Features

Plug and play

30 Aug 2010 by AndrewGough

The latest line in media players allow you to enjoy downloaded content in all its glory. Mark Prigg tries them out

The market for buying film, TV and music online has exploded in recent years, but watching or listening to your purchases at home has always been a little fraught. Manufacturers are slowly waking up to this and computers are beginning to make their way into the living room, connecting to your TV (or stereo) to make downloaded content viewable as it should be – on the big screen.

There are three ways to go. First, simply hook up your iPod or iPad – there are a variety of docks that let you do this. Second, buy a dedicated media player or games console – it will do everything simply and easily, and usually come with a remote control. Third, connect your PC – manufacturers are increasingly designing machines for this, and the advantage is that you can also email and tweet from the sofa. The downside is that they can sometimes be overkill, and difficult to control without a full wireless keyboard and mouse.

There are some caveats, the biggest being that most of these systems aren’t compatible, so films downloaded to your Xbox won’t really be viewable on your mobile. The exception is Apple, as your files will also be available on its computers and phones. Also, while the music market has opened up, TV and film still have some way to go, and it’s worth bearing this in mind when buying.

Playstation 3

£249 | playstation.com

The PS3 has always had a huge head-start as a media player as it contains a Blu-ray player, allowing you to watch the latest generation of high-definition discs easily. It’s also got a lot of other great features, most notably an excellent version of BBC iPlayer, as well as a plug-in box that turns it into a fully functioning Freeview TV, complete with the ability to record programmes.
It’s a lot less imposing than the Xbox, blending in well in any living room. The interface is excellent, and as with the Xbox there’s a full TV and film download store as well. It’s also simple to get to files stored on a PC connected to the same network, which can then be controlled via the PS3 remote. Music and photo gallery playback is good, and everything can be co-ordinated with the normal wireless remote, or a slightly more grown up media controller.
Overall, the PS3 definitely has the edge over the Xbox because of the Blu-ray player – and for that alone it’s worth making it the heart of your home entertainment system. Add in BBC iPlayer, film downloads and games, and it’s a real contender for the ultimate living room gadget.

PROS Sleek looks, silent operation, built-in Blu-ray
CONS Expensive

Xbox 360 250GB

From £199 | xbox.com

Although known primarily as a games console, Microsoft’s Xbox has evolved into a pretty accomplished media player as well. It’s possible to play back files from another PC, and the quality is superb. There’s also a fully stocked film and TV download service available on Xbox Live, Microsoft’s online games service.

The Xbox has Twitter, Facebook and Last.fm integration, and in the UK can even let you watch films and TV from Sky via a Sky player application (you’ll need to pay extra for this). The older Xbox suffered from a noisy fan but, thankfully, a sleek new version has solved this. There’s a DVD player, although unfortunately not Blu-ray, plus a 250GB hard drive and high-definition films available for download.

Being primarily a games console, the Xbox interface is incredibly easy to use, and as an added bonus, you get a media player thrown in. The Playstation 3 has the edge owing to its Blu-ray capability but if your kids are serious gamers, then the Xbox will probably clinch the deal, if only to keep them quiet.

PROS Decent online film store, access to Windows PCs
CONS No Blu-ray player

Slingbox Pro/Slingcatcher

£199 each | slingmedia.com

The Slingbox has long been a favourite of the seasoned traveller, allowing you to watch and control your home TV via streaming from a broadband-enabled computer anywhere in the world. The latest version allows you to plug in several devices including high-definition sources such as Sky HD and Blu-ray players. It’s simple to set up, and the associated PC and mobile phone software works well.

The Slingcatcher is a great add-on, allowing you to watch your home TV without the need for a computer. It’s a box that plugs into a network connection (annoyingly, there’s no wifi built in), then into your TV. It connects back to your home Slingbox, letting you watch and control gadgets easily. It has its own remote and works really well in hotels with a wired network connection. It’s also a great way to link a second TV at home – for instance, in the bedroom – to your Sky box or living room stereo.

For regular travellers, the Slingbox is already an essential piece of kit, but the latest incarnations – and a recently released iPhone version of the software – give it a real boost, making it one of the must-have media players.

