Just last week, a TV-reception snafu denied my wife and me our weekly jolt of "Heroes" on NBC. If you're a fellow addict, you know that missing one episode is a big deal—it's a continuing drama that builds an ongoing story from week to week. How did I feed my habit? Simple—I visited the NBC Web site using a computer hooked up to our living room plasma set. With just a few mouse clicks, we were watching the complete episode, at less-than-broadcast quality but still acceptably sharp, even on a 50-inch screen. And it was all free of charge and perfectly legal. In another scenario, my daughter and her friends recently discovered "Doctor Who," the long-running British sci-fi series (they think David Tennant, the 11th actor to play the doctor, is a hunk). I felt duty-bound to introduce her to the finest Doctor Who of all, Tom Baker (1974—1981). How to pull off this time-traveling feat?
Using an Internet-connected box from a company called Akimbo, I downloaded a classic episode and watched it with her.
Finally, consider my recent flight preparations for a New York to Las Vegas trip. Because the ultraportable laptop I carry weighs in at two and a half pounds by forgoing a built-in disk drive, I couldn't use it for DVD watching. Instead, I visited www.cinemanow.com and found a downloadable version of An Inconvenient Truth, the Al Gore enviro-documentary, for just $1.99. Roughly an hour later I had a copy on my hard drive, ready for viewing in flight or in terminal, if the delays became interminable.
For those of us old enough to remember having to actually stand up to manually switch between a handful of broadcast TV stations, this new technology is nothing short of miraculous. It's even a startling concept for younger viewers who were weaned on the promise of a televisual cornucopia available via cable and satellite service, only to find, as Bruce Springsteen lamented, "we switched round and round til half-past dawn, there was fifty-seven channels and nothin' on." Despite the sheer volume of programming, the number of shows worth watching seemed meager once you eliminated the movies you wouldn't watch on a bet, the hyperventilating political pundits, the eye-glazing documentaries, the half a dozen home shopping channels and the Bolivian Pro-Am Mule Wrestling Finals on ESPN 12.
But with the help of the Internet, that is all changing. Now that over three-quarters of Internet-connected homes enjoy speedy connections, what was once the interesting if impractical experiment of delivering video via slow dial-up connections is now becoming broadband reality. Consider these important trends:
First, Internet-delivered TV isn't just for watching on your computer monitor anymore. Online TV has broken free of the home-office shackles and moved into the living room. You can even keep your tush on the couch and control the action with a wireless remote control, by connecting a computer to a big-screen set and buying a special-purpose set-top box designed to display Internet-based content on a TV. Even Internet-connected video-game consoles can now deliver downloaded video to the living room.
Second, the price is right—for the most part. Some movie download options are still questionable value propositions, as we'll see, but plenty of high-quality video comes either free or at minimal expense.
Third, a tremendous variety of video content is available online. Everything from feature films and current primetime network fare to video golf lessons, old TV episodes and live international news reports—far more variety than even the most expansive cable or satellite system could hope to provide—resides on the Internet. And with all due respect to the billions-worthy achievements of YouTube and other purveyors of so-called "user-generated content," we're talking about professionally produced, reasonably mainstream programs, available legally, virus-free and at full-screen-viewing quality, rather than a pixelated image in a window on your computer screen.
Of course, finding Internet-based video treasures isn't as easy as clicking through the program listing on your cable or satellite TV service. The good stuff is scattered across different Web sites, services and even devices. But if it saves you from even one more hour of watching glucose fiends compete to build the winning Elvis-themed cake on Food Network, I say it's worth the effort.
Making the PC-to-TV Connection
Watching Internet video on your computer can be perfectly satisfying, especially since the big LCD displays available for today's desktops can reproduce even high-definition video with razor-sharp results.
On the other hand, for comfy seating and social viewing, a couch beats a row of office chairs hands down. Many computers today—both Vista PCs and Macs—come with software that presents a full-screen display you can read from across the room as you browse through video, recorded TV, music and photos, plus a wireless remote control.
