Everything You Need To Know About Smart TV

Michael Brown


Technology is transforming the humble idiot box into a powerful Internet appliance. Whether you call it “smart TV,” “connected TV,” or “Internet TV,” it has the potential to upend our boob tube experience, letting us watch our favorite shows whenever and wherever we want, and merging TV shows with online content in cunning, clever ways. Smart TV won’t prevent television from rotting your brain (it’s not that smart), but it should empower you to find, and get more from, all the content that’s available.

Hollywood studios and TV networks are finally waking up to the power of the Internet, thanks to pioneering efforts by the likes of Netflix, Hulu, and Vudu. And if you can wait for pay-TV services such as HBO and Showtime to release their original programming on DVD, you can seriously consider ditching your expensive cable or satellite subscription services, too.

In the following pages, we’ll solve all the mysteries of smart TV. We’ll explain every important service and device that falls under the smart TV rubric (omitting only the most obvious players, such as YouTube), and tie everything together into a neat and simple package. It’s time to turn on and tune in.

Online Movie & TV Services

The Internet has exploded the video‑on‑demand market, wiping out the cable and satellite companies’ monopoly on which shows are available and when. Sure, the websites of the major TV networks let you watch full episodes of their shows (with varying levels of episode availability, advertising, and video quality), but the services in this section add movies to the mix, and generally improve TV video quality and grant access to greater storehouses of content. If you’re looking to cut your monthly bills, here are all the ways you can watch the latest movies and TV shows without a Comcast or DirecTV in your life.

Amazon Instant Video

What Is It?

Amazon.com’s online VOD store lets you rent or purchase TV shows and Hollywood movies. Most rented videos are streamed, although some can be fully downloaded to a TiVo DVR or to Amazon’s Unbox Video Player on a Windows PC. You can also purchase videos on one computer and download them to another, stream videos from your PC to an Xbox 360, or stream them from the web to Amazon's new Kindle Fire. Amazon will store your purchased videos on its servers, too.

What's Available?

Amazon claims 90,000 titles in its library. You’ll find Hollywood movies (available as soon as they hit DVD), as well as TV shows from the broadcast and cable networks, including Showtime and HBO (although you’ll have to wait a while for HBO’s programs to show up). Videos are streamed at the highest resolution your Internet connection supports, up to a maximum of 720p with a 3.5Mb/s connection. The minimum supported speed is 450Kb/s.

Pricing

Devices with Support Built In

Various TVs from Panasonic, Samsung, Sony, and Vizio; various Blu-ray players from Panasonic and Sony; TiVo DVRs (downloads only, streaming is not supported); Roku media players; Google TV devices; Windows PCs; and the Kindle Fire.

Newly released movies typically cost $3.99 to rent and $14.99 to purchase. Sale prices for older movies typically drop to $9.99 (rental prices remain the same), while some classics can be purchased for $4.99 or less, or rented for $2.99. TV shows are typically sold for $1.99 per episode (with discounts if you purchase entire seasons), but most HBO shows are available only for rental. Amazon doesn’t charge a monthly fee, although subscribers to the company’s Amazon Prime program ($79 per year) can stream (but not download) an unlimited number of movies and videos from a library of about 10,000 titles and TV episodes.

Our Take

Amazon offers great prices if you’re interested in buying downloadable movies, and the option to store your purchases on its servers reduces your risk should you suffer an equipment failure at home. The ability to transfer rented movies to portable devices would be a great differentiator if the list of supported devices included anything relevant. Free video rentals is a great new benefit if you’re already an Amazon Prime subscriber, but Amazon’s library is too small to justify signing up for that service solely to get free video streaming.

Blockbuster On Demand

What Is It?

Blockbuster, now owned by Dish Network, offers two online services. Blockbuster on Demand offers streaming VOD rentals and movie downloads for purchase. Dish Network subscribers can opt for Blockbuster Movie Pass, which includes video rentals streamed to a Dish set-top box, plus DVD and Blu-ray disc rentals by mail (limited to one disc being out at any one time).

What's Available?

You’ll find VOD versions of movies just released to DVD, as well as a deep library of classic films available in resolutions up to 1080i. The service doesn’t currently offer any TV shows for rental or purchase, but Blockbuster Movie Pass does include Starz programming (which consists of some original series and mini-series, plus movies that have already had their run on premium pay-TV channels such as HBO and Showtime).

