INTERNET-accessed music and videos have become huge. Especially with those who've spent half their lives on their computers and who aren't so particular about the legalities of file sharing.
But some of us don't want to be confined to a PC or a small-screened, tinny-sounding laptop computer. We'd like to watch those cool, Internet-sourced TV shows, movies and YouTube videos on our big-screen set, from the comfort of an easy chair.
And we'd like to blast all that Net-accessed music through the sound systems we've got sprinkled around in the house.
Oh, and we don't want to break any laws to get the stuff, either.
Stepping up to fill the bill are a bunch of nifty add-on boxes with snappy names like Vudu and Roku, Sonos and Squeezebox.
Unassuming in appearance, these little devices are powerful, single-purpose entertainment computers that pull content off the Internet and feed it right into your TV or stereo system via a direct-wired or wireless connection to a broadband home network.
Some of these boxes let you plunder the world's largest virtual music stores with the push of a button. The video-oriented gadgets offer access to twice the inventory of the biggest Blockbuster.
Could these devices be the ticket to your home entertainment future?
This Gizmo Guy recently spent a lot of time with five of these new, alternative delivery boxes and services, and I've come to love what they offer. Here's what I've found.
Like most music lovers, I'm running out of storage space for my CD and vinyl collection. But with a
Internet-delivered music system, I can stay current on the latest sounds and rediscover lost gems virtually ad infinitum.
Granted, the initial investment is a bit steep: $400 buys a Wi-Fi-connected Logitech Squeezebox Duet receiver and companion smart remote, which ran fine off a budget-grade Verizon DSL broadband connection and wireless modem/router.
That remote looks and operates like an elongated iPod, with a nice, 2.5-inch color screen and touch-sensitive scroll wheel.
A starter Sonos system with an ZP80 receiver (Ethernet cable-connected, please) and 3.5-inch color-screen Wi-Fi remote is pricier at $750. Add on another $100 for a signal-jumper box if you can't hard wire the main box to your Ethernet network.
Both Sonos and Squeezebox can then be expanded with literally dozens of extra, wireless Wi-Fi receivers, each capable of playing its own or synchronized music streams all over your house.
Here's the good news: After that initial investment, the devices offer up free, clear and virtually instantaneous access to hundreds of the world's best Internet radio stations.
You also can set up these devices to stream the music stored on your computer's hard drive, as long as it isn't copy-protected stuff purchased from iTunes.
THE BIG PAYOFF: But you're probably not going to stop there. For the cost of one album a month, you also can listen to anything in two of the world's biggest virtual music shops.
One is the now very legitimate Napster (currently a Sonos exclusive), claiming to offer 5 million music selections plus its own bunch of radio stations for $9.99 a month.
The other is Rhapsody (available on Sonos and Squeezebox), offering 3 million selections plus themed radio channels for $12.99 a month.
Pick your music by track or as full albums, cued to play randomly or in playlists. Tunes and radio stations also can be saved in a favorites list.
Sorry, though, you can't burn the good quality music onto a CD or transfer it to a portable media player due to digital copy protection coding. (Though it just might record to an old-school, analog cassette tape deck.)
It's surprisingly easy to find what you like among the massive quantities of available music, using that smart remote control to search by genre, what's new or what's hot on the charts.
LET THE SHOPPING BEGIN: This week on Rhapsody, new offerings include the chart-topping "Best of Radiohead," an exclusive from Chris Brown and the latest sets from Disturbed, Weezer, Jewel, Gavin Rossdale, Ladytron, Ashanti, Usher, Al Green, the Pussycat Dolls, Aimee Mann, Cyndi Lauper, Kaleidoscope and Spirtualized, plus the cast album for "In the Heights" and a sleeper of an alt-rock gem by Fleet Foxes.
The Napster all-you-can-eat service uses Billboard magazine charts to construct lots of its offerings. You can even call up charts from years gone by.
Of course, you can enter an artist's name, album or song title, often with fortuitous consequences. I was thinking of that Jersey rocker when I typed in "B-R-U-C-E." But served up as listening options, in seconds, were Bruce Hornsby, Jack Bruce and even landmark comedian Lenny Bruce (10 of his comedy albums are on Napster, while Rhapsody had eight titles).
A few artists I went looking for (like megaband Led Zeppelin and alt-music darling Bright Eyes) were M.I.A. But reigning superstars like Madonna and the Rolling Stones don't have a problem participating in these streaming music services.
And truth is, if you hear and enjoy Madonna's "Hard Candy" or the Stones "Shine a Light" soundtrack, you'll be tempted to buy the disc or a download to play on your iPod or MP3.