Technically, you can connect any computer to a standard TV set, but that doesn't mean you'll be happy with the results. Standard TV resolution is much lower than even an inexpensive computer screen can deliver. If you make an s-video connection (assuming your PC has an S-Video cable port) or add an adapter that converts computer video output to a TV-compatible connection, you'll get a recognizable picture—it just won't look very good, nor will on-screen text read very well. I'd vote against making the effort.
A high-def television, on the other hand, has plenty of resolution to display a computer screen in all its digital glory, right down to the small type on the menu screens. Its ideal connection to your PC is called HDMI (or High-Definition Multimedia Interface), a single cable that carries both the video and audio output of a high-def source (like your computer) to a high-def display and sound system. A growing number of computers from major manufacturers, both desktops and notebooks, are shipping with HDMI connectors, though it's still far from standard equipment, It's a feature worth asking for if you're buying a new machine.
While HDMI is the simplest all-digital connection, it's not your only high-def option. Alternatively, your computer may have a DVI connector, a slightly older digital video-only standard. You'll find DVI inputs on some older high-def TVs, or you can buy inexpensive adapters to convert DVI video to HDMI or to VGA, the standard computer-to-monitor connection.
Every high-def television can accept high-def component video input through a set of red, green and blue wires, but only a handful of media-centric computers offer this type of connection. On the other hand, many HDTV sets include the same kind of high-resolution VGA connection you'll find on the back of a computer monitor.
As for the audio hookup, PCs designed for home entertainment often support multichannel surround-sound output. If your computer has a more basic sound setup, you can make do with a standard stereo connection, upgrade the sound card or buy an external device that connects via USB (making it compatible with both laptop and desktop PCs). The USB Sound Blaster Live! ($50), for example, provides crystal-clear 5.1 surround-sound output from your computer to your home theater system, perfect for watching movies, playing games or listening to your favorite digital audio files.
Whether you're planning to watch on a computer monitor or a big-screen TV, here are some of your best choices for programs pumped out via the Internet.
You Control the Networks
Don't toss your TiVo in the trash just yet, but the TV networks have expanded their online programming options beyond the usual promo clip parade to include full-length episodes of many popular prime-time shows.
Your computer can receive online video in two ways. The first is streaming—the show is transmitted over the Internet and you watch it live as it arrives on your computer. The second is downloading—a file containing the entire show is sent over the Internet and stored on your hard drive. Each strategy has its pros and cons.
Streaming starts almost immediately, but the image quality is limited by the speed of your Internet connection—in most cases quality is roughly that of a VHS tape. If you have a poor connection, you'll experience stop-and-start playback with streamed video that will quickly drive you up a wall (with a more reliable connection this isn't an issue).
Downloaded video can achieve better picture quality (but only if the provider chooses to offer it). Even pristine high-definition shows are possible though rare given their huge file sizes. Downloading protects you from herky-jerky playback, but you have to receive the entire file—which may take a while—before you can enjoy that smooth video quality. Once you've downloaded a file, however, you can watch it anytime, anywhere, without being connected to the Internet, as streaming requires.
The biggest difference, though, at least as it pertains to TV, is pricing. Streaming shows from the broadcast networks is free of charge, the way nature intended broadcast TV to be. Downloading shows, with few exceptions, will cost you.
The best of the broadcast bunch when it comes to Internet delivery today is NBC, which offers "Two-Minute Replay" versions of 11 shows (if you just want to get caught up quickly) plus several full episodes each of "Heroes," "My Name is Earl," "30 Rock," "Studio 60" and five others (yes, that includes "The Apprentice," much to the network's undying shame). NBC has even experimented with giving viewers the option to watch "Heroes" with its cast and crew offering running commentary, DVD style, in a side window—no, the content wasn't great, but what a terrific idea. The episodes run with commercials, but only the national spots, not the local mattress sales and car dealer promos, and the video quality looks good even on a big screen. The easiest way to browse the entire collection is at nbc.com/Video/rewind/.
