Incorporating the Internet into Your Home Theater System

Turbocharge your home theater system with the internet

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Samsung Tizen Smart TV Interface - 2015. Photo © Robert Silva - Licensed to About.com
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With the increased availability of audio and video content via the internet, there is now a big emphasis on the integration of the internet with the home theater experience. There are several ways to integrate the internet, as well as PC-stored content, on your home theater system.

Connect A PC To A Home Theater System

The most basic way to integrate the internet and stored content to simply connecting a PC or laptop to your home theater system.

To do this, check to see if your HDTV has a VGA (PC monitor) input connection. If not you also have an option to purchase a device, such as a USB-to-HMDI or VGA-to-HDMI converter that can also allow a PC to be connected to an HDTV. In addition, to connect the audio from your PC to your home theater system, check to see if your PC has an audio output connection that can be connected to your TV or to your home theater receiver. This may require an adapter plug as well.

However, most newer PCs and Laptops usually have an HDMI output connection built-in. If you have an HDMI-equipped PC, you don't need an adapter to connect it to your HDTV.

Once your PC, TV, and/or home theater system are connected, you can use your PC's Web browser access online audio video content or stored digital media files on your TV and listen to the audio through either your TV or home theater speakers.

The downside is that you need to have the PC, TV, and home theater system in close proximity.

You are also depending on the capabilities of your PC's video card to send good-quality images to your HDTV, and this does not always deliver the best result, especially on a large screen.

Connect a Standalone Network Media Player/Media Streamer to Your Home Theater System

A second option that would enable you to better integrate either the internet or stored content with your home theater system is a standalone set-top box or flash drive-sized plug-in device, usually referred to as a network media player or media streamer (such as a Roku box/Streaming Stick, Amazon FireTV, Apple TV, or Chromecast).

The way these devices work is that they take advantage of home network connectivity. In other words, if you have a wired or (in some cases) a wireless router, a network media player or streamer will connect to your router via Ethernet or WiFi connection.

Network media players and media streamers can access audio/video content streamed directly from the internet, and network media players can also access audio, video, or image files stored your PC if it is also connected to the network.

The advantage of this type of setup is that you don't need to physically connect a PC to a TV or home theater system - it can remain in your home office or another location in your home.

On the other hand, the disadvantage is that you have added yet another "box" to your already cluttered home theater setup.

Also, the brand and model of network media player/extender you purchase will dictate what online content providers you have access to. One box may give you access to Vudu, another to Netflix, and another for CinemaNow on the video side, while on the audio side, some units may give you access to Rhapsody or Pandora, but maybe not both. It is important to match your favorite online content preferences with the brand and model of network media player/extender you want to purchase.

Use a Blu-ray Disc Player with Network Connectivity

Another increasingly popular method of integrating online media content with your TV and home theater system is a network-enabled Blu-ray or Ultra HD Disc player. A lot of consumers are not aware that many Blu-ray disc players, besides being able to play Blu-ray/DVD and CD discs, also have built-in Ethernet or WiFi connections that allow direct access to a home network.

This capability allows users to both access online content that may be associated with the Blu-ray disc they are playing, and may also provide access to streaming video and audio content from additional internet content providers, such as Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, VUDU, Hulu, and more.

The advantage of this option is that you don't have purchase a separate Blu-ray/DVD/CD player AND network media player/streamer - you can get both in one box.

On the other hand, just as with a separate network media player/streamer, you are tied into what services the Blu-ray player is associated with. If both Blu-ray and Internet content streaming is important to you, then you also have to make a decision based on what Internet content providers are important to you.

Access Internet Content Via Cable/Satellite Service or TIVO

Even cable and Satellite TV services are getting into the act by beginning to provide some online content streaming for viewing on TV or listening on a home theater audio system. It is interesting to note that they do not offer access to sites that would be in competition with their own cable or satellite content. For more details, check out DirecTV's TV Apps and Comcast's Xfinity, or Cox Cable's Watch Online services.

In addition to cable and satellite services adding access to Internet-based content, TIVO offers its Bolt Unified Entertainment System. In addition to over-the-air and cable TV access and DVR functions, the TIVO Bolt adds access to streaming and downloadable internet-based content from Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, YouTube, and Rhapsody.

The TIVO Bolt is also touted as being able to access music files stored on a PC. In addition, some content can also be transferred from the TIVO Bolt to portable devices, such as the iPod and Sony PSP.

Use a Home Theater Receiver with Network Connectivity

A fifth option, which may be practical if you already have a Blu-ray Disc player that doesn't include internet access and aren't interested in connecting another box to your system, is to look for a home theater receiver that has internet access built-in.

The advantage here is that your home theater receiver is already the central connection center for your home theater and has all of the connectivity and features you need, which may already include satellite radio, video upscaling, and iPod connectivity and control, so why not add internet radio and other audio/video streaming functions to the equation?

Some of the internet streaming services available through a growing number of network-enabled home theater receivers include vTuner, Spotify, Pandora, Rhapsody, and Apple AirPlay. Check out our suggestions in the budget, mid-range, and high-end model categories.

Use a Smart TV

The final (and most popular) option that combines the internet with your home theater is to go directly to the easiest device to use - the TV. All of the major TV manufacturers offer a selection of Smart TVs.

Each TV brand has it's is own name for its Smart TV platform, for example LG uses WebOS, Panasonic (Firefox TV), Samsung (Samsung Apps and Tizen OS), Sharp (AquosNet+ and Smart Central), Vizio (Internet Apps Plus and SmartCast, Sony (Android TV), Also, several TV brands incorporate the Roku platform (referred to as Roku TV) into some of their sets, including Haier, Hisense, Hitachi, Insignia, RCA, Sharp, and TCL.

The big advantage in using a smart TV is that you don't have to turn on anything else except the TV to enjoy internet content, instead of having to also turn on a home theater receiver, Blu-ray disc player, and/or extra network media player/extender.

On the other hand, just as with most of the other options discussed, you are tied to the content providers your brand/model TV is associated with. If you switch out your TV for another brand, later on, you may lose access to some of your favorite content sites. However, if current trends continue, most content providers will become available on most brands and models of internet-enabled smart TVs.

The Bottom Line

If you haven't added the internet to your home theater setup, you are missing out on a lot of entertainment options. However, although there are a lot of benefits, there are also some pitfalls to aware of. For more on this, check out our companion article: The Pros and Cons of Accessing the Internet on a Home Theater