PROS Incredibly useful at home and while travelling
CONS Picture quality depends on connection speeds

Mac Mini

From £649 | apple.com/uk

While Apple TV (below) is almost crippled by a lack of expandability, with the Mini, the technology giant has crammed a fully featured Mac into a smaller sized case. And it’s recently had a major overhaul, now boasting an HDMI connector to plug into your living room TV. It can also output full surround-sound to your home cinema system.

Crucially, the Mac Mini has Front Row, a piece of software Apple has designed to allow you to navigate content easily using a remote control. It works well, although only with iTunes content – you’ll still need a wireless keyboard and mouse to access things such as iPlayer and YouTube.

Overall, this is an excellent proposition for both the living room and office – a comprehensive Mac that will also double as a home entertainment system. As a media player the price is high, but remember that you’re buying a “proper” computer. The only thing lacking is a Blu-ray drive, but at least the Mini can play high-definition films downloaded online easily.

PROS Good performance
CONS Relatively high price

Apple TV

£223 | apple.com/uk

Apple TV is a small box that sits under your television and can play back your entire iTunes library, as well as access Apple’s film and TV show rental service. It’s very slick and is incredibly easy to use from the sofa. Browsing your own files, which are automatically copied from your iTunes library, is simple, as is gaining access to Apple’s online entertainment store. Be warned, though, that programmes in particular seem far too expensive. On the other hand, movie rental offers better value for money.

The main flaw with Apple TV is that it can’t access online services such as iPlayer, instead requiring users to buy shows. But connection to other services such as You Tube and photo sharing site Flickr is included. Overall, the product is a great example of how Apple could do TV, but for now it’s been rather overtaken by the explosion of online services.

PROS Great interface, plenty of content available
CONS TV shows are expensive, can’t use online services

Dell Inspiron Zino HD

From £299 | dell.com/uk

Looking like the rather ugly sister of the Mac Mini, Dell’s pocket-size Inspiron Zino HD desktop computer is virtually identical to Apple’s product except that it runs Microsoft Windows. It has spent a lot of time making Windows and, in particular, Media Centre – its interface for the TV – work well, and it’s also simple to watch and record shows on, as well as access your files. However, you will need to buy either a remote control or a small wireless keyboard to go with it.
Set-up is simple, and while it may not be quite as slick as a Mac Mini, it is a fully featured PC. It’s not the fastest on the market but is good enough for most tasks. As it can double as both a computer and media player, it is bound to find a place in bedrooms or under TVs in the living room.

PROS Good value, simple to use
CONS Looks cheap

Iomega ScreenPlay Director HD Media Player

FROM £1790 (1tb and 2tb version available) | go.iomega.com

A book-size hard drive that plugs into your TV, the HD Iomega Media Player can save you the trouble of turning on a computer every time you want to listen to music or watch a film you’ve downloaded.

The unit is relatively simple to use and will play back most file formats with no trouble, particularly those downloaded online. Getting around the menu system is easy and the remote control is well thought-out. However, the interfaces look like they were designed several years ago, and to find files quickly you need to make sure they are named correctly and organised neatly when you copy them over, otherwise you’ll spend ages scrolling through long lists.

Playback is excellent, assuming the content was good quality to begin with, and audio sounds great. Getting files on to the drive is straightforward, as you can simply plug it into a PC. There’s also a neat online feature giving you access to YouTube and other video sites.

If you watch a lot of content downloaded from the web, the HD Media Player is a top choice – it’s cheap, has a lot of storage and, while not the slickest gadget around, does the job.

PROS Lots of storage space
CONS Ugly, menu system could look better

Headphones

If you’ve bought a new iPod or iPhone, the first thing to do is take out the shiny white headphones and throw them away – upgrading to a decent pair will improve your listening no end.

Grado’s SR80i headphones have a distinctly retro look, and boast a great reputation among audio nerds for being the ultimate upgrade. The sound quality is superb and you’ll find yourself using them at home just as much as when you’re out and about. £108; amazon.co.uk

Ultimate Ears Triplefi 10 (pictured above) cost an eye-watering £269 but the sound quality is breathtaking. They block out background noise effortlessly and make music so sharp and clear you won’t want to take them off. Visit ultimateears.com

Mark Prigg is science and technology editor at London’s Evening Standard

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