The State of Internet TV (Part 1 of 2: Hardware)

June 4th, 2009

This is part one of a two part series that talks about the current status of Internet TV, the second part of this series will explore content that is currently available through the Internet. The new millennium has brought with it some of the most fast-paced advances in technology within the multi-media industry. Within the last decade, the cost of an average-sized plasma television has dropped from the $40,000 luxury item price that only the wealthy could enjoy to around $1,000 today. Along with the huge price savings, the experience in front of the television has changed, as it's now being used for much more than simply plugging in the cable that comes out of the wall. Web TV in many ways revolutionized the concept of using a television as a computer monitor while being paired with a wireless keyboard, but it lacked a solid user interface, had limited ability to display websites correctly and ultimately never really caught on. Most people today have at least a DVD player hooked up to the television. Digital converter boxes and digital video recorders (DVRs) are also taking up residency in the home theater, but another player has entered the field - streaming media. DVD players require you to purchase, rent or borrow a disc to enjoy, while DVRs only record content that has already aired on your cable network. Streaming media boxes allow anyone with a broadband Internet connection to easily stream media to their big screen TVs relatively painlessly. Following are some of the most popular ways this is now done. wireless-av-kit IOGEAR - Wireless Audio / Video Kit Utilizing Ultra-wideband (UWB) technology, the IOGEAR Wireless Audio / Video Kit eliminates the need for a box to sit anywhere between your computer and your television and because it is wireless, no need for a long cable extending from your laptop to the TV. Using your existing computer to stream media means no ripping movies, like the Apple TV, and the ability to stream Netflix without the investment in a standalone device. You can also watch any media format you have. Here is quick video to give you a better idea of how this device works: Priced at $349.95, the kit is slightly more expensive than any of the stand-alone devices, but far more flexible in terms of use and functionality.
  • Delivering 720p HD TV up to 30' feet away means less clutter and easier integration between existing technologies in the home
  • No limitations on Web sites to stream media content such as Internet TV
  • Easily utilize a network attached storage device to store photos, videos and other content in a different physical part of the home
  • Complete solution for having a computer in a room, viewing it both on a computer and on a big screen TV
There are only a few downsides:
  • Currently it only works with PCs, but IOGEAR is working on a Mac version to be announced at a later date
  • Home computer must be within 30' feet range, usually requiring a computer in the same room
samsung-tv Samsung @TV Starting at some point this year, Samsung will start selling TVs in a partnership program with Yahoo called @TV that will enable streaming video directly to the television via Ethernet cable or an optional Wi-Fi USB dongle. The content and the ability to utilize the television for more than just the Yahoo widget has to offer is yet to be determined, but clearly Samsung has realized that streaming media is the future. The obvious downside to this are:
  • Expensive initial cost, especially if you already own an HD TV
  • Routing cables for a clean look
  • Limited ability to stream shows that only Yahoo offers
  • No real Web browser
The @TV's positive notes should not overshadow these,
  • Super clean install, running Internet right to the TV means no extra devices
  • One remote control
roku-digital-player Roku Digital Video Player Possibly one of the most popular new devices is the Roku Netflix player. Roughly the size of a paperback book, this extremely small unit packs a lot of power. Roku built this device to work exclusively with Netflix's on-demand streaming content, allowing Netflix users to easily watch movies from their instant queue using the remote control. Additionally, the device can now stream from Amazon's on-demand service, where movies are priced ala carte. A paid Netflix account of at least $8.99 per month is needed to utilize this feature, while the Roku itself retails for $99. While setup and built in Wi-Fi make this extremely attractive, the on-going cost to maintain a Netflix account is an added monthly expense. Other limitations include:
  • Limited selection of content
  • Can only stream Netflix content with subscription
  • Amazon on-demand movies, must pay per movie
  • No interface or ability to freely surf the Internet
  • Still need to use a computer to add and remove movies from your queue
While the limitations of the Roku are slightly long, the positives to it somewhat counter act that.
  • The small footprint
  • No pay-per-view cost with existing Netflix subscriptions
  • Roku has speculated that YouTube and possibly Hulu will stream if licensing details can be worked out.
