Many a time I have looked over at my 32" television and thought, why can't I just hook up my computer to that thing and play my PC games on a huge screen? I figured it would beat buying a huge computer monitor for a ton of cash, right? I mean, I can already watch TV on my computer by using Pro Video 2008 - why can't I just switch it around?
Well, I looked into it and it can be done. In fact, more and more homes are using a TV screen as a computer monitor. You can now watch movies, download on-demand movies from places like Netflix, watch YouTube videos on a big screen, watch a slide show of your own stored digital images, view home videos and more! For most folks, it is just a matter of hooking up some cables or using a converter. For others, WiFi may be used in the connection. Either way, there can be some limitations.
This article will explain how to get started -- as well as the benefits and limitations -- so you can decide for yourself if using your TV as a computer monitor is worth your while.
Computer to TV Connection: The Basics
First, you connect and can use your TV as a monitor using Windows, Mac or Linux computers. You can do this either by using cables or by connecting wirelessly. The method you choose to connect the two depends on how compatible the connections are between your TV and computer (the inputs and the outputs) as well as how much money you want to spend buying additional hardware.
Before You Get Started.
Before you get started, be sure to install the latest drivers for your computer’s video card. To do so, go to the manufacturer’s website of your particular computer’s video card to download and install it. If you have cable or satellite TV, make sure that your provider offers a cable box with a DVI or HDMI output. Also consider how you will hook up sound/audio since computer speakers may not provide enough volume for certain uses. Your computer has a sound card speaker jack. Hooking up the monitor to a separate stereo can work so you can control volume through a cable/satellite box volume control.
One last thing. It might make sense to provide the meaning of the many acronyms used with this technology and within this article. Without these, this topic can be confusing. Feel free to refer to this list as you read down through the rest of the information below.
- Video Graphics Array (VGA/XGA)
- Digital Visual Interface (DVI)
- Liquid Crystal Display (LCD)
- High Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI)
- S-Video = Super-Video
- DLP = Digital Light Processing
- RGB: red, green, blue (video signals)
- Digital Media Receiver (DMR)
Connecting with Cables
If you are going to connect your computer to your TV using cables, you can start by identifying inputs and outputs on the TV and the computer to see if the connections match. For example, check to see if your TV has a VGA input and your computer has a VGA output. If so, you will need a cable to connect the two. If not, you may need a converter so the computer and the TV can communicate. Next, identify the type of TV you have. Do you have an analog TV or a digital TV? An analog one will have an S-video input. Newer, digital televisions will have an S-Video, Component Video, VGA (15-prongs), DVI (29 prongs), or HDMI inputs. Plasma, DLP, or LCD televisions and other newer TVs should have a PC compatible VGA input.
So let’s get started…
- Identify your TV's input connections. Most TVs these days have three basic types of inputs.
1) A coaxial cable input (the same input as is used for your cable box or satellite)
2) An RCA composite input (the yellow, red and white inputs)
3) An S-Video input connector
- Identify your computer's output connections. These days, computer manufacturers are adding TV compatible outputs on their products, making it easy to have a computer to TV connection when you hook it up. The “S-video” output in particular seems to be popping up on more and more computers, making a S-video connector, perhaps, just what you need. You can shop for S-video cables all over the place online. Mostly you will find the usual VGA output that a regular computer monitor hooks up to (see more later on VGA cables*). The newer multimedia computers will probably have all high definition outputs that connect directly to your High Density Television (HDTV). However, for now, we will discuss what most people have for both computers and televisions. To help you decide which connection you should use, consider taking a look at the list of connection combinations listed on this site: http://www.addictivetips.com/hardware/how-to-connect-your-computerpc-or-laptop-to-your-tv/
*A note on cables: Be careful not to buy a cheap VGA cable at a discount store. You might find a VGA cable being sold cheaply ($20 or so) that looks like a typical VGA cable. However, this one will not allow you to connect a computer to a TV's component video input unless it is also RGB capable. The signal format is different so don’t be fooled even if the physical connections on this cable match your VGA output and component video input. This cheaper cable is usually used to connect things like a DVD player to a projector.
- Find the appropriate adapter for your connections. You may need to get a computer to TV cable, or adapter, so you can hook up your computer to the TV. If you have an HDTV, you may need a VGA to component cable. This cable connects your computer to an HDTV and acts as a converter. (Again, that computer can be either a Mac or a PC.)
You should be able to find a PC/computer to TV connector that has a VGA adapter on one end and (usually) a selection of connectors on the other (S-video, RCA composite and Component). The good thing about this connector is that you should be able to hook up a computer to any TV in your home.
- Connect your computer to your TV. If you have a TV compatible output on your computer, such as an S-video jack, just take an S-video cable and connect it to your computer and then to your TV. This cable has a round connector on the end with 4 or 7 pins sticking up inside of it. If you do not have a TV compatible output on your computer, then you will definitely need a VGA to S-video cable or a VGA to component cable. Attach the VGA end of your adapter to your computer and use the RCA, S-video or Component Video cable to attach this cord to your TV. We should note that using a standard VGA port or using a DVI to HDMI cable to connect your computer to your TV provides a better picture quality.
