Someday, our televisions will be smart. With a flick of the wrist or a voice command, couch potatoes will be able to binge-view "Scandal" or children will watch any episode of the Disney series "Dog With a Blog." Maybe just thinking about Walter White will bring up "Breaking Bad" on the big screen.
But for now, most television sets are dumb. They do a good enough job handling the signals coming through an antenna or a set-top box, but to take advantage of the wealth of programming available through online services and apps, you generally need to attach a streaming device to the TV.
These devices are like portals to a parallel universe of television programming, one that's getting bigger all the time. They provide access to all the episodes of the Emmy-nominated "House of Cards" and stockpiles of timeless black-and-white films, courtesy of streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, as well as to the Web comedies and endless viral videos on YouTube. This year, Netflix cited the proliferation of these devices -- "inexpensive smart TV adapters," it called them -- when it predicted that on-demand and mobile TV would replace the traditional scheduled way of watching shows.
To back up its prediction, the company also stated that "smart TV sales are increasing and eventually every TV will have Wi-Fi and apps." Many of the new sets on display at Wal-Mart and Best Buy already do. But until all TVs get smart, it falls on the backs of these streaming devices -- most of them handy, but none of them yet perfect -- to help a staid TV dip a cord into the future.
THE GAMERS Millions of Americans already have a streaming device connected to a TV. Microsoft Xbox, Sony PlayStation and Nintendo Wii video game consoles offer streaming video options and are among the most popular ways to tap into Internet TV.
With a few simple clicks, the consoles can download apps for services like Netflix and Amazon Instant Video. Downloading them is free, but many require a paid subscription to actually stream video. (An Xbox also requires a subscription to the Xbox Live service for use of its Internet interface.)
The consoles' controllers make navigating through lists of TV shows a breeze. And with the Xbox and PlayStation, there is also the option of buying an individual episode or season of a show through the Xbox Video Store or the PlayStation Store, in case it is not available on one of the streaming services.
THE BEAMERS A problem with the gaming devices is that they tend to take a couple of minutes to boot up. (And with all the video available, time is of the essence. After all, there are hours and hours of "The Walking Dead" to catch up on.) That is not the case with a couple of other popular options, including Apple TV and Google's Chromecast, that can also beam videos from a phone or laptop to the TV screen.
Why "beam"? You might start watching a YouTube video on your iPhone and decide that you want to show it to your family -- in that case, you would click a button on a smartphone and stream it on the TV set. Or you might be curious about a concert streaming live on YouTube. You can find the live stream on a laptop and push it to the big screen.
When it comes to Apple TV, probably the most powerful of the beaming devices, the name can be misleading. It is not a television set or a cable channel or a full-blown competitor to Netflix. Rather, it's a sleek black box, shaped like a hockey puck, that connects to a TV set. Not surprisingly, given Apple's penchant for design, Apple TV is probably the most attractive of all the Internet TV adapters on the market.
Apple promotes the device's $99 price, but it is actually more expensive -- you will need to buy an HDMI cable to connect the box to the back of your TV. And the device's AirPlay beaming function works only with Apple phones, tablets and computers, so it's not as appealing if you are not in the Apple family already.
The newest way to "beam" comes from Google's $35 Chromecast, which looks like a flash drive and plugs into an HDMI port on your TV. Using your home Wi-Fi, it will project on the TV whatever you are watching on your mobile device or computer. Google Android, Apple and Microsoft Windows devices are all welcome here. But Chromecast does not come with video apps the way Apple TV or the video game consoles do. So finding TV episodes or films is all done on the mobile device or laptop being used, which can make the Chromecast feel too constricting.
On the other end of this plug-in spectrum are boxes like the Roku, which can be found online for as little as $40, and the slightly more expensive WD TV Play from Western Digital. These boxes have apps galore, even for streaming services you've never heard of. But the Roku, the best known of this bunch, is just beginning to enable beaming from other screens.
There are surely more of these boxes to come -- Amazon is said to have one in the works, for example.
THE FUTURE Of course, truly smart TVs with Internet connectivity will increasingly negate the need for special adapters. But in the meantime, the adapters are the best window into the television revolution.
After a short while with Netflix via Apple TV or YouTube via Xbox or Hulu via Chromecast, you might wonder why anyone pays for cable or satellite television anymore. But the truth is that many of the best, freshest TV shows and films are still protected behind cable's high walls. All the evidence until now suggests that for most people Internet streams are a supplement to cable, not a replacement. But they're a really useful supplement -- they provide convenience and a sense of control that cable can't currently match.
Soon our definition of the very word "cable" may change: Sony, Intel, Google and other companies are interested in selling a cablelike package of channels via the Internet, challenging incumbents like Comcast and Time Warner Cable. Apple seems to be taking a different tack, collaborating with those incumbents to make it easier for viewers to watch TV on their own terms.
For now, then, it may be best to think of the streaming devices as Trojan horses for the technology giants that manufacture them. Google, Apple, Microsoft and Amazon all want to make TV smarter, and these devices are a start.interact
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.