Cable and satellite are so last century. These days, the smartest--and cheapest--way to watch movies and TV is streaming them from your Mac or iDevice to that fancy TV in your living room. After all, you’re already paying for broadband, so why shell out even more to Comcast or DirecTV when that same content’s just waiting for you out there in the intertubes?
But we understand that the phrase “streaming” comes with some baggage. If you haven’t set up streaming video before, it might seem complicated, and since we last covered this topic about a year ago, there are only more services, websites, and hardware for you to sift through.
So we’re here to simplify everything with this extensive guide to getting streaming up and running quickly and painlessly. We begin with the hardware and wires needed to make your Mac or iDevice play nice with your TV, then dive into an overview of streaming services and options. For dessert, we’re serving a way to mount your iMac on your wall for use as a lovely all-in-one TV and computer. Tiny apartment, big mansion--however you live, we’re here to make your movie and TV watching easier, cheaper, and cutting edge.
Streaming video can mean so many things, but when you set it up right, it means fast, free, or cheap access to virtually anything you’d care to watch. If it’s all a bit Greek to you, we’re kicking off with a refresher on the basics.
Streaming video is trendy, but it’s hot for a reason. After some painless setup on gear you already own, you can unlock a world of high-def movies and TV that range from free to cheap. But even if you don’t know the difference between HTML5 and VOD, you can still leave your cable or satellite provider in the dust. For anyone who has not yet begun to stream, let’s touch on the basics.
Streaming video is every bit as cool as a double rainbow.
Simply put, “streaming” applies to any video you’re watching that isn’t stored on your hard drive--that goes for movies beamed to your browser or from your iMac in the home office to the MacBook in your living room. But it’s over the web where on-demand delivery has taken root and given sites such as Hulu and YouTube an immediate way of delivering everything from the latest movies to last night’s episode of The Closer to, yes, umpteen million LOL cat videos right to your living room.
All you really need is a broadband internet connection and a Mac. For starters, you’ll want to broadcast that broadband connection throughout your home using a wireless router. Apple’s 802.11n Airport Extreme is one of the best options for HD video, and its ease of setup is worth the premium $179 price tag--your network will be up and running before you can say “Hulu.” (Really, a few clicks is all it takes.)
Apple does most of the heavy lifting for you.
With that out of the way, it’s smooth sailing...er, streaming...from here on out. Head on over to iTunes Preferences and turn on “Look for shared libraries” and “Share my library on my local network.” Repeat that step on all the Macs in your household, and now all your iTunes music, TV shows, and movies will flow between them over your Wi-Fi.
From here, a multitude of options opens up, and that’s where the rest of this story comes in. You can hook up an older, unused Mac directly to your TV (or spring for one of those lovely new Mac minis!) and pipe all this video straight to the best display in your house (see “Lights. Macs. Action!” on the next page). Whether you’re watching in your living room or on a Mac, there’s a wealth of streaming-video services that make it a cinch to enjoy the very best content, and we cover the best of those on page 4. Your iPhone and iPad can even get in on the action (page 3), or you may want to opt for a dedicated video-streaming device that connects to your TV, like a Boxee Box or Apple TV (page 5).
Two clicks stand between you and streaming goodness.
And remember, every Mac comes with Front Row (find it in your Applications folder), a nifty little application that turns your monitor or your TV into a gorgeous theater for all your iTunes content. Sites like Hulu will also play full-screen video without clunking up the show with menus and interfaces. Yup, streaming really is the best way to get your coach-potato time.
Next Page: Lights. Macs. Action! >>
Hooking up a Mac to your TV pays off gigantically when it comes to enjoying streaming movies and TV.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with watching movies on a 27-inch iMac hooked up to some sweet speakers--but why should you have to strain your eyes (and ears) just because you’re streaming videos over Safari? Wouldn’t those Hulu shows look so much better on your 60-inch Sony Bravia HDTV and 7.1 DTS surround sound system? So let’s look at the most common, useful setups—and iron out the wrinkles that tend to pop up.
Difficulty Level: 0
When Apple updated the Mac mini earlier this summer, it didn’t just dress it in aluminum and add a snazzy access panel to the underside--it pushed the micro desktop further into the living room by fitting it with a full-size HDMI port. What that means to those of you on (or near) the cutting edge is that you can buy a $10 cable, plug one end into your mini and the other end into your receiver or television, pop some popcorn and settle down in a Front Row seat (just don’t forget your Apple Remote). It’s that easy.
