There is no escaping the internet these days. Obviously computers are connected, but so are cell phones, video games consoles, televisions, and even refrigerators. Of course, this isn't necessarily a bad thing; with a set-top box (or an internet-enabled television) you can turn your drab, ordinary TV into an internet-enabled home theater dynamo. Imagine, if you will, having Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, Amazon Video, and Pandora, all streaming direct to your screen. Or picture having your home media library, perhaps that stockpile of videos you have sitting in iTunes, accessible to the big screen in your living room.
It's all possible, and a lot easier than you might think. One used to have to get some sort of home theater software (for example, MythTV or Windows Media Center) and set up a computer just to be used with your home theater system. While effective, this method can become very expensive (depending on what kind of computer you buy).
Then the set-top box arrived, coming to the rescue of those looking to keep up with the Joneses and their huge home theater at a fraction of the cost. The set-top box has evolved many times since its first incarnation from the cable box that connects your TV to the paltry 250 channels that never play anything interesting anyway to what it is now. This new generation of set-top boxes gives you entertainment on demand.
Take the Apple TV. The latest incarnation of this device will fit in your hand, yet still bring Netflix and YouTube across the information highway and straight to your TV. The new box can also stream media from other computers that are running iTunes on the network. Apple TV also allows you to rent movies from iTunes, browse photos on Flickr, or stream music from your iPod or iPhone. For $99, you might as well cancel your cable subscription and buy a box. Of course, Apple doesn't have a corner on the market. The TiVo Premier, the Boxee Box and the Roku offer similar functionality.
The future holds great promise for the set-top box. Moving away from proprietary boxes, Google is looking to launch Google TV and, in their words, bring “the web to your TV and your TV to the web.” Announced back in May and slated for release sometime before the end of the year, Google TV has the backing of many major distributors, including Sony, Logitech, Dish Network, and Best Buy. What makes Google TV different is that it will allow users full run of the internet. Running a specialized web browser with Flash on top of an Android (the same operating system as Google smartphones) base, the Google TV is less of an appliance and more of a fully featured web browsing box. It can do all of the same things as the Apple TV and the Boxee Box, but it can also take you directly to Hulu to watch your favorite shows if you so desire. Unfortunately, Google is not completely unmatched; Roku is set to begin offering Hulu this fall.
There is one other option for those who feel like spending a little extra. Internet-enabled TVs exist and many of the technologies of the set-top box are wrapped into them. Samsung, Panasonic and LG all offer factory-configured TVs that can connect to the web. Offering the same apps and streaming capabilities as many of the stand alone set-top boxes mentioned above, these TVs might be appealing if you have the money to burn on a whole new TV.
After all is said and done, it almost makes you wonder why you keep your cable company around (unless they're the ones providing your internet connection). The television is just one of the latest in a long string of devices benefiting from seemingly ubiquitous connection to the internet. There is no escaping it, so you might as well take advantage of it.