The line between TV and PC is growing fainter. Today's Blu-ray players, game consoles and set-top boxes deliver a limited selection of Internet services, but that's a mere trickle compared with what's coming. The latest HDTVs not only connect you to the Web, but built-in apps also let you stream movies and music, get news and weather updates, and even shop on eBay from your sofa.
Manufacturers such as LG, Sony and Vizio are building Internet-enabled TVs that access online services via a wired or wireless connection to your broadband. By 2015, three out of every four HDTVs sold will be Net-connectable, up from one in four last year, according to Parks Associates.
If you've ever browsed an app store on a mobile phone, a TV app market will seem familiar, although the selection is smaller. Samsung has one of the most popular TV app bazaars: Its customers have downloaded more than two million of them within a year of the store's 2010 launch, the company says.
So what's available? Samsung preloads 25 popular apps on many of its TVs, including Netflix ($8 a month) and Hulu Plus, an $8-a-month subscription service that delivers entire seasons, past and present, of network TV shows from ABC, Fox and NBC. Hulu Plus also offers many cable programs.
If downloads from Netflix and Hulu Plus to your TV seem familiar, it's because both have offered the same on-demand video entertainment over the Internet for a while. The more innovative Samsung apps, however, provide a peek at where the marriage of TV and Internet may lead.
Trick TV, for instance, is a free home-automation app that lets you control your home's lighting, temperature and security from your HDTV or mobile phone. You'll need to buy wireless plug-in modules (average price, $29) to enable home control and monitoring.
With the Skype app and a Samsung TV camera ($150), you can make free video calls to other Skype users. And Social TV lets multitaskers interact with friends on Facebook, Twitter and Google Talk while watching their favorite shows.
Sony's Bravia Internet video service has widgets rather than apps, but they have the same capabilities. One caveat: Sony's Internet-capable TVs need an $80 wireless adapter to connect to a home network (other TV makers build Wi-Fi into their sets). HDTV makers LG and Vizio recently launched TV app stores, too.
Best Internet TVs. Of course, when you're shopping for an HDTV, apps will be less important than size and picture quality. For large rooms, the 55-inch Sony Bravia HX800 ($2,000) is a winner. The set's LED-backlit display is a beauty, and its 240-Hz refresh rate keeps images sharp during fast-action sports and movies. It includes the Bravia widgets, and it's 3D-ready.
Vizio's 47-inch TruLED XVT3D474SV ($1,800) is set up for Internet apps right out of the box. The built-in Wi-Fi doesn't require additional hardware to link up with a home router, and the remote includes a slide-out qwerty keypad. The set's 480-Hz refresh rate is excellent, as is the crisp LED-backlit screen. It's also 3D-capable.
Both LG and Samsung are readying their latest Internet-enabled TVs, although pricing wasn't set at press time. The 2011 models include Samsung's stunning D8000 sets, which feature a brushed-metal bezel (frame) that's only 0.2 inch thick. LG's new Infinia LW9500 series are big-screen beauties that also feature ultra-slim bezels. Like the best of today's HDTVs, they're suitable for framing.