Devices with Support Built In

Various TVs from Samsung and Vizio; various Blu-ray players from Onkyo, Philips, Samsung, and others; TiVo DVRs; select smartphones and tablets on the AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon networks; networked media players from Western Digital and 2Wire; and Windows PCs.

Pricing

Most new releases cost $3.99 to rent, or $19.99 to $21.99 to purchase. You can rent some older movies for as little as $1.99, but the service isn’t competitive when it comes to selling most classics, with titles typically priced at $9.99 each. There is no subscription fee for Blockbuster on Demand. Blockbuster Movie Pass costs $10 per month in addition to your Dish Network subscription.

Our Take

Blockbuster on Demand isn't any more or less compelling than any of the other movie-rental services covered here, unless you  want to watch movies and TV shows on your handheld device (note, however, that iOS devices—including the iPad—are not supported). If you're already a Dish Network subscriber, on the other hand, Blockbuster Movie Pass is a solid value at $10 per month, especially since Dish doesn't charge extra to rent movies on Blu-ray disc (take that, Netflix!).

CinemaNow

What Is It?

Operated by Best Buy and powered by RoxioNow, CinemaNow is another VOD service that offers movies and TV episodes for rental or purchase. Regardless of whether you rent or buy, videos can be streamed for instant viewing, or downloaded and watched later (downloads can be shared between five devices). You can also use your smartphone to purchase content and have it downloaded to your Windows PC. This way, you can purchase a movie while you’re at work, and it will be ready to watch when you get home.

What's Available?

You’ll find VOD versions of movies just released on disc, as well as a spotty selection of TV shows from the broadcast and cable networks, including Showtime, but not HBO. New TV episodes—of the select shows actually offered—are generally available the day after they’re broadcast. Videos are streamed at the highest resolution (up to 1080p) that your Internet connection is capable of supporting. CinemaNow requires a minimum connection speed of 1.5Mb/s.

Devices with Support Built In

Various TVs from LG and Samsung; various Blu-ray players from Insignia (Best Buy’s house brand), LG, Panasonic, and Samsung; Microsoft Xbox 360 gaming console (requires Windows PC connection); Mac or Windows PC (via browser).

Pricing

Most newly released movies can be rented for $3.99, while older movies rent for $2.99. Purchase prices for films range from $9.99 to $19.95, although most new releases were selling for $15.95 at press time. TV episodes sell for $1.99 each. There are no subscription fees.

Our Take

Best Buy offers very good prices for movie purchases, but its prices for movie rentals and TV episode purchases are just meh. We like the ability to buy a movie with a smartphone and have it automatically downloaded to a PC—and it would be great if rentals could be arranged this way, too. For whatever reason, Best Buy has chosen to support far fewer devices than the RoxioNow service is capable of delivering (see Blockbuster On Demand for examples).

Crackle

What Is It?

Crackle describes itself as a multiplatform video entertainment network and studio owned by Sony Pictures Entertainment. The service is unique in that it allows you to embed its original programming, "minisodes," full-length television episodes, and feature films.

What's Available?

You’ll find full-length feature films and TV episodes, as well as trailers for coming attractions. Sony owns most of this content, including some entirely original programming. Oddly enough, videos default to 360p resolution, which is lower than standard definition (480p). Crackle offers some content at higher resolution, but it tops out at—you guessed it—480p.

Devices with Support Built In

You can stream—but not download—Crackle’s Flash videos to these connected devices: Sony's Bravia TVs; Sony's Internet TV; most Sony Blu-ray players; TiVo DVRs; Sezmi set-top box; Google TV devices, such as the Logitech Revue; Hulu (and all networked media players that support that service); D-Link’s Boxee Box; Roku devices; the Sony PlayStation 3; Verizon FiOS TV; Android devices; mobile devices on the Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon networks; Apple's iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch; Windows PCs.

Pricing

Crackle is entirely free, but it is heavily supported by online ads and commercial interruptions. You must be at least 18 years old and register with the site to access R-rated movies.

