How to go from zero to TV?
February 11, 2013 4:31 PM   Subscribe

We haven't had a proper TV in over a decade. I would like to have something other than my laptop to watch streaming media, DVDs, Netflix, etc. Can you explain how this works in 2013? I imagine we'd buy something like this Samsung LED HDTV and some kind of speakers. Then what? Do we plug it into a laptop? What exactly is Apple TV and how does it stack up against Roku? This seems like it should be a simple question, but I feel like a caveman emerging from the dark, and am fairly bewildered at all of the options and variations out there.

I tried watching TV on my LED monitor and it was fairly grainy and jumpy. That could be a function of my aging laptop, or maybe it was just the video, but I'm keen on setting up a better screen situation.

- Cable TV isn't likely.
- Gaming capacity isn't required.
- Cost isn't a huge consideration, but I'd appreciate tips on where I can save money, and where to spend more for the best value.
- Interested in 'sleeker' solutions, rather than a million different boxes and cables and remotes.

Most of our media comes from:
- Amazon Instant Video
- Netflix
- iTunes store
- Hulu
- Various websites (i.e. PBS for Downton Abbey, ABC for Grey's Anatomy)
- Occasional DVDs
- Downloaded material

If you could start from scratch tomorrow, how would you set up your media system? Any big changes coming down the pipeline that will change things in a year or two? What's a good reference in terms of choosing a screen size?

Any suggestions on speakers? Bonus points if the speakers could be connected (via wifi or bluetooth) to other devices for music streaming.

Thanks for any instructions, tips or links to good explanatory articles.
posted by barnone to Technology (27 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: If this is a consideration: most of the other electronic devices in the household are Apple products - Macbooks, iPhones, iPads, etc. But we probably watch more media from Amazon Instant Video than we from the iTunes store.
posted by barnone at 4:46 PM on February 11, 2013

There's no reason you can't simply hookup your laptop to your TV directly. My cheap 3 year old HP laptop has an HDMI port. One $5 monoprice HDMI cable and everything works just fine.

Personally I use a PS3 to do everything, but if I didn't I'd get a Roku because it can handle Hulu, Netflix and Amazon Instant Video (as well as others). Many TVs also have apps for Netflix and Hulu built in.
posted by 2bucksplus at 4:49 PM on February 11, 2013

Best answer: A lot of TVs these days come with streaming services built in so if your primary interest is Netflix/Hulu/Amazon keep an eye out for those (at a glance it seems like the TV in your link does not support streaming services/wi-fi, but other more advanced models of the same family do) Most decent Blu-Ray or DVD players these days also support streaming services, so you could go with the cheaper TV paired with a wifi capable blu-ray player. Pretty much any HDTV should have a VGA PC input and 1/4 inch stereo audio jack input you could use to connect your laptop (assuming your laptop doesn't have HDMI output if it's older, if it does then that's even easier since you only have to deal with one cable instead of two).
posted by TwoWordReview at 4:49 PM on February 11, 2013

Best answer: I have both a Roku and an AppleTV, primarily because they don't cover exactly the same set of services. The AppleTV is way nicer to use, and also lets me stream from my Macbooks, iPhones and iPads. However, it doesn't have Amazon Instant Video.

Neither of those will let you play DVDs. A lot of today's Blu-Ray players have streaming services integrated. So do a lot of TVs, but they're higher-end than the one you're looking at.

If I were in your shoes, I'd probably get:

1. A basic-ish TV with two HDMI ports
2. The cheapest decent Blu-Ray player I can find with Amazon Instant Video support
3. An AppleTV for Netflix, Hulu, iTunes and streaming from my devices

I know it would be a lot nicer to have only one box, but there is no single-box solution that will cover all the sources you list. If you can eliminate both iTunes and the random websites (which you could potentially stream from your laptop to the AppleTV), you could probably get by with just a Blu-Ray player with streaming services built-in.
posted by primethyme at 4:54 PM on February 11, 2013

Best answer: Also, I personally do not like the solution of hooking up a laptop to a TV, if for no other reason than it prevents me from working/surfing while I'm watching (of course, that might not be such a great habit anyway...)
posted by primethyme at 4:57 PM on February 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: The major issue with roku/ps3/xbox live and similar is that you have to pay for hulu plus, and anything that isn't built into the box isn't gonna happen.

AppleTV is pretty good but doesn't work well with non-Macs, and is occasionally laggy/stuttery.

