The hottest new item in home electronics this holiday season allows you to watch Internet videos on your TV screen.
This is according to a number of companies who have created, and are marketing, new "digital boxes" that allow you to accomplish just that. But the question is why would you spend hundreds of dollars just to do that?
As we get closer to the industry's yearly expo, the 2009 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in early January, we're starting to hear about new ways to watch Internet videos on home TVs. Actually, the industry is hoping those TVs will be new, flat-panel models that you will buy between now and Feb. 17, when the U.S. switches from over-the-air, analog TV to digital broadcasts.
The idea here is to come up with new ways to combine the explosion of Internet, video feeds and the experience of watching them on a big screen from the comfort of your living room couch. The manufacturers want to make it just as easy as changing channels on your cable box.
For the most part, the instant-gratification factor is nearly the same -- you choose what you want to watch and a few seconds later you're viewing a program. In the past, the problem was with Internet video quality, which usually hasn't measured up to other video sources. As you can plainly see (pun intended) most Internet videos look horrible on a big TV screen. And I'm being kind.
We're beginning to see the emergence of new boxes that try to bridge that gap.
TV is one such device, and it has been improved. The original idea was to sell a device that could repurpose audio and video downloaded from iTunes and route it through a TV set.
The first-generation box produced poor-quality videos (Apple thought fans would be willing to watch low-resolution iPod-formatted videos on a large TV screen). But the second-generation Apple TV offers much better quality. Apple TV retails for $229 to $329 depending on the size of the hard drive inside.
Apple's box connects your home TV to iTunes. Terrific quality video.
SlingMedia is also offering some terrific devices, starting with the SlingBox, which ranges in price from $180 for standard definition to $300 for high definition. SlingBoxes allow users to watch their home TV or DVR through the Internet on a computer or mobile phone. Software is required for your computer, but it's all very cool.
Additionally, the company now has Sling.com, which lets viewers set up and watch their home TV or DVR shows, as well as others being offered online, via a new Web site interface. Another new device, called SlingCatcher, is sort of a reverse Slingbox. It lets you take all of your digital entertainment sources and electronically route them to your big-screen TV. SlingCatcher sells for $300.
New device is a kind of reverse SlingBox allowing you to watch video on your TV.
Another new device being introduced at CES will let the user take high-definition videos from
YouTube and other Web sites and route them to a big-screen TV. That is, assuming enough HD videos worth watching on a big screen can be found on YouTube and that you're willing to pay $400 for such a device. You might. I wouldn't.
Blu-Ray (created by
) video disc players, while coming down in price, usually sell in the $200 to $400 price range, and that doesn't count the price of buying or renting films. That's quite a step up from the old-fashioned DVD players that sell in the $30 to $100 range. I could go on, but I think you get the idea. Companies are hoping you will spend hundreds of dollars for new, cutting-edge video devices with somewhat limited appeal.
Add the current economic downturn to the equation and you start to wonder what these companies are thinking. I realize that these products have been on the drawing board for months or years at this point. But, at a time when everyone is busy stretching dollars, we're being offered limited-appeal, but technologically interesting, electronics we're supposed to embrace.
I'm not saying one of these ideas, or something else we'll see next month at CES, won't be "the thing" that everyone on the planet will have to own. I'm just saying this might not be the best time for consumers to make that choice.
Gary Krakow is TheStreet.com's senior technology correspondent.