Monday, October 18, 2010

Turn Any Old PC, Laptop Or Netbook Into A Flexible Media Centre

More and more people are experiencing streaming video as the primary source of video entertainment. For example, most students at college or university rely on their laptop for their source of (usually illegal) video content such as movies and television shows. However, with legitimate services like Lovefilm, Hulu, YouTube, BBC iPlayer and 4OD, a truly immense catalogue is available at one's fingertips (not to mention PPStream, a very impressive video streaming client). The problem is that most people are still consuming online video via their PCs at their desks. Video content like movies and television shows should be enjoyed as they were designed to be viewed; to be watched in the living room and shared with friends and family on the big TV screen.

Creating a media centre is very simple and often requires very modest investment of time and money. Most of us have an old PC or laptop lying around gathering dust. Maybe the PC has been replaced by an upgrade and the old PC has not yet been sold or thrown away. Maybe the laptop has a broken screen and is out of warranty. Even the first sub-£100 netbooks have the processing power to throw out streaming video. No matter what the situation, almost all computers from the last 10 years have the capacity to serve as a media centre that can play all modern video including YouTube, iPlayer, etc.

Other streaming solutions such as Apple TV, Roku, Boxee, etc. all cut exclusive deals with content providers, meaning that each product only has access to a fraction of all available content. Content providers like Hulu, ABC, etc. limit their support to competitor devices all except for one: the PC. By using the PC as a hub for entertainment, you will never have to worry about compatibility issues or being locked out. And this setup requires very little additional hardware for most people, and can be done for less than £5 in most cases.

Step 1) Video Cable

This is what the back of TVs made from around 2003 looks like.

The correct video cables really depend on what kind of TV you own. 99% of the time it will be fine to use a standard VGA cable (the same kind that hooks your monitor to your PC). For example, this VGA Cable should suit almost every set up. Using Windows operating system, you can simply plug in the cable to your device and it will automatically 'clone' the whatever is displayed on the computer onto the TV.

In the event that you own a TV that was made before 2003, you may only be equipped with an S-video port. This kind of port does not allow high resolution video to show up clearly, so I wouldn't recommend using the TV as a display in this situation. You can make it work by using adapters, but the resulting picture will be very blurry and in my experience, you are better off sticking with a standard PC monitor.

Step 2) Audio Cable

Every computer made since the late 90s use integrated sound cards, and therefore also use 3.5mm stereo jacks to output sound (the same as most headphones). 99% of TVs accept this audio format, so you can just pick up a male/male 3.5mm Jack Stereo Cable which will be able to carry through your sound from your computer to your TV's speakers. Depending on your TV model, you may have to enable sound to be input from this port, but on most TVs this is automatic.

Almost every TV and PC is compatible with the 3.5mm Stereo Jack.

In the event that you don't have a 3.5mm port in your TV,  you can use a 3.5mm Jack to x2 RCA (Red White) Cable, which is definitely supported by all TVs since the early 90s.


This guide is really for adapting old computers and not for those with HDMI ports. If you have an HDMI port in both your PC and your TV, you can just plug a cable between them and it will carry through high definition video and audio automatically.

Check out my article on DAVE for the best laptop/keyboard couch desk: Review: DAVE From Ikea, An In-Depth Look At The Best Couch Desk / Laptop Table.

Also you can check out my guide to: Do PC Gaming On Your Couch Or Sofa.