By now, you're used to watching all kinds of video via the Web. You get caught up on your favorite TV shows with Hulu, enjoy a movie or two with Netflix Instant Watch, maybe even sneak in a cat video or two (or a dozen) on YouTube during your lunch break at work. You're used to searching the Web to find what you want to watch when you want to watch it.
The moment you're home, though, you turn on your TV, tune in, and zone out--no interaction or Internet required. Nothing on? Guess you'll watch some Law & Order: Criminal Intent reruns. That Vincent D'Onofrio--whatever happened to him, anyway? If only your TV was a little bit more like your PC.
"Smart TV" is the new hot buzzword these days. Imagine, for a moment, that your HDTV combined the simplicity of the normal TV-and-remote experience with the powerful search features and video-on-demand libraries you're accustomed to on the Web. Toss in social networking, photo sharing, music, gaming, and a hundred kinds of Web content. That's what "smart TV" means. It means never needing to settle for anything less than having what you want to watch (or hear, or play) running in big-screen glory right now, while you master the universe from the couch with your all-powerful remote.
Don't let all the TV and tech companies out there fool you, however. You have many ways to make your existing TV smarter, other than just buying a new connected TV with all the bells and whistles built in. You don't have to purchase a brand-new PC or yet another set-top box, either. And you don't have to let your cable-TV subscription hold your eyeballs (or your wallet) hostage with hundreds of channels you'll never watch. Instead, we'll walk you through the products and services that can feed the Web through your TV--without breaking the bank.
Looking to buy a new HDTV? Choose the right TV--one that connects directly to the Internet--and you can enjoy loads of Web features and apps without having to buy any add-ons or boxes. But choosing may not be easy: All the major TV manufacturers now have some package of Internet-connected features built into their midrange and high-end models.
In early Internet-connected TVs, packages included only a few additional "channels"--Netflix Instant Watch, YouTube, and a few video-rental services like Amazon Instant Video, CinemaNow, and Vudu. Connected-television features have since advanced quickly. New connected TV sets come packed with apps, games, and Internet video channels, often with options exclusive to the manufacturer.
Cost: You'll have to pay for the television (usually $1000 to $2000 now for midrange to high-end sets). The good news: You don't necessarily have to pay a premium for an Internet-connected TV: Some manufacturers, such as Vizio, sell low-end models that are priced in the $750 to $830 range.
The cost of an HDTV will generally depend on the set's size and on its panel technology (a 50-inch plasma set will cost more than a 50-inch LED one). And you won't have to pay for access to the smart-TV service itself--just for the subscriptions to specific services such as Hulu Plus or Netflix, as well as the video-download rental fees.
Advantages: Connected TVs are simple and elegant. You can use your TV's own remote; you don't need to worry about running extra power cords or audio/video cables as you do with a set-top box or a home theater PC; and many HDTV sets include built-in Wi-Fi support (so you don't even need to plug an ethernet cable into the back).
What's more, newer TV sets often come with new remote controls that make it easier to use the Internet features. For example, LG's Magic Motion remote is a gesture-oriented remote control similar to the Nintendo Wii controller (just point the remote at the TV to move your cursor) and is designed to let you more easily use the built-in Web browser of LG sets. Vizio's high-end sets include a Bluetooth remote with a slide-out keyboard to facilitate typing.
Disadvantages: Connected TVs aren't particularly versatile. If your set-top box doesn't have a channel you want, you can go buy a new one, but you won't be able to do such a thing so easily with a big, expensive HDTV. Also, if you're big on live TV, you'll still need your cable-TV subscription, as the Internet features are mostly on-demand video only.
Advanced tips: Most connected TVs include USB ports and DLNA support (see the glossary on the second page, near the end of this article), meaning that you can watch your locally stored video, photos, and music from a USB drive by plugging it straight into your TV or from other PCs on your network--handy for the times when the video you want to watch is sitting on your PC in the den.
Future-proof? Yes--but only if you choose wisely. Although early Internet features in HDTVs looked pitiful compared with what a standard set-top box could offer, the big players in the HDTV market (LG, Panasonic, Samsung, Sony, and Vizio) are each looking to make their Web-connected TV sets your entertainment hub by adding new features, video channels, and even their own app stores. For example, Panasonic's Viera Connect Internet features include Facebook, Skype, Twitter, and even downloadable games from Gameloft in addition to a whole host of media-streaming services like Amazon Instant Video, Hulu Plus, Netflix, and Pandora.
