Net Movie Night

Online video services offer thousands of films and TV shows that you can download in minutes.

Internet video isn't limited to two-minute clips of dancing cats you watch on your PC. With an online video service, you can take in thousands of full-length flicks on your TV from the comfort of your living-room sofa.

To get started, you'll need to sign up for a service. Each lets you rent -- and all except Netflix also let you buy -- existing movies and TV shows, plus view new releases as they become available on DVD or shortly thereafter. (For example, Net-flix offers Warner Brothers' titles 28 days after they go on sale.) True, your cable provider offers video on demand, but it doesn't offer nearly as many movies as the online video services do.

You can use a video service whether you've got a small flat-screen TV ora complete home theater. To watch movies, you'll need a broadband Internet connection and a device that routes Internet video to your TV.

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Fear not: Setup is simple, and the components are reasonably priced. In fact, you may already own all the hardware you need. Both the Sony PlayStation 3 and the Microsoft Xbox 360 are Netflix-ready devices, and the Nintendo Wii will be Netflix-ready soon. Many Blu-ray players have built-in support for Netflix and other movie services. And a Roku Digital Video Player ($80 and up) has a built-in Wi-Fi connection to receive Amazon Video On Demand and Netflix videos via your home's wireless router. Each online-video Web site lists the devices that work with its service.

Rent versus buy. Renting a video is usually cheaper than buying, but the clock is ticking. You typically have a 24-hour window to watch a film or show once you order it. For folks who like to pause a movie and return to it later -- or watch it more than once -- that could pose a problem. The alternative is to buy a copy, typically for $10 to $20.

Netflix does things differently. The rental-DVD-by-mail subscription service takes an all-you-can-eat approach to online viewing. Subscribers can watch as many online movies as they want with no time limit. Even if you're signed up for the basic, $8.99-a-month plan, which limits you to one DVD at a time, you have unlimited access to online films and TV episodes.

Faster is better. The greater the bandwidth, the better your movies will look on the big screen at home. Netflix recommends a 2- to 3-megabit broadband connection to get DVD-quality video, and even faster speeds to download HD content. And VUDU, which has the sharpest Web video we've seen, advises a 4.5-megabit or faster link for its HDX (1080p) high-def service.

Each service offers something for everyone -- from art-house films to action-adventure flicks -- with new titles constantly being added. And the best part is that in the time it takes to make microwave popcorn, your movie is ready.

Contributing Writer, Kiplinger's Personal Finance