How to Watch TV on Your Computer

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Even before most people had bought their first high-definition TV sets, they already owned high-def displays attached to their desktop computers or rooted in their notebooks. They just didn’t use them to watch TV. Today, there are at least three ways to watch TV on a computer.

  • Attach a DTV tuner to receive free over-the-air channels.
  • Use a place shifter and home network to leverage a cable or satellite subscription and DVR on computers throughout the house or remotely via the Internet.
  • Stream on-demand programs for free from the commercial networks’ own sites and Hulu or through such pay services as Hulu Plus, iTunes and Netflix.

You can get a TV tuner as a peripheral that attaches to a USB port, or an add-in card for a computer with a free slot. A small antenna is often included as well as DVR software that enables you to buffer or save a broadcast to the computer’s hard drive.  A remote may be included, too. Tuners that are ATSC-, Clear QAM- and NTSC-compatible are the most flexible because in addition to receiving the ATSC broadcast standard from DTV stations, they enable you to attach the coaxial cable from your cable TV provider in order to get unencrypted digital (Clear QAM) channels as well as analog (NTSC) channels still being carried for the benefit of viewers with legacy cable-ready TVs.

By inserting a place shifter between your cable box/DVR and TV, you can watch and control whatever is being displayed on the TV from a computer in another room or a faraway location through a broadband connection. Place shifters are sometimes called "Internet broadcasters" but are more often referred to by the most successful brand in the category, Slingbox from Sling Media. A Slingbox retransmits the cable channel

through an Ethernet jack into your home network. You plug an included IR relay cable into a Slingbox and place the sticky emitter over the IR receiver on the cable box. Using a virtual remote displayed on the computer screen, you can operate the cable box or DVR as if you were actually sitting in front of the TV.


A third way to receive TV programs on a computer is to stream them via a broadband connection directly from a Web site. Live streamed simulcasts of cable or broadcast channels are still rare (since they tend to flout the arrangements a network has made with local affiliates and cable operators), but linear feeds may become more common as the Internet continues to disrupt established distribution models. More likely now is the ability to stream a particular program first broadcast perhaps a week earlier. In other words, series premieres are mainly reserved for TV viewers but catch-up plays are available later to viewers at computers or Internet-connected TVs.