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.
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.
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?
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 TV.com 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.
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.
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.