The question of how to watch “Internet video” on TV means different things depending on who’s asking. To most of you, it means taking advantage of streaming services (like Netflix, Amazon, Vudu, etc.) so you can watch from the couch; to others, it means canceling cable to save money, but still being able to watch your shows; and to others still, it means showing home (or downloaded) movies on the TV screen. In Part 1 of this post, I’ll be addressing the first group of you (and I’ll address these latter 2 groups of you in Part 2).
Why you care
As a precursor, what you should understand is that each of the above use-cases is becoming mainstream, and even if you don’t believe that any applies to you today, the industry players are banking on that changing soon, so there’s a high likelihood you will change your mind.
In the streaming space, premium content is being made available online at an accelerated pace. In addition to Amazon, Netflix and Vudu, other notables like HBO, Hulu, YouTube and Crackle are helping to bring existing premium content to Internet users. Beyond this retransmission of shows you know, there are also a number of next-generation studios and producers creating original, high-quality content for the web first. A lot of these “new-comers” are actually old-timers who have decided to bring their talent and experience in creating hits to the web. Among the most active are Vuguru (Michael Eisner), Fishbowl Worldwide Media (Bruce Gersh and Vin Di Bona), and Electus (Ben Silverman). Money is also pouring into content for the web. Netflix recently outbid traditional players for the rights to premier original programming, and other service providers are similarly investing in the video experience (as you may have heard, at AOL, we recently surpassed Yahoo, MSN and Hulu to boast the second highest number of unique video views on the Internet, according to ComScore). What this means for you is that you are soon going to be as likely to find something you want to watch being delivered by the Internet as you are to find something you want to watch being delivered by Cable or Broadcast television.
This trend is tremendously exciting until you start to think about sitting down in front of your 11 or 13-inch laptop (or even 19-inch desktop monitor) to watch it all. No doubt some people are willing to do just that, but those of you who fall into the category of asking this post’s eponymous question aren’t among them. You, by contrast, spend hours sitting on the couch watching video on TV, but are not anxious to spend that kind of free time in front of a monitor. You’re looking to find a better solution. You want to watch high-quality content, delivered via Internet services, on your TV.
What you should do
Having spent a lot of space here setting the stage, I will keep to my formula and give you the quick answer: There is no “perfect” answer today. If you have a preference for one solution, go for it; you can’t choose “wrong” in a world with no “right” offerings. If you’re asking this question, you’re better off taking the plunge and benefitting from these cool services than waiting for a winner to emerge. You’ll be happy just to watch and play.
That said, I know you come for more practical advice than that, so the more detailed answer is that there are 3 kinds of solutions that could be right for you depending on your own needs, existing setup, and level of technical proficiency. These solutions are:
- A new TV with embedded experiences;
- A game console with built-in offerings; or
- A new, cheaper device you can connect to your TV.
A new TV
The first key question to figuring out which is the most appropriate solution for you is, “Are you in the market for a new television?” Having your content offerings built directly into the TV simplifies setup, reduces wiring, and allows you to use 1 remote control. These are big considerations, and this is the right answer for you if you need a new TV or don’t want to have additional boxes cluttering your living space. If your TV doesn’t support 1080p resolution, is more than 5 years old, or has fewer than 3 HDMI inputs, it might be time to consider purchasing a new one. Buying advice for a TV generally includes questions of quality, reliability, contrast ratios, upscaling capabilities, etc., making it an entirely different subject for a post (so keep an eye out for that), but once you decide which TVs would meet your needs on the primary functionality (displaying a great image and supporting all of your sources), you should filter your decision based on which streaming services they support. Every major TV manufacturer delivers a proprietary solution for accessing popular streaming services (LG has Netcast, Panasonic has Viera Cast, Samsung has InternetTV, Sharp has AQUOS Net, Sony has (had?) Bravia Link, Vizio has VIA, etc.), and most have also started offering models powered by 3rd-party platforms (Yahoo! Widgets, GoogleTV, Adobe Open Screen Project, DivXTV/Rovi Connect, etc.). Almost all of these sets support a baseline group of services, including Netflix, YouTube, Pandora or Napster. Look for the services you already use and pick a set that supports the most of those services. In the case of a tie, give weight to platforms that have a history of adding new services without you having to buy a new device. The 3rd-party platforms theoretically make adding new services via updates easier, but all are at such early stages (even Yahoo!, which has been on the market for years) that the good services are often opting to have support outside of these platforms and the benefits of the development haven’t been realized. If I had to place a bet in this space today, I’d bet on Google. Even with that said, however, with rumors flying of Apple also launching a TV that will integrate their services, it may be too soon to place bets. Again, there’s no silver bullet here, no “right” answer, so go with the set that works for you and enjoy these services as a benefit of the new TV.
