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How can I watch Internet video on my TV? (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this post, I explained that the question of how to watch “Internet video” on TV means different things depending on who’s asking.  Among those of you who have asked me the question, what most of you have meant is that you want to take advantage of streaming services (primarily Netflix) so that you can watch from your couch, thus I answered you in Part 1.  For the purposes of Part 2 of this post, I intend to answer those of you who have meant that what you’d like to do is cancel cable to save money, but still watch your shows.  I will also answer those of you who have meant that you want to show your home (or downloaded) movies on the TV screen, but I’ll do that in Part 3 (some new products have led me to postpone this part).  So as not to repeat myself, I’ll presume you’ve already read Part 1 before reading this.  If not, take a look at the “Why you care” section; it helps set the stage for Part 2 as well.

Internet as a replacement for Cable

Now that you’re caught up, I’ll assume you understand that there are a lot of service providers retransmitting cable, broadcast and theatrical release content via the Internet (e.g. Hulu, Netflix, NBC.com, etc.).  The combination of this availability of content and the exorbitant cost of your monthly cable bill has led a lot of you to contemplate canceling cable and going to web services only.  What you often ask when you start looking into this option is “How can I use the Internet to cut the cord and replace cable?”  My challenge to you, though, is to really consider first the question of “Should I use the Internet to cut the cord and replace cable?”

The short answer up front as always: While cord-cutting is attractive for some early adopters, it isn’t for most of you.  Doing it is still too complicated and you can’t replace the highest-value content. For 90+ percent of you, you should stick with cable, and I am going to focus this post on why.

The longer explanation:

Notwithstanding how hard the cable providers try to anger their customers and lag the market on innovation, they actually have created one of the best, stickiest, most reliable, most compelling products available to consumers.  With limited exceptions, you turn on your TV any time of day or night and within seconds you have access to hundreds of channels of highly-produced, professionally curated, diverse video.  It comes through regardless of what else you are doing in your house, what your neighbors are doing, and no matter what TV you’re using to watch it.  It is VERY hard to replicate this kind of seamless experience with web services.

If, despite this explanation you are still intrigued, you first have to understand your current usage.  There are some things that Internet services can’t compete with Cable/Broadcast on today.  And so, to get to the heart of the matter, there are 3 main considerations:

  1. Do you care about live events?
  2. Are you patient with technical glitches?
  3. Does saving $50 a month make a material impact on your life today?

None of the above are dispositive individually; but the way you answered will be telling.  One of four descriptions will describe you and dictate the best solution in your particular case.  Those descriptions are:

You love live programming and hate when things break

Live events are among the most compelling TV there is.  From sports to red carpets to season finales, some people can’t handle waiting for availability.  If you’re one of these people and are not interested in troubleshooting technology (as will be the case for most of you), then regardless of your interest in saving money, or being a “cord-cutter,” I don’t recommend you cancel cable.  The solutions are just too hard.

Everything you watch is from the 80s anyway

The highest-rated programs are always live events, so if you are in the rare group of people that just doesn’t care, you have an option of cutting the cord.  Part 1 of this post outlines the best services and solutions to stream a fair amount of content and you shouldn’t worry about fully replicating the cable experience; just follow my prior post and stop paying for cable.  I find that Netflix, Hulu Plus and YouTube provide most of what I’d be looking for, and Vudu is another worthy compliment.  Take careful inventory of what you actually watch and get a solution from Part 1 that has the most overlap to offer.  If you do go down this path, please keep in mind that rights expire and change on a regular basis.  If you can’t live without a show, you may find yourself very unhappy when its network pulls it from Hulu.

You love live shows, but you’re a tech geek at heart; having the setup is more fun than watching what’s on it

I’m not sure there’s a single one of you reading this that falls into the hard-core geek category, but this is where I actually answer the question you thought you asked in the first place.   To replicate your current television experience, without the cable bill, your best bet is to connect an actual computer to your TV (also known as a “home-theater PC” or “HTPC”).  You’ll have access to most of the streaming services available through devices outlined in Part 1 of this post and more (both because some streaming is browser-only, and because you won’t encounter the gamesmanship where rightsholders are restricting access from certain devices).  To set up an HTPC, you’ll need a computer, some big hard-drives, some special-purpose hardware, and a means of controlling the system.  Enough great blogs have detailed what you need to build an HTPC, so I won’t replicate their guides.  I will, however, simplify the world you’re about to dive into a bit by explaining that there are Mac-based solutions and the rest:

