The Connected TV: Web Video Comes to the Living Room

The latest movies. Classic TV. Specialty news and information. Completely stupid, completely irresistible YouTube clips. The Internet is an awesome source of on-demand video. But even though the best screen in your house graces a nice big television set, chances are that you do your consuming of online video scrunched over a laptop or desktop PC.

Enter a bevy of boxes designed to hook a TV up to an Internet-enabled home network via a wired or wireless connection. Put one in your living room, and you can watch Net video on your expansive flat screen from the comfort of your Barcalounger, remote control in hand. Some of these gadgets are primarily devoted to another TV-related task--Blu-ray movies, gaming, or digital video recording--and offer Internet video as a bonus. Others are video boxes first and foremost, and either contain a hard disk for storing downloaded movies or stream them across the Net as you watch.

For this review, I spent time with a dozen such devices, focusing on features that let them connect directly to the Internet. (Consequently I didn't try products that require a PC to serve as middleman, such as Windows Media Center Extenders. Also, I didn't judge the products that I did use on their other features; many include options for enjoying video, photos, and audio that are stored locally on your home network.)

In the end, three boxes that emphasize Internet video above all else impressed me the most: the Apple TV, the Roku Digital Video Player, and the Vudu Box. Among the other contenders, TiVo HD's video-on-demand options make for a pleasing complement to its core DVR features. And though the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 sport relatively modest Net video features, they're good enough to keep you entertained when you want to take a break from gaming.

One virtue above all others makes Internet video appealing: speed. Unlike cable, satellite, the video store, or DVD-by-mail services from Netflix and Blockbuster, the Net provides instant access to your choice of thousands of movies to suit your schedule--including new movies the first day they hit DVD. (For TV shows, you still have to wait until the day after they first air.)

For the most part, you pay only for what you watch. Fees range from a buck to rent a TV episode from Amazon Video on Demand to $24 to buy a new-release high-definition movie from Vudu. The only devices here that involve monthly charges are those that support Netflix Watch Instantly, an all-you-can watch service that's included in the cost of a Netflix subscription. And most offer at least some freebies, such as YouTube and video podcasts.

Not that Internet video is ready to render other entertainment options obsolete. For one thing, there's plenty of stuff you might want to watch that isn't available yet. For example, Apple TV and Vudu have the choicest movie selections, but while they have Aliens, Aliens 3, and Alien vs. Predator, they don't offer just plain Alien.

Even when a title is online, it may not be available the way you want it. Some titles are available only for rental; others, only for purchase. (When you rent a movie, you typically have 30 days to begin watching it; once you do, a 24-hour viewing window kicks in.) And just because a service offers high-definition content doesn't mean it has the film you want in high def--or that the high def is up to your standards. Only Vudu's premium HDX format tries to go head-to-head with the image quality of a good Blu-ray transfer.

On the other hand, my worries that broadband and networking issues would hamper smooth, reliable playback proved to be unwarranted. I was pleasantly surprised by how trouble-free most of these boxes were, even when I sent video over my 802.11n Wi-Fi network rather than a wired connection. (See "Is Your Living Room Ready for Internet Video?" for some setup tips.)

Box or No Box?

Got an entertainment center that's already chockablock with other gear, such as a cable box, an AV receiver, a DVD player...maybe even your old VCR or your new Slingbox? If so, you may be drawn instinctively to a device that includes multiple functions rather than one that handles Internet video only. After all, every box you cram into your setup eats up space, adds to the tangle of cables, and depletes your supply of AC outlets.

Nevertheless, once I tried all my options, I concluded that the best boxes designed principally for Net video--Apple TV, Roku, and Vudu--do it far better than those that merely dabble in it. They offer superior selections of content, and their remotes and on-screen interfaces are better tailored to the task.

I was most disappointed by the only device that eliminated the need for a box altogether: a 50-inch Panasonic plasma TV with integrated support for Panasonic's Viera Cast service. That's because the only Internet video it offered was YouTube. Viera Cast will get a lot more interesting once Panasonic adds Amazon's Video on Demand service, which it plans to do this spring.

Even more interesting: LG, Sony, Samsung, and Vizio all plan to make sets based on Yahoo's promising Connected TV platform, which lets TVs run Internet-savvy applets such as video and audio players. That will eliminate the need for consumers to cross their fingers that their TV's manufacturer will sign its own deals with a full quorum of content providers. The first Yahoo-enabled sets, from Samsung, should be ready by the time you read this.

The day may not be too far off when gadgets like the ones in this review are obsolete, because every TV will be a capable Internet TV. For now, though, if you're serious about watching Net video on your TV, you'll want to find room in your budget and your living room for the right box.

For additional elements of this story package, see "12 Ways to Bring YouTube to the Boob Tube" (a slideshow of hardware options); "Is Your Living Room Ready for Internet Video?" (setup tips); and "Netflix, Amazon, and YouTube Seek Big Break on TV" (content services).