Our Take

If you’re a Netflix subscriber, you’ve probably already seen most of the movies that Crackle has to offer—and without commercial interruptions. The low-res video is another bummer. Some of Crackle’s original content is definitely worth watching, though, especially the female-assassin series Angel of Death. Crackle is a good choice if you enjoy watching videos on your mobile device, too; and it's one of the few services to support the iPad. While we applaud Crackle for enabling its customers to distribute its content relatively freely (through embedding), bear in mind that it’s primarily in the interest of promoting the service.

Vudu

What Is It?

Vudu started life as a movie-download service using a proprietary box with a hard drive. Besides the hardware—and a bevy of deals with movie studios—Vudu's biggest claim to fame was its HDX video-encoding algorithm that enabled it to stream movies in full 1080p resolution. The set-top box eventually fell by the wayside in favor of streaming movies to devices such as Blu-ray players. That removed a significant barrier for consumers, but it wasn't enough to keep the company independent—it was acquired by WalMart in early 2010.

What's Available?

Vudu offers Hollywood movies (and Showtime TV episodes) for rental and sale, typically the same day they become available on disc. Videos are streamed at the highest resolution your Internet connection can support, with standard-definition (480p) video requiring a minimum download speed of 1–2Mb/s. Vudu offers two high-definition streams: HD (720p), which requires a minimum download speed of 2.25–4.5Mb/s, and HDX (1080p with Dolby Digital Plus 7.1-channel sound), which requires a very fat pipe that can deliver between 4.5- and 9Mb/s. This is also the only service that supports 3D video streaming.

Devices with Support Built In

Most newer Blu-ray players, HDTVs, and home-theater-in-a-box systems; a number of networked media players, including D-Link's Boxee Box, Netgear's NeoTV, and Roku devices; Sony's PlayStation 3; Apple's iPad; and Windows PCs.

Pricing

New releases cost $3.99, $4.99, or $5.99 to rent (for SD, HD, and HDX, respectively). Vudu sells most new releases for $14.99 (in SD) or $19.99 (in HD or HDX). Older movies rent for $2 for two nights, with a limited number of movies renting for just 99 cents.

Our Take

Who'd have guessed that WalMart would come to offer one of the best online video-rental services on the market? Vudu is at least as good as Amazon Instant Video, and it supports far more hardware platforms than iTunes; Netflix' movie offerings are downright stagnant in comparison. If WalMart wants to make the service even more compelling—and more profitable—it should enable customers without super-fast broadband connections to download movie rentals in HDX (like the original Vudu box did).

Hulu & Hulu Plus

What Is It?

Hulu is a content aggregator offering on-demand TV shows and movies from most of the major networks and movie studios. Hulu is the name of the free service, while Hulu Plus offers more features and is subscription based. Major players that own stakes in Hulu include NBC Universal (now merged with Comcast), News Corporation (owner of the Fox network), and Walt Disney Corporation (owner of ABC). CBS (which also owns Showtime and more) is the only major TV network that doesn’t own a piece of Hulu.

What's Available?

Most of Hulu’s content consists of TV episodes, news programming, and a handful of feature films produced by the three major concerns with ownership stakes. TV shows typically appear the day after they’re broadcast, and all this content is supported by advertisements, even if you spring for a Hulu Plus subscription.

So what do you get if you subscribe? Higher-resolution video, for starters. Hulu content is streamed in “standard definition” (a term Hulu doesn’t define), while Hulu Plus video streams in “high definition” (720p). And while basic Hulu is available only on a computer, Hulu Plus can be streamed to an increasingly wide range of devices. Also, basic Hulu delivers only the five most recent episodes of available TV series, whereas you get entire seasons on Hulu Plus.

Movies generally aren’t one of Hulu’s strengths, but cineastes will revel in the Criterion Collection of films available on Hulu Plus. Criterion is renowned for both the impeccable quality of its film-to-video digital transfers and its supplemental material, including deleted scenes, audio commentaries, and more. This supplemental material isn’t currently available on Hulu Plus, but it’s slated to be included in the future.

Devices with Support Built In

Hulu is available on Windows PCs, but you must be connected to the Internet to watch, and you can’t download and store videos on your machine. Hulu Plus has the same restrictions, but can be streamed to a variety of TVs from Samsung, Sony, and Vizio; various Blu-ray players from Samsung, Sony, and Vizio; TiVo Premiere DVRs; Android smartphones and tablets; networked media players, Roku and Western Digital networked media players; Sony’s Dash and Netbox; Sony's PlayStation 3, Nintendo's Wii, and Microsoft's Xbox 360; iOS devices; and—coming soon—Nintendo's 3DS handheld gaming system.

