Photo by Rob Penner/movie still: Courtesy Everett Collection
Many of us remember having roughly half a dozen TV shows available at any given moment, period. Slowly but surely we gained more choices and more control, through UHF and VCRs, then cable and satellite. And now, thanks to the Internet, there are literally millions of videos at your disposal, from professionally produced shows created especially for the Web to goofy clips posted on YouTube to online feature films from Netflix and Amazon. But why stay hunched over a computer to enjoy this cornucopia of content when you can sit comfortably on the couch and watch Internet video on the biggest screen in the house, your HDTV set? There are several ways to make it happen – here are the pros and cons of each.
Connect Your Computer to the TV
More and more laptop and desktop computers come with HDMI output — the same single-cable video and audio connection used for Blu-ray players and high-def cable and satellite boxes. Just buy an HDMI cable, connect the computer to an available HDMI port on the TV and you're basically in business. I say "basically" because you may have to change a setting on the computer to get the picture to pop up on the TV (the info should be in the user manual). And for Mac folks, you'll need an HDMI adapter for any model other than the Mac Mini (see Apple's support page.)
See also: Demystifying HDTV terminology.
With this approach, anything on the Internet is fair game for high-def viewing. The only tricky part is controlling the computer from the couch. You could buy a long HDMI cable and hold your laptop, or keep it on the coffee table, but that lacks elegance. Leaving the laptop near the TV and using a wireless mouse and keyboard are also options — some wireless keyboards even have a built-in touchpad to serve as a mouse substitute.
"Smart" TVs and Blu-ray Players
A major trend in recent HDTV and Blu-ray players is Internet connectivity, providing built-in access to Web-based entertainment and information. There are two ways to get at these online goodies – through a single-purpose "app" that lets you access a specific online service, or through a Web browser. Each has its pros and cons when it comes to watching online video.
Like an app on a smartphone, a smart TV app gives you one-click access, without having to worry about typing in a Web address. Of course, since you need a different app for every service, the screen can start to get cluttered. A smart TV or Blu-ray player will come with apps for online video services such as Netflix, Amazon Instant Video and Hulu Plus, though the specific services available vary from manufacturer to manufacturer. You'll also find apps to access music, photos, news and more. Still, there are lots of online video sources that aren't available in a handy app package.
That's where the browser alternative kicks in. Both LG and Samsung offer smart TVs and Blu-ray players with full-fledged Web browsers. This gives you lots of freedom to Web surf as you please, if you can get over one hurdle: entering Web addresses. On its higher-priced sets, LG delivers a cool remote that works like a Wii videogame controller — a pointer moves on the screen as you move your hand in the air. That lets you type in Web addresses by pointing at an on-screen picture of a keyboard. Easy to understand, but letter-by-letter input is a little tedious.
Samsung took a different approach, with a dual-sided controller that has a small keyboard right on the back. It's not a bad system, as long as you have slender fingers and good aim.
Panasonic takes an apps-only approach to its smart TVs. That's true for Sony, too, for the most part, but they do offer a few sets and a Blu-ray player incorporating the Google TV system discussed below.
Video Streaming Devices
You don't have to buy a new TV or Blu-ray player to add Internet viewing to your entertainment options. There are several add-on boxes designed to stream Internet video to your existing television.
One popular brand is Roku, which recently introduced an updated line of players priced from $59.99 to $99.99. The Roku players have both economy and simplicity on their side. Basically, you choose from a variety of "channels" to watch all sorts of programs, from movies to cooking shows to sports (free and paid) — you'll find a complete list on the Roku website. While all three Roku models dish up the same channels, the least expensive Roku 2 HD model tops out at 720p video resolution (a notch below the top 1080p, which the $79.99 Roku 2 XD supports). And the $99.99 version adds a slick remote control that lets you play games (the ever-popular Angry Birds is included) plus a USB port for enjoying your own video, audio and photo files stored on a USB stick.
If the Roku video selection isn't wide-ranging enough for you, the $199 Boxee Box from D-Link will expand your options in two ways. It has a greater selection of mainstream and niche video sources — you'll find the list under apps, movies and TV shows on the Boxee site. The Boxee box also has the built-in Web browser that the Roku system lacks. The company took the dual-sided remote approach, so it takes some manual dexterity to hit those small buttons. And while there's lots of video available, getting around in the Boxee menu system can be confusing.
Apple has a dog in this fight as well with its $99 Apple TV system. This strikingly compact box with its elegant brushed-metal controller and sleek on-screen display give you access to movies and TV shows available through the iTunes store, plus your own iTunes music collection and a few additional streaming video channels, including Netflix, YouTube and the paid MLB.TV and NBA services. Your choice of online video sources with Apple TV is more limited than other systems. There are no niche-interest channels, and no Web browser. On the plus side, Apple TV is very easy to use and, while the slim and sexy remote makes tapping out individual letters to search for videos a pain in the neck, downloadable remote control software for iPhone, iPod and iPad lets you use an on-screen keyboard.
Finally there's Google TV, the system built into the Logitech Revue product, which recently saw a price drop from $249 to a much more user-friendly $99. You get a full-featured Web browser with an actual computer-style keyboard, complete with touchpad for mousing around. Some people complain about using a keyboard to control their TV, and there are more compact alternatives; a smaller remote control as an optional accessory, and downloadable remote control software for smartphones and tablets. But for browsing and searching, you really can't beat the convenience of a keyboard that's actually built for typing.
Here again, there are preset apps available, though the selection is fairly limited right now. Where this gets interesting, though, is a software upgrade promised by the end of the summer that adds an Android Market service, similar to the one found on Android phones, for downloading new apps to the system. Frankly, it's too early to know whether software developers will jump on board and unleash a flood of apps for your Google-fied HDTV. Even if they don't, though, you still have the most practical solution for enjoying browser-based entertainment on your big-screen TV, at a reasonable price.