Six ways to stream Netflix to your HDTV

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Time was the only way you could access Netflix’s Watch Instantly feature was on a Windows PC. Now you only need to watch on a computer (Intel Macs included) if you want to. There are now many different ways to enjoy streaming Netflix content where you really want to see it—on your TV.

Each of the options has different strengths—including cost, video quality, and convenience. There’s one big difference among all these: The user interface is different from device to device, so the elegant view you see on Apple TV won’t be the same one you find on a internet-connected DVD player, for example.

Which one is best for you? Check out your options below.

1. Streaming video players

The Apple TV's Netflix interface.

For a while, Roku’s streaming player was the only stand-alone device you could use to get Netflix onto your TV. Now it’s just one of a handful of video players that can do so, including high-profile additions like the new Apple TV ( )—with a custom Netflix interface—the Seagate FreeAgent GoFlex TV HD Media Player ( ), and Western Digital’s WD TV Live Plus ( ). These devices specialize in streaming content, and they do the job well—though as more networked Blu-ray players and TVs enter the market, the future of set top boxes that only stream content may be in jeopardy. Many of the streamers, such as Roku’s XD and XDS models, support 1080p streaming—Apple TV can only output 720p—but Netflix doesn’t offer any content in 1080p resolution, and probably won’t for a long time due to bandwidth realities. And some players also offer component video output—useful if you’re already using all your TV’s HDMI inputs and don’t want to invest in an HDMI switcher.

2. Game consoles

Talk about a multifunction device—you can use your game console to stream the movie Iron Man and then play the game when you’re done. Sony’s PlayStation 3, Nintendo’s Wii, and Microsoft’s Xbox 360 all offer Netflix streaming. The PS3 and Wii recently went disc-free—previously you had to run a disc with the Netflix software on it to watch content. Not all are equal though: for example, the Xbox requires an Xbox Live Gold membership in addition to a Netflix subscription, and the Wii can’t display high-definition video. If you’re looking for the ultimate in high definition, PS3 now offers 1080p streaming for video that supports it (Netflix is apparently streaming limit amounts of 1080p video to PS3 users, although it’s unclear what that content is).

3. Networked HDTVs

A Netflix-enabled Vizio HDTV.
These days, TVs are all about a different kind of network—connecting to the Internet for streaming content, not the old broadcast networks. Sony, Samsung, Panasonic, Vizio, LG, and others all offer Internet-connected televisions in various sizes. Connect your set to your router via WiFi or ethernet and you have access to your Netflix queue without the need for any additional devices. However, since the main purpose of the TV isn’t being a Netflix steaming interface, you may find the interfaces less intuitive than dedicated devices.

4. Networked Blu-ray players

Many Blu-ray players—often from the same vendors that make HDTVs—run the same software that networked TVs do. With Blu-ray player prices coming down, they can be an affordable and convenient way to add Netflix to your TV. If you were planning to buy a Blu-ray player this year, you might as well get one that can handle Netflix, too. The same caveat about interfaces applies as with TVs.

5. iOS devices

The Neflix app on the iPad.
The beauty of Netflix on iOS devices is portability, but sometimes you want to watch on big screen—in a hotel room, for example. With the appropriate video-out cable, you can hook up your iPhone 4 or iPad to your TV and display content from the Netflix app. The drawback is resolution—something that looks good in your palm is going to look somewhat soft and blocky on that 42-inch LCD. According to Netflix, both devices are limited to 640 by 480 TV output resolution. To connect, you can use Apple’s $29 Dock Connector to VGA Adapter, or Composite or Component AV Cables ($49 each).

6. Computers

A final way to add Netflix streaming to your TV is to lug your MacBook or Mac mini near the set and connect it directly. All you need for the latest Mac mini is an HDMI cable; MacBooks and older minis will require an adapter, such as a Mini DisplayPort-to-HDMI version. This option gives you the full-featured Web interface, though you’ll lack the convenience of navigating with a remote. Another drawback is that your computer’s output resolution and the resolution your TV accepts may not match exactly, which means you may not see the edges of the video on your TV in fullscreen mode.

[Michael Gowan writes about home theater technologies and indulges in Netflix streaming as often as possible.]

Updated at 4:26PM pacific to add info on Netflix 1080p streaming to PlayStation 3s.

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