Watching More Than TV On TV

Larry Magid, writer, technology reviewer, on-air technology analyst, CBS News, co-director of ConnectSafely.org and founder of SafeKids.com, larrymagid.com

Jessi Hempel, senior writer, Fortune magazine, New York, New York

Apple TV, Google TV, Xbox ... There's no shortage of accessories to add to that 50-inch plasma. Two technology journalists run down the options for accessing the Web or streaming movies on your television. Plus, the latest from the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

IRA FLATOW, host:

You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

Up next, did you find a 50-inch plasma TV in your stocking this year? Well, first, that's one heck of a stocking to find it in there. But can you use it to watch more than what's listed in the TV guide?

Well, for the rest of the hour, we're going to hook you up with some advice on how to catch up on last season's "Mad Men" or last night's "Daily Show," even if you don't have a cable connection. You can do it. There are lots of devices that promise to make TV choices - if I can call that, those choices - easier for you. There's Apple TV, Google TV, Roku, even the Xbox. But if you're a little tech savvy, you might not need to spend a lot of money on any of those. We'll tell you how you can make that simple TV connection.

Joining me to - now to sort it out for us are my guests, both of them, they're joining us from the Consumer Electronics Show happening in Last Vegas this week and, boy, let me tell you. I've been there, you need a whole week to go see the show. I hope we have enough time the rest of this hour. Larry Magid writes about technology. He's the on-air technology analyst for CBS News. He's also co-director of ConnectSafely.org and founder of SafeKids.com.

Good to talk to you again, Larry.

Mr. LARRY MAGID (Founder, SafeKids.com; Co-director, ConnectSafely.org; On-Air Tech Analyst, CBS News): Nice to talk to you, Ira.

FLATOW: You're surviving the show okay?

Mr. MAGID: Just barely. And by the way, you're right. We are on the floor of CES. So if you hear any boomboxes...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MAGID: ...we're in the auto area - it could get very loud here. But, yeah, sure. It's a great show. But, you know, the best place to see CES is anywhere other than here, because you can't get a Wi-Fi signal at all.

FLATOW: Wow.

Mr. MAGID: Forget getting online from here.

FLATOW: Well, Jessi Hempel is senior writer covering technology for Fortune magazine.

Thanks for being with us today, Jessi.

Ms. JESSI HEMPEL (Senior writer, Fortune magazine): Hi. Thank you. I'm also on the CES floor, and I concur with everything Larry just said.

FLATOW: Maybe you can make your way over to Larry's spot.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HEMPEL: Larry, we have Internet over here...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HEMPEL: ...so come on over to Fortune magazine's spot.

Mr. MAGID: Well, good. I'm jealous.

FLATOW: All right. Let's talk about the basics. So you got your new TV set. You want to watch "Mad Men," but it's not playing on AMC. What do you do, Jessi?

Ms. HEMPEL: First of all, you scratch your head and you're frustrated for a second. And once you get over that, you realize you have so many options right now. Of course, the challenge is sort of weeding through them and figuring out what those options really are. But you can begin by turning to Google. I mean, you know, right now, there are two things we can talk about. We can talk about how to get programs - like those "Mad Men" programs - onto the Web. And then we can talk about how to get the Web onto your TV.

FLATOW: All right. So do you get them on the Web?

Ms. HEMPEL: Well, there are all kinds of streaming services that have lots of different business models. And probably the one that you're most familiar with would be Netflix, right? Netflix is sort of...

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. HEMPEL: ...you know, the red envelopes. And now, more recently, they have a streaming service that you can pay as little as 7.99 for and stream programs on the Web. That's if you're willing to wait, of course, because, you know, "Mad Men" is not going to be on there until it's out on DVD...

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. HEMPEL: ...even after that.

FLATOW: Right. And, Larry, once you decide what you want to do, how do you get it onto your TV set?

Mr. MAGID: Well, you know, Ira, you mentioned a number of devices. And you're absolutely right, and there's actually even a longer list. Many of the Blu-ray players have Internet access. And if you walk the floor of CES, you'll find there are TV sets with Internet built in.

But what I use, personally - and I have a lot of these, but the one that I use is the Roku, which is available for, I believe, as little as $59. If you want the high-def version, maybe closer to $100. It's a very simple little box. It picks up your Wi-Fi signal from home, assuming you've got broadband and Wi-Fi. You plug it into the HDMI port, which is the standard input on an HD television, or any other way you could connect to a TV. And presto. You've got Netflix. You've got Amazon.com.