Pricing

Hulu is free. Hulu Plus costs $7.99 monthly. Videos on both services contain commercial advertising, and you’ll need to register for whichever service you decide to use.

Our Take

We loathe commercials, but they’re a reasonable trade-off for getting triple-A content for free. But having to pay for content and still be forced to watch commercials is something else. Hulu’s free iteration delivers most of what you’ll get on broadcast and subscription TV, so it could well satisfy your needs—provided you don’t mind watching standard-def video on a computer and don’t fall too far behind in a TV series season.

Hulu Plus offers a lot more content, and it’s available on a host of devices that will connect directly to your TV. If you’re looking to cut your ties to a pay TV service, it’s definitely worth $7.99 per month—even with the commercials. Aside from the excellent Criterion Collection, however, Hulu Plus can’t compete with the Netflix movie library.

iTunes Store

What Is It?

Available for both Mac and PC, Apple’s free iTunes application lets you play, organize, and purchase digital music and video. You can also use iTunes to transfer your video purchases to an iPod, iPad, or iPhone, or stream that content to all these devices, as well as to the Apple TV media player. Whereas iTunes music downloads can only be purchased, movies, and TV show episodes can be either purchased or rented.

What's Available?

Apple’s media store offers a comprehensive collection of Hollywood movies, plus TV shows from the major broadcast and cable networks, including Showtime and HBO. Many of the films include what Apple calls iTunes Extras: deleted scenes, making-of documentaries, music videos, and so on. Just be aware that iTunes Extras are viewable only on a computer or via Apple TV.

Most movies and TV episodes are available in either standard or HD (480p and 720p, respectively). Unlike most of the other services discussed here, you can download both rented and purchased content to your computer or Apple device. You must watch rented movies and TV shows within 30 days of downloading. Additionally, you must finish watching a rented movie within 24 hours of clicking the Play button. You have 48 hours to finish watching rented TV shows.

Devices with Support Built In

A TV connected to an Apple TV media player; most iPod models (HD content will require an iPod Touch); iOS devices (HD content will require iPhone 4); Mac or Windows PC (via the iTunes software).

Pricing

To rent newly released movies, you’re typically looking at $3.99 for standard-def, and $4.99 for HD. To buy that same content, you’ll usually pay $14.99 and $19.99, respectively. Most TV shows sell for $1.99 for standard-def and $2.99 for HD.

Our Take

If Apple had its way, you’d only be able to watch iTunes content on Apple products. The company’s almost there now, supporting Windows only because of its huge, dominating installed base. Fortunately, you'll find other video-on-demand services delivering the same content on a wide variety of platforms, including the PC, Android, and iOS. We see very little reason to patronize iTunes these days for anything other than music (and we can recommend plenty of alternatives on that score, too).

Netflix

What Is It?

Netflix started out renting DVDs by mail, but now emphasizes its subscription-based video-streaming service over renting physical discs. As a Netflix subscriber, you can stream as many movies and TV episodes as you like, but you can't download the videos to any device.

What's Available?

You'll find Hollywood movies, TV episodes from broadcast and cable networks (including Showtime but not HBO), and original movies and TV series carried on the Starz cable network. Netflix boasts a high-quality back catalog of streaming content, but it takes a long time for new movies to become available for streaming, and TV episodes generally don't become available until after their seasons have been released on disc. Videos are streamed at the highest resolution your Internet connection can deliver, up to a maximum of 720p.

Devices with Support Built In

Various HDTVs from LG, Panasonic, Samsung, Sony, and Vizio; various Blu-ray disc players from LG, Panasonic, Sony, Toshiba, and others; TiVo DVRs; most media players, including the Apple TV, Boxee Box, Google TV, Roku, and WD TV Live; PlayStation 3, Nintendo Wii, and Xbox 360; iOS devices (via an app); Mac or Windows PCs (via web browser).

Pricing

A Netflix “Watch Instantly” account costs a minimum of $7.99 per month. This baseline plan doesn’t include any physical disc rentals, but it also places no limit on the number of videos you can stream. Of course, Netflix continues to offer plans that include physical disc rentals, and each throws in unlimited streaming as a value-added service.

