TV? It's so over

Rhodri Marsden on why it's goodbye to the goggle-box and hello to a host of new ways to watch your favourite shows

Some people are still choosing to have giant plasma televisions whose wide screens and 16:9 aspect ratios dominate the living room, but the emphasis in many homes is now switching from the television set to the computer.

Even a year ago, the idea of perching on an uncomfortable office chair to watch video material on a computer screen was anathema to most people. But the phenomenal, if unexpected, success of two video websites, YouTube and Google Video, seems to have changed attitudes.

The gentle musings of Peter, a British widower, have racked up close to a million views on YouTube. Peter's fans aren't looking for stunning sound and image quality; they want an entirely different kind of entertainment.

Sensing this new tolerance for lo-fi content among its users, Google Video has begun to offer US residents sport, comedy and science fiction from the TV networks. YouTube has hooked up with MTV under an informal agreement. The BBC News website has introduced banners inviting us to watch their bulletins via the internet, while online film services such as Sky By Broadband and Lovefilm continue to offer us an expanding range of movies for download.

The shift away from the medium of traditional broadcasts is beginning - the computer is edging into living rooms, and devices such as the iPod or PlayStation Portable enable us to transfer video files quickly from the internet and view them on the move.

If your aging telly bites the dust and you aren't keen on replacing it, what can you do? A first step, for those already missing their favourite terrestrial shows, would be one of the many devices that plug into your computer's USB port and are, in essence, miniature Freeview boxes. For a one-off payment, you can access all the digital terrestrial channels via your computer - although, despite not having a TV set, you'll still need a TV licence to use them.

While this system uses a traditional aerial connection, the rest of your video content will be arriving via your broadband service in a range of ways, all covered by the acronym IPTV - internet protocol television. Outside the UK, this system is gathering pace; US residents can choose from a wealth of TV shows via Apple's iTunes store, and cricket fans in Europe have paid for Sky Sports to be streamed to their computers during the recent Test series.

But home-grown IPTV seems to be limited to embryonic services such as ITV Local, with its mix of news and local-interest programmes. The big content providers are taking their time in transferring material to the realm of the internet.

We had been told that IPTV was to be this autumn's big thing, and a spokesman for BT insists that the launch of its own service is still set for later this year; it'll offer, among other things, a video-on-demand service from about 30 providers, ranging from the multinational to the independent.

When it's here, video-on-demand will be one of the big selling points of IPTV, allowing us to watch what we want, when we want. But new devices such as Slingmedia's Slingbox or Sony's Location Free are already overcoming geographical limitations by beaming digital television from a set-top box to a broadband-connected computer anywhere in the world. With all this video material zooming around the globe - be it via a Slingbox, from YouTube, from TV network websites, or via illegally downloaded archive shows from file-sharing networks like BitTorrent - a huge strain is likely to develop on the infrastructure of the internet. Many ISPs in this country have signed people up to budget broadband deals whose downloading and uploading limits are set too low to cope with an IPTV boom.

IPTV's other attraction will be its huge range of channels, most of them created by viewers. Google's vice-president of user experience told an audience at the Edinburgh International Television Festival that Google should be seen as a friend of the TV networks, not a rival; but YouTube has shown that homemade video channels are a distraction from regular TV for an audience whom the networks want to remain in thrall to their schedules.

So, the viewing revolution is already underway - but dare you ditch your TV?

FREECOM DVB-T AND ANALOG TV HYBRID USB STICK

What is it?

Billed as the world's smallest digital entertainment centre, this plugs neatly into your PC's USB socket (Windows XP required) and enables you to view both digital terrestrial and analogue broadcasts on your computer. Includes a remote control and the ability to record shows to your hard disk.

Where from and how much?

www.expansys.com; £53.95 + VAT

ELGATO EYETV HYBRID

What is it?

Similar to the Freecom device, but bringing Freeview to the Mac. Elgato has been making these for a while. This model receives digital and analogue signals, it works with the Apple Remote, and offers seamless iPod integration.

Where from and how much?

Online dealers, including www.cancomuk.com; £89.99 + VAT

SLINGMEDIA SLINGBOX

What is it?

A device that plugs into your home set-top box and sends the signal over a network - either to, say, a laptop in another room, or to a computer on the other side of the world. Has a Freeview box built in.

Where from and how much?

Available exclusively at PC World ( www.pcworld.co.uk) and selected Currys.digital stores; £179.99

SONY LOCATION FREE

What is it?

It's Sony's rival to the Slingbox. Debate rages about which is better, so there's probably not a lot in it. It remains to be seen, with both devices, how ISPs will respond to the strain they put on domestic broadband connections.

Where from and how much?

Call 08705 111 999 for stockists, or visit www.sony.co.uk; £229.99

IPOD

What is it?

With the iRiver PMC series available only in the USA, and Microsoft's failure to come up with an "iPod killer", the iPod is still the best choice for video on the move, with its bright, clear display.

Where from and how much?

From Apple stores and online at www.apple.com; 60GB model costs £299, 30GB costs £219

SONY MFM-HT205

What is it?

A 20in flat-panel computer monitor with high resolution and quick response time, hence perfect for digital video. It contains an analogue TV tuner and a wealth of connections for games consoles, set-top boxes, DVD and VCR machines. Who needs a television?

Where from and how much?

shop.sonystyle-europe.com; £649.90

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