You mentioned "Mad Men." You can purchase "Mad Men" from Amazon, either on HD or standard definition, one episode at a time, a whole season at a time. That's how I watched the last two years of it. I watch the current year live on television. And it's quite simple.

And then through Netflix, you've got thousands of movies. And then you've got other channels, like Revision3 and CNET and TWiT TV, which, you know, Leo Laporte's programs have - all of this programming that you won't find on regular TV, plus old episodes of "Leave It to Beaver" and those kinds of shows that you can get for free on Netflix.

FLATOW: Jessi, can you just hook up your computer directly to the TV? Is that possible?

Ms. HEMPEL: As long as you have a TV that you bought in the last few years that has that HDMI port in the back, yeah. It's actually easier than you think.

FLATOW: And do you...

Mr. MAGID: And not a bad strategy.

FLATOW: Yeah. Do you use, Jessi, one - now he - Larry came in with his choice. What is your choice for the box of choice?

Ms. HEMPEL: Well, in the last two months, I think I've cycled through all of them. I tried most of them out. And I'm - you know, if you're going to buy one today, I think Larry's absolutely right. Roku is cheap and it's easy, and that's a winning combination.

But I think that there's something larger to remember, which is that, in the next couple of years, most of these boxes are going to go away. And this technology is going to migrate into either your TV or your set-top box itself. You know, it's impossible to predict which that will be. There are a number of business problems that need to be solved before we get there.

But short term, I would encourage anybody thinking about this not to pay a heck of a lot of money yet for something that probably won't be in their living room in two years.

FLATOW: But...

Mr. MAGID: And Ira, if I may...

FLATOW: Yeah, Larry. Sure.

Mr. MAGID: ...if you already own any of the game consoles, Wii, Xbox, PS3, you probably already have it. And a lot of people probably don't even know that they can stream TV on these devices.

FLATOW: Hmm. So are either of you getting rid of your cable boxes yet?

Mr. MAGID: My daughter has.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MAGID: I still have my satellite dish, but I don't use it as often as I used to.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Ms. HEMPEL: I have to say that I got cable this fall when I started working on a story about TV. I hadn't had cable before, because I fall into that window of folks for whom cable is a bit expensive when you're in your early 20s. And you just realize you can get most of what you want without it and so you just never sign up.

FLATOW: Let's go to the phones. People want to ask. Andrew in Roanoke, Virginia. Hi, Andrew.

ANDREW (Caller): Hi. How are you all doing?

FLATOW: Hi, there.

ANDREW: I was just asking we are trying - we just got a Blu-ray player and we've been streaming Netflix and all that good stuff, and we're trying to get rid of our cable. And we had one of those bundle plans, where you get the cable, the Internet and the phone together.

And the price for Internet by itself from our provider - in order to stream the Netflix, I guess you have to have like six to eight megabytes per second or whatever to have a good picture - is pretty high. And I would just - and there are really no other options in the area. It's like the local cable companies seem to have a monopoly on subscribers in the area. And I was wondering if you all had any suggestions for options for Internet providers.

Mr. MAGID: Well, first of all, I think you don't need that level of bandwidth. I think you can get away with most DSL lines, which are typically cheaper than cable. Now, I use cable because I'm a very heavy Internet user and appreciate that extra speed that I pay for. But if you're on a budget, you might want to look at DSL and check with Roku or the other providers. I think you can get away with under two megabits per second.

Ms. HEMPEL: Yeah. I would agree with Larry.

FLATOW: You know - and that also - one technique now - sometimes - and I don't say this works with everybody all the time - if you have cable and you just threaten to give it up...

Mr. MAGID: Mm-hmm.

FLATOW: ...suddenly you'll save 50 bucks on your service.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MAGID: Absolutely. Absolutely.

FLATOW: Have you noticed that?

Ms. HEMPEL: Yeah. That too. They have very stripped-down services that they won't divulge on the phone, probably even the first time that you ask. But if you start to make like you're going to quit, they come up with things that maybe they didn't have in their literature.

FLATOW: Sally in Anchorage. Hi, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

SALLY (Caller): Hi. I have a question about watching Hulu on your television using your computer. Is that something that's easy to do?

Ms. HEMPEL: Well, I can take that one. Hulu recently launched a service called Hulu Plus. And for 7.99 a month it lets you watch Hulu on devices other than your computer, so your iPad, a - soon your iPhone, maybe the Android phones, as apps are becoming available. But getting Hulu on your TV is going to be a little bit more of a challenge, because the actual - the networks are not in favor of letting us watch their programs on Web TV rather than on broadcast. So, for example, with something like Google TV right now, Hulu is blocked.

