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Make Your Home TV Setup 'Smart'

11:34 AM, Dec 17, 2012   |    comments
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Rob Pegoraro, Special for USA TODAY

Question: I'm in the market for a new HDTV and DVD player. What's the easiest way to make this "smart" so I can watch Netflix easily in addition to discs and basic cable?

Answer: You are about to run into a few fractures in the electronics industry that make it just about impossible to combine those three tasks in any one device and make it difficult to get your coffee table down to one remote.

The simplest part is getting Netflix on the screen. Starting a couple of years ago, "connected" or "smart" TVs began taking off in popularity. It's now easy to find sets with built-in apps for Netflix, Amazon, Hulu Plus and YouTube streaming and even sports options like MLB.tv and less obvious video sites like Vimeo.

You can also find sets, mostly in smaller sizes, that include DVD or Blu-ray players. But I have yet to find any current models among them that can also tune into Web video. (For example, one Insignia model with a built-in Blu-ray player and connected apps that ConsumerSearch had recommended is no longer available.)

Most of the remaining TV/DVD or TV/Blu-ray combination units are also on the smaller side, and many come from more obscure brands that haven't ranked well in Consumer Reports' surveys. That argues against combining one of them with a separate box, such as a Roku or Apple TV player, that can bring streaming media to your screen.

So I would opt for a Blu-ray player that, like many, includes a Netflix app. (Blu-ray players have gotten so cheap that they have essentially destroyed the market for connected DVD players.) This has the added advantage of keeping a mechanical component that is more likely to fail, the disc mechanism, separate from a TV that should work well for years.

What about cable? Many HDTV owners have been able to tune into the most basic cable channels - local stations and public, educational and government broadcasts - without a cable box using the QAM ("quadrature amplitude modulation") tuners in most sets.

But in October, the Federal Communications Commission voted to allow cable operators to begin encrypting those QAM signals. Cable operators say that will let them turn service on and off without having to dispatch a truck to every subscriber's house, but QAM tuners will get cut off in the process.

An over-the-air antenna can get you your local stations, but your geography may not permit that. This reader, for instance, lives in New York City, a tough place to get "OTA" reception.

The last step of the puzzle is minimizing the number of remotes. Your cable box's remote may be able to control your TV and Blu-ray player, but the odds of it navigating through any Internet apps on either device aren't so high. Buying a TV and Blu-ray player from the same manufacturer should ensure that one's remote can control the other.

Tip: A flash drive or SD card may be the easiest way to get your digital media on your TV

Don't neglect one of the oldest ways to make an HDTV "connected": a USB port or memory-card slot that allows it to play media files saved on a flash drive or SD Card. You do have to take a minute to copy your videos, photos or music from a computer to either sort of storage media (bearing in mind what types of files the TV can play), but that's easier than streaming the same content from a computer using "DLNA" file sharing.

You also don't have to worry about keeping that computer on and awake during the slideshow or hoping that your WiFi doesn't conk out in the middle of the party playlist.

You can also find either or both input options on small, cheap sets that don't include Internet apps or any sort of network connection.

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Rob Pegoraro is a tech writer based out of Washington, D.C. To submit a tech question, e-mail Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com. Follow him on Twitter attwitter.com/robpegoraro.


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