December 06, 2013, 11:03 AM — Lots of us jumped on the HD bandwagon the moment HDTVs became available. The advantage of being such an early adopter is that we got to enjoy the benefits of HD content right from the get-go. But as is usually the case with bleeding-edge technology, the early equipment needed to watch HDTV was quickly made obsolete by better performing, more attractive, and smarter products.
Early HDTVs were just that--high-definition televisions--nothing more, nothing less. Modern HDTVs, however, are essentially all-in-one computers, with the ability to run apps, access the web, play games, and do all sorts of other cool stuff.
If you've got an older HDTV without any "smart" features and can't afford or just don't want to upgrade to a newer, more capable set just yet, there are alternatives: devices that can add smart features to an existing set, and some of them are quite cheap.
Google's Chromecast HDMI dongle ($35) is a very affordable way to add some useful capabilities to a TV. It doesn't actually add any smart features to an HDTV all on its own, but you install the Chromecast app on an iOS or Android device to send content from supported streaming sources--Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, Pandora, Google Play Music & Movies, and a host of others--up to an HDTV. Users can also send content from the Google Chrome browser on Mac or Windows systems to a Chromecast device, provided the free Google Cast plug-in is installed.
To set it up, all you have to do is plug it into an available HDMI port on your TV and then plug in the Chromecast's power cable. The power cable uses a standard micro-USB connector, so you may even be able to use the USB port on your TV (if it's got one) to feed power to the Chromecast. If not, a standalone power adapter is included.
Simply select the correct HDMI input on your TV to see what the Chromecast is displaying onscreen, and run the Chromecast app on your mobile device to complete the setup. The Chromecast will display some identifying information onscreen that you'll need to enter into the Chromecast app, and the app will scan for the device and allow you to configure it for your wireless network. When the configuration is complete, streaming content to your TV is as simple as tapping the Chromecast button in a supported app or browser window.
Doin' it dongle style
The next step up from simple devices like the Google Chromecast are Android-based HDMI dongles like the Tronsmart CX-919 or the Measy 'U' line of products (U1A, U2A, etc.). These devices are typically sold for about $60 to $100, depending on their specifications (higher-powered devices are more expensive).
These dongles feature internal hardware similar to that of many smartphones and tablets: They've got ARM-based SoCs attached to a bit of memory, flash storage, and network controllers, and they run the Android OS. Plug the device into an available HDMI port on a HDTV, supply power, and your TV will essentially be turned into an all-in-one computer running Android. You'll have to plug a mouse/keyboard into the dongle (or connect input devices wirelessly via Bluetooth) to complete the setup and click icons or enter text. When done, you'll have access to everything the web and the Google Play store has to offer.
Other options in this price range would include devices like Apple TV, Roku, or the Boxee Box, which are all great products in their own right. They don't, however, have access to the same number or diversity of apps as the Android-based dongles, which can access virtually anything an Android-based mobile device can.
Going all out
Connecting an HTPC, or Home Theater PC, to your HDTV is arguably the most flexible and powerful way to add smart features to your television. With an HTPC, users have the ability to run a variety of operating systems and HTPC front ends, and access all of the content available over the web or via standalone applications, like Netflix, Hulu, and many others. All of that additional flexibility and power requires a larger investment, however, and using an HTPC is usually more complex and clunky than a purpose-build dongle or media streaming device.
HTPCs are available in all shapes and sizes, and at virtually any price point. Do-it-Yourselfers can configure an HTPC any way they'd like, but companies like Zotac and ASRock, among others, also offer small-form-factor systems specifically designed to be used in home-theater environments.
Connecting an HTPC to an HDTV will usually require nothing more than attaching an HDMI cable to an available input on the TV, but the wide variety of software, content portals, HTPC front-ends and player choices out there make it impossible to cover them all. XBMC and Plex are favorites among HTPC enthusiasts, but there tons of standalone apps available too. TechHive's HTPC showdown feature is a must-read.