Now that all of the TV networks (and some cable channels) are fully embracing online video, you can keep up with many of your favorite shows -- and discover new ones -- without ever turning on the TV.
Although streaming video on network Web sites isn't new, the quality until recently was often erratic and choppy, even if you had a fast Internet connection.
Last month, legal online video of TV shows and movies took perhaps its biggest step yet with the public launch of Hulu.com, a joint venture between
Hulu offers free clips, TV shows and movies from more than 50 content providers including Fox, NBC Universal, MGM,
Pictures Television and Warner Bros.
If you've never watched a TV show or movie online, there are a few things you need to know.
First, you must have a high-speed Internet connection, an up-to-date browser and media player software. The best way to find out if you are ready to watch is to go to one of these sites and try to play a video. If the video doesn't start playing, the services will tell what the problem is and give you the option to install the necessary software or plug-ins, which is usually a painless experience.
New episodes of prime-time shows such as Lost, ER or House frequently appear online within a day or two after they air. The shows do have commercials, but there aren't as many as on TV.
This week I watched video on Hulu, ABC.com, NBC.com, CBS.com and Fox.com to see how the sites stack up. I watched on both a roughly 4-year-old Dell laptop and a 3-month-old old Apple iMac with a 20- inch display. I also hooked the laptop up to a 32-inch HDTV.
I was impressed by the quality of the video on all the sites, but Hulu stands out for a number of reasons.
Unlike network Web sites where you have to wade through everything from schedules to blogs by different characters to find the video you want, Hulu's homepage has a button for TV and a button for movies, as well as buttons for the most popular or recently added videos.
The search engine lets you type a letter or two of the show you want to watch and a drop-down list appears showing you all of the possibilities. And if you search for a show from a network that is not on Hulu, such as ABC's Lost, Hulu provides a direct link to watch that video on another Web site.
You can watch video in your Web browser, "pop out" the player to place it anywhere on your computer or watch it in full-screen mode. Although most of the sites offer a full-screen option, only Hulu,
and NBC offer a true full screen, meaning the toolbar or dock at the bottom of your screen doesn't appear while the video is playing.
There are gaps in Hulu's vast selection. For instance, you can currently only watch clips of certain shows, such as Saturday Night Live, Las Vegas and most of the shows on Bravo. Some episodes expire from Hulu and often only episodes from the current season of a show are available.
In a smart move, ABC.com offers all four seasons of Lost, which is great if you have been dying to get into the show. If you choose to watch all four seasons, and you're using a laptop computer, I recommend hooking it up to a TV for a more pleasant experience.
And while Hulu only has movie trailers in high definition, both Fox and ABC are offering select full episodes in HD (including Bones, Prison Break, House, Desperate Housewives, Grey's Anatomy and Lost). HD streaming is clearly where online video is headed. With more people having wireless Internet networks in their home, I expect all of the networks will be offering it soon.