Our Take

Netflix' $7.99 streaming-only plan is a great deal if you don't mind very long waits for newer movies and TV episodes to make their way onto the service. In an effort to appease Hollywood, which apparently fears that Netflix will dominate the post-theater retail movie business in the same way that Apple has come to dominate the music distribution market, Netflix cut deals with most of the studios to not rent new movies on disc until they've been available at retail for 28 days. New movies and current television episodes take much, much longer to make their way to Netflix' streaming service. Meanwhile, pay-per-view services such as Vudu offer new movies online the very same day they're released on disc. Regardless, we still recommend Netflix' streaming-only subscriptions for movies, but we think Hulu Plus delivers a far better experience for TV junkies.

Yahoo Connected TV

What Is It?

Yahoo Connected TV is an umbrella term for Yahoo’s smart TV initiative. It’s similar to Google TV in that it’s a platform that seeks to integrate the TV-viewing experience with the Internet, but Yahoo’s effort is smaller and more targeted. Indeed, while Google TV attempts to aggregate content from virtually every venue where video is available, Yahoo Connected TV is more of a framework for third-party widgets that leverage live TV and various VOD sources, and bring popular online social media services to your TV.

What's Available?

Widgets from Amazon Instant Video and Blockbuster On Demand enable you to rent and stream movies and TV episodes. Other widgets deliver video content available only on the web, such as Internet TV shows from Revision3. You can also hook into Facebook and Twitter, share digital photos using Flickr, and buy and sell goods on eBay. You’ll also find widgets for weather reports, casual games, and stock tickers.

Devices with Support Built In

As we went to press, the only devices to support Yahoo Connected TV were a handful of TV models from LG, Samsung, Sony, Toshiba, and Vizio. D-Link has demoed a set-top box that you can plug into any TV, but the product wasn’t shipping at press time.

Pricing

Incremental costs are probably folded into the prices of TVs that support Yahoo Connected TV, but there is no direct cost to the consumer. That said, some of the content widgets cost money and are sold through an app store, but these are entirely optional. And, of course, if you use pay-as-you-go services such as Amazon Instant Video, you’ll have to pony up for those, as well.

Our Take

The technology behind Yahoo Connected TV isn’t nearly as disruptive as the tech behind Google TV, and maybe that's why it seems to be enjoying a bit more early success. We’d rather play games on our computers or tablets than on our TVs, but there are plenty of other worthwhile widgets in the service’s universe. For example, it’s much more fun to share Flickr photos on a big TV screen than to huddle around a PC—and this is another reason why we think an HDTV’s visual quality is so important.

MLB.TV

What Is It?

This service, owned by Major League Baseball, points to the future of smart TV sports coverage. Leveraging a sport with lots of teams, a very long season, and an obsession with stats, MLB.TV is a baseball fanatic's interactive dream.

What's Available?

You can watch any regular-season game that’s available in your market in 720p resolution. Games, however, are subject to local-market blackout restrictions. If your game is blacked out, you can’t view it until 90 minutes after the final pitch.

You get in-game highlights, stats, and alternate audio options (you can choose between the home or away team’s audio feed, for instance). A widget tracks the pitcher’s performance in a video overlay, and you can replay any player’s at-bat on demand. A fantasy league tracker alerts you when players you’ve drafted are on-deck, so you can switch to their at-bats via a picture-in-picture.

A premium package adds the ability to watch either the home or away team’s video feed. This package also includes a multi-game mode that lets you watch up to four in-market games simultaneously (using either picture-in-picture or split-screen).

Devices with Support Built In

Various HDTVs from LG and Samsung; various Blu-ray players from LG and Samsung; Roku networked media players; Boxee devices (including the D-Link Boxee Box); Apple TV; Sony PlayStation 3; and Android and iOS devices. Note: Not every feature is available on every device.

Pricing

MLB.TV costs $19.99 monthly or $99.99 yearly. MLB.TV Premium is $24.99 or $119.99, respectively. One subscription can be activated on multiple devices, but you’ll need to purchase and install Major League Baseball’s At Bat 11 app ($14.99 per device) to use the service with mobile devices.

