The 4 best gadgets to bring Internet video to your TV

The 4 best gadgets to bring Internet video to your TV

Summary: Ready to cut the cord to your cable company? As the holiday season approaches, here are the best Internet to TV device choices – for yourself or your gifting pleasure.

TOPICS: Networking, Apple, Google

I began connecting Internet video to my TV before "cord-cutting" was a thing. Today, two years after I cut the cable TV cord once and for all, I find myself using a variety of Internet TV gadgets to bring video from the Internet to my HDTV. Here, in my experience, are the best of them – all suitable to look for this holiday season.

If you must get only one device for watching Internet video on your TV with, Roku's built-in cross Internet video search function makes it a real contender.

First, let me tell about some devices to avoid. Although I have played with pretty much every "smart TV" out there, I have yet to find one that I really like. And, that I might add, was before I found out that LG Smart TVs were spying not just on our viewing habits but what was on our networks. All the “smart TVs” have dreadful user interfaces (UIs); controlling them even with Logitech's killer Harmony remotes is always a pain.

Eventually, I expect really "smart" TVs, but we're not there yet.

I'm also unimpressed by the both the old and new gaming consoles when it comes to watching TV. As the newest gaming platforms, Sony's PlayStation 4 and Microsoft's Xbox One, may be great, what I've seen of them so far they are not really top-rank media extenders.

2013's top four Internet media extenders (Gallery)

I'm not listing my favored devices in "best" order. None of them is a "best." Each has its weaknesses and strengths, which make them suitable for one person and not another. If you're really into Internet and local media streaming the way I am, you're going to end up buying all of them.

So, which one is right for you?

Apple TV

Forget about there being a TV with Apple TV built-in. This rumor has been going around for years. It's not happening.

What we do have in the Apple TV Mark 3 is a good $99 Internet TV extender. Apple TV used to be little more than a front-end to Apple's iTunes Store and its collection of rentable and buyable TV episodes and movies. However, Apple has been adding new online Internet services regularly. For example you can watch Netflix, Hulu Plus, and PBS.

With newer versions of iOS and Mac OS X you can also stream Internet videos to your TV via your iPhone, iPad, Mac, or iPod Touch. To me, Apple TV's killer feature has always been the ease with which I can stream media from PCs, Macs, and network-attached storage (NAS) via iTunes.

I have no love for iTunes, which has needed a complete fix up for years now on all platforms, but it does make it easy to stream local video content. And, since I'm someone who converted his DVD collection into terabytes of video on my servers years ago, this makes having an Apple TV a must in my household.

Rumor has it that some vendors will sell Apple TV for $75 on Black Friday; I have not been able to confirm this. Usually Apple resellers offer Apple products for, at most, a 10 percent discount.


Do you want a cheap, easy way to just watch pretty much every Internet video streaming service out there? Then, you want a Roku box. The top of the line is the $99 Roku 3. However, if you're on a tight budget, the $59.99 Roku 1 is a fine choice.

No matter which version you pick, you get access to more than 1,000 Internet TV channels. Many of the channels aren't that good, but if you want variety you can't beat Roku's channel selection. Roku is also the only major device that enables you to watch multiple Internet TV channels in other languages, such as Spanish, Arabic, and Hindi.

What I love the most about the Roku is its cross Internet service searching function. With it, I can look for a movie on Amazon Instant, Crackle, HBO GO, Hulu Plus, Netflix, and Vudu with a single search. Since some movies and TV shows are free on some networks and not on others, this is one valuable resource.

Sure, programs such as Dijit's iOS-based NextGuide and websites like can help you find what's showing on which Internet TV network, but these aren’t integrated with your Internet TV media streamer. With Roku, search is now built in.

Since Roku refreshed its entire product line this year, I expect to see older Roku models to sell at rock-bottom prices this Black Friday. These may be the best deals of the holiday season, since even an older Roku can do almost everything the newer versions can. Since Roku is going after Apple TV in a big way this holiday buying season, I suspect you can get even the best of breed Roku 3 for $75.00.

Google Chromecast

Let's say you're watching something, anything, on your Web browser but you'd really like to see it on your TV instead? What you want then is Google's dirt-cheap, $35, Chromecast. This device has only one trick, but it does it really, really well.

Chromecast takes whatever you're watching on an Android (phone or tablet), iPhone or iPad, or any PC running a Chrome Web browser, and it throws "casts" of it to your TV. Oh sure, Chromecast also supports a few Internet TV video sites directly, such as Amazon Instant, HBO Go, and MLB.TV; but what matters is how easy it is to use. I can plug a Chromecast into an HDTV with a free HDMI port for the first time and be watching whatever I can find on the Web in about three minutes.

This last also makes this a worthy contender for those of us who hate to give techie gifts since it means we’re roped into serving as family tech support. In this case, you needn’t worry. It's the easiest to install home entertainment tech gadget I've ever installed. 

Coming up to Black Friday, I've seen prices as low as $29.99 for the Chromecast. Since it's already so cheap, I wouldn't expect it to see go much lower.

Samsung BD-F5100 Blu-ray Disc Player

Still watching DVDs and Blu-ray DVDs? Want just one device rather than a shelf full for your Internet TV watching enjoyment? Then consider getting a Blu-ray DVD player, which includes Internet video capacity. Many of them are available, but for the best combination of price and features I favor the Samsung BD-F5100 this season.

At a list price of only $79.99 almost anyone can afford it and, even before Black Friday kicks in, you can find this unit for as little as $50.

