By now, you're used to watching all kinds of video via the Web. You get caught up on your favorite TV shows with Hulu, enjoy a movie or two with Netflix Instant Watch, maybe even sneak in a cat video or two (or a dozen) on YouTube during your lunch break at work. You're used to searching the Web to find what you want to watch when you want to watch it.
The moment you're home, though, you turn on your TV, tune in, and zone out--no interaction or Internet required. Nothing on? Guess you'll watch some Law & Order: Criminal Intent reruns. That Vincent D'Onofrio--whatever happened to him, anyway? If only your TV was a little bit more like your PC.
"Smart TV" is the new hot buzzword these days. Imagine, for a moment, that your HDTV combined the simplicity of the normal TV-and-remote experience with the powerful search features and video-on-demand libraries you're accustomed to on the Web. Toss in social networking, photo sharing, music, gaming, and a hundred kinds of Web content. That's what "smart TV" means. It means never needing to settle for anything less than having what you want to watch (or hear, or play) running in big-screen glory right now, while you master the universe from the couch with your all-powerful remote.
Don't let all the TV and tech companies out there fool you, however. You have many ways to make your existing TV smarter, other than just buying a new connected TV with all the bells and whistles built in. You don't have to purchase a brand-new PC or yet another set-top box, either. And you don't have to let your cable-TV subscription hold your eyeballs (or your wallet) hostage with hundreds of channels you'll never watch. Instead, we'll walk you through the products and services that can feed the Web through your TV--without breaking the bank.
Looking to buy a new HDTV? Choose the right TV--one that connects directly to the Internet--and you can enjoy loads of Web features and apps without having to buy any add-ons or boxes. But choosing may not be easy: All the major TV manufacturers now have some package of Internet-connected features built into their midrange and high-end models.
In early Internet-connected TVs, packages included only a few additional "channels"--Netflix Instant Watch, YouTube, and a few video-rental services like Amazon Instant Video, CinemaNow, and Vudu. Connected-television features have since advanced quickly. New connected TV sets come packed with apps, games, and Internet video channels, often with options exclusive to the manufacturer.
Cost: You'll have to pay for the television (usually $1000 to $2000 now for midrange to high-end sets). The good news: You don't necessarily have to pay a premium for an Internet-connected TV: Some manufacturers, such as Vizio, sell low-end models that are priced in the $750 to $830 range.
The cost of an HDTV will generally depend on the set's size and on its panel technology (a 50-inch plasma set will cost more than a 50-inch LED one). And you won't have to pay for access to the smart-TV service itself--just for the subscriptions to specific services such as Hulu Plus or Netflix, as well as the video-download rental fees.
Advantages: Connected TVs are simple and elegant. You can use your TV's own remote; you don't need to worry about running extra power cords or audio/video cables as you do with a set-top box or a home theater PC; and many HDTV sets include built-in Wi-Fi support (so you don't even need to plug an ethernet cable into the back).
What's more, newer TV sets often come with new remote controls that make it easier to use the Internet features. For example, LG's Magic Motion remote is a gesture-oriented remote control similar to the Nintendo Wii controller (just point the remote at the TV to move your cursor) and is designed to let you more easily use the built-in Web browser of LG sets. Vizio's high-end sets include a Bluetooth remote with a slide-out keyboard to facilitate typing.
Disadvantages: Connected TVs aren't particularly versatile. If your set-top box doesn't have a channel you want, you can go buy a new one, but you won't be able to do such a thing so easily with a big, expensive HDTV. Also, if you're big on live TV, you'll still need your cable-TV subscription, as the Internet features are mostly on-demand video only.
Advanced tips: Most connected TVs include USB ports and DLNA support (see the glossary on the second page, near the end of this article), meaning that you can watch your locally stored video, photos, and music from a USB drive by plugging it straight into your TV or from other PCs on your network--handy for the times when the video you want to watch is sitting on your PC in the den.