Our Take

Major League Baseball understands what its fans want, and it knows how to leverage the smart TV concept to bring them a great interactive experience—either on the TV or on a second, supplemental screen. Only hardcore fans will be willing to pay the steep entry fees, but there are plenty of those out there.

Google TV

What Is It?

Google TV is an open hardware and software platform designed to combine the power of the Internet with compelling video content—from Hollywood movies and TV shows, to YouTube clips and other viral fare, to personal content on your local network. Think of it as an electronic program guide that lists not only the content that's available on TV right now and in the coming weeks, but also what's available for streaming over the Internet. On top of that, using a picture-in-picture window or video overlay, Google TV can present real-time information about whatever you happen to be watching: player stats if you're watching a game, actor profiles if you're watching a movie, and so on.

What's Available?

Google’s smart TV technology can deliver any content located on your home network, anything on live TV, anything recorded on your Dish Network set-top box, and virtually any content available on the Internet—just as long as the content owner doesn’t object. Right now, however, all the major television networks vigorously object and are blocking Google TV from presenting their online content. And because the networks own a chunk of Hulu, Google TV can’t deliver that, either.

Devices with Support Built In

Sony's Internet TV, Sony's Internet TV Blu-ray player, Dish Network's set-top box, and Logitech's Revue set-top box.

Pricing

Google TV is only available integrated into another product. It’s not sold as an app, so you can’t run it on a PC. While there are no subscription fees, Dish Network will tack a $4 "DVR integration" fee onto your monthly bill if you connect the service to its set-top box.

Our Take

Google set out to change the way we watch TV, combining the power of Internet search with TV content. But the initiative crashed head-on into entrenched interests that fear Google will interrupt their advertising revenue streams. It's too soon to say if the latest version of Google TV will make the service any more worth having, but we do know you still can't get Hulu or other online content owned by the major broadcast and pay-TV networks with it.

NBA League Pass

What Is It?

NBA League Pass Broadband and NBA League Pass Mobile allow you to stream regular-season NBA games to your PC or mobile device. In addition to being able to watch games that might not be broadcast in your area, you also get real-time stats and other features. This service is co-owned by the NBA and Turner Sports Interactive, and games are subject to the same blackout restrictions that you’ll encounter with normal TV broadcasts.

What's Available?

The Broadband package lets you watch as many as 40 regular-season games per week, including up to three games at the same time. Games available in high-def are streamed in an unspecified level of HD to your device, with live stats overlaid on top of the video. A DVR function allows you to produce your own instant replays, and you have access to a full season's worth of archives (on-demand replays are available 48 hours after they've been played). The Mobile package allows you to watch up to 40 games per week on your iOS or Android device.

Devices with Support Built In

This service is available on a Mac or Windows PC, Roku devices, as well as iPod, iPhone, and Android devices (via apps). There is also limited support for Apple TV.

Pricing

An NBA League Pass Broadband subscription is included in the purchase of an NBA League Pass TV subscription (prices vary per cable or satellite provider). If you’re not paying for the TV channel, however, you can opt for a Broadband “Choice” subscription (which allows you to follow up to seven teams) for $24.99 per season. To follow all 30 NBA teams, you’ll need to pay $49.95 per season for the “Premium” subscription. NBA League Pass Mobile subscriptions cost $16.99 per season.

Our Take

The NBA is off to a good start, but pro basketball could take a few lessons from Major League Baseball: The full version of NBA League Pass should be available as a widget in connected TVs and set-top boxes (only NBA Game Time Lite is available on those devices today). Regardless, both the NBA and MLB are way ahead of the NFL, which doesn’t offer interactive squat.

Smart TV Hardware Essentials

Here's everything you'll need to indulge your interest in Smart TV. Surprise! It's not really all that much.

Broadband Internet Access: Dial-up access isn’t going to cut it. City and suburb dwellers should look into cable modems and DSL. Folks living in rural areas where those services aren't available should check into wireless solutions, such as WiMax. Satellite service is another alternative, although it’s relatively slow and can be very expensive.

A Display: You don’t necessarily need a TV to get smart TV; you can just as easily use the display connected to your desktop or notebook computer. TVs, on the other hand, typically offer bigger screens, and you can connect your existing unit to whichever smart TV hardware you’re using to pull content from the Internet. Newer TVs make all this easier, thanks to their built-in apps and Ethernet support.