On the downside, like every Blu-ray DVD Player I've met, its UI isn't that good for Internet video. That said, the idea of having a single unit for all your video watching needs is attractive.

Taken altogether, here's how I see your buying decision-making going. If you want to watch the most popular movies and shows that are available on the Internet channels and watch your own on server video collection, get an Apple TV. You say you want the maximum number of choices for Internet video channels? Then get a Roku; pretty much any model will do. If you want to watch anything you can watch on a Web browser on your TV—and I mean anything—get a Chromecast. Finally, if you want one unit for DVDs and a limited selection of the most popular Internet TV channels consider a 2013 Blu-ray player and in particular the Samsung BD-F5100.

Me? I've gotten one of each of them and an over-the-air (OTA) antenna as well. And, even if I had bought all my gear yesterday and used every paid Internet service, I'd still be saving money over what three months of satellite or cable TV used to cost me.

Related Stories:

Topics: Networking, Apple, Google

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Good article for cutting the cord.

    I did that over a year ago, having dumped, first cable then Direct TV in favor of broadcast via antenna, Roku (I've owned one since they first came out) and Plex media center running on Ubuntu.

    BTW, SJVN left out Plex but it has an app for Roku and I can play movies, etc. from YouTube and my HD, as well as other media. Roku also has a USB port that allows media playing from an HD or other USB media drive.
  • Xbox One is awesome for TV

    You don't know what you're talking about
    • Agreed. I can't argue with the Roku or Apple TV

      But Chromecast requires a third device, your phone or tablet to work, so not really an option (for me at least) since I'm not looking for something that need me to funnel everything through my phone.

      Xbox One is just out, so we'll hear more on that as it's being used, I imagine.
      • "funnel everything through my phone"

        For the native apps (Netflix, Hulu, Youtube etc) your phone tablet or computer is just used to control the media streaming to the Chromecast. Once you have it playing feel free to use your device for other things or even turn it off. Hopefully more services will be added.

        The best thing about it is that once it is initially set up (2 min. tops) I can then take it with me to any tv (with HDMI) and use it anywhere. Great for watching Netflix on the hotel tv when traveling.
  • Roku + Plex is awesome

    I have a Roku, but if you add a Plex media server (and the Plex client) to the mix it's REALLY good. You can almost dump hulu as all the major channels are available via plex plugins (ABC, CBS, NBC, CBS, PBS, etc).
  • I have Roku and Chromecast

    They are both great. Recommended.

    We forget sometimes about the small screen. A monitor with HDMI and headphone jack makes a great small TV when paired with these devices. Add a pair of cheap desktop speakers and you are good to go.
  • Synology NAS - DS Video

    I have ripped my whole DVD (and Bluray) collection and stored it on my Synology DS412+ NAS.

    Using the free DS Video app from Synology, I can bypass iTunes completely and stream my movies to all my devices (Apple TV, PC, Laptop, Phone).

    Works perfectly and without any hassles.

    PS: I can do the same with my music collection (DS Audio) and photos (DS Photo+). iTunes is not required anywhere.
  • I'm olde school

    My 5 1/2 year old Dell Inspiron SE Core 2 Duo laptop was one of their first with HDMI out. While the hinge is no longer operable, it has been my trusty media center for many years.
  • Get a cheap droid dongle or box.

    Far more flexible than any of the above.
    Alan Smithie
  • good article; bad business

    Almost three years ago now, Vizio announced that it would ship a Blu-Ray player with built-in Google TV. It seemed like the perfect solution for people who own a TV without a spare HDMI input. However, the product never materialized, and millions are still waiting for the industry to offer this type of "combo" unit. (Sony does not really count because their products are not reliable, as many retail & home-made discs simply dont work in Sony players due to the company's overly-aggressive copy protection schemes). Vizio did eventually ship a Google TV product with a buggy, dumbed-down interface--but the Blu-Ray version never appeared. So like many others I am still playing the waiting game until I see a "normal" Android interface and Google Play support in the hardware form-factor that I require.
  • Why not just buy an HDMI cable?

    That's all you need. And you don't have the stupid interface problems or widgets that may or may not work.
  • Google Chromecast is also better solution

    I have been using Google Chromecast for about 3 months and it is really awesome. It can be easily carried from one place to another and I love this gadget. I like to watch TV using this through: satellite-tv-on-pc(dot)com
  • Google TV?

    I don't necessarily want to cut the cord. I just want a smart way to seamless merge the internet and media from my provider. And for that Google TV should have been perfect.

    I actually love Google TV. Google's not shown it any love lately. But rumors suggest that things may change. But it works for casting from YouTube and Google Music. In fact the casting icon appeared on YouTube on my phone a week before Google announced Chromecast and I thought it was just something that had always been there that I had missed.

    The search is excellent. Netflix works well (although strangely I can't cast it from my tablet). The problem is there is no Hulu Plus, no Showtime Anywhere, no HBO Go. But I expect that Chromecast will force those to appear on Goggle TV since they can't prevent anyone from casting anything from the browser and Hulu would just be leaving money on the table. I have never understood why Hulu didn't want to be on Google TV.

    The problem I have with Google TV is that it doesn't complete the loop. After doing a search and finding a program or movie running on Comcast, I can't set it for recording directly. It hands me off to the simply awful Comcast UI.
  • Chromecast - Spyware???

    I worry about spyware. Google would make this product cheap so everyone gets one and then the device could monitor our viewing habits.

    Later the popular internet sites would get bought out and then we would have to pay a premium to watch or have more commercials.
  • Onchannel Apple TV

    i use apple tv