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.
(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?
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