slingbox Sling Media Slingbox In an almost reverse operation, the Slingbox connects to both your broadband Internet connection and your cable connection (traditional cable, digital or satellite) and streams that content to your computer, utilizing the Sling Media Player application. For example, once it's attached at home, you could watch your local news or sports events on your laptop in a hotel while on a business trip to the other side of the country. Slingbox allows home users to make the most of their current cable by turning any computer into a television, tied to your local channels. This is great for people who are always on-the-move and prefer to stay up-to-date with their local television, but the total cost of ownership is on the high side. Slingbox starts at $179.99 for the SOLO version and $299.00 for the PRO-HD model. Like the Roku, the Slingbox requires:
  1. Home cable TV service
  2. High speed internet
  3. Is limited to the screen size of your computer for viewing
  4. The cable box at home can't be used to watch other programs if being accessed remotely
The Slingbox was one of the first on the scene and to this day has a very loyal following. It also features:
  • Easy setup if all connections (Cat 5, coaxial and power plug) are in one place
  • View all cable channels you have as if you were home
  • Ability to view in HD with the high-end models
popcorn-hour Popcorn Hour The A-100 Networked Media Tank is a Wi-Fi bridge between your computer and your television. Users can store the most popular video formats internally on the hard drive to play on a TV. Setup to your TV is similar to the Roku or Slingbox; The A-100 touts:
  • Full HDMI support
  • The ability to stream 1080p
  • Rear-facing USB port allows for easy external hard drive expansions
The price tag for the Popcorn Hour is $250. The Media Tank still requires cables to connect it and its not particularly portable. Main challenge with this device is that it requires several firmware upgrades to truly get it to perform without minor annoyances. apple-tv Apple TV Perhaps one of the only products that didn't fly off the shelf when initially launched by Apple, the Apple TV has a somewhat cult-like following among Mac users. It comes equipped with:
  • Wi-Fi
  • HDMI
  • The most straightforward installation of any media player
  • The best looking of all devices
  • Simple remote control
In typical Mac fashion, it is sleek looking and unobtrusive. A computer is still required to put media onto the Apple TV though, a major downside and time expense. To use the Apple TV, you must rip your movies into MP4 format, or copy over your MP3s and photos to it. The attractive box doesn't make up for:
  • No free streaming ability
  • TV shows and movies must be purchased from the iTunes store
  • No Web browser
While the Apple TV runs about $229, the added cost of buying every show and movie you want to watch and time involved in ripping your existing movies over quickly adds up. hava Hava Directly competing against the Slingbox is Hava, a device that will rebroadcast your cable television shows to virtually any computer and a growing list of cellular phones. Additionally, the Hava allows you to pause, fast forward or rewind shows that you are streaming to your computer and actually burn them to DVD. Like the Popcorn, this device also supports a USB external hard drive, allowing you to turn the Hava into a DVR. Competitively priced at $179.95 for the top-of-the-line Titanium HD Wi-Fi unit, it offers a price savings and feature package that neither the Popcorn nor Slingbox can. Like Popcorn and Slingbox, the Hava has limitations:
  • The viewing software is currently limited to Windows
  • Mac client is said to be in the works
  • Monthly cable bill must still be paid in order for this device to function properly
  • No Web browser
Like the Slingbox, it too has:
  • A devoted fan base following in user groups
  • Straight forward setup
  • Ability to stream your home television stations to anywhere that has Internet
In Conclusion How and where we watch and enjoy video, television, music and photos has never been easier utilizing and embracing the technology that is now readily available. We are no longer constrained to watching TV at the time it airs, or in our living room, the options to enjoy these luxuries where and when we want is invaluable. Choosing how to best fulfill your needs may now be the most complicated question instead of when American Idol comes on. Perhaps the most exciting part is that this technology is still in its infancy. During this infancy is when early adaptation is probably best, since most all of the devices require cables to be run around your home or through walls, with the exception of the IOGEAR Wireless Audio / Video Kit. To help determine what best fits your needs, look at the limitations of each device. The one with the least amount of limitations relative to what you need will give you the most value for the money, as it will become the most flexible for your purposes. For example, some devices like the Popcorn and Slingbox limit how you can use your Internet connection by not allowing access to a Web browser to take advantage of streaming content online. On the other hand, Apple TV requires that all media be put onto the device and in a specific format. It can take an hour or more to convert a DVD you bought at the store to the proper .mp4 format to work on the Apple TV. The Wireless Audio / Video Kit's limitation is that it is an in-room solution and within 30 feet coverage which is mainly due to the bandwidth distance of UWB technology, it shouldn't be a problem in most home entertainment center setup today. Additionally, the Wireless Audio / Video Kit allows you to unleash your computer's content, making it truly an integrated part of any room and future multi-media platform for home entertainment.

About the Author



IOGEAR enjoys long walks on the beach and romantic getaways. While not traveling, IOGEAR enjoys a great game of shuffle board whilst playing the banjo.