After you've made all the connections, make sure you are on the correct TV video input. Using your TV remote, press the input button until you see your computer's signal. Go to "external inputs" on the menu. The default setting will need to be changed from "Video 1" to a different selection, which may be "HDMI 1" or "Video 2" depending on how you have made the connection.
I highly recommend a wireless adapter to connect your computer to a TV. A wireless adapter costs a bit more but it is worthwhile because it eliminates the need for a big mess of cords and cables, and it eliminates the need to keep your computer near or next to your TV. If you happen to be connecting a PC to your TV, you will need to install something called a Wireless PC to TV system or DMR. Both of these connect to the TV by using an AV cable. Once this connection is made, it brings a WiFi connection to any computer in the home. Windows Media Center Edition (MCE) is another option if you want to wirelessly connect the two. Windows XP or Windows Vista PC can come with the MCE application included. This contains built in wireless and will allow images and content from your computer to stream to your television.
Getting a Quality Computer to TV Connection
- Pixels vs Lines of Resolution. Now, here is where things get tricky. Your TV's usual video signal is called NTSC (PAL if you live in Europe). This signal is different than the video signal generated by your computer. Computers use signals measured by pixels: 320x200, 320x240, 640x480, 800x600, 1024x768, 1280x1024 or 1600x1200 while most TV's can only get about 500 lines of resolution. In computers, 500 lines of resolution is equal to approximately 500 vertical pixels. The video amplifiers in a television cannot handle higher resolutions than this. So when you factor these things together, you are left with a maximum resolution of 640x480 on your TV.
Now this is not the worst thing in the world because when you connect a computer to a TV, you can play games and watch video in lower resolutions without a problem. However, you will never get close to the resolution that your computer monitor can give you. This means that images or movies that look crisp and clear on a 17" or 19" monitor may not appear as defined when stretched across a 52 inch TV screen. Also, beware of some PC to TV adapters that claim to give you more than 640x480; they will just reduce the quality of the original television signal to compensate.
You can get a VGA to component cable for an HDTV that will give you higher resolutions, but you need an HDTV and an adapter that usually costs 2-3 times more than your standard computer to TV adapter.
- Response Time. Pay attention to the response time of your TV screen. Computer monitors have much better response times than LCD TVs. A slow response time can cause motion blur. This might not be desirable if you are using your TV for gaming purposes. On the other hand, if you have a plasma TV, response time should not be an issue since plasma screens use a different method of displaying pixels. Response times of LCD TVs continue to improve, getting very close to the response time of computer monitors. Just remember when buying an LCD TV for PC use to check the response timing as one of the factors when making your choice.
- Viewing Distance. Don’t forget to consider what the primary use will be when connecting your computer to your TV. What will be the main function of the larger TV screen display? If the main use will be to use programs such as Word or Excel on your TV screen or you plan on browsing the Internet while relaxing on the sofa, consider resolution issues as well as the distance you will be sitting from the screen. Often a computer monitor may be a better choice for such uses since it can provide a sharper image at a higher resolution. You don’t want to have to struggle to read any text. The main reason people connect their computer to their TV is to watch movies, home videos or look at images.
- Connecting Audio/Sound. Don’t forget to connect your computer to speakers or a stereo so that you will have sound available. If you have sound card ports for connecting speakers, you will most likely need a 3.5mm (1/8 inch) stereo plug or jack to an RCA type cable. This should plug in on both pieces of equipment easily.
- Speed of the connection. The computer connection may vary depending on where you are located and how you are connected. If you lose service or your WiFi is sporadic, it may be aggravating to use your computer to view movies. However, it will be fine for playing games on a big screen.
- Screen resolution. Older TVs have a much lower screen resolution than newer ones so images from your computer may appear to have a lower quality when viewed on your television. S-Video connections will provide the lowest quality images and video.
- Location/Length of cable. You will need to move your computer close to your TV due to cables and connection lengths.
- Cost of new hardware. Keep your budget in mind before you set up this connection.
- Loss of remote. You will not be able to turn the TV on and off with a remote unless you have a cable box with a built in plug feature (or you buy a remote control surge protector). However, volume and channel changing can be done on the remote that controls the cable box.
Remember, if you own a Digital Video Recorders (DVR), you can watch TV directly on your computer by connecting your computer to the DVR rather than to your television. Be sure to connect the cable from the computer to the TV before turning on the computer so that it recognizes the external display.
Whatever options you choose, it's not hard to use your TV as a computer monitor as long as you follow the few steps itemized above. A computer's liquid crystal display (LCD) screen is probably much clearer than your regular TV screen, but a plasma TV will have even better clarity than a flat screen, making viewing movies amazing and more fun!