One of the most exciting home theater trends is the fusion between your television and the Internet.
Most new HDTVs let you access online content from the comfort of your favorite chair or couch, be it social-networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, video-streaming services such as YouTube and Netflix, or on-demand news, weather, sports scores, stock quotes and other personalized information.
But not everyone can afford one of these new smart TVs. Instead, set-top boxes can do the trick, at a fraction of the price.
These small devices connect to your current television, as well as your wireless (Wi-Fi) network, though most also offer an Ethernet jack for those who prefer to use a wired connection.
Before we get to three sub-$100 options, remember you can also attach your laptop to your television via an HDMI cable from your local “dollar store” (for those really on a tight budget), plus there are pricier solutions, such as the Boxee Box ($179.99), Sony Internet Player with Google TV (from $168) and Slingbox devices (from $179.95).
A tad bigger than a deck of cards, Apple TV ($89) is a small black box that lets you rent commercial-free movies and TV shows from iTunes; access various online video services (some for free, such as YouTube, while others are subscription-based, such as Netflix or MLB.com); and you can stream media from your home computer, such as music and video, as long as the files are in your iTunes folder.
Unlike the other set-top boxes, Apple TV supports Apple's AirPlay technology, which lets you wirelessly stream content to your television via your iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch -- to display photos or play music and videos on your big screen in real time. AirPlay also lets you mirror what's on your smartphone or tablet screen, be it games, apps such as Facebook or Twitter, Web browser, email and more.
A small remote is included, or you can download a free remote app, to navigate through Apple TV's features. The minimalist interface is clean and intuitive.
As for shortcomings, Apple's box doesn't provide as many apps as other set-top boxes, nor does it support as many media types (codecs). Also, there is no USB port to insert a thumb drive loaded with media.
Roku 2 XS
Similar to Apple TV, Roku 2 XS ($99.99) is a small, black set-top player you attach to your television via HDMI cable (recommended, but not included) or those red, yellow and white composite (RCA) cables, which are found in the box for standard-definition quality.
Once you've joined the Internet, wirelessly or with a cable, you can access more than 500 channels (apps). This includes streaming movies, TV shows and user videos from Netflix, Hulu Plus, Crackle, Disney and Vimeo (including support for top-of-the-line 1080p HD video). You can access live and on-demand sports (from the NBA, MLB, MLS, NHL and UFC), music (Pandora, Rdio, Slacker Radio and TuneIn Radio), photos and videos (from Facebook and Flickr) and news, weather and other info.
Oddly, there is no YouTube on Roku, however, and much of the user-made videos are low quality, including a handful of poorly produced cooking channels.
Like Apple TV, some channels are free, while some require a subscription, such as Netflix ($8 a month).
Along with a few interactive games, such as Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy!, the mobile game Angry Birds comes loaded on Roku 2 XS, where players use the remote to fling birds toward the evil pigs.
A USB port on the side of the Roku unit lets you insert a thumbdrive with photos, videos and music, plus there's a microSD card slot at the back for additional game and channel storage, if needed.
WD TV Live
If it's media compatibility you want, Western Digital's WD TV Live ($99.99) is the set-top box to get. This small device will play virtually any file from your PC or Mac (wirelessly), networked hard drive or USB thumbstick.
At the risk of jargon soup, this product supports all kinds of videos (AVI, MPG, MP4, MOV, FLV, WMV9, MKV, TS/TP/M2T and others), many photo types (JPG, GIF, TIF, BMP, PNG) and a variety of music files (MP3, WAV, WMA, AAC, FLAC, MKA, AIF, PCM/LPCM, OGG, Dolby Digital and DTS). It even supports playlists and subtitles.
The Wi-Fi-enabled WD TV Live also houses a number of built-in apps, focusing primarily on media (such as YouTube, Netflix, CinemaNow, MLB.TV, Spotify and so on), as well as others such as Facebook and some interactive games.
Similar to Apple TV, this set-top box comes with a remote, or you can control the content with the free WD TV remote app on your Apple or Android device.
While not quite as clean as Apple TV, the WD TV Live interface is attractive and easy to use, plus you can customize the background photo of your home screen similar to your Windows desktop.