A Networked Media Player: If you don’t have a TV with built-in smart TV apps, you’ll need something from this category, which includes devices such as Western Digital's WD TV Live, Netgear's Neo TV, D-Link's Boxee Box, or one of the Roku devices. Most Blu-ray players and home-theater-in-a-box systems include smart TV apps, too. The best solution, of course, is to buy a PC that can be incorporated into your home entertainment system.

Connected TVs & Set-Top Boxes

Did you find one of the video-on-demand or interactive TV services on the preceding pages to your liking? Now it’s time to delve deeper into the hardware that  might support the particular iteration of smart TV that suits your fancy. Here are our choices, ranked from least appealing to most compelling. See the next page for our top recommendation: a home theater PC.


If you don't want to invest in a full-blown home-theater PC, we think D-Link's oddly shaped Boxee Box is the next best alternative.

HDTV

You might think the best way to get smart TV is to buy, well, a smart TV. Think again! Don't toss your current TV if the only thing it's lacking is smart TV features—we'll show you plenty of cheaper—and in some cases, better—alternatives. If, on the other hand, you've been longing to upgrade to a bigger screen, or if you want to move up from LCD to plasma, or to a model that supports 3D, smart TV features will most likely be included. Don't fret about which services are included, though; concentrate on image quality, instead.

Logitech Revue (Google TV)

If you really want the Google TV experience, Logitech is blowing out its Revue inventory—we've seen it selling online for as little as $100 (it hit the market at $299). Logitech CEO Guerrino De Luca recently told analysts that the decision to support Google TV, which he described as a "beta product," cost the company $100 million in operating profit. De Luca says the company has no immediate plans to produce a Revue 2. Ouch.

Apple TV

Even hardcore Apple fans were disappointed with the Apple TV set-top box when it was first introduced. The device was capable of streaming content from only four online services—Netflix, YouTube, MobileMe, and Flickr—but has since added support for MLB.TV and NBA League Pass Broadband. We suspect Apple's real aspirations for Apple TV are focused on making the box a conduit for watching movies and TV episodes rented or purchased from iTunes. Apple TV sells for $99, but you'll find plenty of better products for the same price or less.

Videogame Consoles

Microsoft's Xbox 360, Nintendo's Wii, and Sony's PlayStation 3 gaming consoles all have Internet connectivity, and all are capable of delivering various smart TV elements, including Netflix. The Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 tend to be more smart TV-oriented than the Wii, and the Xbox 360 is even stronger, because it can use your PC as a bridge to connect to online services. You can also play games on these devices, of course, but isn't that what you bought your PC for?

Blu-ray Disc Players

As with new HDTVs, just about any new Blu-ray disc player on the market will include a variety of smart TV features. We love Blu-ray as much for its high-definition audio as its HD video, but we think a home-theater PC makes the best Blu-ray player. Still, most people don't have the budget to put one of those in every room. Netflix support is common, but Vudu support is better if you're interested in renting the latest movies in HD. Prices start at less than $100, but features such as integrated Wi-Fi, multiple HDMI outputs, and SACD and DVD-Audio support will rapidly inflate the MSRP.

Roku

Roku manufactured the very first Netflix streaming box, but the company has expanded significantly since then and now offers four models ranging in price from $50 to $100. Even the least expensive model, the LT, includes an integrated Wi-Fi adapter, 720p video resolution, and more than 350 content channels. A lot of that content is crap, however, and only the top-end product will stream your own content (albeit only from a USB storage device).

Netgear Neo TV NTV200

We like Netgear's streamer just a little bit more than Roku's lineup, almost exclusively because it supports Vudu. It can't stream content you own, but it does have an integrated Wi-Fi adapter and it does deliver video resolution up to 1080p. And it only costs $80.

Western Digital WD TV Live

Western Digital practically owns the networked media-streamer market, thanks to its exceptional WD TV Live product. It supports nearly every important online media service (with the notable exception of Vudu), it will stream all your own content from any network or USB source at video resolutions up to 1080p, it supports every important media codec and container format, it has an integrated Wi-Fi adapter, and it costs just $130.

