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Nearly 72 percent of online households log on for entertainment purposes every day, according to the Conference Board. They stream episodes of cable TV programs like The Daily Show, watch YouTube clips, and download video podcasts. Even without the Internet, you may have transferred hours of family camcorder footage now buried on the computer's hard drive. Suddenly, it's easy to see your computer as a versatile source component for your big screen TV. Too bad the PC is shackled to a desk in a different room, and show time in the home office amounts to people standing behind your chair squinting at the small screen.
It doesn't have to be that way, especially during the holidays or any home gathering. Here are three ways to view computer content in the more accommodating setting of your living room and home theater:
The most straightforward way to play your computer on your TV is to use the VGA input (also called the PC port) on any TV that has one. (Not all do.) Anything you can see on your computer will be displayed on the TV. Many new HDTV sets include this input, which accepts the same 15-pin VGA cable that has linked monitors to computers since the late Eighties. VGA is an analog (RGB) connection capable of delivering high-definition pictures and video. It doesn't carry the sound, though, so you'll have to depend on the speakers already supplied with the computer or, better than that, connect a mini-plug to stereo audio cable to use the TV's speakers. Better still, if there's a digital audio output on your computer and your TV is enhanced by a home theater sound system, you can run a cable directly from your computer to your receiver.
The downside of attaching your main computer -- probably a desktop model -- directly to your big TV is that it's unlikely to be in the same room, and moving it could be disruptive. A notebook computer is more easily moved. Check with the computer's manual on how to switch the active display from the computer's built-in screen to an external monitor (your TV). Make sure you use cables long enough to reach around to the back of the TV and provide enough reach if, for example, you want to control the computer from the coffee table in front of the sofa. Alternatively, you can add a wire-free controller such as the Logitech diNovo Mini Palm-Sized Wireless Keyboard.
Giving a computer a permanent perch near your main TV is your best option for frequent entertainment use. There are systems designed from the ground up for placement in a home theater. So-called “Media Centers” are equipped with a TV-style remote, a wireless mouse and keyboard, and an HDMI output that lets you connect to an HDTV with one digital cable supplying both picture and sound. An example is the Sony VAIO VGX-TP20 Living Room Computer (available in white or black) incorporating a Blu-ray Disc player, DVR, and Wi-Fi. Placed in your A/V rack, the round computer is controllable from across the room.
If you have a home network that extends to your TV room from a wired Ethernet jack or by air using Wi-Fi, then adding a media receiver is a small step with a large result. Unlike a computer attached to your TV screen, a media receiver is dedicated to playing music, photo slide shows, and video (including movies, TV shows, and home videos) or streaming videos, photos, or radio stations from particular Internet sites. It may also play content that resides on network attached storage (NAS) devices. Taking up less space than a computer, a media receiver comes with a remote that works with menus designed for a TV screen. You can stay on the couch all day and play compatible media files without returning to the computer.
Introduced last year, Apple TV is perhaps the best known yet least typical media receiver. While most media receivers contain no storage of their own and are wholly dependent on an active network connection, Apple TV can also play content that's been copied to its embedded hard drive (available in 160- and 40-gigabyte versions). If you use iTunes on a Mac or a Windows-based computer a lot, Apple TV is an elegant choice that excels at eye-popping photo slide shows. It supports high-definition TV shows purchased from iTunes as well as millions of less good-looking clips available free from YouTube.
Alternatively, if you've installed a Windows Vista computer in your home office, and would like to enjoy its entertainment content in your network-accessible home theater, you're a strong candidate for a Media Center Extender. Linksys offers two extenders, one of which also contains a DVD player. Like Apple TV, both can use a wired or Wi-Fi link. If an Ethernet connection is enough, consider the LinkTheater HD from Buffalo Technology.
If a media receiver is for you, this may be a good time to set up a home network. If you already have one, you may want to upgrade to a faster router. Streaming high definition video shouldn't be a problem across a wired network, but it could be if you are using one of the older Wi-Fi standards, 802.11b or 802.11g. High-def video craves a faster transfer rate like those supplied by 802.11a or 802.11n. Two top-performing routers to consider are (1) Apple's AirPort Extreme Base Station, which handles 802.11a/b/g/n and Gigabit Ethernet and (2) the Linksys Group Simultaneous Dual-N Band Wireless Router.
Sneakernet was a term coined two decades ago to describe the simplest way to move data from one device to another without a network. You'd copy files to a removable disk, then copy it to another computer. Yesterday's spreadsheets on floppies have become today's photos or videos on memory cards, USB jump drives, and external hard disks. The destination is now more often a TV instead of another computer.
A minority of HDTV sets contain an SD card slot or USB input and the built-in decoding for playing photos and sometimes music or video, too. More likely, you'll need to add a source component that can play the digital media you've copied from a computer or removed from a camera or camcorder. Such players are essentially standalone media receivers that don't require a network connection. Of course, this also means that you can't stream content from the Internet or pull newly downloaded content from a computer without walking back to the computer and copying anew. Sneakernet can be a schlep.
A new self-contained digital media player that connects to a TV or HDTV set is the Multimedia Player TV from Digital Concepts. About the size of small DVD player, the box accepts a variety of memory card types and USB devices. None are included. However, if you want a media player that contains its own memory, the Trekstor MovieStation houses a hard drive available in two capacities. You attach the MovieStation to your PC's USB port, fill it up with songs, photos, and videos, and then plug it into your TV. An advantage of a media player that doesn't depend on a network connection is that you can keep walking right out the door and attach it to a TV in someone else's home.
Before purchasing a media receiver or digital media player, check the specifications to make sure the device is compatible with the file formats you want to play on your TV. A potential roadblock for copying to external media or streaming over a network is content you've purchased that is protected by a digital rights management (DRM) scheme. So, for example, don't expect a Windows Extender that's designed to use Microsoft's DRM to also support content purchased through iTunes. Similarly, your Apple TV will work with anything bought via iTunes but not necessarily with content bought elsewhere.
When using a TV to watch video normally associated with a computer, use the best type of connection available. For high definition or DVD-quality as well as high resolution photos, choose an HDMI or component video input. (The S-Video and composite video jacks were not designed to pass through high definition, though they're adequate for standard definition on a conventional TV.) Every media receiver and player comes with a remote, so once your new video source component is connected to your TV, you can sit back, relax, and control the show.