Feb. 19, 2010 -- If you were one of the determined line-waiters who braved the night in order to pick up one of the bargain-basement televisions offered this holiday season, there's a good chance that that it lacked what's becoming a significant new feature -- the ability to watch video over the Internet directly on TV.
Such TVs have enabled Netflix subscribers, for example, to choose from thousands of titles available via its "Watch Instantly" feature.
Fear not, though. Two small boxes can provide hours of broadband video to nearly any television for about $100: The Roku Player and the Netgear Digital Entertainer EVA2000.
Roku, which sells the Roku HD for $99 and the HD XR (which can make faster Wi-Fi connections) for $30 more, started out offering only Netflix on its device, but then added on-demand movie rentals from Amazon as well as Major League Baseball programming.
It recently rolled out a channel store that enables it to access video from a wider range of partners.
These include MediaFly, which brings together thousands of audio and video podcasts; Revision3, the tech-oriented Internet video site with several former TechTV personalities; and Pandora, the custom Internet radio service that plays songs based on artists and tracks you like.
Netgear EVA2000 Fits in Palm of Your Hand
The Roku player's small, chunky remote controls its simple, clean interface, but it may be harder for Roku to keep it so, as it adds more content partners.
Netgear's EVA2000 Digital Entertainer Live is even smaller than the boxy Roku device, fitting easily in the palm of your hand. It's so small, in fact, that it may be lifted off the surface by the weight or angles of the cables connecting it to the television. It lacks any integrated Wi-Fi, but can take advantage of a Wi-Fi adapter.
"Eva", as Netgear has nicknamed the product, can access video from more sources than the Roku device.
It can stream music, photos, and video from other computers on the home network, download rented or purchased movies from CinemaNow, view streams from YouTube and other Internet video sites such as Joost and Crackle, and even show live Internet TV streams from sources around the world. It also has the flexibility to play video from a flash drive connected to one of its USB ports.
In general, though, while I found output from both devices (and devices that stream Internet video in general) had video quality below what you would see from native HD channels, I thought the video from the Roku device was consistently better than that from the Netgear device, which looked pixelated and grainy to me, two things traditionally associated with "Internet video." In contrast, the Roku channels were more like watching a standard television program.
Unfortunately, neither device directly supports what many consider the site they'd most like to access via their television -- Hulu. The Web site, which includes content from NBC, Fox, and ABC, features recent episodes from many popular TV shows such as House, Family Guy, The Simpsons, The Colbert Report, The Office, and Desperate Housewives.
Boxee Box Expected to Drop Next Year
It's almost like a TiVo recorder that you don't need to program in advance. However, Netgear does offer a workaround using commercial software called PlayOn that uses a PC as a middleman to send Hulu video to its device. PlayOn offers a 15-day free trial.
It then costs $40, but can be used to stream video to other TV-connected devices such as the current crop of connected videogame consoles. On the EVA2000, performance was on par to that of other video sources, but navigation was very primitive and the search feature is not activated.
Early next year, the Roku and Netgear boxes will receive more competition from another palm-sized device, the Boxee box, which uses Boxee's slick, socially connected media center software, but is slated to cost twice what these products cost.
Of course, small as they are, they all take up more space next to your TV, something you may be particularly averse to if you are purchasing a Blu-ray player that can access Netflix and other online services.
But both the Roku and Netgear Digital Entertainer Live open doors to Internet video that is beyond what you'll find on most connected TVs and Blu-ray players. Just be prepared to deal with the lower responsiveness and resolution that characterizes much of their content.