Monday, October 29, 2012
Is a Tablet the Only TV You Need?
With the explosion of on-demand video and live streaming apps, the future of television might be closer (and smaller and lighter) than you think
September 28, 2012
It started out of laziness: Put on sweatpants, plop on couch, search for remote. It's not on the coffee table—but, hey, here's an iPad! I check some emails, detour to Facebook and Twitter, click a link to a video of a baby chewing the bars of his crib. Why am I here again? Oh right: the TV. Where's that remote? I should really look under this cushion. Or maybe press the TV's "On" button? Nah. That would require walking 10. Whole. Feet. (Yes, I realize the irony of not wanting to move in sweatpants.) So it's back to the easiest pipeline to entertainment at the moment: this tablet.
I bounce from video app to video app. A season of "Sherlock" here, some "The X-Files" there, and at some point while watching "Battle Royale" (totally better than "The Hunger Games," by the way) I look at a clock. I've just spent hours staring at a 10-inch screen when there was a 40-inch one directly in front of me.
While planting your face in front of a tiny screen is perfectly acceptable on trans-Atlantic flights, it can be a little odd at home. But if you give yourself over to the tablet, it's actually a pretty awesome experience. I'm not claiming an iPad beats the big screen, but I will say this: Watching shows and movies on a tablet feels closer to what television viewing should be like in the 21st century than what 21st-century TVs actually deliver.
Yes, there are "smart" televisions that come with Wi-Fi and video-streaming services like Netflix and Hulu Plus baked in, but they feel sluggish compared to tablets. Devices that help bridge the gap between Internet-based content and your living room's television, like Apple TV and the Xbox 360, are pretty excellent, but once you've become accustomed to the speed and intimacy of using something like an iPad to watch your shows and films, it's hard to deal with tech that's not as responsive. Even simple things on a tablet, like briskly flicking through a menu of movies or accurately rewinding with the tip of your finger, can be pleasurable. As the gadgets in our pockets and handbags and briefcases become the most impressive technological objects in our lives, the good ol' TV setups in our homes can feel painfully slow and antiquated.
And what these futuristic slates lack in eye-popping bigness, they make up for in deft portability. Want to watch "Monday Night Football" in your backyard for a more tailgate-like experience? You can do that. Spouse kick you off the big screen to watch "Glee?" Grab the tablet and head to the attic. The tablet can be a marriage saver in one-television households. It's also the best thing to happen to lazy Sunday mornings since breakfast in bed.
You might think TV on a tablet is just about "Parks and Recreation" reruns on Netflix, but content-wise, it's neck and neck with your cable box's offerings. There are apps from individual networks like HBO, ABC and CW. You can download movies for offline viewing from iTunes and Google Play. And apps from pay-TV providers like DirecTV even let you watch live broadcasts and give you access to content you could previously only get through a coaxial cable.
So do tablets beat the flatscreen monolith hanging on your living room wall? Let's just say the iPad and friends are feisty enough to capture more of your show-watching attention than you might expect. Turn the page to get the gear and apps for the best TV experience on your tablet. Sweatpants optional.
The Little Slabs That Could
FEISTY UPSTART: Amazon Kindle Fire HD
The second generation of Amazon's color tablet does two things better than any other black slab out there: 1) immerse you in Amazon's ecosystem of streaming movies and TV shows (a $79 Amazon Prime subscription gives you unlimited access to thousands of titles) and 2) drench you in big sound. A pair of dual-driver speakers on the back of the tablet does an outstanding job of making explosions sound, well, explosive. From $199, amazon.com
GOLD STANDARD: Apple iPad
It's the world's best-selling tablet for a reason. From the quality of its construction to the number of apps available and the incredible selection of cases that keep it upright in bed or in the back of the car, the Apple tablet trounces the competition—especially when it comes to movie marathons. The iPad's battery life is epic and its drop-dead gorgeous picture is the envy of not just other tablets, but screens five times its size. From $399, apple.com
LIGHTWEIGHT WONDER: Google Nexus 7
When it comes to 7-inch tablets, the battle is really between the Kindle Fire HD and the Nexus 7. What the Nexus has going for it is Jelly Bean, the latest iteration of the Android operating system, which is slick and feature-filled. The Nexus is also built more solidly than most budget tablets and is light enough that you never have to think twice about taking it along with you. From $199, google.com/nexus
GEEKY MARVEL: Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1
While the Note is, ahem, notable for its stylus, it has several entertainment-friendly features: an expansive screen that's well-suited to widescreen content; two crisp, front-facing speakers; and an innovation called Smart Stay, which dims the screen when you look away to preserve battery life. And if a 10.1-inch image feels cramped, you can connect to a television using an HDMI adapter. From $500, samsung.com
Download These Essential Tablet TV Apps
