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The Grail of Video on Demand

November 2010

You like the Internet, and you like TV. Now they’re merging, and the grail, to my mind, is coming closer: watching whatever I want to watch, any time I want to watch it.

The Internet is doing a lot to remove the shackles of network scheduling, with episodes of popular TV programs on network websites after those programs have aired. And Netflix, with its hugely popular $9/month package that offers unlimited streaming of a library of over 20,000 movies and TV episodes, has met the desire of many for inexpensive movies-on-demand. Plus, there are websites such as Hulu that offer free streaming movies and TV episodes, and free sports via sites such as ESPN3.

All of this stuff is available online. Some of it is in HD. What are your options for getting that content on your big-screen HDTV so you have the bounty of the Internet in the comfort of your living room?

Frankly, it’s all new to me, but I gather there are five main options: 1) an Internet-ready TV, 2) a box that you connect to your TV and that itself connects to the Internet, 3) Blu-ray players with Internet capability, 4) Google TV, and 5) connecting your computer to your TV.

Internet-ready TV: About a quarter of all HDTVs being shipped this year are Internet ready. Connectivity is typically via an Ethernet port, Wi-Fi wireless, or a USB port (into which you plug a wireless transceiver). You simply connect your Internet service to your TV.

Initially, most of these TVs, except for a few high-end models, don’t have a lot of selection, limiting content to a few partners — usually Netflix, YouTube, Pandora (for music), a service for music videos, and a few more.

Among the more capable Internet TVs are the high-end Samsung and Vizio 55-inch LED TVs, which include a small selection of Yahoo Widgets that let you access Netflix, news, weather, Twitter, Facebook, Amazon movies-on-demand, and Skype for video conferencing.

It seems unlikely, though, that these Internet TVs will ever give you the diversity of content you’ve come to expect, because it’s neither a robust nor common platform, and it’s unlikely that developers will create a lot of widgets. As we’ll discuss, the future seems to be Google Video.

An Internet set-top box: Set-top boxes have been around for several years, with Apple TV being among the first. Roku boxes may be the most popular, ranging in price from around $60–100. The most expensive model has 1080p, though currently few, if any, services are streaming in 1080p.

Again, the limitation is that you’re limited to content from Roku’s partners — Netflix, Amazon’s movies-on-demand, Pandora and other music services, baseball games, Hulu Plus, news, and a couple more.

Blu-ray players: Most of the more expensive Blu-ray players (for playing high-definition movies on your TV) are Internet ready and give you much the same content as set-top boxes — Netflix streaming and content from various partners.

Google TV-enabled devices: This offering is different, in that it promises to give you the whole Internet. The first device, announced in early October, was the pricey $299 Logitech Revue. In mid-October Sony began selling TVs and Blu-ray players with Google TV built in — and costing $200–400 more than comparable units. See www.google.com/tv.

The Logitech Revue puts a Google search box on your TV screen so you can search for TV programming or search the web. The whole web is available to you (via the Google’s Chrome browser), just as if you were using your computer. The Revue comes with a wireless typewriter-like keyboard that also functions as a remote. And here’s the cool part: it has picture-in-picture, such that you can have the web in one window and a TV program in another window. Also, you can use your smartphone as a remote and can search just by speaking a request to your phone.

Google TV uses the Android platform, which is becoming the most popular for smartphones. There are nearly 100,000 apps available in the Android Marketplace, and Google says that by early next year, Google TV users will have access to this marketplace.

Connecting a computer: If you’re not ready to spring for a new device, simply connect your computer to your TV. You’ll need to find out which type of video-out your computer has and what input options your TV has. Once you know that, an Internet search will tell you what sort of cable/s and/or adaptors you’ll need.

In my December column I’ll report on the Google TV devices that have become available — just in time for the holiday season.

This month’s hot tips:

JayCut is a free video editor. CalendarLabs is a free site that lets you create your own calendars.

© 2010 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D.

E-mail Jim Karpen