When you think of the golden age of television, you probably think of actors and programs -- Lucille Ball, Walt Disney, Raymond Burr, "The Twilight Zone," and "Alfred Hitchcock Presents." But how people watched TV defines the era just as vividly. Remember when you had to leave the couch to "turn the dial" or plan what you wanted to watch by thumbing through a printed guide?
Thanks to the advent of digital technology, those days of limited shows determined by limited networks are long gone. Now your backlog of DVR'ed "Doctor Who" episodes is longer than the scarf the good doctor has been known to sport, and your TV can tap into the almost infinite amount of content available on the Internet. More important, digital technology enables viewers to watch exactly what they want to watch when they want to watch it. Bonus: It can display that content in stunning clarity and richness, too.
In this article, we'll channel surf through five technologies that make all of this customization possible. Within each technology category, we'll consider a typical setup, plus a few alternatives. One assumption before we go too far: Every solution on our list requires a high-speed Internet connection, either cable or DSL. The costs we provide won't include this, but, just for reference, you can expect to pay around $70 a month in the U.S. for the bandwidth necessary to handle audio and video streaming.
With that proviso out of the way, we're ready to start the show. First up is a technology that would have been considered an oxymoron just a few years ago.
In the last five years or so, the line between PC and TV has begun to blur. Google TV erases the line completely by turning a passive flat-screen into a dynamic -- and large -- Web browser.
You can get the service in two ways: by buying a stand-alone, Google TV-enabled television or a Google TV-enabled box that hooks up to your current television. For the sake of simplicity, we're highlighting the former setup.
Sony Internet Television bundles a high-definition television (HDTV) with a 1.2-gigahertz Intel processor to run the Google TV application. A 40-inch (102-centimeter) model retails for just under a thousand bucks. Simply connect the HDMI output of your set-top cable box to one of the TV's HDMI inputs and then access your home network, either through a wired Ethernet connection or through a wireless 802.11n router.
No subscription is required for Google TV, but you'll need to sign in to an existing Google account. Sony Internet TV comes with a wireless full qwerty remote that makes short work of typing in commands for searching TV listings, browsing the Web or launching an app from the expanding Android library. Watch a program from your cable service provider, launch a video from YouTube or catch a movie from Netflix or Hulu.
Luckily, your choices aren't mutually exclusive. With Sony Internet TV's Dual View feature, you can browse your favorite Web sites while you're watching a movie or the game. And there are personalization options aplenty. Bookmark TV channels, Web sites and apps so you can find the content you want quickly and easily. Your Android phone can even function as an additional remote control.
This very well may be the future of television, but for those who prefer to take baby steps instead of giant leaps, other options are available. We'll investigate one of them next.
Laptop + Television
If you've read about Sony Internet Television, which embeds an Intel processor in an HDTV, you might be asking yourself, "Wait a minute, doesn't my laptop already come with an Intel processor?" It does, and you can use it to customize your TV viewing. You'll need a recent-vintage laptop to ensure you have the proper connections.
The cost of such a setup depends on the exact configuration of the laptop and the television. For example, a typical HP Pavilion dv6t laptop runs about $580, while a 40-inch (102-centimeter) Sony BRAVIA LCD HDTV retails for $599.99. Then there's the cost of content. A no-cost option is a standard account through an Internet TV provider such as Hulu, which combines a large selection of TV hits and movies from more than 260 content companies.
Unfortunately, free Hulu is really a computer-only solution. It offers standard-definition video quality and limits you to the last five episodes of popular shows. For full high definition and access to all current-season episodes of 45 popular shows, you'll want to invest in Hulu Plus. This will set you back $7.99 a month. On Hulu Plus, you can watch your favorite shows when you want to watch them. Plus, you can start a movie at home on your TV and finish it later on another device.
One final note if you decide to experiment with this technology configuration: You'll need some space near your TV to set up your laptop. And because you'll be controlling your laptop from a living-room couch, a wireless input set -- mouse and keyboard -- is helpful. All of which makes this the least elegant solution in our list. A less cumbersome approach might be one of the streaming stations currently on the market. We'll cover those next.
