Up until very recently, the idea of cutting off subscription TV would have meant skimping on a whole lot of good quality entertainment. I must admit, I don't watch a lot of TV. But I watch enough that I would be very sad if I had to give up HBO's "Flight of the Conchords" or NBC's "30 Rock."
But thanks to that wonderful communications network known as the Internet and the fact that big Hollywood studios and TV networks have finally realized that digital distribution is actually a good thing, cable cord cutters, like me, won't have to sacrifice that much or anything at all, depending on what movies and TV programs we like to watch.
Thanks to services like Netflix, iTunes, and Amazon On Demand, consumers can simply stream or download movies or previous seasons of TV shows directly from the Web anytime they want. And for those viewers looking for current seasons of TV shows, they can turn to Web sites, such as Hulu.com or TV.com, which have aggregated some of the most popular TV shows for on-demand viewing over the Net. (Disclosure: CNET and TV.com are properties of CBS Interactive.)
However, even though it's nice to be able to watch "The Dark Night" or "The Office" on your PC or laptop, many people would prefer to kick back on their couches and view it on that big flat-screen TV in their living rooms. So how do you get all the cool video content from your PC to the TV?
Well, there are plenty of options available today and more are coming. LG and Samsung already offer Blu-ray players that can stream Netflix movies; both companies are upping the ante in 2009 with Netflix-friendly home theater systems, HDTVs--and more Blu-ray players. Panasonic's 2009 VieraCast-compatible plasmas will offer support for Amazon Video On Demand. Meanwhile, a new company called ZillionTV is also working with broadband providers, movie studios, TV networks, and advertisers to create an entirely new business model to give consumers yet another easy and cheap way to view on-demand movies and TV shows using their Internet connections.
But if buying a new TV or Blu-ray player isn't in your budget for 2009, here's a look at some alternatives. A number of companies are making inexpensive, purpose-built boxes to provide movies and TV shows over the Net. And if you're a gamer, console makers such as Microsoft and Sony already have Internet-based video functionality.
For those tech-savvy TV viewers out there who aren't afraid of going the extra mile, there's also the option of simply hooking up a computer to your TV and using that 40-inch flat-screen as your PC monitor to locate and view online video.
I've done a little digging through the CNET Reviews archives to highlight the top 10 boxes/computers for accessing video-on-demand content via the Web. Here's a brief summary of each, in no particular order. You can see at a glance what makes each one cool and what makes it not so cool. And you'll get a general idea of how much each one costs.
I'm sorry to say that I haven't found a box that offers me everything from all the top movies and TV shows to the best local and live TV programming. But the market is still evolving. And I promise you that the landscape could look very different in another 18 months, so stay tuned.
Roku Digital Video Player - $99
Roku CNET review
What makes it cool? At $99, the Roku box is a cheap and simple way to stream movies and TV shows from the Internet to your TV. Users can subscribe to Netflix's Watch Now on-demand video service for as little as $9 a month and watch as many of Netflix's 12,000 streaming movie and TV titles as they like. Roku also recently added even more titles to its service through Amazon's pay-per-view Video on Demand service. For as little as $2 to $4 a pop, viewers can rent movies or TV episodes.
The CNET Reviews team gives this device a high score for being simple to set up with built-in wired and 802.11g Wi-Fi networking. It works with all TVs. And the firmware is upgradeable, so as Roku adds more services and options like advertising-supported programming from the big networks like ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox -- an option that the company is currently exploring -- users can grow with the service.
What makes it not so cool? Roku needs more content. Currently, Netflix's streaming library is only a fraction of its DVD-by-mail offering, especially when it comes to popular recent releases. There's no browser to access Hulu.com or other sites offering other programming online. The CNET Reviews team notes that the video quality for non-HD titles is not DVD quality, especially when viewed on large TVs. There's also no surround sound (yet), and the Netflix queue still has to be managed from a PC.
