CES: Netgear tries again with Internet set-top boxes

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LAS VEGAS -- The press conferences had scarcely started at the 2009 International Consumer Electronics Show before Netgear demonstrated a new product that epitomizes one of the dominant themes of the show: a device that brings online video to the TV set. Two versions, in fact. In doing so, the company (probably unintentionally) showed what was wrong with previous efforts to bridge the PC-TV gap, and what’s still missing from today’s -- including its own.

The niftier of the two Netgear gadgets is the ITV3000, due this summer for about $200. The size of a small book, it can stream videos directly from the Internet without the aid of a PC. And unlike Netgear’s first venture in this field three years ago -- dubbed the Digital Entertainer -- it can access a broad array of video sites online, including YouTube, and MetaCafe. It supports paid movie downloads from CinemaNow, and, ahem, not-so-legitimate files downloaded through the BitTorrent protocol (a favorite of online movie pirates). It also offers a smart search function that can retrieve streaming videos from the Web at large, and curated collections of sites.


The other device is an updated version of the Digital Entertainer, the EVA9150, due next month for about $400. The product has evolved into a high-definition video jukebox, with half a terabyte of built-in storage to collate the video from the owner’s home network. It also can stream videos from a selected menu of sites.

What neither device can do is take users wherever they might happen to want to go. Vivek Pathela, Netgear’s general manager of home and consumer products, said the company would update the boxes regularly with new sources of video, but users won’t be able to add to the list themselves. (The EVA9150 lets users enter URLs, but there’s no guarantee the box can support the videos streamed or downloaded from there.) And there are a few notable missing pieces: Hulu, which is absent for technical and business reasons (Pathela said they’re working on a licensing deal), Flickr and MySpace.

Maybe users won’t care. As Pathela noted, YouTube streams 40% of the videos online, and the overall demand for online video is mind-boggling. According to a recent ComScore report, Pathela said, online video drew 150 million U.S. viewers in October alone, with 135 billion videos streamed -- up more than 50% from October 2007. The ITV3000 certainly supplies far more video than earlier iterations, and the user interface is much slicker. But it’s also one more box users would have to add to their home entertainment center, one that requires a speedy broadband connection in the living room (Netgear helpfully supplies a variety of wireless and power-line adapters, albeit for an extra fee).

-- Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times’ Opinion Manufacturing Division.