My solution was a cheapo media pc (with dvd drive) hooked to a decent lcd tv via hdmi. Total cost was around $700 and I can watch anything that way I can watch on a computer. Pretty much any PC with an HDMI port will do; don't feel like you have to spend big money.
posted by contrarian at 4:58 PM on February 11, 2013

I have a media server (i.e. old computer running Ubuntu with a big external hard drive) (free from Craigslist), a WDTV Live Streaming for Netflix/Youtube/downloaded material (at the time $90), and then a 32" Samsung 720p LCD screen (w/o external speakers) ($300). I've been pretty satisfied with the TV, but the rest of the setup could probably be tweaked.

I chose the WDTV as my media box since my first priority was being able to play video files of any type, which it does with a few exceptions, but I've been disappointed in pretty much everything else about it: it's slow and clunky, and I don't think it does Amazon, which might be a problem for you.

I considered the TV you purchased, but at that size the difference between 720p and 1080p is negligible.
posted by dd42 at 5:00 PM on February 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You may find my TV question helpful.

I think it's much better to get an extra device (like Apple TV) for your apps, compared to getting a built-in one. These things are always getting outdated, and it's more expensive to replace an obsolete TV. I have Apple TV and it's great for Netflix (and would be for Hulu and iTunes if I used those), but does not support Amazon Instant Video or websites. Important thing here: do you have any other Apple devices? It has AirPlay, which means it will wirelessly stream content from your iPhone, iPad, or (Mountain Lion equipped) Macbook Air. Basically if you have any of those, it becomes a wireless external monitor. I actually have it hooked up as I type because I'm halfway through a show on But if you don't have other Apple devices, it's a pretty even playing field with other things that do the same thing.

Also re: speakers -- I, personally, couldn't care less about external speakers. The ones on my TV are just fine and dandy. Former laptop-show-watcher here.
posted by DoubleLune at 5:00 PM on February 11, 2013

Best answer: I have a top of the line Roku and a 32" RCA 1080p TV and I'm pretty happy. I mostly watch Netflix, Amazon Streaming, and Hulu. If I want to watch YouTube on the big screen I hook up my crappy laptop with HDMI. Works for me.
posted by trip and a half at 5:10 PM on February 11, 2013

I was going to write a long thing about the wonders of an HTPC setup, running XBMC. But then I saw dd42's comment about the WD TV Live and remembered what an amazingly easy and flexible setup that was and how much I loved it. XBMC is several grades of awesome above that, but it's also more of a hobbyist's solution.

I do want to mention though, that iTunes content is its own ecosystem. You need Apple products to do that without a huge hassle. An Apple TV will also do Netflix and Hulu. It will not, without some serious nerd judo, do "downloaded material." So absent a working jailbreak for the current ATV, you are sort of presented with a fork in the road there.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 5:10 PM on February 11, 2013

Best answer: For downloaded content, I'm a big fan of Plex. You run a media server on a PC / Mac / Linux box with all your video files. Then you run the client on something plugged in to your TV and it'll play everything. Plex does a great job transcoding video files so everything you can find will play, and also does a good job organizing stuff like TV series via a metadata catalog they maintain. There are Plex clients for many devices: Roku, laptops, iPads, etc.

If you get a slightly fancier Samsung TV you can use their Smart Hub software, which provides a variety of streaming video clients and, even better, an open app store for third party software. It's the first "Smart TV" I've seen that actually works. Netflix and Amazon out of the box, and DirecTV and Plex are both installable apps. Plex is a bit flaky right now but I'm optimistic it'll improve. You could start with just the TV and then if it doesn't work out add a Roku box or the like.
posted by Nelson at 5:44 PM on February 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: We have everything! Netflix , Hulu+, & amazon prime on our tv, Xbox, ps3, roku, & Apple TV. I prefer the Apple TV interface hands down; It beats them all.

Other than netflix/hulu+, if we're using amazon prime, it's on the roku. The game systems sign you out of their "network" if there's the smallest bandwidth hiccup. Apple TV & Roku soldier on; Xbox & ps3 make you reset the whole damn thing.
posted by Kronur at 5:45 PM on February 11, 2013

Best answer: In case you decide upon a Roku, just wanted to let you know a new model of Roku just entered the approval process from the FCC. It's rumored to have a more powerful chipset to handle the HTML5 version of youtube that apparently Google is requiring for new licensees of the official youtube client (older models have access to it through unofficial clients.)
posted by sharkfu at 6:02 PM on February 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I have an Apple TV that I use to watch stuff from iTunes, Netflix, Hulu, and occasionally YouTube. I pay $10/month for Hulu+ which is worth it to me because that lets you stream Criterion Collection movies. Apple TV setup and interface are super simple.
posted by pocketfullofrye at 6:03 PM on February 11, 2013

Best answer: We recently bought a "smart" television. It came with apps for Hulu+, Netflix, YouTube and a bunch of branded crap I haven't even looked at.

