Is there a future for £100+ media players?

This week, I wrote a piece for Register Hardware, rounding up some of the best media players of 2010. Looking at a range of products for that, it struck me that the market for a lot of them may well disappear, or at least become much smaller in the next year or so. Essentially, I’d be surprised if anything priced much over £100 does terribly well.

Why do I think that? Take a look at what you can get for £100. There’s the Apple TV, which isn’t without its flaws (principally, Apple’s “you get what we say you can have” approach to format support), but is easy to use, neat and at a price where many people will think it’s worth it. And there are similar products below the £100 mark which do equally well.

There are plenty of media players that cost a lot more – like the Popcorn Hour models, for example, and even the Boxee box is about £200. Sure, some of these are very flexible. They’re also, to a degree, a bit geeky – you might want wide-ranging format support if you grab lots of material via torrents, but a lot of people don’t need absolutely everything, and certainly not at upwards of £300 for some of these boxes.

The general public, it’s important to remember, will often settle for “good enough,” and it’s hard to convince them to spend more by saying “ah yes, but this one will handle DTS sound on MKV files.”

And, with capabilities that have come on by leaps and bounds in the last couple of years, ‘connected’ TV sets from most major manufacturers are able to do a lot of the things that a home media streamer can do. In some cases, like some of the Samsung and LG sets, the format support is extremely good – they’ll play just about everything you throw at them.

For those who aren’t ready to buy a whole new TV, an increasing number of set top boxes offer streaming too, like the Humax HD-Fox T2. These might not have the broadest format support in the world, but for a lot of people it’s good enough.

In suspect that some people will want to dip their toe in media streaming at around the £100 price – Apple TV, for instance, or some of the even cheaper units.

Spend a little more than that, and £140 will get you the Humax Freeview HD receiver, with media streaming built in. And it can even record via USB. I think many people will be reluctant to spend £300 on a high end media player when the same money will get you a Freeview HD twin tuner recorder that can also play streaming media, and with forthcoming updates will offer iPlayer, SkyPlayer, and eventually the ability to stream from its own hard drive.

Those on a still higher budget may well decide that if they choose a TV that has good playback functionality built in, they don’t need a media player at all – the TV will offer them everything, with one remote as well.

So, who’s really going to want to spend more than £100 on a media player in future?

3 Replies to “Is there a future for £100+ media players?”

  1. The most frustrating thing about media streaming on the more ‘mainstream’ devices (e.g. TVs, PVRs and Blu-Ray players) is that it can be very difficult to know exactly what formats will be supported.

    I recently considered buying the Sony BDPS370 but had to trawl through forums to find out if the media streaming was any good. In the end I decided that it probably wouldn’t play a lot of the media I have so went for the WD TV Live instead.

  2. The Samsung TV I have (8000 series from 2009) works pretty well for playing back MKV files, but severely lacks the tweakability factor I’m used to in XBMC. It’s a shame that Samsung et al, seem resistant to people coding up firmware modifications, whereas the Topfield PVR encouraged it via the use of TAPs.

    In spite of this, the SamyGo firmware project is making good progress adding in extra features to the Samsung TV media player.. adding support for DTS and embedded subtitles. You just run a small risk of bricking your TV, and certainly void the warranty, which is why I’ve avoided it so far. In fact, I think I’d rather spend ~100 on a WDTV Live and know it covers off a lot more formats.

    I think there is a market for > 100 media players if that means building a mini-itx system and loading XBMC onto it. That box can act as your NAS as well as probably the best media player there is 🙂

  3. Well, yes, there will be people who do that – but that is the ‘geek’ end of things. A small number of companies will make a modest living out of that, but I don’t think it’ll be a big part of the market.

    For most people, the WD TV Live, or the Viewsonic VMP74 and similar bits of kit will do just fine.

    Boxee may get the tech crowd chattering, but without lots of great content, it’s hard to see what makes it worth the extra £100 for most people.

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