D-Link Boxee Box

If you're looking for just a little more than what the WD TV Live can do (Vudu support, the ability to send web videos to the Boxee  Box from a web browser, and—coming soon—an optional USB TV tuner), then you should take a hard look at D-Link's Boxee Box. It's priced higher than the Roku, Netgear, and Western Digital products ($180), but the price bump is fully justified by its extensive feature list.

Home Theater PCs

Looking for the ultimate smart TV experience? Pick up a home-theater PC. You can subscribe to any online service your heart desires, stream your own content, and lots more. In fact, these machines can do almost anything a desktop PC can do. Here's a quick look at five classes of HTPC.

All-In-One PC

An all-in-one PC is a great solution if you're looking for an entertainment system for your kitchen, bedroom, den, or even your garage. This class of machine integrates an entire desktop computer, display, and speakers inside a chassis that's only slightly thicker than the typical monitor.

These machines come with everything you need, including an integrated Wi-Fi adapter, a wireless mouse and keyboard, and a TV tuner. Add an aftermarket USB CableCARD product, such as Ceton's InfiniTV4, and you can watch and record digital cable TV programming—including premium channels such as HBO.

Prices vary according to the size of the display, but models boasting large monitors typically also deliver faster CPUs, larger hard drives, and more features overall. Many higher-end models, such as HP's TouchSmart 610 , include an HDMI input, so you can use the display with a game console, set-top box, or other video source. Machines in this price range also typically include an integrated Blu-ray drive, which is useful for watching rented Blu-ray movies (we recommend ripping purchased movies and storing them on a central server).

The obvious downside to buying an all-in-one machine is that it will be almost impossible to upgrade it down the road.

Velcro PC

We coined this term to describe a personal computer that's small enough to be attached to the back of a display using that famously sticky fabric (you can read our review of Zotac's ZBox Nano AD10 Plus ). Such machines often do not include an optical drive, but they can stream just about any video from a network server or from any of the online media services we've mentioned.


Zotac's ZBox Nano AD10 Plus can be mounted to the back of any VESA-compatible monitor.

A Velcro PC is like a networked media player (e.g., a Roku or WD TV Live) on steroids. Like that class of device, you can connect a Velcro PC to any size display you like—just make sure it delivers video resolution of at least 1920x1080 pixels. Unlike most networked media players, a Velcro PC includes integrated storage, and it will run a full operating system (ranging from almost any Linux distro to any flavor of Windows). And since it's a bona fide PC, online media services such as Hulu can't block it.

Mini HTPC

This class of computer is a step up from a Velcro PC in that it comes with an integrated Blu-ray drive. You might think of it as an all-minus-one, because the only thing you need to add is an HDTV (and amplified speakers if you don't want to rely on the tiny speakers inside the TV). Acer builds our favorite machine in this category: The super-thin Revo RL100-UR20P comes with a Blu-ray drive and a slick, backlit wireless keyboard/trackpad that's easy to use, even in a darkened room.

DIY HTPC

When you know exactly what you want in a computer, there's no better way to get it than to build it yourself. One easy solution is to start with a bare‑bones kit, such as the AsRock Vision 3D . This machine includes a Blu-ray drive, an Intel Core i3-370M CPU, and a discrete Nvidia GPU that's sufficiently robust for many newer games. Add Nvidia's 3D Vision kit and hook up a 3D monitor, HDTV, or video projector (our favorite display solution), and you can play games and watch movies in 3D.

If you want to build an all-out home-theater PC that's capable of playing not only Blu-ray movies, but also today's most ambitious games, you can do that, too. We built just such a beast in our December issue, using an Asus Maximum IV Gene-Z motherboard, Intel's Core i5-2500K CPU, and Nvidia's GeForce GTX 560 Ti. Don't have that issue? Just point your browser here .

Boutique HTPC

Want a top-shelf rig for your entertainment center, but don't have time to build your own? That's where boutique PC builders enter the picture. These vendors will start you off with a basic configuration and then let you customize it to fit your precise needs.



The CineMagix HTPC, from boutique builder Velocity Micro.

Take Velocity Micro's CineMagix Grand Theater Entertainment System, for example. This $1,550 rig includes a full-size ATX motherboard with an Intel Core i5-2300 CPU, 4GB of DDR3 memory, an AMD Radeon HD 5450 videocard, and a digital HDTV tuner. Since these machines are built to order, you can substitute and add components as you see fit.

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