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Boxee and Hulu vie to bring Web video to your TV

A TV isn't always necessary to watch TV shows, thanks to the growing number of programs available for free, for rent or for purchase on the Web. But for most people, switching to the Web for TV viewing has required watching shows on a far smaller screen, one with other programs distracting you and an interface full of tiny buttons and menus.


The two programs I assess in today's column -- Boxee, pictured at right, and Hulu Desktop, below -- offer a solution to that. If you can connect a laptop or small-form-factor desktop to an HDTV (which may not be the easiest thing in the world), and if that computer includes a wireless remote control (such as the simple device Apple sells or the more complex remotes included with some Windows computers), these programs will provide a lean-back-on-the-couch viewing experience much closer to that of traditional TV.

As you can see in the column, I like Boxee a lot more. Although the software seems less of a finished product, it's immensely more versatile than Hulu Desktop -- despite Hulu's attempts to stop Boxee users from going to their site in the first place. Hulu Desktop itself works fine as a Hulu-only viewing solution -- and Hulu itself is a terrific site -- but the entertainment companies that own much of the site need to recognize that a viewer is a viewer is a viewer.

Hulu Desktop.jpg

(Note that one of Hulu's owners is NBC Universal, which Comcast hopes to buy, which in turn means that Comcast's opinions on this issue deserve close scrutiny by the regulators who must approve its proposed merger.)

And yet while I liked using Boxee to watch Web TV on my HDTV, the idea of dedicating a separate computer for that purpose seems wasteful -- especially if it's going to be an addition to the laptop that usually makes its way to the coffee table. One of the things I gained when I canceled my TV service in favor of over-the-air viewing back in the fall was simplicity. Adding a computer and its regularly scheduled maintenance to the TV configuration undermines that ... although, with the addition of a digital-TV tuner, that Mac or PC could double as a digital video recorder.

A device like the upcoming Boxee Box or Roku's line of Digital Video Players -- they connect to many of the same video sources as Boxee, but not Hulu -- would represent a simpler, cheaper fix.

Yet another option for Web-on-TV viewing that I've tried is software embedded in the set itself: The Sony HDTV I bought last summer happens to include software for this purpose. Thanks to a round of firmware updates, this set now "tunes" into a decent variety of sites -- YouTube, Amazon, Netflix, CBS, Slacker, NPR and more. But even the set's stripped-down interfaces for these sites can take around 10 seconds to materialize on the screen; that's quick compared with the startup time of, say, Microsoft Outlook but seems an awkward lag on a TV. Just getting the set connected to the Internet required adding an Ethernet connection to the living room, which in my case meant some non-trivial (but cost-free) hacking around with a wireless router. And yet ... there's much to be said for a system that doesn't require switching among remote controls, inputs and interfaces.

I'd like to know how you're managing this issue: What's your usual routine for viewing TV shows and movies from the Web on a big screen?

By Rob Pegoraro  |  January 29, 2010; 11:36 AM ET
Categories:  Gadgets , TV , Video  
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We usually walk up to the TV, plug in our laptop to the HDMI input and watch. Kind of inconvenient so we don't do it often.

Sometimes we use our PS3 for On-demand or, when we had it figured out, media server with the computer.

Would be nice to make this easier.

Posted by: filmjoy | January 29, 2010 1:32 PM | Report abuse

For NetFlix streaming movies, I use the XBox 360. The XBox interface for searching for movies isn't the best, but I can log into NetFlix with the computer and put the movies I want to watch at the top of my Instant Queue, so they are easy to locate on the XBox.

For videos that I download, I have a Media Center PC hooked to the HDTV. I have not yet made much use of Hulu, and have not yet used Boxee.

Posted by: Ghak | January 29, 2010 1:49 PM | Report abuse

2 years ago I bought a used 17" iMac Core Duo w/ 1 GB RAM & 128 MB GPU. It was bought solely for entertainment & is the center of all my media enjoyment, including 1.25 TB of FireWire drives for my CD & DVD rips into iTunes. It's connected to my older Sony HDTV via DVI>HDMI & to my Sony receiver/5.1 speakers via Toslink optical. The iMac is connected to the 'Net wirelessly from my Airport Extreme Base Station (802.11n) built on a 6 MB/s DSL connection from AT&T. The iMac sends video to the TV at its native resolution, 1920 x1080i. I also use my MacBook in the bedroom to an older 26" HDTV/Monitor via DVI>DVI for web viewing or receiving content from the iMac acting as a media server over my WiFi network. My Apple gear may have cost a bit more(why I bought used for the Main Media iMac) but, the set-up & maintenance is very simple to non-existent. I just use Safari as my browser & watch whatever. NMCFM=no more cable for me!!

