Rich Warren: Welcome to the salad days of Internet TV viewing choices

Which restaurant in town offers the best salad bar? One might offer more choices, but lack water chestnuts, which happen to be your favorite. Another might seem like a bargain, but serves wilted lettuce. No two salad bars in town array quite the same selection.

Home entertainment sources resemble a salad bar. Here's a reader letter that gets right down to the carrots:

"I read about the money-saving technique of buying a streaming player to connect the Internet to the TV to watch programs by accessing a service for around $10 a month. Is this real, practical, or any good? Is the picture HD? How fast an Internet connection service would it require?

"I dropped down in speed recently since I use the Internet for email and small stuff. Comcast is my current Internet provider, but I am considering the move to C-U Big Broadband since I am in the free installation neighborhood."

First, if Big Broadband installation is free, sign up immediately. This is doubly true if you wish to view movies and videos via the Internet rather than cable.

As far as speed, Comcast's basic 3 megabytes per second should be sufficient for simple streaming but probably not fast enough for reliable high-definition streaming. You'd need to step up to Comcast's premium 20 MB per second for HD. Comcast's cagey website only lists the monthly cost at the loss-leader first six months rate. You have to sign up before Comcast reveals the full, regular rate.

Let's return to the salad bar. Half a dozen little boxes and services vie for your attention to be the plate that you fill with video. However, no two of the boxes offer the same choice of services. The leading dedicated hardware contenders include a variety of Roku boxes, Apple TV (not to be confused with an Apple TV set), Google TV and TiVo DVRs, most $50-$100. However, video game consoles such as the Sony PS2 and the Microsoft Xbox also stream video from the Internet along with new model "smart" TVs and DVD players. Any recent PC or Mac will stream video from the Internet to your TV. It helps if the computer has an HDMI output. A computer allows subscribing to any source, unlike most of the dedicated streaming boxes.

If all the hardware choices confuse you, the content providers will spin your head. Each of the above choices contracts with different program suppliers, which in turn offer different programming. Netflix works with only certain movie studios, Amazon with others. The age of the movie also makes a difference, since it's easier to find older movies and TV shows than new ones.

You can subscribe to Netflix, Amazon Prime, RedBox Instant, Blockbuster and a few others. Netflix and Amazon require subscriptions. Netflix charges $8 a month strictly for streaming; mailed DVDs are extra. Amazon charges $79 a year and throws in other Amazon Prime benefits. Amazon also allows you to view your streamed videos on your Kindle. Individual movies cost from $2-$5 from most nonsubscription services. Nearly all provide a variety of free Internet video sites such as YouTube and Hulu. Netflix and Amazon offer one-month free trials, so if you're quick to discontinue after 29 days it costs nothing to try it out.

You might consider the resolution the salad dressing. Whether you see true 1080p high definition from these services depends on numerous factors. For example, Netflix only provides true HD on certain Internet providers.

Neither Comcast nor Mediacom is listed on the Netflix website. Netflix specifies a minimum speed of 5 MB per second, preferably 7 MB/s. Amazon streams its HD at 720p, or 1080i to a TiVo. Good luck sorting this out.

Rich Warren can be emailed at hifiguy@mchsi.com.

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vcponsardin wrote on February 07, 2013 at 10:02 am
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Yup.  I dropped Comcast a year ago and have not regretted it one bit.  I now watch all my TV via Netflix and Hulu.  Perhaps the only thing I miss are the live sporting events.  I imagine that in the very near future someone will figure that there are millions of former cable viewers like me out there and design a cable TV system that will allow you to pick and choose cable channels individually (and charge say $.99/month per channel).  And that way you only pay for those cable channels you actually use and want.  The current cable TV system is out-of-date and destined to extinction before long.

notitlerequired wrote on February 07, 2013 at 7:02 pm
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I also got rid of my cable and have been very happy for a few years.  Who needs a $100 cable bill each month? 

I just have tv over the air using a fractal antenna in my attic.  But i mostly watch tv on the internet.  This site is great for showing all the ways you can watch free tv online:

http://davewirth.blogspot.com/2012/05/watch-free-tv-online-top-10-free-t...

I use it to watch shows that aired the day before or even to find sites that stream live sports.  Internet TV is definitely the way of the future.  Cable companies better recognize this.