Make Your HDTV Web-Ready

Home Theater PCs

Windows Home Theater HDTV
Microsoft’s Windows Media Center organizes live, recorded, and Web content on your TV.
If you're at all like me, you were sitting on the living room couch watching an episode of The Wire or Mad Men on a 13-inch laptop screen while your gorgeous 50-inch HDTV sat 5 feet away, completely neglected. And if you're used to finding practically everything you want to watch with your PC, either on streaming Web services or file-sharing services like BitTorrent, you may find it hard to go back to the content limitations of cable. What you want is both, so you connect your PC to your HDTV, and voilà--you have a home theater PC.

Home theater PCs are typically high-end, expensive systems designed to fit in with a true home theater enthusiast's fancy audio/video equipment rack. Obtaining one usually involves paying extra for a special PC case and high-end, low-heat com­­ponents, but any system capable of playing back 1080p video and connecting to your set through HDMI or another audio/video input can be your TV's connection to Web video.

Cost: You can build a high-end do-it-yourself home theater PC for under $1000. But any modern computer--even a netbook or a nettop mini-PC with the right hardware--could cost you as little as $350, and if you're able to simply repurpose an old machine, your cost could be effectively nothing.

Advantages: A home theater PC is extremely flexible. You can use your computer to play downloaded or streamed video, screen home movies, access shared video from your network, play DVDs and Blu-ray discs, and play PC games on your HDTV. And the cost is hard to beat--all you need is the electricity to power your PC and a broadband Internet connection, which you're already paying for anyway.

Disadvantages: PCs are complicated. If you want to watch a TV show, you need to power the computer up, wait for Windows to boot, and then use a wireless keyboard to navigate to the show. It's not nearly as spontaneous or as instantly gratifying as simply pressing the power button on a remote. And you have to deal with the additional hassle of maintaining another computer--including such matters as security, software updates, broken components, hardware upgrades, and so on.

You must also consider content limitations: For now, at least, you can't get much live TV (news and sports), so you would still need an antenna or cable-TV subscription for that.

Advanced tips: If you want to minimize the PC-ness of the experience, pair your home theater PC up with a decent media-center application, such as the aformentioned XBMC or Windows Media Center (which is built into Windows 7), and an advanced remote control like the Lenovo N5901, which has a built-in keypad and trackball instead of a keyboard and mouse. Also, you can plug an RSS feed of the shows you're watching into a BitTorrent client to automatically download new episodes as they come out.

Future-proof? Yes. Other smart TV options may someday catch up to the flexibility of the media center PC, but until then, you can bet that most of the apps, features, and services you want will come from the open Web. And much of that content relies on PC-friendly Flash to run, which means your PC will continue to be relevant for quite some time.

A desktop PC also lets you add new hardware for more features, such as a Blu-ray drive or a CableCard for watching movies and viewing/recording cable TV via your PC.

Cable & Cablelike Services

Cable and Cablelike Services--Dish and Google TV
Dish Network’s set-top box works with a Logitech Google TV box to pull in Web material.
High-end services such as Comcast Xfinity, DirecTV, Dish Network, and Verizon FiOS TV are still the gold standard for premium TV and live TV. They typically connect to your TV via a specially designed set-top box from your cable, satellite, or telephone company. You can use them to access whatever video-on-demand libraries your network offers; the boxes also have built-in digital video recorder features to help you make sure you don't miss anything.

But the boxes don't yet have the smart TV chops of the setups described previously, and only a few providers are actively trying to develop the Internet-content aspect of their offerings.

AT&T has no Web vid­eo in its "triple-play" (Internet, telephone, and TV) U-verse service, and very little nonvideo Web content--just a couple of "interactive" Web apps (weather, sports) and photo sharing via Flickr.

Verizon is a little better. Its FiOS TV "widgets" are a simple way to get Facebook, YouTube, local traffic, and weather on your TV. The FiOS Media Manager app lets you watch FiOS videos on a PC and view locally stored media on the TV.

Dish Network may be the most progressive of all. Three of the company's DVRs are compatible with Google TV's search features through the Logitech Revue set-top box, which Dish Network resells to its subscribers at a reduced rate.

Cost: Services are pricey--and can vary from $50 a month to $150 a month, depending on your plan and whether you're still getting a new-subscriber promotional rate. With the exception of Dish Network's Google TV offering, the limited Web content the various services offer won't cost you extra.

Advantages: Cable services are the go-to source for premium and live TV. You may not need (or even want) all 250 channels you're paying for, but they're likely to look very good, especially the high-definition and, increasingly, the 3D channels. And you don't have to deal with troubleshooting equipment or updating buggy software--everything (usually) works, and technicians are available to help with serious problems.

Disadvantages: Don't expect any deeply integrated Internet features in your cable TV service anytime soon--no Web browser or fancy remote with a keyboard for quickly searching for Web content. Also, services can get fairly expensive: $70 per month might not seem so bad at first, but that's $840 each year (not counting taxes or installation fees)--enough to buy a budget 42-inch TV, a Roku, and a Netflix subscription.

Advanced tips: While the cablelike services don't offer much Web content, most are focusing on the "TV everywhere" concept. That is, they're moving to make their material viewable on a finite number of stationary and mobile screens. All of the major TV providers offer Android and iOS mobile apps that let you browse TV listings and schedule DVR recordings, and some have apps that let you stream video (generally both live TV and DVR recordings) to your tablet or smartphone.

