New Tech 2010: HDTV Extras

Features
TV PARTY -- Plenty of new TVs feature a Yahoo! widgets bar, which now includes social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. Some new services even let you create custom widgets that can be picked up by any TV outfitted with the Yahoo! widgets engine.

TELEPHONE -- Tired of watching TV? Select Skype with your remote control to reach out and touch someone. Select Panasonic and LG TVs feature the service, which lets you make free voice and video calls to other Skype users via the set’s onscreen interface. 

LAN jacks for hooking up to a broadband home network have quickly evolved from being a curious feature found on only a few TVs to a near-standard connection type. At the same time, the number of Internet content “channels” has multiplied: Those little Yahoo! widgets that occupy the bottom of the TV screen and show information like sports scores, local weather, and the Dow’s ups and downs are no longer your only option for extra-TV diversion. In fact, the number of new widgets and related media-streaming service options coming out this year is substantial enough that it may soon be possible to rely on the Internet as your TV’s sole source of information and entertainment programming. (Hasta la vista, cable!)

On the video-streaming front, Netflix has become a ubiquitous option on everything from TVs to Blu-ray players to game consoles. New sets from Panasonic, Samsung, Sony, LG, Toshiba, Sharp, Vizio, and Funai — basically, just about every maker you can think of — will be equipped to stream movies and other programs from our favorite purveyor of red, disc-filled envelopes. Blockbuster on Demand, Amazon Video on Demand, and CinemaNow will also occupy the widget bar in most new TVs as an additional video purchase and rental option.

Both Mitsubishi and LG had the good sense to strike early deals with Vudu, a 1080p-rez movie-streaming service that, while no match for Netflix when it comes to the total number of available titles (discs included), has a strong advantage when it comes to video quality. Vudu streaming will be incorporated into a number of new TVs arriving in 2010, including models from Sharp, Samsung, Toshiba, Sanyo, and Vizio.

Listen to music through your TV? I, too, thought the concept was strange — until I started doing it. Pandora Internet radio streaming capability first showed up on Mitsubishi and LG TVs in 2009. In 2010, Pandora will make the move to Samsung, Sharp, Sanyo, Toshiba, and Vizio TVs as part of the Vudu Apps package. (New Panasonic Viera Cast sets will also be able to stream Pandora, although this capability comes separate from Vudu, which Panasonic TVs can’t access directly.) Vizio TVs outfitted with the company’s own Internet Apps package will also let users tap the Rhapsody music streaming service, while LG’s NetCast models can access Napster. New Sony TVs with Bravia Internet Video capability, meanwhile, will be able to stream music from Slacker Radio.

Social networking platforms are also starting to creep into the TV sphere. Facebook will grace the widgets dock on several new models from Vizio and Samsung in 2010. And a few new Sony and Panasonic TVs let you access Twitter so you can overshare your thoughts on media at the same time you are consuming it.

One of the more useful Internet extras coming to TVs in 2010 is Skype. Panasonic’s Viera Cast and LG’s Net- Cast models will feature the service, which lets you make free voice and video calls to other Skype users via the TV’s onscreen interface. (You can also call regular phone lines with Skype on your TV, but charges will apply in that case.) Panasonic also plans to sell an optional network video camera/microphone accessory for its Viera Cast TVs that enables you to a make the video calls at (depending on your Internet connection’s bandwidth) up to 720p high-def resolution.

Not happy with your TV’s widget selection? Why not create your own? Samsung is rolling out SamsungApps, an iTunes App store-like platform that allows developers to create and sell widgets that viewers can download to Samsung’s Connected TVs. And then there’s Widget Realm (widgetrealm.com), a service that lets you create custom widgets that can be “broadcast” to any TV or other device supporting the Yahoo! TV Widget engine. A target user for this type of service would be a school or a community organization looking to post a calendar or information on upcoming events.

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