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Tech Lab

Web gets comfy in your den

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By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / July 23, 2009

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The next big thing in Internet video is 10 feet away.

That’s the typical distance between your living room TV set and a comfy chair. That’s where most of us want to be when watching video, not hunched over at a desk, staring at a computer screen. To bring Internet video out of bedrooms and home offices and onto our home theaters, we’ll need software to help our TVs display these videos, while making the itty-bitty images look good from 10 feet away.

Lots of us already have the right hardware. Two popular video game consoles, Sony Corp.’s PlayStation 3 and Nintendo Co.’s Wii, can display videos from YouTube.com on standard TV sets. Also, many of the new digital TV sets can double as computer monitors. Plug an Internet-connected laptop into the set and punch up your favorite online video services, like the video streaming service on Hulu.com. Of course, you’ll need a broadband Internet connection, and the faster the better. Slow connections lead to poor picture quality.

Even with a high-speed Internet link, watching videos in the living room isn’t always the happiest experience. YouTube was originally designed for viewing on a computer monitor just 3 feet from your face, and with a keyboard and mouse for tuning in to your favorite videos. Just try manipulating those little icons from 10 feet away, armed with a video game controller.

Still, I recently fired up YouTube on my Internet-connected PS 3, and got a pleasant surprise. Up popped a new interface called YouTube XL that’s designed for living-room viewing. The same TV-friendly interface is also available at www.youtube.com/xl for use on personal computers.

YouTube XL blows up everything on the screen, including control buttons, the text describing each video, and of course, the little movies themselves. It all looks much better when viewed from the other side of the room, and you can easily point and click the enlarged icons with the PS 3 game controller. It’s a pain to type search terms by using the controller to peck at icons on an on-screen keyboard. But the PS 3 has a good predictive program that usually displays the word you’re typing after you’ve punched in a few letters.

Alas, YouTube XL wins no prizes for video quality. The typical YouTube video, shabby from the start, deteriorates still more when swollen to fit a large TV screen. Still, the result is viewable enough from a comfortable perch on the sofa.

Hulu also wants access to your TV set. It’s come up with Hulu Desktop, a program for Microsoft Windows PCs or Apple Inc. Macintosh computers. Instead of the usual Hulu experience, where you stream movies or TV shows into a Web browser, Hulu Desktop is a stand-alone, full-screen movie player with surprisingly good performance.

I punched up a made-for-TV potboiler about a meteor racing toward earth, and plugged a test laptop into my large-screen LCD television set. Except for the occasional Internet-related stutter, the image was sharp and crisp, even on the 46-inch screen.

Hulu Desktop will run on any late-model PC or Mac, and it’s compatible with the remote controls that come with many home computers these days. Visit Hulu.com/labs to download a trial version.

But running a different piece of software for each online video service is like buying a different TV set for each channel. Why not one program to manage all Internet video sources? That’s the goal of a free download called Boxee, which acts as a central control for all your digital entertainment.

Boxee runs on Windows, Mac, or Linux computers. Once installed, it lets you select from multiple Internet video channels. You can watch YouTube, CNN news footage, or new and old TV shows from CBS, with video quality that varies depending on the source. Boxee also provides limited access to Hulu, though full access is unavailable because of copyright disputes.

Boxee also manages your personal entertainment files. It indexes all the music, photos, and videos on your home computer for easy playback, and can access files from other computers on your home network.

The Boxee interface has big, blocky icons and large type, making it easy to control at a distance. Like Hulu Desktop, Boxee will work with Mac or Windows desktop computer remotes. If you own an Apple iPhone, there’s a free software app to control Boxee with the phone’s touchscreen.

Besides online video, Boxee can deliver photos stored on the popular image website Flickr.com, or your favorite audio streams on the Pandora online music service. In fact, any multimedia provider can write iPhone-like apps for Boxee, so users can easily subscribe to fresh streams of news and entertainment.

Boxee claims half a million users so far, and offers about three dozen apps. If usage rises into the millions, every big-time Internet stream in the world will want a piece of the action, and Boxee could become the Internet’s number one multimedia portal.

The current version of Boxee, available at boxee.tv, is an early trial version and still fairly buggy. But it’s shaping up as the smartest effort so far to drag Internet video off the 19-inch monitor and onto the big screen.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.