Is Your Living Room Ready for Internet Video?
Once upon a time, all you needed to tap into the wide world of TV was a TV--though a good set of rabbit ears didn't hurt. Internet video is way more complicated. Few networking tasks are more demanding than pumping video fast enough to avoid pauses, hiccups, and other glitches. So keep the following technical issues in mind before you cut up your Blockbuster card.
The recommended minimum download speeds for the gizmos I used range from 1.5 mbps to 3 mbps. (Upload speed isn't an issue with Internet video.) A higher transfer rate is preferable, since many devices gauge your connection's performance and provide better quality over faster pipes. The key factor, though, isn't what your ISP claims it provides but what it actually delivers--especially if it's prone to periodic slowdowns.
Try a broadband measuring service like the one at Speedtest.net to double-check your real-world speed. That's particularly important for diskless devices like the Roku Digital Video Player, since they stream video as it arrives rather than storing it locally for later playback.
The best type of network for video streaming is speedy, reliable ethernet-except for the part about smashing holes in your walls and snaking vast quantities of cable everywhere. Powerline adapter gear such asthe $100 Netgear HDXB101 Powerline HD Ethernet Kit offers a simple alternative that uses your home's electrical wiring to bring the network from wherever your modem and router reside to your TV.
The kind of network you're most likely to have, however, is wireless. Most of the gadgets that I tried support Wi-Fi, at least optionally. You want 802.11g at bare minimum, and 802.11n if the video box you buy supports it. Wi-Fi is prone to performance and range problems that wire-based networks don't have. But truth to tell, I was pleasantly surprised by how well decent-quality video traveled over my 802.11n network.
The TV Itself
You want an HD flat-screen the size of a medieval tapestry, right? Maybe, if you're planning to watch high-quality, high-def content such as the 1080p titles offered by Vudu. But most Internet video exists in humble standard definition, and many HDTVs still do a lackluster job of stretching it to fill their extra pixels. You think YouTube looks lousy on your laptop? Try watching it on a 50-inch-diagonal screen.
For additional elements of this story package, see "The Connected TV: Web Video Comes to the Living Room" (emerging technology for transferring Internet video to a TV); "12 Ways to Bring YouTube to the Boob Tube" (a slideshow of hardware options); and "Netflix, Amazon, and YouTube Seek Big Break on TV" (content services).