If you get landline phone service from your TV provider, you might also have a few neat features that connect the two, such as voicemail management or caller ID through your TV.

Future-proof? The great advantage of the triple-play services is that the TV programming usually rides into the home on the same pipe as the Internet service (and the phone service). This setup creates a huge potential for integrating Internet features (such as apps, chat, music, and video) into the curated cable content. At present, however, TV providers haven't gone a long way toward realizing that potential.

Your Smart TV Program Guide

If you're new to the world of Internet TV, all this talk of "VOD" and "Hulu" and "Vudu" might sound like a whole bunch of, well, voodoo. Here's a quick guide to the major streaming services you should look for in your next set-top box or connected TV--or should have bookmarked in your home theater PC's Web browser.

Hulu Plus: Since its launch in 2008, Hulu has made waves by offering a (legal!) way to get episodes of current television series free on the Web. To access Hulu from a set-top box or connected TV, you'll need a subscription to Hulu's premium service, Hulu Plus ($8 per month, one-week free trial). Your Hulu Plus subscription also gets you access to a catalog of movies (including a Criterion Collection set) and over 29,000 episodes of older TV archives, though you'll still have to watch the occasional ad.

Netflix: It's not just a DVD rent-by-mail service. In fact, its Instant Watch streaming service (which provides both television and movies online) is now the primary source of Internet traffic in North America, and if you're tired of DVDs, you can opt for the streaming-only subscription plan for $8 a month. But only a portion of its catalog is available on Instant Watch.

Online video rental: Besides subscription services like Hulu Plus and Netflix, you'll want access to at least one video-rental service--Amazon Instant Video, Blockbuster, CinemaNow, Vudu, and so on. Each service has a slightly different selection, but the basic idea is the same: Rent a movie by download for up to $4 for a new release, or purchase a desired download for around $15.

VOD: Video on demand--services that lets you play the video or program you want when you want.

YouTube: The Web's largest video-sharing site, YouTube is widely available on most set-top boxes and connected TVs for free. But YouTube navigation and search can be particularly laborious unless your remote is Internet-ready (keyboard, motion features, touchpad, and so forth). Also, some older YouTube client apps have problems playing high-definition videos, and in that case you might end up with a horribly pixelated, low-res video on your HDTV if you're not careful.

Sports: You may be able to stream the game you missed via an on-demand streaming app that keeps box scores, highlights, and sometimes the entire game. Pick your favorite mobile device, install the app, and you can catch sports whenever and wherever you want.

Other media apps: Plenty of the streaming media ser­vices you likely already use on your computer have apps available for your connected TV or set-top box--Napster, Pandora, and Slacker Radio for music, Flickr and Picasa for photos, and social media apps such as Facebook.

A Glossary of Smart TV Terms

If you wonder what HDCP or a dozen other terms mean, here's a quick guide.

BitTorrent: A popular file-sharing protocol that people often use to distribute copyrighted video. The BitTorrent protocol itself isn't illegal, but using it to download TV shows and movies that were released under the usual copyright protections generally is.

Component video: A common set of analog ports (red, green, and blue) for high-def video. Technically, a component-video connection can deliver video up to 1080p resolution ("Full HD").

Composite video: The ubiquitous red-white-yellow ports are for composite video. However, because composite video (an analog format) cannot deliver high-def video, avoid using composite-video ports whenever possible.

DisplayPort: A newer display connector employed primarily for connecting laptop and desktop PCs to computer displays. But don't expect to use it to connect your PC to your TV--at least not at this point.

DLNA: Digital Living Network Alliance. DLNA is a standard that enables your HDTV, PC, and other gadgets to talk to one another and share media over a network. For example, an Xbox 360 hooked up to your HDTV can stream video located on your desktop PC in your home office.

DVI: The current standard for most desktop PC displays. Some TVs have a DVI port, which can be useful. The DVI video signal is identical to the HDMI signal, so if your PC supports only DVI video-out, a cheap adapter can connect your PC's DVI port to your HDTV's HDMI port.

HDCP: High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection--a form of digital video copy-protection technology developed by Intel. If you use DVI, HDMI, or another digital video format to deliver video on your TV, you can play back HDCP-encrypted video at full resolution without a problem. If you use an analog signal (VGA, composite, component), you may have to watch your video at a lower resolution.

HDMI: High-Definition Multimedia Interface is currently the preferred standard for connecting devices to a TV--PCs, smartphones, game consoles, digital cameras and camcorders, and more. An HDMI cable carries both audio and video from a device to a TV, so it takes up less space.

Media center: Any application that makes it easier to navigate the music, photos, podcasts, and videos in your local media library. Most media-center apps are designed to make home theater PCs more user-friendly so that you can navigate your various media using a remote control rather than a keyboard and mouse. The apps can also run on other devices, including set-top boxes and game consoles.

MHL: Mobile High-Definition Link--a new connection standard that allows smartphones to connect to HDTVs. If widely adopted, MHL can let your smartphone charge while it is connected to your HDTV--and you can watch videos streaming or downloading from the phone.

VGA/D-Sub: Practically every PC you've ever owned has a "VGA" or "D-Sub" connector. These two terms describe the same humble 15-pin monitor port still found on most laptops and desktops, and on many HDTVs. VGA cables can deliver a full HD video to your TV, though it may not look as good as it would over component or HDMI.

Video on demand: Video services that let you choose what you want to watch from a video library; you pay a small fee for downloads or streams.

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