Difficulty Level: 1
Of course, there may be a snag or two along the way. Some audio components can’t handle audio over HDMI, but there’s no reason to give up on the glory of surround sound. A $2 fiber optic audio adapter will turn any Intel Mac’s headphone jack into an optical audio port, which most receivers can use to pipe out 5.1 or 7.1 sound.
Difficulty Level: 2
If you have an older, DVI-based Mac, converter cables will still let you connect via HDMI.
Things get a little trickier with older Macs. Instead of the simplicity of an HDMI-to-HDMI cable, you’ll need a specialized DVI-to-HDMI cable (and a mini-DVI adapter for iMacs and some minis). Just screw in the DVI end to the Mac and find an open HDMI input on your receiver or TV. As with all of these setups, a trip to System Preferences > Displays may be in order so the Mac can properly detect the TV’s resolution to fix any potential scanning issues.
Difficulty Level: 3
These days, HDMI ports come at a premium--Blu-ray players, set-top boxes, and many videogame systems require one--so if you don’t happen to have a spare port on your TV or receiver, you’ll have to get a little creative. HDMI may be all high-tech and everything, but it’s essentially no different than the coaxial cable split 16 different ways throughout your home. HDMI splitters (which can be had for around $100, depending on your port demands) work the way you expect. It’s best to get a splitter with one output and several inputs, unless you plan on hooking up extra televisions. Plug your Mac into one of the available inputs and run the output cable to your television or receiver. Switch to the appropriate input on the splitter, and you’ll be Hulu-ing in no time.
Difficulty Level: 4
Down-converting to S-video works...but it's far from ideal.
You can still make a respectable Mac home theater even if your TV or receiver completely lacks support for HDMI. Instead of an HDMI cable, you’ll need to convert the digital signal from your Mac, and a plethora of video-adapter cables abound. The next best choice after an HDMI connection is component video, but after that, it’s a brutally steep drop in quality to S-video. Most older Macs output in DVI, and Google or Amazon will point you at cheap ($5–$20) converter cables that switch a DVI signal to component or S-video, whatever your television or receiver requires.
Difficulty Level: 5
Roland's EDIROL UA-1EX gives you optical audio externally.
If your outdated receiver prevents you from using a fiber optic adapter, you have two options: buy a lame RCA Y cable and plug it into the Mac’s headphone jack for two-channel stereo; or invest in an external USB sound card. With advancements in PC sound, the market for external adapters with S/PDIF optical out has dried up a bit (check eBay for M-Audio’s Sonica Theater), but there are still some decent options out there, like Roland’s EDIROL UA-1EX. Setup isn’t too difficult--there’s little heavy lifting beyond plugging in and downloading the latest driver--but check out receiver prices while you’re at it. The cash might be better spent on upgrading.
Next Page: Pocket Full of Streaming >>
So you bought an iPhone 4, synced with iTunes, customized your wallpaper, and flipped through your free copy of Winnie-the-Pooh more times than you care to admit. Now it’s time to see what this thing can really do.
Anyone who’s owned an iPod nano or classic knows how well Apple’s mobile devices handle videos--but iOS has taken that stripped-down-silver-screen experience a step further. The App Store has let developers in on the act and opened the iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch to a wide variety of players able to receive video over the air. Check out these best bets:
Happy, happy, joy, joy!
If you’ve saved enough clips on your Mac to open your own streaming video site, Air Video needs a permanent spot on your iPhone. With an ability to handle a wide variety of formats not supported by Apple--including RealVideo and Windows Media Video--and remote access to your Mac library over Wi-Fi and 3G, Air Video not only frees up a ton of space on your iPhone, it actually increases its synergy with the Mac, which makes us all giddy inside.
Netflix and Futurama, perfect together.
With the new iPhone app killing our productivity, we’ve been big fans of Netflix on the iPad since Day 1. High-quality, lag-free, scrubbable movies and TV shows, and a commercial-free library 10 times that of Hulu without adding a premium to our monthly subscription rate? So what if the first season of Roswell is marked as a new release? Where else can we watch the uncensored Comedy Central Roast of Bob Sagat on the go?