Future-proof? Yes--but only if you choose wisely. Although early Internet features in HDTVs looked pitiful compared with what a standard set-top box could offer, the big players in the HDTV market (LG, Panasonic, Samsung, Sony, and Vizio) are each looking to make their Web-connected TV sets your entertainment hub by adding new features, video channels, and even their own app stores. For example, Panasonic's Viera Connect Internet features include Facebook, Skype, Twitter, and even downloadable games from Gameloft in addition to a whole host of media-streaming services like Amazon Instant Video, Hulu Plus, Netflix, and Pandora.
A relatively inexpensive, simple, and easy-to-install way to add more channels to your TV, set-top boxes vary in size, shape, and content selection. They rely on your home Internet connection to stream media from Internet sources such as Hulu, Netflix, YouTube, and many other video-on-demand channels. Consider them a supplement to your cable subscription, rather than a replacement, since they won't have much in the way of live TV programming.
Right now, Roku's box leads the pack with a very broad channel selection, but since it doesn't support DLNA, you can't use it to access the music, photos, or videos stored on your network's PCs. Some other contenders in the field, such as Western Digital's WD TV Live series, do support DLNA.
If you're already heavily invested in music and movies from the iTunes Store, go for an Apple TV box--you'll be able to stream your existing iTunes content from your home network's iTunes libraries. For both the versatility of a full Web browser in your HDTV and a search feature that could cover your satellite-TV listings, locally stored recordings, and the Web, grab a Google TV set-top box like the Logitech Revue.
Also in this category are game consoles (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Wii) and Internet-connected Blu-ray players. While not dedicated Internet TV gadgets, they have Hulu Plus, Netflix, DLNA support, and other Internet-connected features.
Cost: $60 to $250 plus subscription fees (when applicable).
Advantages: Set-top boxes are very easy to set up and use, and they typically don't cost very much. Also, new services tend to be added to the selection over time--the longer you own the box, the more content it should be able to deliver.
Disadvantages: Most set-top boxes don't include a full Web browser, so you can't always watch the videos you want, especially if your favorite shows are found only at live streaming sites or from the TV networks. And, as noted, you don't have many options for streaming live TV with a set-top box.
Advanced tips: You can hack most set-top boxes, including the Apple TV and the Roku, to add new features, channels, and applications. For example, you can jailbreak your Apple TV and install the XBMC media-center app to enable 1080p video playback, which the stock Apple TV doesn't support.
Future-proof? The set-top box's place in the future of smart TV is iffy at best. You can't really do much besides watch the ported Web video. That may be okay for now, but we expect Web video to continue proliferating--and standard set-top boxes will struggle because they lack Web browsers.
While the Web video services that run on set-top boxes often add new channels, you have no guarantee that your set-top box developer will add the ones you want when you want them. But the boxes are relatively cheap, so buying a new one every few years could be one way around that problem.
Apple TV and Google TV have two different approaches to the set-top box. Apple's turns your TV into an extension of your iTunes Library--great if you own a bunch of other iOS devices, or if you prefer to pay the TV/movie rental fees over a subscription fee. Google's offers many of the benefits of a home theater PC, such as a Web browser and (future) access to apps via the Android Market, without the expense or hassle of a full-blown media PC. Also, the search function on Google TV could radically change the way you watch television simply by making it far, far easier to find what you want to watch.
However, even these forward-looking set-tops won't get far unless the various networks and content providers open some doors for them. Hulu, for example, is currently blocking the Google TV browser. All the same, the Apple TV and Google TV platforms are still in their formative period and may both be around long enough to see the day when content owners have come to accept the model these devices use for distributing video. (In an effort to boost Google TV, Google has just bought set-top box maker Sage TV.) We expect that these two set-tops will be the ones to watch over the next few years.
Next: Home Theater PCs, Cable and Cablelike Services, Your Smart TV Program Guide, and a Glossary of Smart TV Terms