Get the Internet on your TV: Chromecast, Roku and Apple TV
These devices connect to the Internet and stream content to your TV. Google Chromecast will mirror whatever is on your computer's Chrome browser onto your TV screen, giving you unfettered access to the Internet on your TV screen!
Roku and Apple TV, on the other hand, have built-in "apps" that give you content from mostly paid services like Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Video, etc. There are some free channels on Roku and Apple TV, but nothing to write home about (except perhaps YouTube on Apple TV). The biggest use for these boxes is the ability to watch video on-demand from one of the paid services. Neither of these boxes offers true unfettered Internet access. Think of these like a video rental store in your home. None of these are a direct replacement for cable TV, but when used with an antenna, can go a long way to replace cable.
If you are interested in getting one of these boxes, my recommendation is Apple TV for those who have a lot of iTunes content, Roku for those with older tube-type TV's with no HDMI input, and Chromecast for everyone else.
Note that recent TVs and DVD players are coming with streaming functionality built-in, so look for that. It's like getting one of these boxes included in the TV. Also, if you have an XBox 360, Sony PS3 or Nintendo Wii, you can subscribe to Netflix. If you have an XBox, you'll need a XBox Live Gold account to do so.
Please also note that these boxes don't record. If you want recording capability, check out my page on DVRs that you can use with an antenna.
Finally, please note that these boxes are not for watching shows in real time. You usually watch recorded shows after they've aired. For many this is a plus, since they can watch at their convenience. Some readers have been confused about this however.
Chromecast - recommended!
In my opinion, Google's Chromecast is a real game-changer. Unlike Apple TV and Roku, Chromecast lets you watch anything that you can see in your Chrome browser on your TV screen. You are not limited to "apps". Of course, this requires a computer or laptop, but it opens up your TV to almost unlimited content from free websites as well as paid services like Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, and so forth.
Chromecast plugs into your TV's HDMI input, so you will need a modern TV. You can read my full review here.
Unless you already own a lot of iTunes content, and unless you have an old TV with no HDMI input, I recommend Chromecast to access the Internet on your TV. You can purchase Chromecast here or click the link below.
The Roku box has been around for a while and is highly-rated. If you don't have Apple products like the iPad, this is a good choice. There are three versions starting for less than the cost of Apple TV. With the Roku player, you can stream Netflix, Amazon Video, Hulu Plus, and other pay services. The Roku 1 has composite video output, so it will work with your old tube type of TV, whereas Apple TV won't.
Note that support for YouTube on Roku is precarious at best. They can't seem to decide whether they want to offer YouTube or not. The current answer from their official website is that Roku does not support YouTube, which for me is a big minus. On the bright side, you get Crackle.com, which is a totally free site with some older movies and TV shows. Apple TV does not offer this (unless you view on your iPad and mirror to your TV).
Read my full review of Roku or click below for more info:
Apple recently introduced the new 1080p Apple TV. Of course, it is intimately connected with the iTunes store, so you can rent shows from there for 99 cents and movies for $4.99 (about a bit more than other services). It also offers Netflix and You Tube.
If you own a lot of other Apple products, like iPads, iPods, and iPhones, Apple TV offers tight integration with those devices. You an stream content wirelessly from your iPad to the Apple TV box and watch it on your TV. This is pretty cool - almost true Internet access on your TV. Apple TV also offers YouTube out of the box. For more info, read my complete review of Apple TV.
If you are debating between Apple TV and Roku, take my quick test here to see which one is best for you:
Unlike Apple TV and Roku, TiVo Premiere allows you to record 75 hours of broadcast shows right in the box. You hook your antenna right up to it. In addition, you can watch shows from Hulu Plus, Netflix, and Amazon Prime (for additional charge, of course), not to mention YouTube. TiVo also has one of the best user-interfaces around, in my opinion.
All of this is great until we get to the cost of TiVo: $15/month or $550 for lifetime service. That is where they lose me. I am a cheapskate and hate paying $150 for the base unit plus $15 monthly fee, or alternatively, $700 for the base unit with no monthly fee. But, if you need to record shows, this is the best way to do it without using a computer.
The Logitech Revue has created much excitement because it has the Google TV interface, enabling you to access most of the Internet in an elegant manner. However, media sources such as Hulu, ABC, and CBS proceeded to block content to Google TV, seriously hindering this product. You can read more about it and see reviews here:
D-Link Boxee Box
The D-Link Boxee Box (which is different from Boxee TV) is best at playing video from your computer's hard drive over your local network but is missing access to Hulu Plus, Amazon Video and iTunes of course. If you don't have a lot of video on your computer's hard drive, go for the cheaper Roku or Apple TV, which can stream some video formats. The Boxee Box is rated lower than Roku or Apple TV on Amazon. Read more about it here:
Western Digital TV Live Plus/ TV Live Hub (1TB)
The WD TV Live Plus comes in at $99, and has support for Netflix, You Tube, and other services. A big downside for some is lack of Wi-Fi on this device, meaning you'll have to run an Ethernet cable from your router to this box. The WD TV Live Hub has the same features but with 1 Terabyte of onboard storage, and comes in at $199.99. This doesn't have Wi-Fi either unfortunately. Still, if you want onboard storage, this could work for you.
Seagate Free Agent GoFlex TV
The Free Agent GoFlex TV supports Netflix and has a port for a Seagate GoFlex drive for onboard storage. Street price is around $99. Unfortunately, Wi-Fi adapter is sold separately. This unit seems to be on par with the Western Digital units with regard to features, but the reviews are mediocre at best as you can read below:
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