Connected TVs Explained: What You Need To Know About Google TV, Netflix, HULU and Other Services Before You Buy

November 1st, 2010 · 10 Comments · Connected TVs, News, Reference Materials

Chart Updated Nov. 3, 2010

(November 1, 2010)  The latest trend in HDTVs, other than 3D, is for Internet connectivity. This started as mundane weather and news items, little more than snippets of the web. Now, with the release of Google TV, full Internet surfing from your TV is possible. In between are numerous content providers, all with different content and quality, and all looking for your entertainment dollar.

The first thing you’ll need, of course, is an Internet connection. For High Definition (HD) content, most providers require at least a 2.5 megabits per second (mbps) connection. For some, like VUDU, their top tier 1080p HD stream requires 4.5 mbps. If your connection isn’t this fast, you may be relegated to only watching Standard Definition (SD) streams, or an overall lower quality feed.  Connecting wired or wirelessly from your router doesn’t generally matter, as most Wi-Fi signals can handle even HD streams. If you have difficulties with a service, and you know it’s not your connection, switching to wired from wireless is worth a try.

Video and audio content comes in two basic flavors: subscription and pay per view. Providers are somewhat cagey about how many shows/films they provide, and how many are in HD. For example, VUDU claims the highest number of HD movies with “over 3,000,” while CinemaNow claims over 14,000 total movies, but with no indication of how many are in HD. To summarize, at the current state of the streaming industry, each content provider inventories most of the content you may be looking for.

Here’s the breakdown of the different services offered. To learn the more about the TV makers that supply each service (Panasonic, Sony, Samsung, Vizio,  Sharp, Mitsubishi, Toshiba, Philips and LG)  check out the graph above, just click on it to enlarge. Please note, not all of the models within a manufacturers line may provide all the listed services. Consult the manufacturer’s website or dealer to confirm the TV you are considering offers the service(s) you desire before purchase.

Netflix

The near universal adoption of Netflix’s streaming service in TVs (and also Blu-ray players) is a testament to the quality of the content you can get. Not picture quality, mind you, which is predominantly standard definition and only occasionally 720p HD. The content quality, in terms of finding something worth watching, is excellent. Most people will be able to find something to watch any time they chose to. Not everything is available for streaming, and most of the streaming content is usually a year or so old or older. Catching up on TV shows from a few years ago, though, or modern documentaries, and thousands of movies, all make this service well worth the small monthly cost.

What’s the cost? The cheapest plan as of this writing is a $8.99 a month which includes one DVD disc at a time at your house, and unlimited streaming. There is talk of a slightly cheaper plan ($7.99, some say) that will streamed content without discs.

Picture quality wise, even the best HD content isn’t quite as pristine as what you get on most cable or satellite providers. That said, it’s not bad. I watch Netflix on a 100-inch projection screen, and I have never had an issue. Sure Blu-ray looks better, but you’re trading for convenience. Videos are streamed using the VC1 Advanced Profile codec (http://blog.netflix.com/2008/11/encoding-for-streaming.html) with 2.0 stereo audio.

The PlayStation 3 is the first, and so far only, device to get 5.1 Dolby Digital Plus surround sound and 1080p content streaming from Netflix. There’s no word if this will come to current or future TVs with built-in Netflix.

Netflix is so cheap, so convenient, and offers so much entertainment, it’s the proverbial no-brainer. Do you need it in your TV? Not if you have it in your Blu-ray player, PS3, Xbox 360, Apple TV or another compatible source device. If you don’t, I can honestly say it’s well worth looking at a TV with it. Thankfully, nearly major TV company offers it.

YouTube

Calling YouTube entertainment stretches my definition. Watching 30 second clips of narcoleptic dogs (seriously, Google it) is one thing, but I just can’t picture people sitting around a TV for hours searching for things using the TV’s alphanumeric remote.

The biggest reason for this is picture quality. Watching a clip in a tiny window in your Internet browser is one thing. Watching it on a 50-inch flat panel is entirely another. No matter what you do, or what fancy processing your TV has, most YouTube clips are going to look horrible. As in, barely watchable.

So don’t expect much. Most TVs have YouTube as an option, for what it’s worth.

Amazon Video on Demand

AVoD is a pay-per-view streaming service by, wait for it… Amazon. Current movies and TV episodes (including the most recent episodes) are available. Prices for rentals are $0.99-$1.29 for TV shows, and $1.99-$3.99 for movies. For purchase, prices are $5.99-$19.99, though most are $14.99-$15.99.

Picture quality is perhaps a little better than Netflix, though that’s going to vary depending on what you choose to watch. HD is compressed with VC-1 codec and 720p. The big advantage is being able to watch current TV shows and movies whenever you want. Not quite the excellent deal that Netflix is, but extremely convenient none the less, especially if you want to watch the most recent movies and TV episodes.