Finally, we're no longer at the mercy of the Family Guy app.
Already one of the most popular streaming sites on the Mac, Hulu is a natural fit for Apple’s family of iOS devices. Behind its exclusive curtain lies an embarrassment of riches--thousands of current series and dozens of full seasons you can’t find on Netflix--all for less than the cost of two Subway foot-longs. Check out our review of Hulu +.
Anything Hulu can do, our DVR can do better.
While all of these options promise endless hours of entertainment, if you’re looking for a true replacement for the living-room experience, only one app will suffice. Used in conjunction with its line of set-top box-streaming Slingboxes, it’s not exactly the cheapest solution in the App Store, but if you want instant access to the shows everyone’s talking about around the water cooler, accept no substitute.
Next Page: Find the Good Stuff >>
Now that your hardware’s up and humming, it’s time to show you the money. No one streaming-video option is perfect, so we’ve broken down our four favorites so you can select the right options for you.
From Dragnet to Drag Me to Hell, there’s no shortage of streaming opportunities for the Mac whether you’re on the couch with a MacBook or you’re gazing up at all the video your mini’s piping to your big-screen TV. If you’re willing to sit through ads, start with your favorite TV network’s website and watch recent episodes through your browser. Meanwhile, Front Row makes your iTunes content shine, but where do you get the rest of the good stuff? Here:
What is it: Like Front Row, Plex Media Center streams your music, movies, and photos, but the similarities end there. Plex’s friendly, skinnable interface and array of plug-ins may just help you discover something new--or rediscover a buried gem.
What's good: Of course, Plex plays nice with your iTunes libraries, but it’s also able to find any media file on your network and beam it directly to your Mac. What really gives Plex its edge, however, is its proprietary plug-in marketplace of content providers.
What's not so good: Plex does just about everything we wish Apple TV would do, but its interface--while certainly charming--doesn’t quite measure up to Apple’s refined simplicity. Also, playback quality varies wildly between sources, something that doesn’t afflict Apple TV’s i-libraries.
So many choices, so little time.
If you like it, then you better put a skin on it.
Price: Typically $2-$4 per video
What is it: Previously known as Unbox, Amazon Video On Demand is a Flash-based service that beams videos right to your browser. With some 50,000 titles and an array of compatible set-top boxes and mobile devices, Amazon VOD might just be able to teach Apple TV a thing or two.
What's good: Unlike Apple TV, where movie rentals need to download first, Amazon’s streaming service starts playing within seconds without installing any software or plugging in any wires. Rentals are a little more flexible than iTunes, too, offering a 48-hour window for streaming video and offline viewing for PCs equipped with the Unbox Video Player.
What's not so good: We all know how Apple feels about Flash, so you can forget about watching Amazon downloads on any iOS device. Even on your Mac, however, HD streams can be virtually unwatchable if the cloud and your connection aren’t in tip-top shape.
When he's not fighting crime, the caped crusader streams, too.
Instant isn't all it's cracked up to be.
What is it: A “complementary” service to Hulu’s popular free streaming site, Hulu Plus gives subscribers access to an enormous catalog of current and classic TV shows.
What's good: With support from three of the big four network partners--and content from a host of others--Hulu has never lacked for titles. Its Plus subscription service, however, has upped the ante considerably, opening Hulu’s sizable archives and expanding well beyond the limitations of Flash.
What's not so good: We’ve got no problem sitting through a 30-second ad when we’re watching a free episode of Family Guy, but we’re not so patient when we’re already paying $9.99 a month.
A Family Guy moment...but not really a family one.
Really, Hulu Plus...ads? Really?
Check out our full review here.
Price: Starts at $8.99/month
What is it: This companion to the watch-and-mail-back formula offers subscribers unlimited access to an extensive library of streaming movies and TV shows.
What's good: Netflix boasts an ever-growing catalog of some 17,000 titles, including HD TV shows and new(ish) releases (including some recent hits courtesy of Starz). Movies play crisply and smoothly with virtually no lag, even when skipping to our favorite scenes in The Office.
What's not so good: Despite boasting thousands of choices, the Netflix instant library seems a bit scant, especially when you want to watch a flick made this century.
