There was a time when TV was free. True, you often had to watch shows through a light haze of snowy static, put things known as bunny ears on top of your giant, wood-encased set and sometimes even enhance said ears with crafty homemade tinfoil tubes, but still … it was free. Then the cable companies got involved, dramatically raising both picture and programming quality while simultaneously lowering the bank account balances for millions of viewers across the land. These days, premium cable packages can easily crest the hundred-dollar-per-month line, a steep price to pay for dozens of channels you most likely never watch.
But, all things have their time, and with the rise of the Internet, standard cable broadcasting companies are finding that their customers are migrating like kids to the kitchen during commercials to web-based viewing options. If you want to join their ranks—and save yourself hundreds of dollars a year in the process–have a look at this handy guide to both the services and equipment available to help you get video off the Internet and onto your TV.
Netflix. Netflix is a rental-only video service and has a massive library featuring both TV shows and movies, along with 23 million subscribers who enjoy them. Many movies are made available for streaming 28 days after they come out on DVD, a timeframe that might disappoint cinema aficionados. Another potential drawback of the Netflix service is that TV shows from premium channels like HBO are not available, plus shows from standard channels are often not available for streaming immediately after the TV air date. However, unlike all of its competitors, in 2013, Netflix will begin airing its own original programming, including a revival of cult fave “Arrested Development.” Also, of all the online movie and TV streaming services, Netflix is the only one to also offer delivery of actual DVDs to your mailbox. At press time, they charge $7.99 per month for the streaming of unlimited movies and TV shows, and an additional $7.99 per month to have unlimited DVDs delivered to your mailbox, although you can only have one out at a time. There are no due dates or late fees for through-the-mail movies.
iTunes. With over 400 million active accounts, iTunes is a giant when it comes to offering electronic entertainment options. The service does not require a subscription (just an iTunes account linked to a credit card), and allows customers to either download or rent movies or TV shows from a large library. Video content can be played on the full suite of Apple devices, which can all be connected to a TV set via cables or by using Apple’s airplay functionality. A benefit of iTunes is that rented movies can be downloaded to your computer, so that you can watch them at a later time, even if you have no Internet connection. Movies can be rented in either HD or SD which also means you can download the highest quality video and watch it afterwards, with no worries about glitches in the video stream if you have an unreliable or slow Internet connection.
Amazon. Amazon is iTunes biggest competitor. Like Apple’s service, Amazon offers customers the chance to either buy or rent movies and TV shows. Also like iTunes, movies can be downloaded and watched at a later time, without an Internet connection. One of the primary differences between the two services, however, is that if you sign up for an Amazon Prime account ($79 per year at press time), you can stream unlimited movies from their library, although the selection of streamable titles is limited. (Prime account holders also get a free Kindle book rental per month plus free 2 day shipping on any order.) For streaming titles, Amazon says that they automatically detect the speed of your Internet connection and adjust the quality of the video accordingly—from standard DVD to HD. All other movies are downloaded at DVD quality. The offering of titles between iTunes and Amazon varies slightly, and on some titles, Amazon offers lower pricing, making it a slightly more affordable service.
Hulu Plus. When it comes to watching current TV shows, it’s hard to beat Hulu plus. At press time, the service cost $7.99 per month and includes unlimited streaming of their content, which features the largest number of just-aired TV shows of any competitor. Shows will often be available on Hulu Plus just 24 hours after their network broadcast. One drawback of Hulu Plus is that, unlike its competitors, the service shows ads in their video feeds, although at a much-reduced rate from regular television. Hulu also offers a more limited selection of movies than Netflix, iTunes or Amazon.
Vudu. This service excels in the quality of the movies you are able to rent or purchase. Although films and TV shows in the HDX format (a step above HD) tend to be a bit pricey ($6 to rent, $23 to own at press time), if you have a high-quality TV and are a true videophile, the expense might be worth it. Vudu HDX movies also feature Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 surround sound. For more affordable options Vudu also offers its movie and TV shows in HD and SD, and is on par with iTunes and Amazon when it comes to selection. One differentiating factor between Vudu and its competitors is that purchased movies are stored in the cloud—a benefit if you are concerned about eating up your computer’s hard drive, a drawback if you want to watch movies without an Internet connection. Vudu is owned by Walmart and their bricks-and-mortar presence allows them to do something the other services don’t—convert your old DVDs to electronic versions that get stored in the cloud. Through their Disc-to-Digital program, you simply bring your DVDs to a Walmart store—or insert them into your computer’s DVD drive—and pay $2 to have each of them converted to SD or HD, or $5 for conversion to HDX. For the computer version, you don’t have to wait for the disc to be copied to the cloud. Vudu is able to verify a legitimate DVD and automatically transfer a copy to your online vault—which is protected by the Ultraviolet online initiative.