FLATOW: Larry?

Mr. MAGID: And if I might add to that. It's actually, as we pointed out earlier, fairly easy to plug a computer into the television set through HDMI, and then you've got the complete range of everything you can watch, abc.com or cbs.com, all of the television programming which, for some odd reason, is being allowed on computers and blocked from TVs. Don't ask me to explain that one.

Ms. HEMPEL: Yeah.

Mr. MAGID: And you could do it through a PC. But you've got more technical hassles. The aspect ratio might not be right, but it certainly can be done. And for many people it's not a bad solution.

SALLY: Okay.

FLATOW: Good luck to you.

SALLY: Thank you.

FLATOW: Right. What if you don't have an HDMI port? What if your TV is just off the cusp of that?

Mr. MAGID: The Hulu - I'm sorry. The Roku does have standard outputs, so you don't need HDTV. I have one in my exercise room on an old monitor, and it's not a problem.

FLATOW: You don't have that old Sony with the 360 UHF channels on it, do you?

Mr. MAGID: Not quite.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MAGID: The one that I couldn't watch anymore under the new rules?

FLATOW: That's right. That lasted forever. 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to Rich in Missouri. Hi, Rich.

RICH (Caller): Hello. Nice show.

FLATOW: Hi there.

RICH: I have a laptop that I have been using as our sole source of entertainment, if you will. I have a six-year-old, and so we just plugged it in, we've got that HDMI. It's a fairly new TV. And that's been the main way we've been watching, except he recently spilled milk in the laptop, which sits on the coffee table.

FLATOW: I hate it when that happens.

RICH: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. So I'm just thinking about this - Roku, I think you called it?

Mr. MAGID: Mm-hmm.

RICH: And it sounds like maybe that would be an alternative. Can you scroll through that and pick, you know, like you would with Netflix on your mouse with your laptop or...

Mr. MAGID: Well, with your remote control. It comes with a remote control and you can scroll through and search...

RICH: You do it with the remote. A-ha.

Mr. MAGID: Yeah. It's a pretty decent interface.

FLATOW: Hmm. It's interesting. And what about - you know, we're seeing more live events happening. Can you pipe live events right into it?

Ms. HEMPEL: Um...

Mr. MAGID: Go ahead.

Ms. HEMPEL: You're getting at the sort of multi-billion dollar question in this business...

Mr. MAGID: Yup.

Ms. HEMPEL: ...which is, you know, what is going to convince the people who are broadcasting things like live events to bring some of that content onto the Net? And that's - much of the reason why a lot of people are still paying their cable bills, because they want to watch the football game or they want to watch the Tonys or whatever it is.

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. HEMPEL: You're seeing it around, I would say - you're seeing it around the fringes. You're seeing some experimentation with, for example, you know, Major League Baseball showing it on their website. But there isn't a mainstream solution for people who want to watch that football immediately as it's happening on the Web.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MAGID: Or even TV news. You might have a tough time getting the live feed, although it's possible.

FLATOW: While I have both of you here, I've got to ask about supposedly the hot topic of this year, and that is 3D television. What's - are you seeing a lot of them? It doesn't seem to have caught on terrifically, does it?

Mr. MAGID: Well, we're seeing a little bit of variation of 3D this year. One of the things that we're seeing, which I like, are the end to those expensive glasses that are two or three - $200 a pair and require batteries - and the use of just cheap polarized lenses, the ones you get in the theater. And I've seen a number of demos of that from Toshiba and others.

And also Toshiba and LG are showing - I call them prototypes of TVs that don't require glasses. But these are no way ready for primetime. You have to be standing or sitting at exactly the right angle. If you blink or move your eyes half an inch, it's going to look very odd. But certainly these cheaper glasses - also Vizio has a unit out with these inexpensive polarized glasses. And I think that's going to - not catch on. I don't think TV - 3D is still ready for primetime, but it's a step forward.

FLATOW: We're talking about the future of television, I guess, this hour at SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

I'm Ira Flatow here with Larry Magid and Jessi Hempel. Jessi, any cool gadgets you want to talk about?

Ms. HEMPEL: So many cool gadgets, but my favorite, and this is - the caveat -this is really geeky. This is not something that my mother would appreciate.

FLATOW: You're on the right show for that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HEMPEL: There's a Lenovo hybrid laptop tablet that supports both the Microsoft operating system and the Android operating system. So it's fairly heavy, but it's a laptop and you can pop out the top and it becomes a tablet very much like an iPad. And when it is a laptop, it's a Microsoft operating system. You can be surfing the Web, and seamlessly you can pop out the top, have a tablet that's an Android operating system without losing your Web page.

