Panasonic’s Viera Cast screen was easy to navigate, but had less content than some other models. (Click to enlarge.)
One of the more interesting features now available on some TVs is the ability to access online content directly from the TV. Almost all the major brands offer some degree of online interactivity—typically in step-up models—which can range from simple RSS news feeds to the ability to stream full-length movies.
We recently tested online services on TVs from LG, Panasonic, Samsung, and Sony. (Mitsubishi, Sharp, and Vizio, include this feature on some sets.) Of the models we tested, all except Panasonic use a version of the widget-based platform developed by Yahoo, with a row of icons that appears on the screen, typically across the bottom.
With these widgets, you can directly access Web-based applications, such as weather, stock updates, financial news, Flickr photos, YouTube videos, eBay auctions, and other content in real time on the TV. New content providers are constantly being added, and some TVs will either automatically add these new widgets or prompt you to check for updates. Among the offerings are streaming entertainment services, such as movies from Amazon (Amazon Video On Demand), Netflix, Blockbuster (Blockbuuster OnDemand), and Vudu, or Internet radio stations such as Pandora or Slacker.
At the time of our tests, LG’s NetCast service had the most movie options, with access to both Netflix and Vudu. Sony’s Bravia Internet Video service had the most overall content (much of it targeting niche interests), including the ability to stream movies from Amazon Video On Demand and music from Slacker. (Netflix is slated to be added this fall.) Panasonic’s Viera Cast also offers Amazon’s streaming movie service. At the time of our testing, Samsung’s Medi@2.0 service lacked a movie service, though Blockbuster OnDemand is slated to be available on some sets this fall.
Vudu is available on some Mitsubishi models, and Vizio claims its VIA online platform, available on some VXT-series sets that will be ready in late November or early December, will include Amazon, Blockbuster, Netflix and Vudu, plus Rhapsody’s music service. Sharp won’t offer a video service via its AquosNet online service until next year.
LG’s interface was also easy to use; since our tests, it added Vudu’s streaming movie service. (Click to enlarge.)
For the most part, all the services we tried were relatively easy to use—usually requiring just a push of an Internet or widget button on the remote to access content. Most require some form of registration, and Netflix requires an unlimited monthly subscription, with movies added to your online queue. Clicking on a widget causes that program to appear in a box onscreen. Click again and the selected material fills the screen.
Samsung’s and LG’s widget-based menus were easy to use; Sony uses its T-shaped Xross Media Bar interface, with icons arrayed along both a horizontal bar, with additional items appearing in a vertical row above and below that line when an icon is selected. We found Panasonic’s interface among the easiest to use—perhaps because it offered less content— with clickable online content boxes (YouTube, Amazon VOD) surrounding the TV’s main picture, which appears in a center window. We’re not sure how this interface will work when more content partners are added.
Overall, we found that the quality of the streaming movies was generally good, typically DVD-quality or even a bit better. None of the so-called HD streams, however, matched the picture quality of Blu-ray discs or HD programs from cable or satellite. However, we have high hopes for Vudu’s HDX format movies, which received the highest marks in our tests of new movies services for picture quality. Unlike the earlier HDX version we tested, which was a fairly slow download, newer HDX movies are now delivered as instant streams. The company claims the quality will remain high, provided the user has a high-speed broadband connection of at least 6-8Mbps. We look forward to testing this new service in the near future, so stay tuned. —James K. Willcox