A relatively inexpensive, simple, and easy-to-install way to add more channels to your TV, set-top boxes vary in size, shape, and content selection. They rely on your home Internet connection to stream media from Internet sources such as Hulu, Netflix, YouTube, and many other video-on-demand channels. Consider them a supplement to your cable subscription, rather than a replacement, since they won't have much in the way of live TV programming.
Right now, Roku's box leads the pack with a very broad channel selection, but since it doesn't support DLNA, you can't use it to access the music, photos, or videos stored on your network's PCs. Some other contenders in the field, such as Western Digital's WD TV Live series, do support DLNA.
If you're already heavily invested in music and movies from the iTunes Store, go for an Apple TV box--you'll be able to stream your existing iTunes content from your home network's iTunes libraries. For both the versatility of a full Web browser in your HDTV and a search feature that could cover your satellite-TV listings, locally stored recordings, and the Web, grab a Google TV set-top box like the Logitech Revue.
Also in this category are game consoles (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Wii) and Internet-connected Blu-ray players. While not dedicated Internet TV gadgets, they have Hulu Plus, Netflix, DLNA support, and other Internet-connected features.
Cost: $60 to $250 plus subscription fees (when applicable).
Advantages: Set-top boxes are very easy to set up and use, and they typically don't cost very much. Also, new services tend to be added to the selection over time--the longer you own the box, the more content it should be able to deliver.
Disadvantages: Most set-top boxes don't include a full Web browser, so you can't always watch the videos you want, especially if your favorite shows are found only at live streaming sites or from the TV networks. And, as noted, you don't have many options for streaming live TV with a set-top box.
Advanced tips: You can hack most set-top boxes, including the Apple TV and the Roku, to add new features, channels, and applications. For example, you can jailbreak your Apple TV and install the XBMC media-center app to enable 1080p video playback, which the stock Apple TV doesn't support.
Future-proof? The set-top box's place in the future of smart TV is iffy at best. You can't really do much besides watch the ported Web video. That may be okay for now, but we expect Web video to continue proliferating--and standard set-top boxes will struggle because they lack Web browsers.
While the Web video services that run on set-top boxes often add new channels, you have no guarantee that your set-top box developer will add the ones you want when you want them. But the boxes are relatively cheap, so buying a new one every few years could be one way around that problem.
Apple TV and Google TV have two different approaches to the set-top box. Apple's turns your TV into an extension of your iTunes Library--great if you own a bunch of other iOS devices, or if you prefer to pay the TV/movie rental fees over a subscription fee. Google's offers many of the benefits of a home theater PC, such as a Web browser and (future) access to apps via the Android Market, without the expense or hassle of a full-blown media PC. Also, the search function on Google TV could radically change the way you watch television simply by making it far, far easier to find what you want to watch.
However, even these forward-looking set-tops won't get far unless the various networks and content providers open some doors for them. Hulu, for example, is currently blocking the Google TV browser. All the same, the Apple TV and Google TV platforms are still in their formative period and may both be around long enough to see the day when content owners have come to accept the model these devices use for distributing video. (In an effort to boost Google TV, Google has just bought set-top box maker Sage TV.) We expect that these two set-tops will be the ones to watch over the next few years.
Next: Home Theater PCs, Cable and Cablelike Services, Your Smart TV Program Guide, and a Glossary of Smart TV Terms
Home Theater PCs
If you're at all like me, you were sitting on the living room couch watching an episode of The Wire or Mad Men on a 13-inch laptop screen while your gorgeous 50-inch HDTV sat 5 feet away, completely neglected. And if you're used to finding practically everything you want to watch with your PC, either on streaming Web services or file-sharing services like BitTorrent, you may find it hard to go back to the content limitations of cable. What you want is both, so you connect your PC to your HDTV, and voilà--you have a home theater PC.
Home theater PCs are typically high-end, expensive systems designed to fit in with a true home theater enthusiast's fancy audio/video equipment rack. Obtaining one usually involves paying extra for a special PC case and high-end, low-heat components, but any system capable of playing back 1080p video and connecting to your set through HDMI or another audio/video input can be your TV's connection to Web video.
Cost: You can build a high-end do-it-yourself home theater PC for under $1000. But any modern computer--even a netbook or a nettop mini-PC with the right hardware--could cost you as little as $350, and if you're able to simply repurpose an old machine, your cost could be effectively nothing.
Advantages: A home theater PC is extremely flexible. You can use your computer to play downloaded or streamed video, screen home movies, access shared video from your network, play DVDs and Blu-ray discs, and play PC games on your HDTV. And the cost is hard to beat--all you need is the electricity to power your PC and a broadband Internet connection, which you're already paying for anyway.
