1. Connect a PC to Your Home Theater System
The most basic way to integrate the internet and stored content is by simply finding a way to connect your 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.
If you are able to connect both video and audio of your PC to your TV and home theater system in this fashion, you can then use your PC's internet access capability to view your Web browser or store images and video on your TV and listen to the audio through either your TV speakers or home theater speakers.
Also, an increasing number of newer PCs and Laptops have an HDMI output connection built-in. If you have an HDMI-equipped PC, you do not have to use an adapter to connect to your HDTV.
The downside to a PC to TV setup is that you need to have the PC, TV, and home theater system all in the same room, in close proximity. You also are 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.
2. Connect a Standalone Network Media Player 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, usually referred to as a network media player or media streamer. The way these devices work is that they take advantage of home network connectivity. In order 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 your PC doesn't have be to placed near the TV or home theater system - it can remain in your home office or another location in your home.
On the other hand, the disadvantage with this type of setup is that you have add 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.
3. 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 with a network-enabled Blu-ray 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, Blockbuster, Flickr, 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 are important to you, then you also have to make a decision based on what Internet content providers are important to you.
4. 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 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 Service
In addition to cable and satellite services adding access to internet-based content, TIVO is now offering its TIVO Premiere. In addition DVR functions, the TIVO premiere adds access to streaming and downloadable internet-based content from Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, You Tube, and Rhapsody. The TIVO Premiere 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 premiere to portable devices, such as the iPod and Sony PSP. For more details, check out the TIVO Premiere Product Page or download the official TIVO Premiere Brochure (pdf).
5. 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?
On the other hand, the disadvantage to this approach, so far, is that such receivers are on the expensive side and although offering a good selection of internet audio access, haven't matured yet in the video streaming department. However, this is definitely an approach that will continue to gain momentum in the future.
6. Use an Internet-Enabled Television
The final option to combine the internet with your home theater is to go directly to the device that is already the most used and easiest to use - the television. All of the major TV manufacturers are on board, such as: LG (Netcast), Mitsubishi (Vudu Apps), Panasonic (VieraCast) Samsung (TV Widgets), Sony Bravia Internet Widgets, and Vizio (Internet Apps) have televisions in their line-up that enable direct connection to a home network for accessing content from the internet.
The big advantage in using an internet-enabled television 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 into 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-capable televisions.
For more on using a television to access the internet, check out the following articles from About.com's TV/Video Site:
Also, sure to check out my my current list of Best Network Media Players and Media Players
Proceed to my follow-up article: The Pros and Cons of Accessing the Internet on a Home Theater