CONCLUSION: Sonos and Logitech Squeezebox are a music lover's dream. Sonos has an exclusive on that slightly better and cheaper Napster service, and the remote is a little more user friendly. But the Squeezebox hardware is more affordable and its radio channel selection is incredible.
I've been playing with three of the movie delivery boxes competing for your attention.
The newest, most basic and economical is the Netflix Player, available for a mere $99 from Roku.
It's actually a bargain perk for the 8-million-plus subscribers of Netflix, the largest mail-order renter of DVDs.
Even if you subscribe to its cheapest, $8.99-a-month plan (one DVD at a time from the 100,000-title catalog), the Player gives you near instant Internet access to 10,000 standard-definition titles at no additional cost!
You have to pre-select movies and TV shows by visiting Netflix' site on a computer. Once put in your "Watch Instantly" list, icons representing the choices magically show up when you turn on the Player and your TV. A couple clicks of the remote, and the show starts.
The selections available for instant viewing tend to be older, but not without charms - from the British secret-service series "Mi-5" to the movies "2 Days in Paris" and "Broken English."
While the Roku/Netflix box is designed to work wirelessly, I got a more stable connection hardwiring it to my home network with an Ethernet cable. And the faster your connection, the better the picture will look.
With 3 Mbps Verizon DSL service (though it's more like 2.2 Mbps), my streaming reception was rated just "good" by the Roku. But from 7 feet away, the picture looked no worse than many standard-definition satellite TV channels, and the sound quality was quite good.
MORE TO SCORE: I also tried two pay-as-you-go services and boxes from Vudu and Apple. These have spiffy, on-screen menus (a lot like browsing the aisles of a video store), plus on-board hard-disk storage.
Vudu's service is a movie connoisseur's dream. It boasts about 6,000 titles, including more than 600 foreign films, available for rental from 99 cents to $3.99.
Bowing to customer pressure, Vudu also has started to rent TV series episodes at 50 cents to $1.99 a pop.
By comparison, Apple TV's shows are each $1.99; standard-definition movies are $2.99 to $3.99, and high-defs are $4.99.
With my medium-grade DSL service, Vudu delivers near-DVD quality, standard-definition movies in real time. But an HD movie (127 are available at $3.99 and $5.99) required about two hours advance notice to trickle onto the hard drive.
The same restrictions apply with Apple TV.
BLU-RAY COMPARISONS: I compared a Vudu HD download of "3:10 to Yuma" with the Blu-ray version of the same movie on a 61-inch, DLP HDTV. The Blu-ray rendering of the western looked subtly more three-dimensional, and freeze frames revealed more details - the grain in a wooden door, the whiskers in a bad guy's moustache.
Overall, the Vudu's color, contrast quality and surround-sound mix (not available in SD streams) were pretty impressive.
Similar results were evident comparing Blu-ray and Apple TV HD versions of the Disney charmer "Enchanted."
Both Vudu and Apple TV have deals with the film studios that restrict viewing. You have 30 days to watch a rented film, and 24 hours to view it once you start. This is stupid. Would it kill them to give you a week?
Some films can be purchased ($9.99 to $19.99) from both services and held on the hard-drive in perpetuity. Or until you run out of hard-disk space. None have the "extras" that come with a disc.
Apple TV took a lot of knocks when it first came out but the much-improved, 2.0 version has direct access to the iTunes store (no computer required) and a growing catalog. Most titles (even the HDs) offer an instant preview option that's a treat.
Apple boasts more than 600 TV shows and 1,500 feature films, with 335 flicks also available in HD. But the foreign film selection at Apple's iTunes store is zilch.
Apple TV jumps out with free video and audio podcasts by the thousands, from goofy, living-room schmooze-fests to polished NPR and BBC content. Apple TV also offers the ability to move content (like slide shows or purchased movies and music) to and from Apple computers.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE? No question, any of these new devices can serve up mountains of video entertainment.
If you're the type who watches mostly network TV and the occasional rental DVD, buying one as a supplement to your new digital television (with super over-the-air reception) would be a lot more economical than paying a cable or satellite TV provider.
But the big question with all these video delivery boxes is: Which will survive?
One less-worthy competitor, Akimbo, recently bit the dust. And another, Movielink, is now strictly an online download option.
Likewise jockeying for position are Sony, Samsung, HP, Sharp and Panasonic - all selling TVs with some Internet streaming capability.
And Netflix is already hinting about big deals to come, to put its Internet movie delivery tech inside televisions, Blu-ray players and game consoles - maybe later this year.
"Why do you think we named the company Netflix?" said president Reed Hastings. *