Watching "whatever's on" TV -- or shelling out for cable so you can see a particular show -- is so last decade. With an ever-expanding array of movies, TV shows and other video content available online, more and more TV watchers are opting to connect their TVs to the Internet, either to supplement their cable or satellite package -- or to replace it entirely.
According to market analysis firm Informa, the number of Internet-connected TV devices worldwide could grow more than fourfold in the next few years, from 375 million in 2011 to as many as 1.8 billion by 2016.
There are many different ways to connect your television to the Internet, including buying a new Smart TV that can directly connect with online entertainment. If you're not in the market for a new set, the possibilities include a PC, a connected Blu-ray player, a modern gaming console or a set-top box. It can cost anything from zero (if you happen to have an old PC hanging around) to several hundred dollars to "Webonize" your TV.
For many, the easiest and most cost-effective choice will be getting a streaming set-top box, often for $100 or less, and plugging it into an existing TV. Most of these boxes are small and easy to set up, but there's a bewildering array of options out there, each with its own pros and cons. Some connect to the Web only via Wi-Fi, while others have a wired Ethernet port as well. Some support 720p HD content and others support full 1080p HD.
All can stream online videos and music, but only some integrate live TV. Several of these streamers offer Web browsing and gaming, and they all let you watch certain shows and movies online when you want to, not when a cable or network broadcaster wants you to.
Besides the box that connects the TV to the Web, they all include an infrared remote control for selecting what to watch, pausing, rewinding and the like. Some add a mini-keyboard on the back of the remote or allow you to use your smartphone to take command of the TV.
All the major players deliver popular online entertainment sources (called apps or channels, depending on the streaming device) such as Netflix, Hulu Plus, YouTube or Pandora; the exact programming sources vary from device to device. Some add more offbeat choices such as Vudu or Dailymotion, services like MLB.tv that cater to specific sports, and even social media sources like Facebook.
(Cheapskates beware: Although there's a wide world of free programming out there, many online programming sources cost extra, and prices vary wildly. Online subscriptions to Netflix or Hulu Plus, for instance, cost a reasonable $8 a month each, but HBO Go, which allows you to watch anything the network broadcasts, can only be had with a traditional cable TV subscription.)
To help you decide which streamer is right for you, we've rounded up 14 current set-top boxes from seven vendors, highlighting the features, capabilities, extras and gotchas of each. Our table of features shows you at a glance how each device connects, what kind of storage it has, which online services it can receive and more.
Editor's note: This story was updated on Jan. 14, 2013 to accommodate Netgear and Roku announcements made at International CES 2013.
One thing is certain: With one of these systems in your living room, there'll always be something to watch.
Apple's third-generation Apple TV integrates well with the iTunes entertainment ecosystem; you can watch a variety of movies and TV episodes at up to 1920 x 1080 resolution, listen to music or even look at your family photos.
The system is a simple, spare box with rounded corners. Less than an inch thick with a 3.9-x-3.9-in. footprint, it can easily be hidden near or behind the TV set.
The small silver and black remote control is similarly minimalist and has neither dedicated buttons for popular programming sources nor a keyboard. You can use an iOS app to turn your iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch into a more sophisticated remote control.
How it connects: The system has 802.11n Wi-Fi as well as wired Ethernet networking. It connects to a TV through an HDMI port on the back, and there's an SPDIF optical audio port for use with a set of external speakers. (Neither cable is included, though.) On the downside, it lacks a composite video port for older televisions.
What you can watch: While it can't browse the Web, deliver local TV stations or integrate cable TV, Apple TV does offer a nice assortment of subscription-based online programming, from Netflix and Hulu Plus to live sports via MLB.tv, NBA.com and NHL GameCenter. Much of the content, however, needs to be purchased individually from the iTunes store at roughly $2 for a TV show or $4 for a movie. Unfortunately, there's no unlimited monthly or annual subscription plan.
Apple TV can also wirelessly stream photos, videos and music from a laptop or desktop computer (Mac or Windows) onto your TV, as well as access content you've stored on Apple's iCloud service. And the company's AirPlay feature lets you stream anything from an iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch to the Apple TV box and onto a television set.
(If you're into rumors, there are several circulating about Apple integrating the Apple TV interface and functionality into an actual television set for a one-stop digital entertainment center. But by most accounts, that's a long way off.)
Who it's best for: Apple TV is a smart pick if you already have an iDevice or own a lot of iTunes content. It's not, however, for anyone who has an older TV that requires composite video input -- or who hates buying shows one at a time.