It actually wasn’t all that long ago that all you could do with a television is watch TV shows. You had to flip through the channels available in your area and you were at the mercy of network schedules. That’s not the case anymore, but you may not want to invest hundreds or even thousands of dollars in new equipment to take advantage of all the new connectivity options.
The good news is that it’s not that hard to convert your regular TV into a smart TV, complete with all sorts of smart TV functionality. Interestingly enough, many of these alternative solutions for streaming media locally and over the Internet can offer an even better experience than the ones that are built into current smart TVs. And it’s just so much smarter to enjoy your entertainment on your own time, particularly without having to deal with messy cables running everywhere.
Perhaps one of the most compelling devices to come out in recent memory is the Google Chromecast. It’s not that its functionality is particularly groundbreaking, but it’s revolutionary in that the dongle-sized device retails for a mere $35. Not much larger than a USB flash drive, it plugs straight into the HDMI port of your TV and then it gets power via USB. If your TV doesn’t have USB, it also comes with a wall adapter. From here, you can easily stream Netflix, Google Play, and YouTube with support for other services coming soon. It’s also possible to mirror the Chrome browser on your smartphone, tablet or computer to the big screen of your TV, including a range of video streaming sites.
If your home is already equipped with a range of Apple products, like MacBooks and the AirPort Express, then it only makes sense that you’d also be interested in getting an Apple TV. The tiny $99 set top box connects to your HDTV via HDMI (cable sold separately) and it gives you access to a wealth of content up to 1080p full HD. That includes videos from the iTunes Store, as well as streaming through Netflix, Hulu Plus, Vimeo, NHL GameCenter, and more. With the AirPlay feature, you can also play content directly from your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch with a wireless connection. You can also stream from your Mac or PC over Wi-Fi.
Roku 2 XS Streaming Player
There are a lot of online streaming services out there and they all work just fine on your computer, but getting to them to your HDTV can be a bit more of a challenge if you don’t have a smart TV. Picking up the slack is the Roku 2 XS, which is just as small as the Apple TV. With the Roku, you can stream from a whole host of services like Pandora, Vudu, HBO Go, Amazon Instant Video, and Hulu Plus. There are over 600 channels in all, plus the ability to play games like Angry Birds and control using the corresponding app for Android or iOS. The Roku 2 XS officially lists at $99.99, but it can usually be found for less.
Yes, the Xbox 360is largely known as a video game console where you can play titles like Street Fighter and Gears of War, but it’s also a very powerful multimedia machine. You can purchase music and videos directly from the Xbox Live Marketplace, but there are also a series of “apps” for the Xbox 360 that grant you the same kind of streaming capabilities as devices like the Apple TV and Roku 2 XS. You can stream Netflix, Crackle, Pandora, and more. The Xbox 360 can also tap into your local network to stream videos from your computer too. Pricing starts at around $199 for the basic model with 4GB of storage and going up from there if you want the Kinect sensor, more storage or bundled games. With the PS4 and Xbox One right around the corner, you might want to wait, but both of those next-gen systems will cost considerably more than the Xbox 360.
Smartphones, Tablets and HTPC
Depending on the exact model that you have, many smartphones and tablets have video-out capabilities. Some, like the DROID RAZR HD shown here, have a micro-HDMI port that can then mirror the smartphone’s display on your HDTV. Others, like the Nexus 4, will require special adapters. Either way, it means that whatever you watch on your smartphone or tablet, you can watch on your TV with the appropriate cable. If you want the greatest functionality, though, a full-fledged home theater PC could be the way to go. This is a “real” computer that you would then have permanently connected to your television, effectively using your “smart TV” as a computer monitor.
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