Watching all of the streaming movies and streaming TV shows from the providers highlighted in this report is certainly getting easier. Smart TVs with Internet connectivity have been available for some time now, and manufacturers have added streaming features to even entry-level sets. Many Blu-ray Disc players also have the ability to stream content. Video game consoles such as those from Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft and DVRs like TiVo are other streaming options. If all else fails, an inexpensive set-top box can add streaming to all but the most retro of TVs.
Virtually every streaming-enabled home entertainment device offers Netflix. Other providers that are nearly as universally available are Amazon Instant -- including Amazon Prime Instant -- Hulu Plus and Vudu.
If there's a specific streaming provider you want to see, or if none of your existing gear has streaming abilities, a set-top box is an alternative. These are available from a number of makers, but those from Roku get the most recommendations from experts and users by far. With the exception of iTunes, every OTT streaming provider mentioned in this report, and more, is available via a Roku box. The company claims more than 1,000 channels, which includes audio channels and built-in games. There are also a number of unofficial private channels. The top-of-the-line Roku 3 (Est. $100) and the newly released Roku Streaming Stick (Est. $50) require a TV with an HDMI input. All other Roku models will work with any TV with older analog video and audio inputs. All Roku models have built-in Wi-Fi.
If you are an iTunes user who wants to watch streaming movies or TV programs on your living room TV, an Apple TV (Est. $100) set-top box is your best option. Apple TV is not the cheapest set-top box available, but it's Apple-easy to use. In addition to iTunes, Apple TV offers streaming from Netflix, Hulu Plus, Crackle and more. If you have a cable TV subscription, you also have access to content from HBO and ABC/Disney. Sports offerings include out-of-market NHL, NBA and MLB games. The Apple TV box is compatible only with an HDTV with an HDMI input.
In our section on free movie streaming, we note that several free streaming providers are intended for viewing only on a computer or laptop screen. That's the easiest and most straightforward way to enjoy that content. However, if you want to instead watch on your living room TV, you do have some options.
The Google Chromecast (Est. $35) is a streaming "stick," basically a set-top box that plugs into an HDMI input on your set. App support is limited thus far, although you will find ones for Netflix and Hulu Plus, as well as for content from Google Play. However, Chromecast does have a screen mirroring feature that can show any content in a Chrome browser window on your TV screen; that includes, for now, video from sites like Hulu.com and broadcast networks. Reviews say that screen mirroring works reliably, but video that's mirrored is far from ideal. "Image quality ranges from mediocre to poor, mostly because Chrome is converting the video on the fly from your PC and sending it to the Chromecast," CNET's Matthew Moskovciak says. Dropouts and crashes are "sometimes frequent," he adds.
Another alternative is to set up a media server on your computer. That can be a little intimidating for the uninitiated, but some solutions can make the task easier. One example is PlayOn from MediaMall Technologies. The list of officially supported channels available for streaming includes Hulu.com, Netflix, and all of the major broadcast networks. A number of cable networks are also supported, but you either need a cable company subscription or are limited to those programs that the network provides for free. Very few smart TVs support PlayOn -- those from Sony are a notable exception -- but it works with all major video game consoles and Roku boxes, the latter via a private channel. PlayOn is a subscription-based product that costs $30 per year or $70 for a lifetime license.
Finally, you can set up an inexpensive computer as a home theater PC (HTPC) and hook it up to your TV directly. As CNET notes in a tutorial on setting up an HTPC, "Hooking up your computer to your TV can be as simple or as complex as you want." An old but still functional laptop or desktop computer can serve well. If you need a new system, our report on desktop computers offers some suggestions.