Crackle. According to their website, “Crackle specializes in hand-picked movies, TV shows and original programming in guys’ favorite genres—like action, sci-fi, horror, crime and comedy.” If that’s not enough to get video-loving guys excited, here’s something that should: all the content on Crackle, which is Sony’s offering in the video-streaming arena, is completely free. Many of the movies are of the older and B-grade variety, but then again, they’re free so it’s hard to complain. And there is a pretty nice selection of anime. Crackle is available on nearly all mobile devices.
Apple TV. Although it’s possible to play iTunes movies and TV shows through your TV by connecting an iPad or iPhone with a special adaptor cable, Apple TV makes the whole process simpler and more elegant. Apple TV is a small black box that connects to your TV and the Internet (either through WiFi or an ethernet cable) and lets you access content from both the iTunes store and your iTunes library right from your TV screen. Movies purchased through Apple TV are stored in the cloud, so if you want to own the file, it’s best to download it on your computer through iTunes, then send it out to your Apple TV through the AirPlay functionality. AirPlay also allows mirroring which lets you beam any content that’s on your computer, iPad or iPhone to your TV. In addition to providing iTunes content, Apple TVs also receive content from Hulu Plus and Netflix and can stream YouTube and Vimeo content. If you have the relevant accounts, you can also get Major League Baseball, NBA and NHL channels. At press time, Apple TV was $99.
Roku. The Roku device is also a small box, like the Apple TV, and it also connects to the Internet either through WiFi or an ethernet cable. Roku, however, offers a much wider range of content. The devices come in a range of styles from the purple LT ($50 at press time) to the Roku Plus XS ($99.99 at press time). The higher-priced models play video at an improved quality (up to 1080p for the most expensive system), and the XS features a motion-sensing remote that allows game play. The XS system comes with several games including Angry Birds, Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune. It also has a USB port from where it can access your photos and music. On all Roku devices you can get content from Netflix, Amazon, Crackle, Vudu, Hulu Plus, HBO GO (if you have regular HBO service), Disney and the NBA. You can also stream Pandora Internet radio. In an industry-leading move, Roku has also released what they call a “Streaming Stick” which is a USB fob that plugs into Roku-Ready HDTVs, and functions just like a regular Roku box without the cables.
Boxee TV. Boxee TV’s major source of content is Netflix and Vudu. It can also play content from YouTube and Vimeo, gets the MLB channel and can stream music from Pandora and Spotify. The major differentiating factor with this device however, is that if you connect it to your regular cable service, you can record unlimited programming which will be stored in your own cloud account for $9.99 per month (at press time). But this is an article about ending your cable service, so another way to use this unique Boxee feature is to see what channels you can pick up and record for free using the included digital antenna. At press time, Boxees were selling for $99.
Gaming Consoles. According to a Nielsen survey, half of all Netflix users access the service via a gaming console like PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360. These devices, along with the Wii, can not only provide a great gaming experience in the home, they can become total entertainment factories when used to access streaming video content. All three can stream content from Hulu Plus and Netflix and the Xbox 360 and PS3 can also work with Amazon’s Instant Video program.
Internet-Ready TVs, DVD & Blu-ray Players. If you’re in the market for a new TV or Blu-ray player, you might do best to forgo the other devices listed here and seek out a TV or disc player with Internet connectivity. This, in effect, gets you two devices in one: a TV (or Blu-ray player) and an Internet video streaming box. By going this route, you can save a bit of money and keep your home theater set up as clutter free as possible. A particularly good value in an Internet-enabled TV is the Vizio M3D470KD, which is one of the few TVs to offer services from all four online video giants: Netflix, Hulu Plus, Vudu and Amazon. New devices are being introduced all the time, but you can get a good overview of which machines play what service by going to the Hulu Plus, Netflix and Amazon websites for compatible devices.