  • Mac-based solutions require the least technical know-how, offer a fair complement of services and the most multi-purpose hardware, but are limited in their functionality.  I’d recommend a Mac Mini equipped with an EyeTV 250, and an iPhone or iPad (with any one of the apps listed in this write-up or this one) to control the system; you can also use a keyboard and mouse, but that’s not for everyone.
  • The rest of the solutions are either built on top of Windows or Linux, require you to build your system from the case up to have a setup that fits nicely in the living room, and include a number of complicated pieces of software to make everything work together, but provide the flexibility of a truly custom setup with functionality ranging from that of the Mac to a multi-tuner monster able to record from 10 sources at once.
If anything here sounds easy, be warned, it isn’t.  Complications arise at every stage, from getting network connectivity in your living room (often not where your broadband service enters the house) to getting your TV to work as a monitor (every TV is different and some older sets require significant tweaking on the computer settings to look right).  HTPCs break all the time and you’ll find yourself spending countless hours both on setup and ongoing maintenance.  But, if you’re still game, some of the best guides I’ve found are linked below.  Please leave a comment if you’ve found a better guide than these:
  • For the Mac: The Ultimate Mac mini HTPC Guide (Hardware and Software), but note that the new macs have some hardware updates that aren’t reflected here that make setup even easier (e.g. the new Mac Minis have HDMI ports, so you don’t need a DVI-HDMI or MiniDisplay-HDMI adapter).
  • Non-Mac: AVS Forum’s Guide to Building a Home Theater PC.  These guides are updated monthly, are incredibly detailed and should serve as a test — if you look at this link and aren’t excited to read enough to understand what they’re saying, you probably aren’t ready to build a solution from scratch.
  • To get started: Engadget did a write-up 2 years ago on how to build a home-theater PC for under $1000.  The hardware and software recommended is all outdated, but the logic and basic framework remains the same and they’ve done a very good job of explaining the components and why you need them.  It is worth a read.

There are additional benefits of building an HTPC like those described above.  A fully-functioning PC is useful to listen to music in your living room, share photo albums with friends, check Twitter, order from Seamlessweb, and if your setup is right, can even be used as your main computer.  Once you’ve recorded shows to an HTPC’s hard drive, you’ll also have them free of copy restrictions, so you can burn them to disk or convert them for your iPad or phone and take them with you (more on that in the next part of this post).  If you have the time and inclination, you can eke a lot out of these rigs.

Money is THE motivating factor

Finally, if money is the reason you want to do this, and everything else is flexible, you’re not alone, but your options are limited.  If you start down the road of building an HTPC, as outlined above, you’ll invest at least $500, and often $1000 or more.  Even if you allocate $75 of your cable bill to the actual cable service each month (remember you’ll still have to pay for broadband access), you’re looking at a need to use the HTPC for 6 months to a year before you’re recouped your costs and anytime you need an upgrade, you’re setting yourself back.  It just won’t make enough of an impact on your finances to make it worthwhile.  Instead, you should consider an antenna capable of receiving a digital signal and resigning yourself to watching live events live (i.e. not on DVR) while relying on the services outlined in Part 1 for the rest of your programming.  Unfortunately, if this is the case for you, chances are you live in a major city (like New York) and you won’t be able to get digital reception in your apartment, so this isn’t an option.  For you, I have to punt; there are no good solutions yet.  There may be soon (Apple has been rumored to be offering an a la carte or cheaper service for quite some time, for example), but for today, you’re stuck with cable.

Summary

In sum, you likely want to stick with Cable, but if you’re dead-set on replacing it, a home-theater PC is the only way to get a complete solution.  You’re unlikely to save time or money, but you will get to free yourself from the restrictions of your cable box and have a custom computing solution to go along with it.

Got a solution I missed? Leave a comment below.

In the next installment of this post, I’ll provide at least 3 ways to access your home (or downloaded) movies on the TV screen, so stay tuned.

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How can I watch Internet video on my TV? (Part 1)

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:

  1. A new TV with embedded experiences;
  2. A game console with built-in offerings; or
  3. 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.

Game consoles

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.

Stand-alone devices

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

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.

  • Apple

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.

  • Roku

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.

Conclusions

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.


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