VUDU

Unlike Netflix and Amazon, VUDU has 1080p and uses the H.264 codec similar to many Blu-ray discs. Audio output is 5.1 Dolby Digital Plus. There are three picture quality levels to VUDU’s downloads: SD, HD, and HDX. SD is 480p, and only requires a 1 mbps Internet speed. HD is 720p, and requires 2.5 mbps. The top of the line HDX is 1080p and needs 4.5 mbps. Great picture quality with its HDX titles is how VUDU tries to differentiate itself, and if that’s of importance to you as well, then the additional money to rent from VUDU will be less of a concern. Movie rentals range in price from $0.99 to $5.99, but the lower prices aren’t for HD. For the highest quality HDX files, expect to pay on the higher end of the scale. You can also buy movies, but these range up to $24.99 for HDX, and for that rate we’re not sure why you wouldn’t just buy a Blu-ray. VUDU is owned by Wal-mart, though as of yet no greeters are planned to welcome you to your downloaded content.

VUDU is certainly great for those who want the best picture quality, as either a 24 hour window or stored on their server indefinitely but are too lazy to drive to a Best Buy and get the disc.

Hulu Plus

Hulu.com is a fantastic, free way to watch new shows from the ABC, NBC and Fox networks, and their various sister channels and studios. The “Plus” in Hulu Plus is plus money, yours, to the tune of $9.99 a month (though there are rumors this will drop). For the monthly fee you get to watch Hulu content on your TV, with the same commercials as the free web version. You also get access to entire seasons and a larger back catalog. Streaming resolutions up to 720p are available, but if picture quality is anything like what you’d find from their streaming web content, don’t expect much.

Most consider Hulu Plus like an up-to-date, but crappier version of Netflix. If you want to get rid of your cable bill, but can’t wait for the content to be available on Netflix, then Hulu Plus has merit. Only a few TVs have this built in, as it’s quite new.

CinemaNow

CinemaNow has 1080p downloads much like VUDU using primarily the VC-1 codec. Rental prices range from $2.99 and $3.99 and purchase prices range from $9.95 to $19.99. Though branded by Best Buy (even cross promoting their Napster music service), CinemaNow is owned primarily by Sonic Solutions. They don’t reveal how much of their “extensive library” is available in HD.

Blockbuster on Demand

Having recently announced bankruptcy, and currently only available from two TV manufacturers, Blockbuster on Demand is kind of an also-ran. They, like Best Buy, have partnered with CinemaNow. But unlike Best Buy, there is little to no mention of HD on Blockbuster’s site. Rentals seem to range from $1.99 to $3.99, with purchases around $17.99. There is very little information about Blockbuster on Demand on their website or elsewhere, which is sketchy, in my book. Unlikely they’ll survive long in their current state anyway, so this may all be moot.

Music

Pandora and Slacker

Pandora and Slacker are free music streaming services. Internet Radio, if you like. In theory, they’re competitors, but in usage they’re very similar. They both let you pick an artist or song, and then their algorithms play music similar to that artist or song. It works great and is free, with just a few advertisements. Both offer a subscription service that is higher quality, fewer (if any) ads, and a few advanced features. Both are great and if you haven’t checked them out, you should. If there’s no other way to get music into the room where your TV is, and your TV speakers don’t suck too bad (sorry, they do), then these are a great thing to have. Sound quality is roughly on par with your average MP3 download. This is to say it’s passable, but a far cry from CD despite “CD quality” claims by each.

Napster

The pay service called Napster (now owned by Best Buy), has nothing to do with this name’s storied past. For $5 to $10 a month you can stream unlimited amounts of music. The difference between Napster and Pandora/Slacker is that you can choose what you want to play. Pandora and Slacker are more like a radio station, playing random songs that fit the style of music you choose.

Rhapsody

Rhapsody is a subscription music service. For $10-$15 a month you can download all the music you want and listen to it as much as you want. It’s a lease, though, as once you stop paying for the service, you can no longer play any of the songs you downloaded.

The Rest

Twitter and Facebook need little introduction. Though why you would need them on a TV is beyond me.

Skype is a program that allows you to make free voice and video calls over the Internet. You’ll need a video camera add-on for this and they are all manufacture specific, meaning brand X video camera will only work with brand X TV. Currently, only Samsung and Panasonic or Skype video service, although more companies are expected to join next year.  For more on Skype video, check out our review here.

Flikr and Picasa are web services to share photos. Upload from your computer, share them in the living room.