If you're nostalgic for pre-couch-jumping Tom Cruise, you'll love Netflix.
We know exactly how you feel, Macaulay.
Next Page: Other Hardware Streamers >>
You can also stream movies and TV without putting a Mac in the mix. If that solution is best for you, one of these spiffy little boxes is the way to go.
If connecting a Mac to your TV just isn’t in your cards, the next-best option is a dedicated streaming box. While we want to love us some Apple TV, the fact that it only streams iTunes content makes it a disappointing one-trick pony. Other manufacturers are leaping in to fill this void, and these five streamers (some of which aren’t yet released) are the options most worthy of your consideration.
The most ambitious concept of the bunch doesn’t have a definite release date (we’ve heard whispers of “sometime in the fall”), but anytime Google, Logitech, Sony, and Intel unite on a project, we’re listening. Billed as a perfect marriage of TV and the web, the Android-based platform (and accompanying Revue set-top box from Logitech) will access Hulu, Netflix, Amazon VOD, and others through its built-in Chrome browser, as well as a library of apps from third-party developers. We just hope it enjoys a better fate than the Nexus One...
There’s a whole lot to like about Boxee, a free, open-source, cross-platform XBMC-based program that mashes social networking and streaming media--and D-Link’s Box (due out in November) looks to bring it all together in a funky, M.C. Escher–esque package. It still can’t receive a live TV signal, but it’s equipped with everything else necessary to slide right in to our home theater: HDMI, optical audio, Wi-Fi, USB, and an SD slot just for good measure.
A relatively under-the-radar family of media players from Western Digital--WD TV Mini, HD, Live, and Live Plus--offer full-HD 1080p and can either pull media off your network or from a connected USB drive. Lack of built-in wireless drops WD TV a few slots below its competitors, but its cheaper-than-Apple TV flagship model syncs with Netflix, YouTube, Pandora, and Flickr.
Starting at $69.99, the miniature Roku player packs a surprisingly large punch in its five-inch frame. With a no-nonsense attitude and an ever-expanding library of channels, including Netflix, Amazon VOD, MLB TV, and FlickStream, what Roku lacks in bells and whistles, it makes up for in value and simplicity. What’s that they say about small packages?
Today’s gamers demand more than cheat codes and killer graphics, and the top consoles have all jumped into the streaming-video pool with both feet. Along with Blu-ray, PlayStation offers streaming videos from a variety of channels, including ABC, MLB, Netflix, and Hulu Plus; Xbox adds Zune support to its streaming capabilities for Apple TV-like syncing; and Wii provides a similar Netflix hook-up and a variety of streaming channels, along with an Opera-based Internet Channel tricked out with Adobe Flash Lite 3.1 support. And we hear they’re pretty good at playing games, too.
With almost three years between upgrades, We're happy to announce that the Apple TV was finally updated during Apple's annual iPod event. In fact, if you pre-ordered the new Apple TV, there's a good chance it's being shipped to you right now.
The new Apple TV is a quater the size of the old model and sports a fancy new A4 chip. Unfortuntately, it's still stuck in 720p land. It no longer offers onboard storage and everything is now streamed to the device. That means the end of endless syncing . But it also means you need to leave your Mac on in order to watch your videos. The best bit of news about the new Apple TV is that Netflix streaming is standard for Netflix customers.
And for some awesome ideas on hacking the old Apple TV, check out maclife.com/20_atv_hacks.
Every home needs a TV, right? Not necessarily.
The 27-inch iMac is more than just a hot computer. It can serve as an actual TV replacement, especially if you live in a dorm room or other small space. You can mount it on your wall just like a flatscreen HDTV, and with the help of a few add-ons, the iMac ably handles music, digital videos, DVDs, live TV, and even your Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Nintendo Wii, and Blu-ray player.
To really convince yourself that your 27-inch iMac is the center of your entertainment hub, rather than a mere computin’ machine, why not mount it on the wall like an HDTV? To do this, you need Apple’s descriptively named “VESA Mount Adapter Kit for 24-inch/27-inch iMac and 24-inch LED Cinema Display” ($29, apple.com), as well as a VESA-compliant mounting solution that can support the iMac’s 30.5-pound weight. We found a variety of VESA-compliant mounting arms at MacMall.com, starting at $35. The Mount Adapter Kit comes with everything you need to remove the stand from your iMac and replace it with a mounting bracket, including a little plastic card to help trip the latch, Torx and Hex screwdrivers, and the three necessary screws and bolts. Apple’s detailed, illustrated instructions walked us through the whole process in about 10 minutes.