The streaming pioneer and stalwart. If you go with just one on-demand video service, let it be Netflix. As with all streaming sites, selection varies—at first glance, Netflix seems to have an overwhelming number of B movies—but content is constantly being shuffled in and out of the mix. By most estimates, Netflix has the largest collection of content available for unlimited streaming on the Internet. Expect more original content exclusive to Netflix soon, including a revival of "Arrested Development." $8 per month, netflix.com
Love television? Then you'll need a subscription to Hulu. It's the one place you can find current shows from most of the major networks, making it one of the biggest time-sucks ever. (You could spend days catching up on "South Park" alone.) Episodes are usually available on Hulu a day to a week after they air. That can feel like an eternity, but you get used to it. There's also a strong offering of movies, including classics from the Criterion Collection, and vintage shows from "ALF" to "Quantum Leap" to "Battlestar Galactica." $8 per month, hulu.com/plus
Amazon Instant Video
A $79 Amazon Prime subscription gets you unlimited streaming of more than 25,000 movies and television shows. A recent licensing deal with EPIX will let Amazon add thousands more movies, including "The Hunger Games," "The Avengers" and other blockbusters. If that's not enough to entice you to sign up, Prime also gives you access to the Kindle Owners' Lending Library, a selection of around 180,000 books you can borrow for free when you need a break from the "Downton Abbey" binge. $79 per year, amazon.com
You give in to peer pressure and finally decide to watch "Damages." But where on the World Wide Web do you do so? You could search your apps strategically: Netflix, then Hulu Plus, then iTunes. But that would be a lot of hunting and pecking. Instead, just use Fanhattan. It searches 16 online video sources to find where your movie or show is streaming or available for download. It's simply the best video discovery tool for your iPad. Without it, you're sailing through a universe of content without GPS. Free, iOS only, fanhattan.com
I'm sure there are many people who would ditch their cable subscriptions if they didn't have to give up HBO GO. But to access the app, you need to be an HBO subscriber (or know someone who is). The app gives you unlimited access to almost everything you can watch on the king of cable networks in a slick, easy-to-use interface. There's so much great content: "The Wire," "Curb Your Enthusiasm," "Boardwalk Empire," "Veep" and loads of movies you actually want to watch. If only all streaming services could have such grade-A material. Free, hbogo.com
But I Want My Live TV!
How to stream a broadcast in real time
Just because you're on a tablet doesn't mean you have to give up on watching TV as it's happening. Apps from the DISH Network and DirecTV let you watch live broadcasts outside of your home over a Wi-Fi connection. (The Dish Network's app even works over a 3G or 4G connection.) Other providers require you to be on your home network to watch live TV on a tablet.
Another solution: Attach a Slingbox (from $180, slingbox.com) to your cable box to stream live TV to the $30 SlingPlayer app on your tablet. It's like bringing along your living room TV setup wherever you go.
A few channels also offer live options, most notably ESPN, which has a free app called WatchESPN. If you're a sports fan, I'm sorry I told you about it. Your office productivity just got cut in half. And Disney's various channels have free iOS apps that let subscribers watch live broadcasts as well.
Want to ditch cable but still need access to live TV? There's an app for that: Aereo. For $8 a month (you can also try it for $1 a day), it lets you stream live TV to your tablet—programs that are broadcast over the airwaves. Aereo also lets you schedule recordings for future, on-demand streaming. Access to the app is limited to New York, but service is slated to launch in other cities next year.
Cozy Up to Your Tablet
Three ways to hunker down comfortably with a glass rectangle
Table It: Vitra NesTable
Don't try watching back-to-back episodes of "New Girl" on a tablet propped on your knees. It'll leave you hobbled. A sturdy laptop stand like the NesTable decouples your screen from your sitting position. Feel free to cross and uncross your legs again and again. $925, vitra.com
Prop It: Vipp Mini Table
Perfect for "Breakfast at Tiffany's" in bed, the Vipp Mini Table has collapsible stainless-steel legs for easy stowing and a generously sized surface that's big enough for a tablet, bowl of popcorn and extra-large soda. $349, vipp.com
Plump It: Lap Log
These buckwheat-filled pillows soften a tablet's hard edges while offering up the perfect viewing angle. Unlike a device-specific, form-fitting holder, they work with pretty much every tablet out there, in or out of a case. $46, thelaplog.com
Upgrade the A/V
Essential gear for cranking the volume and enlarging the image
The Projector: Optoma ML500
The ML500 is as compact as any tablet yet throws a huge, vivid image—up to 180 inches diagonal. A simple adapter should let most tablets jack into the ML500's VGA or HDMI inputs to transform small-screen viewing into a more cinematic experience. $599, optomausa.com
The Speaker: Logitech UE Boombox
Generally, tablets sound as thin as they feel. This rechargeable speaker provides much-needed kick and clarity to any soundtrack. There's a tiny (4.4-inch) version ($100) that you can set down right next to your tablet. $250, logitechue.com
The Headphones: Klipsch Image ONE Bluetooth
These lightweight, exceptionally comfortable wire-free headphones deliver rumbling low end that won't disturb your bedmate. And with buttons on the earpiece that let you pause and resume playback in some video apps, it can double as an impossible-to-lose remote control. $250, klipsch.com
A version of this article appeared September 29, 2012, on page D1 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Is a Tablet the Only TV You Need?.