What is Internet TV?
Internet TV is exactly what it sounds like: video delivered over the Web. Specifically, it refers to the variety of Internet-delivered video-on-demand and subscription services that offer movies, TV shows, and sports. Notable examples include Netflix, iTunes, Amazon, and Hulu Plus. Though most of these have been around for years, what's relatively new is that accessing the videos no longer requires a computer. Instead, these services are now accessible from a growing number of network-enabled devices, including TVs, Blu-ray players, game consoles, and smartphones.
Why do I want it?
"Big deal," you're saying. "I already have video-on-demand on my cable box." Fair enough--and if you're happy with that, feel free to sit back on the sofa and enjoy. But while cable and satellite video-on-demand (VOD) has grown significantly over the past few years, the programming choices it offers are still relatively limited. The primary advantage of Internet TV is that it expands your universe of on-demand choices from hundreds of TV shows and movies to thousands (if not tens of thousands).
In addition to widening your choice of programming, Internet TV also offers more venues on which you can enjoy it. Cable and satellite requires homes to be wired with coaxial cables, and service providers charge by the box; add a cable box to your bedroom, for instance, and you'll pay more every month. (Even antenna TV is limited to areas where you can get good reception.) By comparison, Internet TV requires only compatible hardware and access to the Web (many, but not all, Internet TV devices are Wi-Fi-compatible).
What are the potential drawbacks?
Like any other emerging technology, Internet TV comes with its own list of requirements and caveats. Take note: if any of these are deal-killers, online streaming probably isn't for you.
Bandwidth requirements: Streaming video is the most bandwidth intensive online activity. If you want smooth video at optimal resolution, you'll want to have a steady signal of at least 2Mbps downstream (preferably 5Mbps or more). Fiber service is optimal, cable modems usually suffice, but many DSL services and most wireless (cellular) access just won't cut it. Dial-up is a nonstarter, of course.
Image quality: The quality of online video is reliant on two main factors: ample bandwidth (see above) and good source material. On most Internet TV services, high def and wide screen isn't always necessarily the norm. And even when it is, the encoding of video varies widely. We've seen some HD streaming video that meets or even exceeds cable and satellite TV channels. Other times, what you'll see may look little better than a grainy YouTube video expanded to full screen. Bottom line: if you're a videophile who can distinguish between DVD and Blu-ray image quality, you may balk at the quality of Internet TV. For everyone else, it's probably good enough.
Audio sync: If you're a stickler for lip-sync, online video may drive you up a wall. It's not unusual for audio to be out of sync with the video, often with delays of up to a quarter or a half a second. You can usually resync the audio and video by pausing and resuming the stream, but it's still an annoyance.
Stereo vs. surround: Stereo is the industry standard on streaming video. Surround sound is turning up on some services, however.
Control lag: With all Internet video, there's a short delay (usually 20 seconds or less) as the video begins to cache on your local system. There are also delays when resuming from pause, and fast-forward and rewind is often accompanied with a lag. (Slow motion is generally absent.) Because you're interacting with a remote video stream, Internet TV controls just won't be as responsive as your DVD or Blu-ray player.
No special features: If you like the behind-the-scenes documentaries and director's commentary, stick with DVD or Blu-ray. Streaming services usually offer only the movie or TV show itself.
Closed captioning not guaranteed: If you rely on closed captioning or subtitles when watching TV or DVDs, you may be out of luck with Internet TV; it's not yet supported by default on all services. (The exception: subtitles will be present on foreign-language movies and scene-specific contexts.)
Selection: The old Qwest commercial certainly raised the bar for the Internet TV future: "every movie ever made, in every language, any time, day or night." Unfortunately, we're not there yet. The content companies (movie studios and TV networks) are carefully navigating this new frontier, which means licensing deals are constantly in flux. Bottom line: lots of your favorite TV shows and movies aren't available on Internet TV at all, whereas others may be exclusively available on one service but not another. And content may appear or disappear on a given service on a month-to-month (or even week-to-week) basis.
Release windows: For movies, the story is improving; many video-on-demand services are now offering titles the same day (or at least the same week) as they hit DVD. But take note: anyone who chooses to go the Internet TV route for current TV shows will have to forgo the day-after water cooler conversations (or their online social networking equivalents). Most episodes hit supported services within 24 or 48 hours of their initial broadcast.
Digital "ownership" and its potential perils: Renting content on online video services is almost identical to doing so on cable or satellite TV, so it'll be a familiar process to most viewers. Buying digital video is straightforward enough, but it's important to remember that it's not the same as buying a DVD or an MP3 music download. That's because you're either buying a file encoded with DRM (digital rights management) or you're buying the "right" to license the content from an online provider. Should the licensee (say, Apple, Amazon, or Blockbuster) ever go away--through bankruptcy, corporate takeover, or just as a change in business strategy--you could be left with an orphaned video collection. (That's precisely what happened to the music collections of Lala users who had purchased "online streaming rights" after Apple purchased Lala in 2009.) If that's a concern, stick with rental or subscription services.
Live events and sports: For the most part, Internet TV programming is usually limited to on-demand episodic content (movies and TV shows). Live events (such as news) are still the exception to the rule. Sports broadcasts were once very rare, though the wider availability of subscription services such as MLB.TV, UFC, and ESPN 3 suggest that online sports programming is a growth area--at least for those willing to pay a premium for it.