TV set, the Sony Internet Player is a pass through device that allows users to watch television or surf the Web (or do both at the same time, thanks to picture-in-picture functionality) without having to sacrifice an additional HDMI connection like you’d have to with any of the other hardware profiled in this roundup. For people with overcrowded entertainment setups, that’s a huge win. Additionally, it’s possible to download a wide number of curated apps from the Google Play Store to use on your TV. It’s possible to access streaming services like Netflix this way, as well as a number of data-centric apps to provide you with news, weather and just about anything else you’d care to know about. Access to the Google Play Store means that, in addition to apps, Sony Internet Player can also rent or buy movies and TV shows to watch on the device, or on other Android-powered hardware. Additionally, as it’s a Sony product, the device also provides access to the Sony’s Music Unlimited service (which’ll set you back $10 a month or $60 per year.) and the rest of the Sony Entertainment Network’s collection of TV shows and videos. Does all of this together provide as much premium on-demand content as an Apple TV does? No. But there’s likely enough here to keep most people happy.
But it costs $200. That’s a hard pill to swallow given that Google’s $35 Chromecast HDMI dongle, which can stream Netflix as well as some content from Android devices on the same network, can be purchased and brought back across the border from the United States with relative ease. Additionally, the Internet Player with Google TV’s remote control is a well meaning, but convoluted mess. On one side of the remote, you’ll find a small, full-featured keyboard that makes searching the Internet and the box’s various streaming services a whole lot less painful. The other side of the controller is crammed with the kind of buttons found on any other media-centre remote, as well as a trackpad for interacting with the Internet Player With Google TV’s interface. It all works reasonably well, but I found myself longing for the simple controls of the Roku 3 and Apple TV.

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