Streaming digital video players, including brands such as Roku and Apple TV, make it fast and easy to snare Internet content and watch it on a television.
As a result, many people are scaling back on costly cable or satellite subscriptions, and instead finding television shows and movies through Internet services like Netflix, Hulu Plus, Crackle and iTunes.
"It's on demand. It's there when you want it," said Jim Wilcox, a senior editor at Consumer Reports who reviews electronics.
By browsing online content catalogs, people can find the shows or movies they want to see when they want to watch, often at less than the price of a monthly cable bill.
In order to get instant access to Internet television programs or movies on a home television, the television needs to connect through a streaming video player.
That's where the hockey-puck sized devices like the Roku or Apple TV come in. They provide the "handshake" between the two technologies, Wilcox said.
Starting at about $50, the devices connect to different services. Some services rent content on a per show or movie basis; others, including Netflix, provide content based on a monthly subscription. Netflix charges about $8 a month to stream unlimited movies or TV shows from the company's library.
Already more than half of online adults in the United States are watching Internet videos, according to a recent study by the Consumer Electronics Association. One in four consumers said they're looking to enhance Internet connectivity in the house, the study showed.
"Digital media consumption will continue to grow as the number of connected devices and services for accessing content improves and expands," Chris Ely, a spokesman for the association, said in a press release.
Here's what it boils down to, experts say: People are getting used to watching rich video content on the Web. From YouTube videos to feature films, there's an abundance of content available at the click of a mouse. But people don't always want to watch on a laptop or an iPad. They crave the full-sized viewing experience of the living room television.
That's where the streaming digital video players enter into the equation.
To test the products, I set up a Roku 2 XD, a player that retails for about $80. It was simple to get started, and I had it running in fewer than 10 minutes. The most complex part was figuring out that I had to set up an account on my computer before the box worked on my TV. That process involved giving Roku my credit card number to "make it easy" to make purchases, such as renting movies or buying subscriptions.
As it turns out, my home TV, a newer Sony model, already has Internet access, so the Roku would have duplicated existing services. Many newer Blu-Ray players and home gaming systems have Internet capabilities too.
Before you buy a streaming device, be sure to take a complete inventory of what's already in your living room and each device's features.
At $99, Apple TV is very similar to the Roku, but is best for people who already own Apple products, Wilcox said.
"If you already live in Apple's world, it makes a lot of sense to get an Apple TV," he said.
Apple TV has access to iTunes, Apple's online video store and rental service. It makes it possible to broadcast movies and photos from an iPad onto a home television. The device only works with an HDMI plug-in, which means your TV needs to be new enough to work. Also, keep in mind that HDMI cables typically aren't included in the price. The cables are sold at retailers, but are typically less expensive if purchased online.
Roku, alternatively, works with older, analog sets. although older TVs can't deliver the sharpest digital images.
Other streaming video brands include the Boxee Box, $200, and the Logitech Revue, $300. Each product has pluses and minuses and it makes sense to shop carefully before making a purchase.
Determine what kind of music and video content you're likely to watch before buying. Double-check the kind of content each box offers.
For example, only Boxee Box works with Spotify, a type of music streaming channel. Roku offers Pandora, Amazon Instant video rentals and Hulu Plus, but Apple TV doesn't.
One great features of all devices is that they are extensible, or can get better each time they connect to the Internet. Product developers can add features, channels and services automatically.
Where to buy
Electronics stores throughout Snohomish County including Best Buy at Everett Mall, Lynnwood and Marysville. Products also are available at several online retailers. Apple TV is available at the Apple Store in Lynnwood or at apple.com.
Read more in-depth product reviews at consumerreports.org.
Jackson Holtz: 425-339-3447; email@example.com.