The problem with digital-video content has always been the same: How do you enjoy all the content that is on your PC from the comfort of your living room sofa? For a few years, the solution has been to use network video streamers--little boxes that do little other than stream the content from a PC or attached storage drive and convert it into a signal suitable for your home theater. While those boxes are still around, you should think twice before buying one now that many similarly-priced Blu-ray disc players offer much of the same video-streaming functionality.
For example, we recently reviewed several stand-alone streaming products, such as the Uebo M200, Seagate FreeAgent GoFlex, and the WD TV Live Plus, that generally cost between $100 and $150. While these boxes have a few unique features, their main task, streaming your digital media--such as MP3s, DivX movies and JPEG photos--and online media services--such as Netflix, YouTube, and Pandora--are also available on the $140 Samsung BD-C5500 Blu-ray player. And if you're willing to spend a little bit more money, you can snag the LG BD570 for about $165, and it has built-in Wi-Fi connectivity. For about $50 more than the cost of an Ethernet-only network video streamer, you can add a solid Wi-Fi capable Blu-ray player to your home theater. (And if you're willing to spend even more money, the Xbox 360 and PS3 Slim have network-video streaming capabilities and are excellent values.)
Set-top boxes that focus on purely online video services, like the Roku Digital Video Player and upcoming Logitech Revue Google TV box, are in danger of becoming redundant as inexpensive Blu-ray players add more features. While we still think the Roku is a solid product with its current features and price level, Blu-ray players continue to get cheaper and offer more features every year. We won't be surprised if we see entry-level Blu-ray players selling for $100 next year, complete with Google TV, so it's hard to see how Roku will continue to distinguish itself from the competition.
Of course, the real (always unspoken) purpose of network media streamers is often to help those are pirating videos to watch it on their TVs. Network media streamers will continue to serve a niche market for those who need to be able to playback the wild assortment of codecs and file containers used in the BitTorrent scene. But as legitimate streaming services like Netflix and Amazon VOD become more affordable and easy to use, we imagine that market will shrink even further, shrinking the market for network video streamers with it.