Lastly, Sony is currently making a line of TVs that have Google TV built in. So far Google TV is underwhelming, offering similar content streaming capabilities as other TVs, just adding in a web browser for full Internet surfing, something no other TV offers. Be aware CBS, NBC and ABC’s programming on their respective websites is being blocked by the networks. It is assumed they’re holding out for  a piece of Google’s revenue. Whether this situation continues or expands to other websites remains to be seen.

Conclusion

It’s unlikely that any one service will fill all your needs. The subscription services, Netflix and Hulu Plus, don’t offer the variety that the pay-per-view services (Amazon Video on Demand, VUDU, CinemaNow and Blockbuster) provide, but none of the PPV services will likely have everything you’re looking for either. For most people, Netflix plus AVoD or VUDU will offer the best compromise between price and selection.

Most services have a lot of other channels other than those listed in the graph below. I’d classify most of these as a bit of faff, but to each their own.

Please keep in mind that companies are changing what services they offer practically on a daily basis. So if company X starts offering Twitter or some service, don’t fret. The big stuff is here, and correct as of the date of publication.

(Editor’s Note: If you currently own a Connected TV, we would like to invite you to join our free HD Guru/Quixel Research advisory group. You will receive TV industry inside information and be eligible for free prizes. Click here for more information)

By Geoff Morrison

Edited By Gary Merson

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10 Comments so far ↓

  • HiFiFun

    Why are we being pushed to purchase a TV to get Internet access?
    Why do we need to purchase a Blu-ray player to get Internet access?
    Why do we need to purchase media player to get Internet access?
    Instead consider reducing your gadget count by purchasing a highly integrated Blu-ray HTPC.
    I use an Intel i3 with ATI 5750, Silverstone 5 case, Windows media Center 7 DVR and AverMedia Duet HDTV tuners.
    In this way I’m not dependent upon any one company who will want me to purchase another component (with improved Internet access next year) next year.

    Why do we want something we already have for free?

  • Bob Stone

    Is content KING?

    What about signal quality?

    Until these services match or exceed the signal quality of cable or satellite I have little interest in them.

    I’d prefer these services matched or bettered the quality of a blu-ray. Now that would be a reason to subscribe to them!

    We may be entering an era where the potential quality of our HDTVs far exceeds the typical signal they receive.

    That would be tragic.

  • Mark P

    This type of roundup should include HTPC options such as the Kylo TV browswer – which was designed specifically to address navigation and content discovery challenges associated with IPTV.

  • Clinton Gallagher virtualCable.TV

    I appreciate somebody doing this grunt work and publishing it but –the most important thing– “you need to know” is the fact that the HDTV has become accessible to anybody that can design and develop web applications: for the first time in history anybody can broadcast their own TV channel(s).

    I don’t have time nor the interest to spend more time explaining in a crappy little textbox but to say the days of proprietary control of who could and who could not reach an audience using a TV are over.

    Things are looking better and better for new jobs, new services, new companies and new wealth to be created as the HDTV platform is now available to any and all of us and that is what you really need to know.

  • Leonard Mehlmauer

    Yes, dedicated monitors are old technology. We should be able to access all computer and TV apps via one screen, whether “monitor” or TV, tabletop, desktop, living room floor, pocket / wrist, large or small–any size–and wirelessly. Of course, manufacturers must take “green” into account, so that tech upgrades can, whenever possible, fit into existing chassis in order to avoid unnecessary waste.

  • Geoff Morrison

    @Eric – Generally no, you’re not stuck. New services can be added by the manufacturer, then enabled by a firmware update on your set.

    That said, not every new service will be compatible with an older TV. Adding Facebook or Slacker, for example, would be relatively easy as these are low bandwidth/minimal processing apps. Adding 1080p streaming may be harder, though not necessarily impossible.

    So I wouldn’t look at these TVs as any more or less risky from an obsolescence standpoint than any other new product. Perhaps less so given that updates to the service can primarily be done manufacturer-side.

  • cbono

    As someone who far from savvy you have helped me to better understand what’s out there. Much appreciated! Very well done – THANKS Geoff!

  • Eric Marks

    If you buy one of these, are you stuck with whatever it brought to table? My question is, are these TVs going to be obsolete in three years, when new services we never imagined are the current hot things?

  • dingoarmy

    Why’d you leave off Yahoo Widgets? You can get to flickr and Twitter through the Yahoo Widgets on the LG models. LG models also support skype, but they say the camera/mic accessory won’t be in stores until early december.

  • Anes @ TV Software

    Despite all the above conditions, it is toward the future. Business, Technology and Entertainment blend together to embrace the consumers, which makes this possible.
    And information like this, is very helpful for consumers to determine what is appropriate for them according to their needs and abilities.

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