Subscriptions, free services, and extrasSubscription video services are like the HBO or Showtime of Internet TV: you pay one monthly fee, and then you watch as much or as little of the available programming you'd like. Free services like Google TV and YouTube require compatible hardware, but the services themselves do not require monthly fees.
What it offers: Hulu Plus offers on-demand access to every episode from the current season of every prime-time show on ABC, Fox, and NBC soon after it airs, for the duration of that season. It also offers a wealth of older network TV shows, including full series (first episode through last) on shows such as "The Office," "Arrested Development," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "The X-Files." (See the full list of available shows at Hulu's Web site.)
Upside: Hulu Plus offers a wealth of on-demand TV shows, and allows you to catch up on previous episodes at your leisure.
Downside: Neither Hulu online nor Hulu Plus currently offers any CBS shows. (Note: CNET is a subsidiary of CBS.) More annoying is the fact that Hulu Plus does not include all of the content available on Hulu's free Web site. That means you won't be able to view any shows that originate on cable networks such as Bravo, ABC Family, USA Network, SyFy, and the like--even if they're currently available on Hulu.com.
Price: $9.99 per month for unlimited access.
Compatible devices: Apple iPhone and iPod Touch (iOS 4 or later); Apple iPad; Samsung App-enabled TVs and BD-C6900 Blu-ray player (2010 model year and later); Sony PS3; upcoming Sony TVs and Blu-ray players, and Blu-ray home theater systems (2010 model year and later--available with fall 2010 firmware upgrade); upcoming Vizio TVs and Blu-ray players (2010 model year and later); Xbox 360 (coming early 2011). (See the full list of compatible devices at Hulu's Web site.)
What it offers: Live and recorded Major League Baseball games.
Upside: MLB.TV offers you access to all Major League Baseball games throughout the regular season. Choose between home and away broadcasts, and up to a week's worth of previous games are available for streaming.
Downside: The biggest caveat: live games from local teams are blacked out (game streams become accessible about 90 minutes after they end).
Price: $100 to $120 per season.
Compatible devices: Roku boxes; Sony PS3; Windows and Mac computers.
What it offers: Unlimited viewing of thousands of movies and TV shows for one flat monthly rate.
Upside: Netflix offers unlimited access to its impressive library of streaming movies and TV shows for one flat monthly subscription fee, which starts as low as $9 a month. You can access the service on a huge library of home and portable devices. And the programming that's not available for streaming is still accessible via the company's disc-by-mail system.
Downside: Though some recent content deals have improved Netflix's offerings, the streaming library is still dominated by older releases.
Price: Subscription plans start at $9 per month.
Compatible devices: Xbox 360 (with Xbox Live Gold membership); PS3; Wii; all Roku boxes; all TiVo Series3 and Series4 DVRs; most online-enabled LG, Panasonic, Sanyo, Sony, and Vizio TVs; most online-enabled Blu-ray players and Blu-ray home theater systems; Windows and Mac computers; Apple TV (2010 version); Seagate FreeAgent Theater+; WD TV Live Plus; Apple iPad; Apple iPod Touch; Apple iPhone. (See the full list of compatible devices at Netflix's Web site.)
What it offers: When it launches in the fall, Google TV will have at least two iterations: it will be integrated into Sony's Internet TV and will be offered in the standalone Logitech Revue box, which will connect to any existing TV. But both versions are promising access to any Web-based content you'd get in a standard Web browser, including--significantly--Flash-based video. Google TV will also offer program listings and (naturally) easy access to Google's ubiquitous search engine.
Upside: If it delivers, Google TV will offer any and all Flash-based video sites directly on your TV. That means no more waiting for compatible "apps"; if you want Hulu content, just go to Hulu.com.
Downside: Hulu may be blocked on Google TV devices, if history is any indication; most, if not all, of this is already available to those who simply tether their PCs directly to a TV.
Price: None; the Google TV service is free, but you'll need to invest in hardware that supports it.
Compatible devices: Logitech Revue; select upcoming Sony TVs and Blu-ray players; unspecified compatibility with Dish Network DVRs.
What it offers: Countless user-uploaded videos.
Upside: Now you can watch all of those groin-shots and cute cat videos on your big-screen TV.
Downside: Though YouTube's amateur videos and short clips are fine diversions during workday Web-surfing sessions, they don't generally work well for long-haul viewing. YouTube does offer some premium content (such as old "Star Trek" episodes), but these are often only available via PC Web browsers, not using the YouTube "apps" built into devices.
Price: Free (premium or subscription options may be offered in the future).
Compatible devices: Many network-enabled TVs and Blu-ray players; Apple TV; anything with a Flash-enabled Web browser.
Notable extras: What nonvideo features should you look for?
If a device can offer video, there's a good chance it offers other media choices as well. Whether they're called "widgets," "apps," "channels," or something else, here's a quick roundup of other services you'll find on many Net-connected devices.
Audio: Among the most popular streaming-audio offerings are Pandora, Last.fm, Slacker, RadioTime, and Mediafly, all of which offer a free tier of service. (Note: Last.fm, like CNET, is a division of CBS Interactive.) Additionally, free Internet radio stations and podcasts are available on many devices.
Photos: Flickr and Picasa are widely supported. FrameChannel and Facebook photos are appearing on more devices as well.
Social networking: Facebook and Twitter are showing up more and more, but be warned: they're not as useful as you might think. This is especially true with sharing URLs; currently, very few devices have built-in Web browsers, so you can't click on any shared link.
News/sports/weather widgets: Headline and region-specific weather info is common, and sports tickers are a welcome addition for many.
In-home media streaming (DLNA): Depending upon your needs, this is either a must-have feature or it will go completely unused. Sometimes known as "DLNA" support (Digital Living Network Alliance), this allows you to stream media--video, audio, and photos--from networked PCs on your home network to your TV. Of course, file format support is key here, especially for video. If you've got gigabytes worth of MKV videos, for instance, make sure the device you buy specifically supports streaming of that file format.
USB support: If setting up DLNA servers and network connections is too complicated for you, USB support is a good alternative. Dump the files you want on a USB drive and walk them over to the TV (or Blu-ray player, game console, or set-top box). As with streaming, however, file support is important--not every device can read every file type.