FLATOW: Does it dial the phone?

Ms. HEMPEL: Well, it does have a camera on the front of it, so that offers a lot of phone possibilities.

Mr. MAGID: Yeah. And by the way, they showed that last year and I think it didn't come out during the year, as far as I know. I'm glad to know they haven't completely given up on that one.

Because, you know, the other thing about tablets, Ira, is you know, last year the iPad wasn't even out. And this year everybody is chasing it. It's the 8,000-pound gorilla that's not in the room, everyone is chasing Apple.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And do you see any - real good contenders there this year that you would say is a threat?

Mr. MAGID: Well, I think Samsung has got some interesting products, Motorola. A lot of them are running the Android operating system, so I think Google is going to be the big player. Microsoft - who knows whether Windows 7 is going to catch on again with tablets. It never really caught on 10 years ago when they first introduced it. But they are going to be trying. And later in the year we're going to see what HP offers. But right now I think Android is a big contender against Apple.

FLATOW: What about, you know - there's the Wii and then there's the new Microsoft Kinect. Is somebody else going to be coming out with something that...

Ms. HEMPEL: I played yesterday with the Nintendo 3D DS gaming console. And that's, of course, not coming out till - we don't know exactly. They're sort of announcing it later in the month, but I got an early look at it. It was pretty cool, but you know, next to the Kinect, it looks - everything looks a little old, I think.

Mr. MAGID: Mm-hmm.

FLATOW: That's the cutting edge now, huh?

Ms. HEMPEL: Yeah.

Mr. MAGID: Absolutely. Microsoft made a big deal about Kinect during Steve Ballmer's keynote the other night.

FLATOW: Wow. Is there something that you didn't see that you expected to see there?

Ms. HEMPEL: I would say Google TV. I mean, I...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HEMPEL: ...of course, the press being what it was, I didn't expect to see it by the time I got here. But I really feel it missing. I mean, I think that this year, more than in past years that I've been here, I've noticed that Google is incredibly important for all these hardware makers and the software makers, who are depending on that operating system to make their product stand out. And the fact that Google TV isn't quite ready for primetime is a problem for a lot of folks here.

FLATOW: Larry, you agree?

Mr. MAGID: I absolutely agree. And I have Google TV and I've been very underwhelmed by it. And Ira, in answer to your question, I expected Microsoft to have a much better answer to the iPad. I thought that they were going to show something that was really - at least more compelling in terms of tablets, and they barely dealt with the issue.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. So you guys are saying go for the Roku and that would be the pick of our week this week for doing it on the cheap?

Ms. HEMPEL: I would agree, unless you have something in your house that works already, and doublecheck before you assume you don't, because there are a lot of things that do the job.

FLATOW: And the TVs...

Mr. MAGID: And then, of course, you could also watch TV on your PC if you want to.

FLATOW: Yeah. And they actually have ports - there's an Ethernet port that'll plug right into your TV set now? The Internet right into the TV...

Mr. MAGID: There are on some.

FLATOW: ...on some of them?

Ms. HEMPEL: Yes.

Mr. MAGID: On some of the models, and Wi-Fi as well. Many of them will have Wi-Fi built in.

FLATOW: Wow. And - wow. So it's like, you're like kids in a candy store there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HEMPEL: Yes.

Mr. MAGID: And speaking of which, a big announcement came from Reese's. They announced their candy. It's just candy, but they announced it at CES. Go figure.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Right. Well, try to keep sane while you're there. I know what it's like to cover something like that. And thanks for taking time to be with us. Have a good weekend.

Ms. HEMPEL: Thank you. Take care.

Mr. MAGID: My pleasure.

FLATOW: Play with all those toys. Larry Magid writes about technology. He's the on-air technology analyst for CBS News. He's also a co-director of connectsafely.org and founder of safekids.com. Two very interesting sites about kids and safety you might want to check out. Jessi Hempel is a senior writer covering technology of Fortune magazine.

That's about all the time we have.

Greg Smith composed our theme music, and we had help from NPR librarian Kee Malesky. And she always supplies it as we need it. And if you missed any part of our program, or others, go to our website at sciencefriday.com. And you can also take part in citizen science. We have a whole bunch of stuff on citizen science, things that you can do to help scientists collect data, up on our website up there. Also, our video pick of the week is up there. Check out a new one that's up there this week. And also, we have a podcast up there.

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I'm Ira Flatow in New York.

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