Nothing beats kicking back in a cushy recliner for taking in last night’s episode of Sons of Anarchy, South Park or even all three hours of The Godfather. But with the rise of digital video, home theaters have moved out of the living room to just about anywhere you might care to catch a show: the bedroom, your hotel room on vacation, even the car. And with sites like Hulu, YouTube and Joost, enjoying video digitally no longer entails a lengthy process of DVD ripping or piracy. Video is truly everywhere now, and enjoying it is truly simple. Here’s how to get started.
On the Computer
With crisp high-definition laptop screens that now span up 18.4 inches, notebook computers are as much mobile television screens as they are productivity machines. And tapping them to watch your favorite movies and shows is a cinch.
Hulu should be any television fan’s first stop for content on a PC. From Family Guy to America’s Got Talent, it hosts many of the most popular shows from networks including Fox, NBC, and ABC. Of the major American TV networks, only CBS refuses to serve up content on it, instead preferring its own well-seeded television site, TV.com. For fans of some more obscure content like Fifth Gear and shorter clips of well-known shows, Joost makes a worthwhile stop as well, and some shows serve up full episodes on their own Web sites, like South Park. Of course, YouTube makes an irreplaceable standby, for viral videos and the like, too.
On the TV
Enjoying cable TV or DVDs on a television is as easy as hooking up the requisite box, but where do you turn when you want to watch the greatest freakout ever on a 42-inch TV with a bunch of friends?
If you’re on a budget, a laptop should be your first choice. For those who already own one, it’s a no-cost way to send any imaginable digital content to the TV. Just hook it up using the TV output (commonly an S-video or VGA connector), set your television as a secondary display, and play content at full screen using a video player like Windows Media Player 11, or our personal favorite, VLC Media Player. Almost all Web content, including clips and shows from the sites mentioned above, can also be made to play full screen on an attached television.
But nobody likes to walk up to the entertainment system and mess with a track pad to queue up the next episode of Arrested Development, so software to make your notebook more remote-friendly can be a real necessity if you plan on truly putting your feet up. Media center applications like Boxee and XBMC access the same files and Web sites, but shine up the interface on sites like YouTube and Hulu, plus offer ways to input text and control playback without a keyboard and mouse using infrared remotes like ATI’s Remote Wonder II. Even better, both programs offer iPod and iPhone apps to turn those devices into remote controls – another way to repurpose your existing hardware for watching TV.
In the Car
Before you go dreaming of taking in all seven seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation on your next cross-country drive, let’s reiterate that in-car televisions systems are for passengers only. Watching TV while you drive is stupid, irresponsible, and in many states, illegal. Make sure laws in your specific area don’t prohibit screens visible to the driver before proceeding.
Should you decide that your front-seat passengers might enjoy some movie-watching, consider an in-dash DVD player. Most units occupy the same spot a CD player would, with a small fold-out screen (typically up to seven inches across) for viewing video. You’ll be able to throw in your favorite movies on DVD, but many high-end units, like Pioneer’s $1,099 AVH-P6000, also interface with iPods for playing digital video, and separate mobile TV tuners can be used to pull down live terrestrial stations (now all digital) on units with separate video inputs.
If, on the other hand, you’re looking for something to keep the kids occupied in the back seat on the next six-hour ride to Grandma’s, an overhead DVD player or headrest monitor makes more sense (and will pose far less of a distraction on those long highway drives through Wyoming). Both can be had for far cheaper than in-dash models since they’re less mechanically complex, and screen size can easily stretch to double what manufacturers can cram into an in-dash article – up to 20 inches.
On the Go
When you’re stranded on a train, at the DMV, or just can’t be bothered to meander over to a TV and need your fix, you have two options: a portable media player, or a cell phone.
Cell phones typically make the first choice, since they’re nearly ubiquitous to begin with. Phones that already have data access can typically access video like YouTube right out of the box, but in order to get full-length episodes streamed to the phone, you’ll need to cough up some extra cash every month. Carriers like AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon all offer their own mobile TV service for phones, which typically include both full episodes from networks like Fox, NBC and Comedy Central. If you already have cable access at home, a SlingBox makes a unique solution as well, allowing you to essentially leech onto content you already buy and extend it to other devices, including mobile phones and connected laptops. Phones with app stores, like the ubiquitous iPhone, sometimes offer apps with video capability as well. The TV.com iPhone app, for instance, offers full episodes of CBS shows like CSI and MacGyver. Of course, if you don’t want to rely on data service, you can “sideload” videos as well by transferring them onto a phone’s memory. You’ll just need to transcode (convert) them into a compression algorithm your phone will recognize.
Portable media players typically do the job better for one main reason: They have bigger screens. The 3.5-inch screen on Apple’s iPod Touch nudges out most smartphone screens (the iPhone excepted), and the seven incher on the Archos 7 flat-out dwarfs all of them. On the downside, you’ll need to load all your own content, since they don’t have cell modems for access to online content like YouTube. With storage up to 320GB on hard-drive-based players like the Archos 7, though, there’s plenty of room if you need it.