There's no doubt that YouTube was the most successful Web story of 2006. Viral videos, SNL digital shorts, citizen news footage, the Lonelygirl15 fiasco, and eventually the $1.65 billion (and growing) acquisition by Google ultimately made YouTube a household name. The only problem is that for most people, YouTube can only be enjoyed in its full hilarious/disturbing/pointless glory from their computers in cubicles, libraries, or cramped home offices.
So how do you bring the YouTube experience on to your big screen? I've done some some research and come up with some recommended YouTube streaming solutions along with their respective pros and cons. I'll also have a quick look at the ability of these devices used as traditional home network media streamers. The beauty of it all is that you can be enjoying classics like the Numa Numa video tonight from the comfort of your living room.
Method 1: Xbox Media Center
If you've been to ProductWiki before, there's no doubt that you've read about my love affair with my soft-modded Xbox running the open-source Xbox Media Center (XBMC) software. Basically, you take an original Microsoft Xbox, do some stuff, and then it becomes this ultimate media box. You may not know that Xbox Media Center has built-in support for the Python scripting language, and that there is a YouTube script included in the most recent releases.
Fire up your modded Xbox and select the up arrow in the bottom right corner. See that YouTube link? That's exactly what you think it is. Once you launch the script, you are presented with a pretty spartan interface designed for you to easily navigate YouTube's top videos, and perform basic search queries. You can use any combination of your Xbox controller, Xbox remote, USB keyboard, or USB mouse to navigate the interface. If you plan on using the Xbox quite a bit for YouTube, I would recommend a wireless keyboard because searching can be quite painstaking with the onscreen keyboard using your Type-S controler.
Price: Approx. $120
- Amazing user-interface
- Strong open-source community
- Plays ALL media formats
- Available HD A/V pack up delivering up to 1080i (see the last "con" point)
- "ancillary" benefits ... winkwink
- Flaky YouTube script sometimes crashes
- YouTube script isn't as nice as the rest of XBMC
- Requires some setup time, and know-how
- Xboxes are getting hard to find (no longer in production)
- Require a special USB adapter for keyboard (if you want it)
- Not powerful enough to stream HD content :(
The bottom line: An amazing versatile solution. However, the setup is not for the feint of heart.
Method 2: Nintendo Wii
The Nintendo Wii hit store shelves this last November and was quickly gobbled up by hardcore Nintendo fanboys the world over. What really caught the media's attention was the innovative Wiimote and Wii nunchuk controller. These new controller designs offer a completely new experience to gaming. Beneath all of the hype of huge overnight store lineups, and Wii deaths, Nintendo released a pretty slick integration of the geek and mobile popular Opera web browser. So what does that mean to you YouTube fans? That's right, out-of-the-box YouTube browsing using the Wiimote.
Hook up your Wii to your home wireless network and he Opera browser can be downloaded using the Wii interface (free for the time being). You navigate pages by pointing the Wiimote much like you would use a mouse on your computer. An on-screen keyboard pops up for text entry, and you have the ability to zoom in on the web pages as you browse. This feature is useful when browsing YouTube, because it allows you place the video full-screen on your TV.
- The Wiimote is a great input device for the Web (mouse/remote hybrid)
- Robust Opera web browser [link]
- Fantastic user-interface, and experience
- Simple setup
- Not limited to YouTube. Browse the entire web.
- Supports only 480p with upgrade component cables
- The Wii is *still* difficult to find (try eBay)
- Only wireless connectivity out of the box (wired adapter available)
- Almost no network media streaming capabilities
The bottom line: A beautiful web browser that works right of the box for cheap, but lacking the versatility of a media streamer.