Apple TV - $215 to $329
AppleTV CNET review
What makes it cool? Apple TV offers a variety of free and premium media content over the Net directly to your TV. Using Apple's popular iTunes Store, users can rent movies and TV shows, buy and listen to music, view photos, and access podcasts. The AppleTV also allows people to stream media from networked Mac or Windows PCs (assuming that it's already been imported into iTunes). Apple has struck deals with all the major movie studios, and some of the titles are in HD. It offers surround sound on some titles as well. The CNET Reviews team also like Apple's "sleek external design and elegant user interface." The setup is simple and it comes equipped with 802.11n wireless networking.
Pricing for movie rentals and purchases vary depending on whether they are in standard definition or high definition and depending on whether they are a new release or an older movie. But prices to rent movies are between about $1.99 and $4.99. And movies can be bought for about $15 a pop. The box currently comes in two versions: 40GB and 160GB.
What makes it not so cool? AppleTV doesn't work with older, non-widescreen TVs. And once again, the device doesn't come with a browser to access content that's available for free on the Web such as Hulu.com or TV.com. Basically, if it's not something you can get in iTunes, you won't be able to watch it on Apple TV.
Vudu - $125 to $150
Vudu CNET review
What makes it cool? Like Apple TV and Roku, Vudu is a dedicated set-top box for playing Internet-delivered video content. But what sets it apart from these other players is that the video resolution is much better at a full 1080p HD resolution. It also offers surround sound. As for content, Vudu offers a selection of movies from all the major studios as well as TV shows. It also offers adult content. And for the budget-conscious viewers, it added a bargain channel to the service that offers a rotating list of 99 movies for just $0.99 a pop.
What makes it not so cool? For one, its video library pales in comparison to Netflix or Amazon, which offer 12,000 and 40,000 titles, respectively. What's more, the best-quality HD content requires download queuing before viewing. It can't stream media from other networked PCs, and it lacks Wi-Fi.
2Wire MediaPoint Digital Media Player - $99 with included 25-movie download credit
2Wire MediaPoint Digital Media Player CNET review
What makes it cool? This box is very similar to the Roku, AppleTV, and Vudu devices. The single-purpose box, which costs $99, is essentially free since it comes with a 25-movie credit. It streams Blockbuster OnDemand video titles to your TV. There's no monthly fee, and it has built-in Ethernet and 802.11g Wi-Fi for easy networking. Blockbuster OnDemand offers more, newer titles than Netflix. And the device allows for progressive downloading, which means movies can be downloaded and then viewed on slower connections.
What makes it not so cool? The CNET Reviews team doesn't recommend this device. They say the remote is tiny and cluttered. There is no HD viewing, and it offers a small selection of movie and TV titles. And like other boxes built for streaming alone, it has no Web browser for accessing free online video content.
Microsoft Xbox 360 - $180 to $400
Microsoft Xbox 360 CNET review
What makes it cool? The Xbox 360 is primarily a gaming console, but it also offers an on-demand movie rental service from Netflix as well as from its own Xbox Video Marketplace. According to the CNET Reviews team, it has a superior selection of games and excellent online gaming and communications via Xbox Live. The box also doubles as a digital media hub and Windows Media Center extender. And it plays DVDs.
What's not so cool? The system is big and noisy. There's no built-in wireless networking. And like the purpose-built video streaming boxes, it doesn't have a browser for accessing other free online video content. And at around $300 (for the 60GB version), it's on the expensive side if all you'd like to do is stream movies and TV from the Web. (You also need to have a $50 a year Xbox Live Gold subscription to access the Netflix feature.) But if you're looking for a gaming console, DVD player, and Netflix-capable media center too, this might be a box to consider.
Sony PlayStation 3 - $400
Sony PlayStaton 3 CNET review
What makes it cool? Like the Xbox 360, the Sony PS3 is primarily a gaming console that also happens to offer online movie and TV viewing on your TV. Movies can be bought, or they can be rented for 24 hours from the online Sony PlayStation Store. Movies are available from most major Hollywood studios and TV networks. Unlike the Xbox 360 and the other online video appliances, the PS3 also has a built-in Web browser that allows users to find and view any Web content on their TV. The console has built-in Wi-Fi as well. And in addition to games and online videos, it also plays standard DVD movies and HD Blu-ray movies.