CBS has the right idea, too, with full episodes of 15 shows, including "Survivor," "The Unit," "Numb3rs," "How I Met Your Mother" and all three "CSI" incarnations. "Jericho," a serial drama with good buzz, had escaped my notice when it premiered, so I was especially pleased to find all 13 episodes available online, as the show approached its return from a winter hiatus. The mother lode is located at www.cbs.com/innertube.
As for ABC, the rundown for complete episodes is impressive: a dozen shows, including "Lost," "Ugly Betty" and "Grey's Anatomy," as well as never-aired episodes from the cancelled "Day Break" series are available (visit dynamic.abc.go.com/streaming/landing). Unfortunately, the size of the video window, even in so-called big mode, is very small (just 8 1/2 inches across on my 24-inch LCD screen).
The Fox site (www.myspace.com/fox) also suffers from small-window syndrome—roughly half the depth of my Internet browser window—though it isn't as petite as the ABC solution. Its menu of 13 shows includes "24," "Prison Break" and "Bones." On the plus side, video quality is excellent.
And where's PBS in all this? Nowhere, sadly. In the past it's been out in front on the technology wave (it was an early supporter of high-def TV and provided extensive Web content to support its shows). But when it comes to Internet delivery of its shows, PBS is a no-show, which is a shame.
What about downloading shows to go? When you think about downloaded entertainment, you have to think iTunes, and while music is still the main attraction (over 2 billion songs sold), TV show downloads are selling briskly too—Apple reported sales of 50 million television episodes as of January 2007. That's an awful lot of formerly free stuff sold for two dollars a pop. The files will play on your computer screen, either Mac or PC, with impressive resolution even when displayed at full-screen size, and can also be viewed (if you don't mind squinting) on a video iPod. You'll find an impressive range of programs, including shows from the Big Three networks, as well as Fox and cable nets like A&E, Bravo, Cartoon Network, Comedy Central, Discovery Channel, SciFi Channel, Showtime and Sundance. Sports programming from ESPN, Fox, NASCAR and Speed Channel is also available. Most shows cost $1.99, though you may also have the option of buying a "season pass,"which gets you all the current-season episodes at a reduced price. Unfortunately, while you may "own" the shows you buy, you're still limited to playing them on a total of five computers.
Several other major players are testing the movie and TV download waters, including AOL, Google, YouTube and Wal-Mart. While much of the content is also found on iTunes, each provider here has its own niche as well. Looking for "Charlie Rose" or "MacGyver"? Head over to video.google.com. At video.aol.com you'll find lots of Nickelodeon shows on sale plus free episodes of some favorite moldy oldies ("Superman" or "Chico and the Man"? Decisions, decisions). Since its acquisition by Google, YouTube has been forced to remove lots of copyrighted shows uploaded by users, but it did recently cut a deal with DMGI to legally offer free episodes of "Gumby," "I Spy," "My Favorite Martian" and other hits from the crypt. And Wal-Mart? Nothing especially surprising in its download selection, but the company is undercutting the iTunes store by three cents an episode.
Your Log-In Movie Theater
Like the DVD market, online movie services offer two choices: you can buy a movie or you can rent one. With rare exceptions, though, buying a movie as a downloaded file is a sucker bet.
As it now stands, DVDs are a great deal. Quality and selection are both high, prices are low, and if you can't find a title at your local retailer, you can probably order it from an online store. Once you own the disc, you can play it in your home-theater DVD player, the portable DVD in the car or your laptop computer on a long flight. And if you don't mind being a Digital Millennium Copyright Act scofflaw, you can even save a copy to a hard drive using software that's free for the Googling.