While Hulu is great, I sometimes prefer the network sites like so, I can watch in 720p. I've got a couple blog post about Macs as HTPCs here: _Cable-part_1.html
and here:

Posted by: dkjazz3 | January 29, 2010 2:12 PM | Report abuse

I just use an old PC with an internet connection. I then use a wireless mouse and keyboard to control everything from across the room. To me it is much easier than fumbling with a remote control. Instead of "leaning back" with a remote control in my hand I have a mouse. And I get complete access to the Internet. You don't need TV reception or cable anymore. All of the network broadcasts and cable channels (cnn,msnbc,ESPN,USA,HBO etc.) are available over the internet for free at, freedocast, ustream,, etc.

Posted by: jimsandy1 | January 29, 2010 2:56 PM | Report abuse

First of all - lose the antenna - NEVER! The price (free) and quality (outstanding) of over the air tv can't be be beat.

My antenna is hooked up to a HDHomerun box which puts the signal on my home network. From there I can record/replay using Windows 7 MediaCenter or jump over to Hulu in a browser window.

Good-bye cable tv!

Posted by: rpm1 | January 29, 2010 3:46 PM | Report abuse

I have been cable-free for six months now. Along with free HD channels using antenna , i also use a blu-ray player that has in-built streaming of Netflix/Youtube/Pandora. For the rest of the sites like Hulu/ESPN and other sites, i have a HTPC connected to the TV. HTPC computer is located near the TV using a 10 feet HDMI cable and also doubles as a computer that i use regularly for browsing and other work. This way i don't need to waste a computer.

Posted by: drs13 | January 30, 2010 6:26 AM | Report abuse

There was nothing mentioned in this piece about Apple TV. I was hoping part of the magic answer with this would be Apple TV. Anybody have any comments? Also too, Hula doesn't work in Canada, so we're out of luck. I don't know about Boxee. Any tips for getting it to work up here?

Posted by: Agridome | January 30, 2010 7:24 AM | Report abuse

Found the comments here most interesting but overly technical for me. Maybe someone should write a "Dummies" book on this subject.

Posted by: wovose | January 30, 2010 9:35 AM | Report abuse

What's the source of the internet feed? Aren't you still paying Comcast or FIOS in the end?

Posted by: tslats | January 30, 2010 9:36 AM | Report abuse

Another media we can get thru the Internet that isn't talked about too much is streamed music.

I've been listening a lot lately to Pandora. You sign up for various types of music-such as Bjork, Yes, The Who, etc. and they stream that "type" music to you.

This is excellent for discovering new music and even for listening to your own music that you don't include in your personal playlists.

Posted by: JB4519 | January 30, 2010 9:48 AM | Report abuse

@Agridome try

Like RPM, I use the HDHomerun device to get my hdtv signal onto my home network. I have a 28"hd monitor on my main computer, and an older media center computer connected to my hdtv in the family room.

Posted by: lostinthemiddle | January 30, 2010 12:19 PM | Report abuse

Posted by: dkjazz3 | January 29, 2010 2:12 P

links didn't work

Posted by: edlharris | January 30, 2010 2:07 PM | Report abuse

I have used the simple instructions on boxees website to make my apple tv useful. As an appletv, the device is pointless. I have to pay more for movies than anywhere else, it does not allow me to use any avi's I have downloaded, and it doesn't have access to netflix. It is possibly the worst device ever invented by apple. With boxee on the apple tv, I can do all those things and watch hulu. By the by, I wanted to watch Lost again before the season premiere. Because hulu makes it tough to watch stuff on the apple tv/boxee combo, I just downloaded it through a torrent site. So heads up NBC/ABC/Hulu - stop people from doing what they want and they will find a way to do it where you don't get paid.

Posted by: aksunder | January 30, 2010 2:29 PM | Report abuse

To get Hulu on my TV I run PlayOn on my MediaSmart WHS and connect to it from my Xbox 360. I also prefer the 360 for viewing Netflix as opposed to my Tivo. The quality seems considerably higher on the 360. If I'm using my TV to play a game I have an older 17" Macbook Pro that I watch videos on.

Posted by: cvogt1 | February 1, 2010 1:47 PM | Report abuse

"firmware updates" for a TV. Truly this is the 21st Century.

Posted by: wiredog | February 1, 2010 3:48 PM | Report abuse

When watching on a Mac laptop, is there any benefit to using the Hulu desktop as opposed to simply going to the website?

Posted by: cvogt1 | February 2, 2010 10:09 AM | Report abuse

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