December 25, 2012, 7:55 AM — Watching "whatever's on" TV -- or shelling out for cable so you can see a particular show -- is so last decade. With an ever-expanding array of movies, TV shows and other video content available online, more and more TV watchers are opting to connect their TVs to the Internet, either to supplement their cable or satellite package -- or to replace it entirely.
According to market analysis firm Informa, the number of Internet-connected TV devices worldwide could grow more than fourfold in the next few years, from 375 million in 2011 to as many as 1.8 billion by 2016.
There are many different ways to connect your television to the Internet, including buying a new Smart TV that can directly connect with online entertainment. If you're not in the market for a new set, the possibilities include a PC, a connected Blu-ray player, a modern gaming console or a set-top box. It can cost anything from zero (if you happen to have an old PC hanging around) to several hundred dollars to "Webonize" your TV.
For many, the easiest and most cost-effective choice will be getting a streaming set-top box, often for $100 or less, and plugging it into an existing TV. Most of these boxes are small and easy to set up, but there's a bewildering array of options out there, each with its own pros and cons. Some connect to the Web only via Wi-Fi, while others have a wired Ethernet port as well. Some support 720p HD content and others support full 1080p HD.
All can stream online videos and music, but only some integrate live TV. Several of these streamers offer Web browsing and gaming, and they all let you watch certain shows and movies online when you want to, not when a cable or network broadcaster wants you to.
Besides the box that connects the TV to the Web, they all include an infrared remote control for selecting what to watch, pausing, rewinding and the like. Some add a mini-keyboard on the back of the remote or allow you to use your smartphone to take command of the TV.
All the major players deliver popular online entertainment sources (called apps or channels, depending on the streaming device) such as Netflix, Hulu Plus, YouTube or Pandora; the exact programming sources vary from device to device. Some add more offbeat choices such as Vudu or Dailymotion, services like MLB.tv that cater to specific sports, and even social media sources like Facebook.
(Cheapskates beware: Although there's a wide world of free programming out there, many online programming sources cost extra, and prices vary wildly. Online subscriptions to Netflix or Hulu Plus, for instance, cost a reasonable $8 a month each, but HBO Go, which allows you to watch anything the network broadcasts, can only be had with a traditional cable TV subscription.)