First, you have to decide which Roku player meets your needs. The company does offer an entry-level model -- the Roku HD -- for $59.99, but an extra $20 will get you the Roku XD, which plays 1080p high-definition video. The only other thing you need is a television, such as the 40-inch (102-centimeter) Sony Bravia LCD HDTV we just discussed. Hooking the Roku to the TV is a snap. It comes with an HDMI input, as well as composite red/yellow/white audiovisual inputs, so virtually any television should connect. After that, you need to add the Roku to your home network by either running an Ethernet cable from your router to the Roku or establishing a wireless connection.
Now you're ready to start streaming content through subscriptions you already have with content providers such as Hulu Plus, Netflix, Pandora and Amazon Instant Video. These providers appear as "channels" in Roku. Simply select the channel you want, and its related content becomes available. Amazon Instant Video, for example, gives Amazon Prime members access to unlimited, commercial-free, instant streaming of more than 5,000 movies and TV shows.
If you're wondering about input, Roku makes that easy, too. Every Roku streaming player comes with a remote, which lets you navigate the Roku interface and control media playback. The Roku doesn't have a hard drive, however, so you can't record shows for future enjoyment. If you want that functionality in addition to content streaming, you'll need the next item in our list.
Digital video recorders, or DVRs, have been around for more than a decade. TiVo, the granddaddy of the category, has worked hard to evolve its features to stay ahead of the curve. Its latest offering, TiVo Premiere, delivers an experience that rivals Google TV in its search capabilities, yet still allows users to record shows and sporting events for future viewing.
To get started, you need to buy the TiVo Premiere package, which runs $299.99 and includes the TiVo box and remote, as well as various audiovisual cables for linking components. The TiVo Premiere device doesn't join your cable box -- it replaces it completely via a special card you get from your cable company. This card plugs into the back of the Premiere box and delivers your cable channels. Once you hook the Premiere box to your TV and the Internet, you're ready to roll. Use your TiVo Premiere to search, watch and record any programming delivered by your cable provider. Or, for $12.99 a month, access movies and TV shows from TiVo partners, including Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, Hulu Plus and BLOCKBUSTER On Demand.
In many ways, TiVo Premiere gives users the most flexibility and customization. TiVo Search lets you hunt through both TV programming and the Internet. You can pause and rewind live TV and record up to 45 hours of HD content to watch later. And, finally, you can schedule recordings on the Web or on your mobile phone. It's not adept at playing video games, however. If you're a gamer first and a video watcher second, you might want to consider turning your gaming system into an entertainment center.
Gamers have been going online to battle friends (and complete strangers) for a long time, so it's not surprising that they also use their systems to stream Internet-based content. Take the Xbox 360 as a prime example. The Xbox 360 4-gigabyte console, which retails for $199.99, comes standard with built-in 802.11n WiFi, in addition to the standard Ethernet port and HDMI output. That makes it easy to connect the Xbox to your HDTV and to your home network.
Every Xbox console comes with a free Xbox LIVE account. This enables users to rent or buy TV shows and movies from the Zune marketplace and watch them instantly. You can also invest in Zune passes to get more bang for your buck. For $14.99 a month, you can get a Zune Pass subscription that gives you unlimited access to millions of songs you can stream to your Xbox 360. Another option is the Zune Season Pass, which delivers a full season of a show while it's on the air and get all the episodes as they come out.
If this isn't enough, you can upgrade your Xbox LIVE account to a LIVE Gold account (an Xbox Live Gold Family Pack costs $99.99 a year). This gets you more content from partners such as Netflix, ESPN and Last.fm. Netflix carries both TV shows and Hollywood movies, while ESPN brings you more than 3,500 live sporting events and highlights. Last.fm is a unique music service that lets you create your own radio station. Add the Kinect Sensor to your Xbox 360, and you can control the playback of songs and movies with gestures or voice commands.
Susan Bennett never knew she would become one of the world's most famous voices until Siri debuted on iPhones in 2011. HowStuffWorks tells her story.
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