For streaming directly from a computer it was just a matter copying video or audio to a shared folder. The TV does a fine job browsing a computer drive although when under heavy use the WiFi can hang a bit (solved by running a long ass Ethernet cable from the router to the television).
posted by cedar at 6:14 PM on February 11, 2013

Best answer: I have a Roku that I use for streaming video. My Blu-Ray player also has streaming capability but I don't use it much because I like the Roku interface better. They both also allow you to plug in a USB thumb drive and play files off that. And you can stream stuff to them from your computer or the appropriate kind of networked hard drive. Also, sometimes I just plug my computer (3 year old MacBook Pro) into the TV and watch stuff that way (Hulu non-plus, iTunes stuff, file types that don't play nice with the Blu-Ray or the Roku).

You might want to just start by plugging in the computer and see how you like that, then maybe upgrade to something else. Like others have said, I prefer to have the streaming be from a separate box (not integrated into the TV) because then you can upgrade the box and keep the TV (which is generally going to be more expensive and last longer).
posted by mskyle at 6:43 PM on February 11, 2013

Best answer: I can't offer much about Netflix, Hulu, etc because the streaming media market here in Australia is very different to where you are (USA?).

Some of the other questions:

If you could start from scratch tomorrow, how would you set up your media system?

I had an AV Receiver (aka surround sound) system years ago, then went years without, and recently got a brand new, decent quality one. I have no idea how I put up with the crappy sound from the TV speakers for so long. As a rule, TV manufacturers are essentially concerned with making the biggest possible screen for the lowest possible price, so speaker quality is sacrificed in favour of what looks good on a showroom floor. I would, without a doubt, factor in an AV Receiver as an essential part of the system if sound is important to you at all.

Any big changes coming down the pipeline that will change things in a year or two?

"4K" resolutions are supposedly the next big thing, although they're so expensive now that only a very few exist, and they're really outside of home entertainment budgets. It will probably be a long time before media is formatted in 4K or devices are capable of supporting it for home use. I'm just mentioning this so you don't get distracted by it. There's also an argument that at home TV sizes your eyes can't even pick the difference between 1080p & 4K.

Any suggestions on speakers? Bonus points if the speakers could be connected (via wifi or bluetooth) to other devices for music streaming.

I've got a set of Cambridge Audio Minx speakers, which are about the size of a Coke can, but have some really great sound - look up some reviews. Note that they need to be teamed up with a subwoofer though, because they can't handle the low frequencies at all. I can stream music, but that's because my AV Receiver supports AirPlay, so the signal goes to the AV Receiver which does the amplification & sends the music down the cables to the speakers.

If you want speakers that are themselves wireless, remember that you'll still need to wire them to a power outlet, because they need some kind of juice to run! For this reason I decided I might as well run speaker cables from the AV Receiver. The Minxes have some kind of bracket on the back for a wireless adaptor, but AFAIK the actual adaptor itself still hasn't been produced by Cambridge Audio.
posted by UbuRoivas at 7:28 PM on February 11, 2013

Best answer: I use WD Media center box, mine is older now so not up on the newest specs, gives me optional Hulu, loads my external drive holding my saved films and such. Works well with the Panasonic TV and BluRay box which provides Skype. The more HDMI inputs the better and needs internet.
posted by Freedomboy at 7:58 PM on February 11, 2013

Response by poster: UbuRoivas, sound is definitely important, and part of why I want to upgrade. I'm sick of a tiny screen with terrible speakers! Can you link to the type of AV Receiver you have? I'm interested in the one with AirPlay capability.

Lots of interesting points here. Thanks for all the advice so far.
posted by barnone at 8:38 PM on February 11, 2013

Even if you aren't into gaming, a PS3 is a good option. You can get a refurbished one for under $200, and you will have a DVD player, Blu-Ray player, Netflix, Hulu+, Amazon Prime, Playstation Network movie rentals, and a web browser for YouTube, etc.. I use all of these services with no problems. For the price I thnk it might be the best all-in-one option.

With my PS3 I have a 47" Sony LED TV, which I bought at a substantial discount as a floor model, whose speakers are just fine for my uses, but I do also have a cheapo RCA surround sound system just for the hell of it, which I rarely bother to turn on.
posted by catatethebird at 9:03 PM on February 11, 2013

Best answer: My Denon 2313 does Airplay. But I find that the Apple TV does it a lot better. And you can get a decent receiver plus an AppleTV for a lot less.