Disadvantages: PCs are complicated. If you want to watch a TV show, you need to power the computer up, wait for Windows to boot, and then use a wireless keyboard to navigate to the show. It's not nearly as spontaneous or as instantly gratifying as simply pressing the power button on a remote. And you have to deal with the additional hassle of maintaining another computer--including such matters as security, software updates, broken components, hardware upgrades, and so on.
You must also consider content limitations: For now, at least, you can't get much live TV (news and sports), so you would still need an antenna or cable-TV subscription for that.
Advanced tips: If you want to minimize the PC-ness of the experience, pair your home theater PC up with a decent media-center application, such as the aformentioned XBMC or Windows Media Center (which is built into Windows 7), and an advanced remote control like the Lenovo N5901, which has a built-in keypad and trackball instead of a keyboard and mouse. Also, you can plug an RSS feed of the shows you're watching into a BitTorrent client to automatically download new episodes as they come out.
Future-proof? Yes. Other smart TV options may someday catch up to the flexibility of the media center PC, but until then, you can bet that most of the apps, features, and services you want will come from the open Web. And much of that content relies on PC-friendly Flash to run, which means your PC will continue to be relevant for quite some time.
A desktop PC also lets you add new hardware for more features, such as a Blu-ray drive or a CableCard for watching movies and viewing/recording cable TV via your PC.
Cable & Cablelike Services
High-end services such as Comcast Xfinity, DirecTV, Dish Network, and Verizon FiOS TV are still the gold standard for premium TV and live TV. They typically connect to your TV via a specially designed set-top box from your cable, satellite, or telephone company. You can use them to access whatever video-on-demand libraries your network offers; the boxes also have built-in digital video recorder features to help you make sure you don't miss anything.
But the boxes don't yet have the smart TV chops of the setups described previously, and only a few providers are actively trying to develop the Internet-content aspect of their offerings.
AT&T has no Web video in its "triple-play" (Internet, telephone, and TV) U-verse service, and very little nonvideo Web content--just a couple of "interactive" Web apps (weather, sports) and photo sharing via Flickr.
Verizon is a little better. Its FiOS TV "widgets" are a simple way to get Facebook, YouTube, local traffic, and weather on your TV. The FiOS Media Manager app lets you watch FiOS videos on a PC and view locally stored media on the TV.
Dish Network may be the most progressive of all. Three of the company's DVRs are compatible with Google TV's search features through the Logitech Revue set-top box, which Dish Network resells to its subscribers at a reduced rate.
Cost: Services are pricey--and can vary from $50 a month to $150 a month, depending on your plan and whether you're still getting a new-subscriber promotional rate. With the exception of Dish Network's Google TV offering, the limited Web content the various services offer won't cost you extra.
Advantages: Cable services are the go-to source for premium and live TV. You may not need (or even want) all 250 channels you're paying for, but they're likely to look very good, especially the high-definition and, increasingly, the 3D channels. And you don't have to deal with troubleshooting equipment or updating buggy software--everything (usually) works, and technicians are available to help with serious problems.
Disadvantages: Don't expect any deeply integrated Internet features in your cable TV service anytime soon--no Web browser or fancy remote with a keyboard for quickly searching for Web content. Also, services can get fairly expensive: $70 per month might not seem so bad at first, but that's $840 each year (not counting taxes or installation fees)--enough to buy a budget 42-inch TV, a Roku, and a Netflix subscription.
Advanced tips: While the cablelike services don't offer much Web content, most are focusing on the "TV everywhere" concept. That is, they're moving to make their material viewable on a finite number of stationary and mobile screens. All of the major TV providers offer Android and iOS mobile apps that let you browse TV listings and schedule DVR recordings, and some have apps that let you stream video (generally both live TV and DVR recordings) to your tablet or smartphone.
If you get landline phone service from your TV provider, you might also have a few neat features that connect the two, such as voicemail management or caller ID through your TV.
Future-proof? The great advantage of the triple-play services is that the TV programming usually rides into the home on the same pipe as the Internet service (and the phone service). This setup creates a huge potential for integrating Internet features (such as apps, chat, music, and video) into the curated cable content. At present, however, TV providers haven't gone a long way toward realizing that potential.
Your Smart TV Program Guide
If you're new to the world of Internet TV, all this talk of "VOD" and "Hulu" and "Vudu" might sound like a whole bunch of, well, voodoo. Here's a quick guide to the major streaming services you should look for in your next set-top box or connected TV--or should have bookmarked in your home theater PC's Web browser.
