Using the Web to watch movies and TV is exploding in popularity. Just ask any addict of YouTube's clips or fans of the movies and TV shows available at sites like Hulu.com and TidalTV. But the biggest problem remains getting video from the Internet to a TV in the living room. It's what analysts call the challenge of the last 50 feet, even if they can't agree on what to call the devices that jump the gap.
Numerous products are now sold to do just that, including Apple TV, Vudu, and Windows Media Center extenders. Video services are creeping into some boxes we've already embraced, such as game consoles and DVD players. And some new TVs sold by the likes of Sony, Panasonic, and HP come with built-in links to a selection of Internet videos.
But linking up the millions of existing TVs for now means adding a new box. That's a hassle that will hold back many families from fully enjoying the new world of Internet video. None of us are begging for another remote on the couch.
Still, the art is rapidly advancing. Two new boxes are among the most ambitious yet, and they represent opposing ends of the spectrum in cost and power:
Roku Netflix Player ($100)—This is easiest Internet video player to set up and the least-expensive—at least for Netflix members.
It does require a Netflix subscription fee of at least $9 a month. But that's cheap for unlimited, on-demand access to 12,000 movies and TV shows. The player alone might be reason enough to join Netflix. And the membership includes loaned DVDs from a collection that exceeds 100,000.
The player taps into the titles that Netflix already makes available for instant viewing on PCs across the Internet. After simple connections to the home network and the TV, the box's software presents the videos in a simple menu that's easy to navigate with its remote. The remote can also pause, fast forward, and rewind the flicks—with lags as it resets the streaming content.
It can take 20 or 30 seconds to load a new movie or show. Once it is playing, the image quality is good on a TV smaller than 37 inches and passable on a 42-inch set. The Roku player is ready for the high-definition content that Netflix has promised. That will help, but don't expect downloaded content to match the quality of Blu-ray disks or even cable HD broadcasts.The box itself is not much bigger than a thick paperback book. The back has a small selection of connectors, including low-end composite and middle-resolution S Video. Higher-end HDMI and component plugs prove the box is ready for high-def content.
Roku could keep the player simple because much of the heavy lifting is done on a PC. That's where a user sets up an instant-viewing queue after researching the 12,000 available titles. The simplicity is good, but we'd like to see a bit more power, such as the ability to group titles so we can separate the kids' cartoons from more serious fare.
Some reviewers have complained about the selection of Netflix titles available for instant viewing. Most are older choices, and TV selections are particularly limited. You will be disappointed if you have specific choices in mind.
ZeeVee ZvBox ($500)—No other device offers as wide a selection of Internet video and makes it as easy to see it from any HDTV in the house. But this is a high-end item with high-end demands: Set aside several hours to get it working, and you'd probably want to own several high-def sets to justify the cost.
At the system's heart, a tech trick sends Internet video across a house's existing wiring. The ZvBox hooks into cable TV cable, the coaxial wire that already runs through the walls of most homes. Unlike wireless systems, the thick coaxial easily and reliably sends high-definition content around the house. The computer screen and whatever video and sound are playing show up as just another channel on HDTVs.
Add a remote that controls a computer's functions from any room, and the result is an Internet-watching system that's easy to access. The TV-like remote includes a touchpad and keys that mimic a mouse for navigating websites such as Hulu, ABC.com, and YouTube.ZeeVee adds software that tries to organize those and other video sites. A grid holds links to popular video sites and to the feeds they offer. You can add other favorites onto the grid, which keeps itself updated through RSS links to the sites.
But the software is a work in progress, with odd pauses and occasional locks. It can only put a pretty face on the wild, woolly Web. Video watching invariably demands the touchpad, such as when starting, pausing, and rewinding a selection. While the touchpad is handy, it's more awkward than maneuvering a mouse—including a bit of a lag as the touches get translated across the coaxial.
The Web also demands text input, such as when you search for that video you've heard about from friends. (Have you seen Will Ferrell's Where's the Rent?) ZeeVee includes a software keyboard, and they are always a p-a-i-n to use. The company promises an add-on hardware keyboard at an undisclosed price that will also work from anywhere in the house.
Because it is transmitting whatever is on the PC's screen, the system can also access and manipulate digital music, photos, and even documents or spreadsheets if you're a real killjoy.
To get the ZvBox signal, sets need tuners that can handle digital signals, which is true of most HDTVs. The image is also designed for a high-resolution screen.
Setup is not for the faintofheart. You need know where cable service enters the house so the ZvBox can grab an unused channel. The kit includes four coaxial cables, two coaxial splitters, a channel filter, a receiver for the remote, the remote, and the ZvBox itself. Whew. Setup takes a couple of hours, if it goes smoothly.
It did for us. ZeeVee has done what it can to simplify things. The package, for example, does away with the software CD. The ZvBox itself pushes Windows software onto the computer, with just a few mouse clicks to get it running and updated. Mac support is promised soon.
Once set up, that broadband-connected PC becomes the hub of a new, housewide system of PC entertainment. All from the comfort of a couch, bed, table, or tub.