I have a PS3 and dislike it as a media player. One, its much more expensive than the other options. Two the remote situation is annoying as hell. Three, it seems like every time I use the damn thing it wants a software update.
posted by primethyme at 9:39 PM on February 11, 2013

Best answer: barnone - mine's a Denon 2113, a couple of models 'down' from primethyme's (although the main difference as you go up & down the models is in the number & type of inputs & outputs). I also use AppleTV, which is needed for streaming video from a laptop or iPad - the Airplay only works for music.

One thing I didn't realise until setting it up at home: it's better to say it "supports" Airplay, by having the right software to interface with Apple products. It doesn't actually have its own built-in wi-fi receiver, meaning it will do Airplay IF you connect it via an ethernet port to the rest of your network (eg to your router, or to a wireless bridge).
posted by UbuRoivas at 1:56 AM on February 12, 2013

Best answer: If you have Mountain Lion, you can use an Apple TV to wirelessly mirror your computer's display and audio. It's pretty slick, and works nearly as smoothly as streaming directly from iTunes. I use the Apple TV interface (no computer involved) for Hulu+ and Netflix, I stream content that lives in iTunes using airplay with the Apple TV, and use the display mirroring feature for downloaded or original content which won't play through iTunes. You just turn on mirroring (one click from the osx desktop) and play the content through vlc or whatever. I don't see why it wouldn't also work with Amazon, although I haven't tested that. Good luck!
posted by violinflu at 7:41 AM on February 12, 2013

Best answer: I have a PS3 for Netflix, Amazon streaming, and Blu-ray/DVD, and I've been extremely satisfied with it. Plus, rumor has it the PS4 is going to be announced later this month, and if that happens, you should be able to find a PS3 for cheap.

Unless you're a top-of-the-line audiophile, a Yamaha receiver/speaker set like this one is a very nice upgrade from the TV's speakers and it's quite versatile for any audio sources you might have. I use a slightly older model for all my A/V needs (including a turntable) and it sounds great.
posted by wolfnote at 11:24 AM on February 12, 2013

Best answer: This is a good time to buy a TV. Good HDTV's are pretty cheap: you can get a good, 32-inch 1080p TV for about $220, or a 52-inch for about $500. Unless you're a huge videophile, you probably won't notice much of a difference in quality between two 1080p TV's of the same size, so decide on a size and then just get whatever's cheapest.

As for a streaming player goes, here are your basic options:

A Roku is about $50, and can use Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Pandora, and other streaming services. It can't play DVD's or Blu-Rays.

An AppleTV costs $100 and might be nice if you want to stream from apple devices or iTunes. Odds are the interface is nicer than than a Roku or average Blu-Ray player. However, it can't play DVD's or Blu-Rays.

A decent Blu-Ray player is around $85. It can do everything a Roku can do, plus play DVD's, Blu-Rays and USB drive videos. Most Blu-rays can also be set up to stream video from computers on your network.

An Xbox 360, PS3, Wii or Wii U can do most of the instant video streaming things, and at least the 360 and PS3 let you stream video from computers on your network. However:

The Wii costs $120, while the Wii U costs $350. The Wii and WiiU can't play Blu-Rays or DVDs. In addition, the regular Wii can't output in HD, which means the picture is going to look blurry.

The Xbox 360 costs $180 and can play DVD's, but not Blu-Rays. In addition, you can only use the online streaming services if you're subscribed to Xbox Live Gold, which costs $5.00 a month.

The PS3 costs $220, and can play DVD's and Blu-Rays, can stream without an extra monthly fee, and can output in HD. Probably the best overall game console option for streaming.

External speakers probably aren't really necessary with a TV unless you're an audiophile.

Just about everything can hook up to a TV with an HDMI cable. Just plug one end to the console/Blu-ray player and the other to the TV, and you're done.
posted by Green Winnebago at 9:02 PM on February 12, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks so much, everyone. I had no idea there were Smart TVs out there. And the explanation of the differences between Apple TV, Roku and others is a really helpful starting point. We might start with Apple TV and see how that goes, and add Roku if necessary. I'll update with the results for future posterity.
posted by barnone at 11:00 AM on February 15, 2013

Response by poster: We ended up getting a Smart TV (Samsung) and a Roku 3. So far we use the Roku most often because the Samsung interface is kind of sucky, but there are a few features on it that Roku doesn't offer. Now we need a sound bar of some sort.

Breaking Bad on the big screen is such an awesome experience :-)
posted by barnone at 7:55 AM on August 12, 2013

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