Hulu Plus: Since its launch in 2008, Hulu has made waves by offering a (legal!) way to get episodes of current television series free on the Web. To access Hulu from a set-top box or connected TV, you'll need a subscription to Hulu's premium service, Hulu Plus ($8 per month, one-week free trial). Your Hulu Plus subscription also gets you access to a catalog of movies (including a Criterion Collection set) and over 29,000 episodes of older TV archives, though you'll still have to watch the occasional ad.
Netflix: It's not just a DVD rent-by-mail service. In fact, its Instant Watch streaming service (which provides both television and movies online) is now the primary source of Internet traffic in North America, and if you're tired of DVDs, you can opt for the streaming-only subscription plan for $8 a month. But only a portion of its catalog is available on Instant Watch.
Online video rental: Besides subscription services like Hulu Plus and Netflix, you'll want access to at least one video-rental service--Amazon Instant Video, Blockbuster, CinemaNow, Vudu, and so on. Each service has a slightly different selection, but the basic idea is the same: Rent a movie by download for up to $4 for a new release, or purchase a desired download for around $15.
VOD: Video on demand--services that lets you play the video or program you want when you want.
YouTube: The Web's largest video-sharing site, YouTube is widely available on most set-top boxes and connected TVs for free. But YouTube navigation and search can be particularly laborious unless your remote is Internet-ready (keyboard, motion features, touchpad, and so forth). Also, some older YouTube client apps have problems playing high-definition videos, and in that case you might end up with a horribly pixelated, low-res video on your HDTV if you're not careful.
Sports: You may be able to stream the game you missed via an on-demand streaming app that keeps box scores, highlights, and sometimes the entire game. Pick your favorite mobile device, install the app, and you can catch sports whenever and wherever you want.
Other media apps: Plenty of the streaming media services you likely already use on your computer have apps available for your connected TV or set-top box--Napster, Pandora, and Slacker Radio for music, Flickr and Picasa for photos, and social media apps such as Facebook.
A Glossary of Smart TV Terms
If you wonder what HDCP or a dozen other terms mean, here's a quick guide.
BitTorrent: A popular file-sharing protocol that people often use to distribute copyrighted video. The BitTorrent protocol itself isn't illegal, but using it to download TV shows and movies that were released under the usual copyright protections generally is.
Component video: A common set of analog ports (red, green, and blue) for high-def video. Technically, a component-video connection can deliver video up to 1080p resolution ("Full HD").
Composite video: The ubiquitous red-white-yellow ports are for composite video. However, because composite video (an analog format) cannot deliver high-def video, avoid using composite-video ports whenever possible.
DisplayPort: A newer display connector employed primarily for connecting laptop and desktop PCs to computer displays. But don't expect to use it to connect your PC to your TV--at least not at this point.
DLNA: Digital Living Network Alliance. DLNA is a standard that enables your HDTV, PC, and other gadgets to talk to one another and share media over a network. For example, an Xbox 360 hooked up to your HDTV can stream video located on your desktop PC in your home office.
DVI: The current standard for most desktop PC displays. Some TVs have a DVI port, which can be useful. The DVI video signal is identical to the HDMI signal, so if your PC supports only DVI video-out, a cheap adapter can connect your PC's DVI port to your HDTV's HDMI port.
HDCP: High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection--a form of digital video copy-protection technology developed by Intel. If you use DVI, HDMI, or another digital video format to deliver video on your TV, you can play back HDCP-encrypted video at full resolution without a problem. If you use an analog signal (VGA, composite, component), you may have to watch your video at a lower resolution.
HDMI: High-Definition Multimedia Interface is currently the preferred standard for connecting devices to a TV--PCs, smartphones, game consoles, digital cameras and camcorders, and more. An HDMI cable carries both audio and video from a device to a TV, so it takes up less space.
Media center: Any application that makes it easier to navigate the music, photos, podcasts, and videos in your local media library. Most media-center apps are designed to make home theater PCs more user-friendly so that you can navigate your various media using a remote control rather than a keyboard and mouse. The apps can also run on other devices, including set-top boxes and game consoles.
MHL: Mobile High-Definition Link--a new connection standard that allows smartphones to connect to HDTVs. If widely adopted, MHL can let your smartphone charge while it is connected to your HDTV--and you can watch videos streaming or downloading from the phone.
VGA/D-Sub: Practically every PC you've ever owned has a "VGA" or "D-Sub" connector. These two terms describe the same humble 15-pin monitor port still found on most laptops and desktops, and on many HDTVs. VGA cables can deliver a full HD video to your TV, though it may not look as good as it would over component or HDMI.
Video on demand: Video services that let you choose what you want to watch from a video library; you pay a small fee for downloads or streams.