TVs that connect to the Web are evolving. Here are tips that can help you figure out what you need.
Getting your TV to double as an all-in-one set-top box or computer sounds like the Holy Grail of living room entertainment. Why pay $75 per month for cable when Hulu streams TV for free, Netflix streams unlimited movies for less than $10 a month, and Amazon offers 50,000 on-demand titles? Why have a Blu-ray player when Vudu streams 1080p video? Why sit with a laptop when news, social media updates and video chat are all available on a big screen, alongside all that video?
Some of the latest Internet-connected TVs can already do all of that, using nothing but an ethernet cord and a broadband modem. Still, TVs have a long way to go before they become the alpha and omega of living room devices. If you buy a new TV this year, there’s a good chance it will be Internet-connected whether you want it or not (the cheapest models cost less than $1,000), but don’t go throwing away all your set-top boxes just yet.
Here’s what we know right now: Consumers want more media to come through their TVs, especially video content. More than 27% of new TVs sold in January 2010 can be connected to the Web, according to research firm iSuppli, whether it’s through the TV itself, game consoles, specialized boxes like Roku or Vudu, a Web-enabled disc player or through a PC.
It’s expected that 25% of HDTVs shipped this year will be Internet-ready. The best of these sets do an admirable job of integrating Web content like news, social media, streaming audio and video and, soon, video chat. That said, these TVs still aren’t as versatile as the common combination of cable, a game console or disc player and a laptop. Web TV complements a full entertainment system, but it doesn’t define it.
TVs will supplant laptops as the preferred method for viewing Web video, no doubt, and other functions like news, social media and video chat will tag along as well. What remains to be seen is whether connected TVs will become the best method for harnessing the Internet, or if a “killer” set-top box will fill that role instead.
Several developers are working on such a box, a device that would serve both streaming and downloaded content, and work as a platform for other Web content or downloadable apps.
D-Link is set to release this year the Boxee Box, which is basically hardware that runs the intuitive Boxee media library software. Google ( GOOG – news – people ) is hard at work with Sony ( SNE – news – people ), Intel ( INTC – news – people ) and Logitech on Google TV. The companies have a working prototype of their own box, but “the technology might be incorporated directly into other TVs or other devices, like Blu-ray players,” the New York Times reported last month. Apple ( AAPL – news – people ) TV could also see some sort of upgrade or repositioning–never count Apple out of anything it puts its mind to.
Another issue to consider is that connected TVs, at least those currently on the market, are basically “closed” devices with only a few exceptions. The software, or “widgets,” that come built into TVs are pretty much the widgets you’re stuck with until the manufacturer offers a firmware update. For example, all 2010 LG NetCast-enabled model come with video-chat service Skype (functionality begins this summer). Anyone who owns last year’s models can’t get the upgrade without buying a new TV.
Samsung is trying out an app store on its Internet@TV enabled models, the first of its kind on a TV. It’s the same concept as the smartphone app stores like Apple’s App Store or Google’s Android Marketplace, but it’s still a work in progress. In early April there were fewer than two dozen apps available at Samsung’s app store. By comparison, the App Store had more than 185,000 apps and the Android Marketplace had more than 40,000.
Third-party developers have very little incentive to make apps for TV because they have to make at least a half-dozen versions of them, one for each manufacturer. Services like Yahoo! ( YHOO – news – people ) Widgets, a cross-platform service available on connected LG, Samsung, Sony and Vizio sets, could in theory make app creation more developer friendly, but it’s been around for more than a year and there have been few significant developments.
So what should you take away from this? Basically, don’t buy an HDTV just because it’s a connected model–buy it because it has a fantastic picture. It’ll probably be connected anyway, but you’ll probably want to keep your Blu-ray player and cable TV hooked up, and maybe even look into one of those game-changing set-top boxes when they come out. If you do want to go connected, here are a few new HDTVs with great performance and connectivity.
Samsung UN55C8000: Samsung’s latest and greatest LED (at least until the C9000 appears). This 55-inch, 3-D-ready beauty has a 240 Hz refresh rate and is less than an inch thick. The Internet@TV service includes Yahoo! Widgets for news, weather and the like, as well as Twitter, Facebook, Amazon and Blockbuster ( BBI – news – people ) on-demand, Netflix ( NFLX – news – people ), Vudu and Skype is coming this summer. You’ll also get access to Samsung Apps. Price: $3,499.
Vizio VF552XVT: This slick 55-inch LED doesn’t quite match the quality of the Samsung UN55C8000, but it’s pretty close and significantly cheaper at $1,999. You also get access to VIA, Vizio’s robust service featuring Netflix, Vudu, Twitter, Facebook, Twitter and a slew of Yahoo! Widgets. This may be the best Internet TV service out there.
LG 50PK750: Plasma is still the gold standard for picture quality. This mid-range, 50-inch model from LG won’t match the top-tier models, but you’ll still get deep blacks and a smooth picture for $1,399. You’ll also get access to NetCast, one of the most well-rounded connected services available, including Netflix, Vudu, CinemaNow, Yahoo! Widgets, Facebook, Twitter and Skype, which is coming this summer.