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Nearly everyone thinks a revolution is coming to home televisions. The problem is, no one seems to agree what that revolution will look like.
This week another new device, the $200 Boxee Box by D-Link, throws its technology into the ring, which is pretty darn crowded already. There's Logitech's Google TV Revue box, Apple TV, Roku, Netgear, Monsoon Multimedia's Vulkano, and TiVo -- not to mention a slew of new TVs and Blu-ray players offering many of the same services.
They're all trying to tap into the ever-expanding array of entertainment on the Web. From Facebook and Twitter to Netflix, YouTube and Pandora, these companies want to bring it all to the living room screen. Throw in video calling as well. Why not?
The problem is that unlike DVRs and cable TV, the benefits and advantages of these devices are anything but clear -- and each box has different features and capabilities. Some will let you record shows like a DVR (TiVo), others won't (Google and Apple). Some search the Internet for videos and shows (Google), others don't (TiVo). Some offer plenty of free entertainment (Boxee), others are basically a storefront that makes you pay for nearly every moment of video (Apple TV).
For shoppers and TV viewers, the whole business is about as clear as Nutella. Which of these boxes is going to deliver what you want? Initially, the answer is, none of the above.
Logitech's $300 Google TV Revue shows a lot of promise, for example. There's Netflix and Pandora, a built-in Web browser, and an area for apps that's bound to grow with new features. But it can't yet record shows like a DVR, and you can't watch popular episodes of shows from ABC, NBC, and CBS from the Web because they've been blocked by the broadcasters; they want you to watch those programs on the traditional TV channels -- or pay for them.
Boxee's new offering has similar promise -- and similar limitations. When its software first appeared, the popular broadcast clearinghouse Hulu instantly moved to block Boxee's access to its free shows online. Boxxee worked through those issues -- but its software won't replace that DVR just yet.
Now the company has entered the crowded hardware space. Boxxee's new box -- tipped on its side, it resembles more of a pyramid than a box -- has just hit the market, letting you use the software to access all that online goodness. And Hulu? That company is pushing a $9.99 a month subscription service for access to previous episodes of shows like 30 Rock; the Hulu Plus service is expected on several devices, including Sony's PlayStation 3, Roku, and TiVo boxes. Hulu Plus on Boxxee remains an open question.
TiVo is still a crowd favorite. Its boxes boast the best DVRs available and, after some installation headaches, can work seamlessly with cable and satellite channels. So well in fact that at least one cable company, RCN, offers a version of TiVo to its subscribers. But at retail, the TiVo Premiere set top boxes start at $300 -- plus a $12.95 monthly subscription. And while TiVo has tried to keep up with the Internet-connected upstarts by including services like Netflix streaming video and Pandora's online music channels, it doesn't have a browser for cruising the Web.
Many shoppers may just forego the fancy recording capabilities and instead opt for a $60 Roku box, which brings in Netflix, Amazon, and Pandora -- no additional subscription required.
What's clear is that we, the TV viewing public, like at least two features of this new TV revolution: Netflix streaming movies on demand and DVR functionality. That's why Netflix is offered on most of these new connected boxes and on everything from TVs and Blu-ray players to the Sony PlayStation 3 and Nintendo Wii. The DVR component is a trickier feature to offer across the board because of concerns about copyrights and pirated shows being traded online.
While TiVo established the category and managed to circumnavigate these problems, Apple TV appears to have thrown in the towel (Steve Jobs believes everything will be streamed over the Internet, apparently). However, Google TV has the ability to add DVR capabilities or could tap into existing DVRs -- if the cable companies would allow it. That's unlikely to happen anytime soon unless Google can cut deals with operators like Time Warner and Cox, as it has with Dish Network. If you're a Dish subscriber, DVR functions work seamlessly with the Google interface and when you search for something to watch, it includes whatever you've recorded as part of the results.
Furthermore, cable companies are experimenting with opening up shows online -- if you're already a subscriber to their regular TV service. This is a loophole Google TV could exploit by agreeing to allow owners to only see those shows in search results and watch them from the Web if they are also subscribers to that particular cable operator.
Unfortunately, until there's a compromise between the new connected boxes and traditional broadcasters and cable companies, TV viewers will be caught in the middle, still searching for something to watch on TV -- and wondering whether there's something better on the Web. Or vice versa.