So you want to watch movies from the internet on your Mac, iPad, iPhone, or iPod touch? Or on your TV?
We're at the beginning of the future. Within a few years, DVD's will go the way of the CD -- they'll be around, but much of our entertainment will be on demand over the internet. And for those who want it, the future is now -- you can already watch tons of movies and TV shows on your various devices.
Let's round up some of the options you have for on-demand and mobile entertainment. No one of these is best, since all of them offer different abilities and content.
For Apple users, this is an obvious place to start. The iTunes store lets you both buy and rent movies and TV shows on your computer or iPad/iPhone/iPod Touch, or watch on your television with an AppleTV. You can also buy or rent rent movies directly on an iPad. When you rent a movie -- which costs less than buying it, of course -- you get 30 days to start watching it, and 24 hours to finish it once you start. Once videos are downloaded, you can then watch them when you don't have an internet connection (such as on an airplane) though rentals may need to be started while you are still online. If you elect for HD downloads, they will take longer than their standard definition counterparts.
The popular DVD-by-mail rental service is now also an online rental service. If you are a Netflix subscriber, you can watch as many online movies as you like, as often as you like, as part of your subscription. If you're not, they offer an online-only subscription for $8 per month. Unfortunately, their library of titles available for online viewing is not nearly as vast as their DVD library, but there's still plenty to choose from. And because the movies stream, rather than download, you have to be connected to the internet while watching. If you find the Netflix web site to be a cumbersome way of browsing for online movies and TV shows, there's a great no-nonsense alternative interface at Instantwatcher.
You can view online Netflix on a Mac in a web browser, or on an iPad, iPhone, or iPod Touch by installing their free app. If you want to watch Netflix titles on your TV, you can use the new Apple TV or a Roku; a PS3, Xbox 360, or Wii; a TiVo; and several Blu-Ray players and even TV's themselves have the capability built-in. You could also directly connect your computer or mobile device to your TV with the appropriate adapters and cables (ask us if you need help with this).
Hulu (and ABC)
Hulu specializes in TV shows (no movies) and lets you watch recent and classic episodes for free on your computer. They also offer Hulu Plus, a subscription service which gets you HD quality and the ability to watch on iPad/iPhone/iPod Touch (and other mobile devices). To watch on your TV, you can attach your computer, or use Hulu Plus with Roku, PS3 and Xbox, and many Blu-Ray players and TV's. If you have an iPad and like ABC's programming, an free alternative to Hulu Plus is the ABC iPad app, which lets you watch many of that network's shows.
Amazon and Blockbuster
Amazon offers a similar purchase-or-rent model as iTunes; the rental period is longer, but you can't download or play the movies on a mobile device. However, you can also access their movies via Roku or TiVo, and some Blu-Ray players and TV's. Blockbuster, the once-ubiquitous video rental franchise, is trying to stay relevant; they offer rentals which play on many of the same devices (though, unlike Netflix, these are NOT included in their DVD subscriptions; how do they expect to ever catch up?).
Elgato EyeTV HD and Slingbox
These neat products allow you to, among other things, watch your home TV over the internet, wherever you happen to be. They attach to your home cable or satellite box, and then "broadcast" over the internet to your computer or mobile device. You can actually remote control your cable box or DVR over the web to choose what you want to watch! The Slingbox works well if you have an existing DVR, whereas the Elgato EyeTV is a Mac-friendly DVR itself for use with a digital cable box (though not another DVR). Once the EyeTV HD has recorded your shows, you can transfer them to your Mac or mobile device, or watch them on-demand over the internet with their additional products. If Slingbox or EyeTV HD sound cool to you but you're unsure of how to set them up or whether they'll work with your system, ask us!
Do It Yourself
If you purchase a DVD, you can use your Mac to load it onto your iPad, iPhone or any video-capable iPod with the free program HandBrake (and you will also need to separately install the free program VLC Media Player for Handbrake to fully operate). There are also a variety of similar commercial programs which we haven't tried; search the web for "mac dvd" and you'll find plenty. None of these programs work with Blu-Ray discs, which can't be read in a Mac's optical drive.