Once the Kit is installed, you’ll have an iMac with an aluminum mounting bracket on the back--it matches the iMac’s sheen and everything. Then you’ll need a VESA-compliant mounting system to attach that to your wall; use a stud finder to make sure your precious iMac is hung in a secure spot, a wooden stud. The Adapter Kit keeps the iMac’s tilting behavior intact, so you should still be able to reach the ports on the back after the iMac is hung, but that ultimately depends on what kind of VESA mount you buy. If you think you’ll need to access those ports frequently, consider a hinged mounting arm that lets you pull the iMac away from the wall to get to the ports, swivel it to new viewing angles, and then fold it back up against the wall when you’re finished.
Forget the cable company--an internet-connected Mac is the real place for on-demand video. You’ve got Hulu, ABC.com, CBS.com, and all the other TV-streaming sites out there. Season passes and à la carte shows in the iTunes Store. Want movies? Netflix customers have the whole Instant Watch library at their fingertips at netflix.com, and obviously DVDs are a simple matter of shoving a disc into your optical drive.
But it’s a snap to get live TV on your Mac too, and you can even record it if you’re not around. You need a TV tuner--the Elgato EyeTV One ($119.95, elgato.com) is a fine choice--and you can pick up a coaxial digital TV antenna for pretty cheap. (We found an $11 option at Best Buy.) The antenna connects to the tuner, and the tuner goes in a free USB port in your Mac.
Elgato’s included EyeTV 3 software finds the available over-the-air channels in your area, includes a year of free TV Guide programming to help you find what’s on, and can even record your shows like a DVR. EyeTV 3 also exports your shows to iTunes so you can sync them to your iPhone or iPad. Or leave ‘em in your EyeTV library and stream them to your iPhone or iPad with the $4.99 EyeTV app, which can also play live TV. The EyeTV One doesn’t have an IR sensor, so you can’t use Elgato’s EyeTV Remote with it, but the EyeTV 3 software does accept input from the Apple Remote. If you step up to the EyeTV Hybrid tuner ($149.99), the EyeTV Remote is included.
Most people we know use their TVs for a bit more than watching TV and DVDs. What about videogame consoles, you may wonder? Or watching high-def movies on Blu-ray discs--Macs don’t come with Blu-ray drives, after all. Not to worry. The 27-inch iMac is unique because its Mini DisplayPort allows video-in, which means you can connect an external video source, like your Blu-ray player or game console, and watch that video signal on the iMac’s display.
Of course, you’re far more likely to find HDMI outputs on your video devices, rather than a Mini DisplayPort, which, come to think of it, we’re only used to seeing on Macs. The Kanex XD ($149.99, kanexlive.com) bridges that HDMI–to–Mini DisplayPort gap. Designed for 27-inch iMacs, it lets you connect your video device to the iMac’s video-in port, giving you full-screen playback from your Blu-ray player, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, DirecTV, Dish Network, or other video device with 720p HDMI output.
But the Nintendo Wii lacks HDMI output, so it can’t connect to the Kanex XD. To play the Wii using your 27-inch iMac as the display, you need both the Kanex XD and a little dongle called the Wii2HDMI ($39.95, neoya.com), which plugs into the Wii’s proprietary AV output, then lets you connect an HDMI cable to the other end. That cable connects to the Kanex XD, which connects to your 27-inch iMac. Problem solved.
The 27-inch iMac weighs 30.5 pounds, so make sure you use a VESA-compliant mounting arm and screw it directly into a wooden wall stud.
We got this sturdy, foldable Bretford Mobile Pro mounting arm at apple.com.
Elgato’s EyeTV One attaches to your Mac via USB (shown here with an extension cable), and then you attach a coaxial antenna to the other end to pull in over-the-air TV signals.
This little silver box is the Kanex XD, made just for 27-inch iMacs. Connect your Xbox 360, Blu-ray player, or other HDMI-equipped device to the Kanex’s HDMI port, then connect the Mini DisplayPort cable to your iMac’s video-in.