In Search of the Über Set-top Box

We have many holiday traditions around our house, and one of them is talking about the latest consumer electronics. So as I was sitting on my couch the other night, staring at my cable set-top box (STB) and TiVo DVR, a thought came to me – where is the next-generation STB that we’ve been hearing about for at least the past three years? You know, the über STB with HD, TiVo, networking, storage and more, the one that will be the center of home entertainment?

I’ve done a considerable amount of looking and I have yet to find it. I know about the latest TiVo boxes, Apple TV, Vudu, Microsoft’s Media Center and the numerous ways that I could build something and get close to what I desire, but there is no one, integrated product that has the features I want.

What do I want, exactly? To start, the next-gen STB has to be drop-dead gorgeous, as it will more than likely occupy a prominent place in my living room and I’ll have to look at it for some time. So I expect great design, reminiscent of the latest Apple product, with a simple-to-use user interface. It should also be compact in size — no larger than a standard STB today — and work with multiple universal remotes, such as the Harmony line made by Logitech.

I need high-definition output (1080p) with a TiVo DVR (not a clone) built in and an HD-DVD/Blu-ray player. Beyond these features (which I consider table stakes), I’d like to see the next-gen STB have at least 500GB of storage, which could be expanded through the use of a firewire or USB 2.0 disk drives, as well as slots for an SD memory card that can be used to upload files and photos. The box needs to run a Samba-like fileserver to either allow access to all of the content on these storage devices from any computer in my house or allow me to use this storage as part of my file backup system.

On the networking and connectivity front, the next-gen STB would need to function as a wireless router and switch, providing Internet connectivity, firewall, anti-virus, anti-spyware and malware protection. An IEEE802.11b/g/n wireless access point and at least five separate gigabit Ethernet ports for local connections are also desired features. For video connectivity, I’d expect an HDMI interface and, at some point, support for a wireless HDMI interface.

Beyond features, the STB would, of course, need to be able to access content. Now I consume both music and video content, so this STB would have to be able to stream music, and a built-in cradle for my iPod would be a plus. As for video content, I know that most of what I watch on TV would either come from my provider’s walled garden or from shows I would request, on demand. I’d like to be able to use this next-gen STB to access content streamed via IPTV from any content provider on the Internet, but until the carriers here in the U.S. deploy enough fiber or VDSL to provide a reliable 12 megabits per second to my house (I’m imagining that I’ll want two simultaneous HD sources of content at approximately six megabits per second each), I will stick with my cable provider.

Finally, while I am a fan of on-demand and streaming Internet video, I understand that all of the content that I want to watch is not accessible yet. Call me a video quality snob, but I’m not ready to plop down on the couch and watch a small, grainy video from YouTube on my plasma screen. That being said, I expect the next-gen STB to have the proper codecs and client support for Adobe’s Flash, Microsoft’s Silverlight, Apple’s Quicktime and others for watching Internet video. Typing in URLs of Internet video with a remote control would be tiresome, so there should be a mechanism by which I can transfer a video playlist from a local computer to the STB – imagine surfing to the content you want in a browser and dragging and dropping URLs onto an icon of the STB, which then interprets them as menu choices.

OK it’s a long wish list, but it’s that time of year. Anyone care to take a stab at when I may have my next-gen STB wishes fulfilled? And from which vendor? Maybe you’ll start a new holiday tradition at your house.