A brief note on GoogleTV
Google TV attempts to serve as a new interface for searching, discovering, and accessing video (and other Internet experiences) consolidating what’s being shown on cable channels with what’s available on the web to make it easy to watch what you want regardless of its source. They’ve created a product that brings full web capabilities to the TV and they plan to launch an android app store for the platform soon. They have also teamed up with a variety of manufacturers to give you a set-top box that will add Google TV functionality to your existing set. I believe they are onto something, but there are a few too many drawbacks to the current solution for me to highly recommend it. First, it relies heavily on a full keyboard and feels too much like connecting a computer to your TV, which isn’t what most of you are looking for. Second, they’ve found that most networks are blocking GoogleTV’s browsers, so you can’t watch Internet content you’d expect to find, thus reducing the value significantly. And, third, the interface runs slowly, lacking responsiveness, which hurts the user experience. I expect Google to address these and other issues in an update this year, so I reserve the right to upgrade these guys soon.
If you are NOT in the market for a new TV, consider buying a current generation gaming console (even if you’re not a gamer). Sony Playstation 3 (PS3), Microsoft Xbox 360 and Nintendo Wii all offer integrated streaming services. If you don’t need a new TV and you have a preference for one console over the others from a gaming standpoint, go with it. Just like the analysis for getting a TV, the offerings are all viable and you can’t make a wrong decision. If you don’t enjoy gaming, there’s still a good solution for you here: the PS3. That device is among the best Blu-Ray players on the market, supports Netflix, Amazon, Vudu, Hulu+, and gets regular firmware updates that are simple for you to activate. The downsides to this solution is a lack of YouTube support and a $300-$500 price tag, but it is still a great option for many of you.
Finally, if neither a TV nor a gaming console sounds right, you’ve found yourself in the realm of add-on set-top-box. Apple, Boxee, Iomega, Popcorn Hour, Roku, Vudu, Western Digital, and others all have solutions. As mentioned above, Google has also teamed up with a variety of manufacturers to let you add Google TV to your existing screen. With so many options to choose from, it is easy to feel overwhelmed. Don’t. The best solutions today are Boxee, Apple and Roku.
Boxee is the most aggressive solution, providing a highly-customizable interface, with the ability to add content, services and your own library in multiple ways, all built on open source software, with cross platform support. What that means in more understandable terms is that there are PC, Mac and Linux versions of Boxee enabling you to use their free software to build your own device or even install it on your laptop. This flexibility lets you to have a uniform experience wherever you want to watch (even from the road). Unfortunately, the user interface is confusing. While I find it to be worth my time given the trade-offs, I can really only recommend this to you if you love being an early adopter and want to tinker to get an optimal experience.
Assuming you’d rather trade the openness of the Boxee platform for out-of-the-box ease of use, you should consider Apple and Roku. Apple TV supports YouTube, Netflix, MLB, and your personal (iTunes) library. It also embodies Apple’s flare for making a dead-simple product that delivers a high-quality experience, all at a price of under $100. The only real drawback is that Apple currently supports a fairly limited set of services. This could change at almost any time if Apple opens up the App Store for this device, and you’ll be thrilled if you buy one and that happens via an update.
In the meantime, if you don’t want to wait for Apple’s release cycle, the final recommendation for this post is the Roku box. Roku was initially launched as a device dedicated to streaming Netflix, but has been on a quest to add services via an app platform, and they’ve done a pretty decent job. There are 3 Roku devices. Go for the middle-of-the-road, Roku 😄 ($79) unless your TV doesn’t have any available HDMI ports, in which case you should pony-up for the XDS ($99); both of these versions support full 1080p streaming, and that makes them worth the difference in price over the entry-level device which doesn’t.
So, to sum it up: If you want to watch Internet on your TV (and you do), your best bet is to have a TV with streaming services built in (the benefits of having the services built-in to your main device outweigh the benefits of any of the other offerings); if you aren’t in the market for a new TV, a gaming console is the next best alternative, with the PS3 being my console of choice, because you’ll be paying for a great Blu-Ray player and getting this other functionality for free; and finally, if neither is right for you, go with Boxee, Apple or Roku depending on your personality (and keep an eye on what Google does in case that changes things). If this doesn’t answer your question because what you really wanted to know is whether you could cancel cable or how to watch your personal library, stay tuned; Part 2 is coming soon.