Should I Get a Set-Top Box or a Smart TV?

Tech Talker compares smart TVs to media centers.

Eric Escobar
4-minute read
Episode #78


In a recent episode, I talked about smart TVs and all of the features they included. If you haven’t listened to that episode I recommend checking out Tech Talker Episode 77. In this week’s episode, I’ll be talking about media centers and set-top boxes that are very similar to smart TVs.>

What Is a Media Center/Set-Top Box?

A set-top box or media center often has many features in common with a smart TV. These devices generally have internet connections, can stream services such as Netflix , Hulu, and Pandora, and can give your TV tons of apps.

However, these devices are sold separately from your TV and are attached to it, like a DVR or DVD player or game console. A set-top box acts as another input into your TV. This can add an extra layer of complexity to your tangle of wires but it might be worth the added features.

Now, why would you want an extra device when you could have it built into your TV? Well, for one, it’s a much more economical option. Oftentimes TVs labeled as “smart” are priced at a premium because of that. Buying a non-smart (or dumb) TV and then adding one of these set-top boxes could dramatically reduce the price of your entertainment system. This is because most of these set-top boxes cost around $100, which is far less than the premium you’d pay for buying a smart TV versus a dumb one.

Product Comparison

You’ve probably heard of many of the popular set-top boxes I’m going to be mentioning in this episode such as the Apple TV, Roku, and Boxee Cloud DVR.

Now let’s cover some of the features that these set-top boxes/media centers have. Just like smart TVs, all of these devices have internet streaming video, such as Netflix, and they also have the ability to play content on the internet from various sources.

One of the most popular of these devices is the Apple TV. This is because it’s relatively cheap at around $100, and it is extremely easy to use especially if you have other Apple products in your home. I love being able to push video from my smaller devices, like the iPad or iPhone, to my Apple TV over my wireless network. It requires just the press of a button which makes it super easy to use. If you want to know more about this feature, simply type the word “Airplay” into your search engine. The only downside to the Apple TV is that your media access is focused on the iTunes store as opposed to some other cheaper options for purchasing and streaming media.

Next is the Roku. I’ve been a fan of Roku for a long time. It’s a super simple set-top box similar to the Apple TV. There are 4 types of Roku, ranging in price from $50 to $100. All are incredibly simple to use and have all of the same channels as the Apple TV, plus a few more. What I really like about the Roku is that it has an app called Plex. This app allows you to stream media from another device on your home network. So if you have a bunch of videos stored on a network drive or another computer, you can easily access those and view them on your TV. This is great if you have an extensive music, movie, TV show, and home movie collection that you want to be able to access any time you want.

At about $200, the Boxee Box is pricier than the other two options I just mentioned, but it has a lot more customizability and works particularly well if you have an extremely large media collection. The built-in software can organize your media into libraries where it can download information about the media, and can even connect to your social media for recommendations from friends and family. It also has the Apple “Airplay” feature! There’s also an option where you can integrate your live TV with your Boxee allowing for a more unified experience.

DIY Media Center

These 3 options are all great products that work right out of the box. However, if you’d like to save some money you might want to think about creating your own media center or set-top box from some old hardware you probably have lying around. For example, I was given an old computer that was not very powerful and was about 5 years old. It couldn’t run most new software, but it could definitely still play videos.

I downloaded a free piece of software called XBMC onto this old computer, hooked it up to my TV, and voila, I got an awesome set-top box that had a ton of different apps, plus Apple’s Airplay, networked media playing capabilities, and a whole host of other features similar to the other set-top boxes.

This would be a great project if you have an old computer, a laptop with a broken screen, or even a Raspberry Pi!

This option is a little bit more complicated, but if you’re up for a fun DIY project, you can save yourself a ton of money by making your own set-top box!

With that, here are your 4 Quick and Dirty Tips on set-top boxes and media centers:

  1. Buying a dumb TV and a set-top box is oftentimes much cheaper than buying a smart TV with the same features.

  2. Set-top boxes offer almost all of the same features as smart TVs for a fraction of the price.

  3. Set-top boxes add another device to your TV set-up which might not work if you’re going for a sleek design or reduced clutter.

  4. If Apple TV, Roku, and Boxee Box are too expensive for you, check out XBMC to recycle an old computer you might have lying around the house.

Well, that’s it for today! Be sure to check out all my earlier episodes at techtalker.quickanddirtytips.com. And if you have further questions about this podcast or want to make a suggestion for a future episode, post them on Facebook.com/QDTtechtalker.

Until next time, I’m the Tech Talker, keeping technology simple!

Family Watching TV image from Shutterstock

About the Author

Eric Escobar

Tech Talker demystifies technology and cutting edge devices so that even the most tech illiterate can understand what's going on with their computer or gadget — and what to do when something goes wrong.

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