What makes it not so cool? The biggest knock against this device with respect to movie watching is the fact that the media and commerce options are not nearly as developed as Xbox Live, according to CNET Reviews.
TiVo HD/Series3 - $250 to $300
TiVo HD/Series3 CNET review
What makes it cool? Like the gaming consoles, the TiVo HD/Series3 is much more than an appliance for watching TV over your broadband connection. It's also a digital video recorder that can record two HD programs simultaneously while playing back a third, previously recorded one. But in addition to being a pretty cool DVR, it also offers on-demand movies over the Internet from Netflix, Amazon, CinemaNow, and Jaman.
What makes it not so cool? The biggest issue with TiVo is the price. While the up-front cost is a reasonable $300, it also requires a monthly subscription fee for the DVR function, which can add up over time. And if you are trying to replace your subscription TV service, it seems like you wouldn't need a DVR to record shows, because you'd be able to get them on-demand whenever you wanted to watch something. And like other devices mentioned here, the TiVo does not come with full Internet browsing to get already available video online.
SlingCatcher - $200 to $300
SlingCatcher CNET review
What makes it cool? SlingMedia's SlingCatcher lets owners of the companion Slingbox product place-shift viewing from one room to another (say, from the living room to bedroom), so you can watch live TV, or stuff that's recorded on your DVR, for example. But the SlingCatcher also includes SlingProjector software (Windows only, for now) that streams any video playing on your PC to your TV. That includes video from Web sites like Hulu.com, TV.com, and YouTube on your TV. Viewers can also use the SlingCatcher to view movies downloaded on their PCs from services such as Amazon or iTunes. Basically, anything you can play on your PC can be viewed on your TV via the SlingCatcher.
What makes it not so cool? The Web video viewing is a bit kludgy. You pretty much need to keep a laptop or desktop on to access the TV shows and online video content you want. That means navigating to new videos and sites needs to be done from the PC--not from through the SlingCatcher's remote.
Mac Mini - $599 to $799
Mac Mini CNET review
What makes it cool? The Mac Mini is a tiny computer with a cute and slick design that easily fits in a home entertainment center. And because the Mac Mini is a full-blown computer using Apple's OS, it can easily surf the Web and play video from any Web site offering video. This includes Hulu.com, TV.com, and all the major TV networks offering video on their Web sites as well as user-generated sites such as YouTube. Viewers could also download movies from Amazon or iTunes and watch them on the big screen via the Mac Mini. The Mac Mini comes in two configurations: a 2GHz Core 2 Duo processor, 1GB of RAM, and a 120GB hard drive; or 2GHz Core 2 Duo chip, 2GB of RAM, and a 320GB hard drive.
What makes it not so cool? The Mac Mini is expensive. The low-end version costs $599, and the high-end version costs $799. And because it's a computer, users will need to get a wireless mouse and keyboard to navigate and search for content.
Acer Aspire X1700 - $479
Acer Aspire X1700 CNET review
What makes it cool?This desktop PC is compact and includes an HDMI video and digital audio output, making it a good pick for a low-cost, compact PC to stream online videos to the TV. Like the Mac Mini, the fact that the Acer Aspire is a full computer means that viewers can surf the Net and watch video from any Web site. This includes sites that offer free TV shows like Hulu.com or they can download movies from Amazon or iTunes and watch them on the big screen. Of course, users could also use the computer to view movies from BitTorrent and other sites that offer movies via peer-to-peer services.
What makes it not so hot? This particular PC is not as fast as the competition, notes the CNET Reviews staff. And just like with the Mac Mini, the fact that the Acer is a computer means that users will have to use a mouse and keyboard to navigate and search for content.
By Marguerite Reardon
By Marguerite Reardon