But movie downloads—even those you purchase—come festooned with drawbacks. The download time—roughly an hour for a feature-length film—doesn't really bother me, since my broadband connection has plenty of doing-nothing time available. But the file you receive can't be burned to a DVD and played on a standard disc player (with one marginal exception noted below)—it's limited to playing on a computer. In most cases (iTunes included), you can only play it on a limited number of computers. The final blow, though, is pricing. You might expect that with no physical disc being manufactured, packaged, inventoried, shipped, inventoried again, placed in a rack in an expensive retail store and checked out by a pasty-faced cashier, you'd pay less for a downloaded movie file. But the gods of Hollywood say "No!" to your feeble objections. As I was writing this, The Departed came out on DVD. In a welcome departure from previous practice, some online services actually offered the movie for download the same day it hit store shelves. At Movielink, I could download the movie for $19.99 and gain the right to play it on up to three PCs. At my local Target, the DVD version was selling for $16.99, offering higher-quality audio and video with no usage restrictions. As for convenience, downloading the file would take me longer than hopping in my car and buying the DVD.
Until the studios get serious about online movie sales and cut prices drastically (half would be nice), it's tough to recommend. CinemaNow, a leading online movie purveyor, is experimenting with a burn-to-DVD option—you download the movie to your PC and burn your own DVD copy (albeit without DVD extras). The company gets high marks for leading the way in a direction that makes perfect sense, but pricing ($19.99 for the nine-year-old Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas?) and performance (you need to use CinemaNow's downloaded DVD-burning software, which proved glitchy) combine to make this an uninviting experience for now.
By contrast, renting movies online does have its unique charms. Pricing for most movies (generally $3.99 for new releases, a dollar less for older titles) is slightly cheaper than renting at your local Blockbuster, and while you won't find movies available for online rental the same day they're released on DVD, you will find an extensive selection of recent and classic movies from all the major services. This does leave Mac owners out in the cold, since iTunes movies are purchase-only and almost all the online rental sources are Windows-only—don't shoot me, I'm only the messenger.
The system is fundamentally the same whether you patronize CinemaNow, Movielink, Amazon's Unbox service (amazon.com/unbox) or the new online movie download store from Wal-Mart (mediadownloads.walmart.com), all of which offer both purchase and rental options. You choose a movie by Web-surfing through the online catalog and, when you find what you want, you download it to your hard drive. You get 24 hours to watch the movie, but the clock doesn't start ticking until you hit the on-screen play button for the first time—very handy for traveling laptop schleppers. While rental pricing is about the same from online store to store, the selection can vary—so if you don't find what you want at one site, try again elsewhere. For security reasons, you will need to watch a rented movie on the computer you used for downloading it (no burning the file to disc for playback on another PC). Video quality varies a bit from movie to movie, but by and large I've had very good results, even when viewing on a large monitor or high-def TV screen. It's not quite DVD quality, but is as good as, or better than, regular broadcast TV.
While most of the companies in the online rental space are pretty much in lockstep, a few innovators are worth your attention. One, called Vongo (for no earthly reason except some lawyer told them the name wasn't taken by anybody else), is the online outpost of the Starz cable network. It offers a monthly subscription deal for $9.99 that provides unlimited movie downloads from a rotating selection of about a thousand titles. Like its cable network offerings, its releases are not brand new, but it still includes lots of films you haven't seen and—especially for frequent travelers looking for some in-transit amusement—the price is right. What's more, you can check it out for free for two weeks by signing up at www.vongo.com.
Netflix, battling back against Blockbuster's attractive option to trade in movies delivered by mail at your local retail store, is rolling out a new service for its subscribers: live, online streaming of movies in addition to your DVD downloads. The selection is spotty for now, but there are some winners both new (Sherrybaby) and old (Amadeus), video quality is very good and you can browse through movies as you please—watch the beginning of one and, if you're bored, click your way over to another, just like watching TV.