Method 3: Next-generation media streamers
The hot item this year at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas were network devices that stream video, and other media to your home TV. All of the products provide promise for a great picture with 1080p HDMI outputs, great network connectivity (both WiFi and ethernet). I've summarized two of the biggest headliners:
Sling Media SlingCatcher
Sling Media is best known for their SlingBox, a device that delivers your home TV experience to your PC or mobile device anywhere in the world. They've introduce the SlingCatcher to do the exact opposite. It brings your PC to your TV set. The SlingCatcher connects to your home network over ethernet or WiFi and provides a direct interface to your computer. Introduced to the public at CES 2007, and a lot of the details about this device aren't known. Expect to see it on the store shelves sometime this summer.
- Great alternative to a home theater PC.
- Require a PC.
- Not available yet. Coming in the summer 2007.
- Not much known about the specifics.
The bottom line: A pretty good, cheap way to bring your PC to your TV, but there are a lot of questions about the interface, because not much is known.
Netgear Digital Entertainer EVA8000
Netgear moved into the lead of the mainstream hardware media streaming race when they showcased the EVA8000 at this year's CES. This hardware solution connects to the web over ethernet or WiFi, but unlike the SlingCatcher is a standalone streamer, meaning that no PC is required. Netgear is proud to brag about their native YouTube support, but their is no word on how great the interface is or how it will work. The Digital Entertainer also provides robust media streaming capabilities that will rival XBMC (wait, did I just say that?). The kicker, is that this thing outputs 1080p over its HDMI output!
- Versatile media streaming
- Native YouTube support
- Great network connectivity
- Simple setup. No need for a PC.
- HD streaming. 1080p!!!
- Fairly expensive
- Unsure about the interface
- Not available yet. Coming soon.
The bottom line: This is video-philes dream. The Digital Entertainer delivers 1080p video and can play both YouTube and network streams. You're locked into Netgear's interface, though. We'll have to see what they come up with.
Method 4: Home theater PC
The most straight forward way to get the YouTube experience from your computer to your TV is simply to hook up a PC to your to your set directly. You'll want to shop around for HTPC computers that have been designed for the task. A typical HTPC will look a lot more like an home theater component than a PC, will run quiet and will be loaded with a bank of audio/visual inputs and outputs to make your setup a breeze. You'll also want to setup a wireless mouse and keyboard to make the browsing experience that much more enjoyable. To get YouTube up and running, it's as simple as loading your favorite web browser and pointing it to youtube.com.
The beauty of the HTPC solution is that you get all of the functionality that you're used to from your PC including access to your music, video, and photos. You can also check your email, browse the web, and do all of your standard computing tasks. If you want significant improvements to the user-interface then you'll want to load Windows Media Center Edition, Windows Vista, or the free, open-source Media Portal software.
- Powerful. Can do anything your computer can, because it is one!
- Lots of choice.
- Expensive $$$
- Can be loud because of cooling fan and hard drive noise
- The web interface isn't optimized for TV
- The box can look ugly unless you're smart or pay good money
The bottom line: A versatile, straight forward solution that requires lots of $$$ and setup time.
Conclusions and Recommendations
Home theater video streaming is a hot topic right now, with all of the major players jumping on the bandwagon. The great thing about this foray into hardware video streaming, it has given the consumer a lot to choose from. There are other more proprietary IPTV technologies hitting the market like the Apple TV, or rumours of Microsoft strking a deal with AT&T to deliver IPTV to your Xbox 360. However, I think the real winners in this marketplace will be open, free solutions like those mentioned in this article.
I think your choice of solution depends on your personality and your particular needs. Here are my recommendations:
a) If you want YouTube on your TV and powerful media streaming capabilities, and aren't afraid of getting your hands a little dirty, go for the Xbox+XBMC.
b) If you want the best YouTube/web solution, and don't care much for media streaming, get the Nintendo Wii. It's beautiful, simple, and inexpensive.
c) If video quality, versatility, and simplicity is paramount, have no idea what a "softmod" is, and don't mind the wait, get the Netgear Digital Entertainer when it comes out.
Now, we just need the YouTubes of the world to publish higher quality video streams, because those heavily pixelated Flash videos just don't cut it when they're blown up on a 60+" HDTV.