Your favorite shows on your own terms.
Summer is wrapping up, which means very soon you’ll be able to tune out those lame filler reality shows that clogged the airwaves and tune into true quality prime-time programming. The challenge is finding the time to catch your favorite shows (not to mention the big football and baseball games). That’s where your notebook comes in. Whether you want to tap into your home cable or satellite feed live or stream your favorite shows right off the Web, you’re covered. With these five tips, you can be a couch potato even without a couch.
1 – Grab it free from the networks
Even without a TV tuner you can still tune into many of your favorite network shows online. NBC offers much of its prime-time lineup on www.nbc.com/video, including Heroes, 30 Rock, and Last Comic Standing. Similarly, ABC offers the previous four weeks’ episodes of hit shows like Desperate Housewives, Lost, Ugly Betty and more at abc.go.com/site/allshows.html. You can watch the latest episode of Fox shows like 24, Bones and American Dad at myspace.com/fox. CBS has perhaps the most generous online offering; go to www.cbs.com and click on the Full Episode to view the entire season of Jericho and Survivor: Fiji, as well as select episodes of such shows as Numb3rs and CSI.
2 – Try an online video service
Part of the pressure to move much of network programming to the Web has come from free services like Joost and pad services like MobiTV. From the creators of Skype and Kazaa comes Joost (www.joost.com), the most high-profile online service that offers a huge lineup of channels including Comedy Central, MTV and National Geographic. You don’t always get the best content from these channels, however.
Yet another option is AT&T Broadband TV (att.mobitv.com), which costs $19.99 per month. This subscription service, powered by MobiTV, offers live streams of networks like A&E, Fox News, Fox Sports, Oxygen and The Weather Channel. You can also get MobiTV on your phone, but this requires a separate subscription.
3 – Plug in a TV Tuner
Now that Vista includes Media Center for watching and recording live TV, TV tuners have been all the rage. Using a pocket-friendly USB TV Tuner, you can turn your little laptop into a full-fledged DVR. Just make sure your system has enough graphical muscle to handle HD video streams. Boob tubers on a budget should pick up the Hauppauge WinTV-HVR-950 ($119), which lets you watch and recored cable TV as well as over-the-air HDTV using the included portable antenna. In our tests this peripheral was easy to install and delivered pretty good reception.
Another good bet is the ATI TV WONDER 600 ($TBA), which comes with ATI’s Catalyst Media Center. This software lets you watch and recored live TV as well as manage your media library. Another reason to go with the TV Wonder 600 rather than the Hauppauge is that it includes an IR remote to control your laptop from the couch.
4 – Place-Shift It
Want to take your home cable or satellite TV on the road? Pick up the Slingbox AV ($149). Simply plug it into your set-top box and router and install the software, and within minutes you’ll be able to watch all the channels you’re already paying for remotely. And because the Slingbox AV works with DVRs like TiVo, you can watch recordings and even schedule them while you’re on the road (or in the office).
If you already have a sizable video library that’s too large to fit onto your laptop, check out Orb (www.orb.com). This free service lets you stream all of the media stored on your home PC to your notebook over the Web. If your home PC has a TV tuner card, you can also record your favorite shows from any browser and watch them whenever you want. Both the Slingbox and Orb work with several cell phone models.
5 – Just Buy It
If none of the online video options spark your interest, or if you’d rather own that episode of 24, you can always purchase individual TV episodes from online stores for $1.99 each. iTunes remains the gold standard, with its 350 shows in near-DVD quality, including The Office, Lil’ Bush, Lost and Heroes. Bit Torrent offers 5,000 TV shows from 40 major studios, including 20th Century Fox, MGM, MTV Networks, and Paramount, and uses a unique peer-to-peer delivery system for faster downloads than a central server. CinemaNow gives users access to more than 4,000 films, TV Shows and concerts, including hits like The Shield and Friends, as well as cult classics like Firefly and Babylon 5. CenemaNow also separates itself from the pack by offering greater flexibility with monthly ($29.95) and yearly ($99.95) subscription plans.