A newcomer that's just launching (it's online in a prerelease beta version as I write this) is Jaman, a treasure trove for curious cinephiles eager to expand their horizons beyond U.S. borders, as well as deep into American indie territory. For the most part, these are unfamiliar films (though several award winners and nominees are represented). That doesn't mean you're flying blind. Jaman not only posts its own reviewers' recommendations, it's also building an online community of movie lovers who rate films they've watched and interact via online discussion groups. And once you've found an intriguing film, you'll get a much better deal than with the mainstream online movie companies. Renting a movie costs just $1.99, and you get seven days, not just 24 hours. If you like, you can also purchase a copy for just $4.99. The video quality of Jaman downloads is excellent—a good thing, too, since you will have to read subtitles for most of the world cinema titles.
No Computer? No Problem!
The next step in moving online TV and movies into the mainstream: making them readily accessible from your TV set, with no PC in sight. A few examples are already out there, with more in the works.
Take the Xbox 360, a powerful game console that's also a multimedia powerhouse if you poke beneath the alien-blasting surface. It's a reasonably priced ($399.99) high-definition-capable device that connects easily to your TV and to the Internet (with or without wires); plays great games, along with DVDs and CDs; boasts a built-in hard drive for storing audio, video and photo files, along with saved games; and can also reach out to play media files stored on any computer attached to your home network. It's all controlled through an easy-to-use, full-screen menu display, using either a game controller or an inexpensive ($25) optional wireless remote. With all these capabilities, somebody in your household is going to want an Xbox 360 hooked up to the home entertainment system. And as long as it's there, why not use it to download some TV shows and movies?
With this in mind, Microsoft offers both TV shows and feature films online in the Xbox Live Marketplace. Unlike other providers, the company is including extensive high-definition offerings alongside the standard-def versions. Renting a new-release movie, for example, runs $4 in standard def and, where available, $6 in high definition. TV shows are $2 in standard def, $3 in high def. NASCAR is also on board, with downloadable condensed versions of NEXTEL Cup races available within hours of a race's end.
Another computer-free solution comes from Akimbo, a company whose video content is available both as a computer download service and via a set-top box that runs $99. Akimbo combines some obscure video programming (Turkish-language soap operas, anyone?) with more mainstream shows from Food Network, BBC, Discovery Channel and Cartoon Network. Some programs are included in the monthly $9.99 charge, other programs are sold individually (usually a dollar or two) or in packages (access to all Anime Network programming runs $9.99 monthly). And thanks to a deal with Movielink, you can now download movie rentals right to the Akimbo box.
Later this year, Sony Electronics adds an interesting spin to its high-def Bravia TV line with the Bravia Internet Video Link, a $300 add-on box that connects to the Internet and feeds video content to the screen using an on-screen menu and your remote control. The first content offerings will be limited to movie trailers, music videos, amateur video clips and other free fare, but if the multiheaded hydra that is Sony Corp. gets behind the effort, there's no reason full TV shows and movies couldn't be streamed to Internet-enabled Bravia TVs.
Digeo (moxi.com), known for creating software for cable company boxes, will soon debut a retail product, the Moxi Multi-room HD DMR to join cable TV reception (up to two simultaneous high-def channels) with Internet-based programming over broadband. While the programming lineup hasn't been locked down, the company is considering such broadband-delivered services as music, sports, photos and movies. The system has a built-in hard drive, so HD programming can be stored and played back in all its crystalline glory. The Moxi unit also incorporates a digital video recorder; CD, DVD and digital music playback; digital photo display; and networking capability that lets you send HD streams to inexpensive TV-connected boxes elsewhere in your home.
When you consider that most Americans already have some kind of cable or satellite converter, it's reasonable to expect that the option to download video from the Internet will eventually be built right in—just look at the way TiVo-like recording capabilities have made the jump from a separate box to near-standard equipment. No reason to wait for your cable or satellite supplier to catch up with the digital revolution, though. From the cobbled-together stupidity of YouTube to the artistry of The Illusionist, a wealth of entertainment options already exist.
Steve Morgenstern is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor.