If you’re like me then you’ve probably noticed that each year your cable or satellite TV bill tends to increase and the number of channels and included features tends to decrease. In this guide I will show you how to turn an old PC into an entertainment device that you could use to ditch your cable or satellite tv service.
Let me start by saying that I first became aware of the need to come up with an alternate way to watch television shows due to the late 2009, early 2010 dispute between Fox and Time Warner Cable. Then, later this spring, Time Warner pulled the plug on several channels for users (like myself) that opted to not upgrade to digital cable. This move further necessitated that I come up with an alternate means of watching television at home.
I have written this guide assuming that either you or someone that you know is capable of installing Microsoft Windows on a PC. You should also be able to readily identify common input/output connections such as RCA, HDMI, S-Video, etc… Lastly, you should be comfortable with using and making adjustments to Microsoft Windows.
What You’ll Need
- A Pentium 4 CPU (or higher)
- 512 MB of RAM (more if you plan on streaming HD content)
- A video card with TV out
- Wired or wireless network card
- Windows XP, Windows Vista, or Windows 7 (I used Windows 7)
Any TV will work as long as it can interface with your computer’s video card.
Additional Cables & Hardware
- 1/8th inch male to dual RCA male stereo “Y cable”
- A video cable to connect your PC to your TV. This will be RCA video, S-Video, VGA, DVI, or HDMI depending on your TV
- Adesso WKB-4000US wireless keyboard with integrated trackpad.
You can find the necessary cables at your local Radio Shack. I got the Adesso WKB-4000US from Newegg.
First, you’ll need to perform a routine installation of the Windows operating system that you’ll be using. I did this using a standard PC monitor, mouse, and keyboard. You should do the same as your video card will most likely not work with your TV until the correct drivers are installed. Of note, be sure to use the most recent video drivers available for your computer’s video card. I would also advise that you install Firefox 3.6 to be used as your default web browser. You’ll also want to download a copy of the free version of AVG since this is a Windows PC that will be connecting to the Internet. Lastly, you’ll want to download and install a copy of VNC so that you can troubleshoot your PC’s video out connection to your TV if need be.
Now that your PC is ready you’ll want to hook it up to your television. Simply connect the video cable from the video out on your PC to the video in on your TV. The audio cable will be connected to the 1/8th inch audio out jack on your PC to the RCA audio in jacks on your TV. Use the manual included with the Adesso WKB-4000US to connect your wireless keyboard to the PC.
At this point you should use your TV remote to switch to the input which you used to connect your PC to. Turn on the PC and verify that you can see something on screen. In my case Windows 7 automatically detected my TV so I was able to begin using my PC immediately. If you can’t see anything on screen then you’ll want to use VNC to connect to your PC from another computer and configure your video card to display using its TV out capabilities. This setting will vary based upon your version of Windows and your video card.
Let’s Watch Something!
You can use the Adesso WKB-4000US wireless keyboard/mouse to use the PC connected to your TV as if it were a normal desktop or laptop computer. Open Firefox and go to Hulu. Now pick a show to watch! Within the Hulu video screen you’ll see an option to switch to fullscreen mode. Click this to enjoy your program in all of its fullscreen glory. You can press ESC on your keyboard to return to windowed mode. I have been using Hulu and Netflix for the bulk of my viewing. Lifehacker has a great list of additional websites and services that you can use to watch free Internet TV. I highly recommend that you check it out.
Additional Options & Tweaks
- I found that I had to increase the font size within Windows 7 in order to better see text displayed within Windows 7 itself.
- I also had to use the zoom function within Firefox to better view some websites. This can be done using ctrl + to zoom in and ctrl – to zoom back out.
- I wanted to be able to access my iTunes library on the media center PC so I enabled sharing from within iTunes preferences on my downstairs computer and installed iTunes on the media center PC.
- I had a shared folder on my downstairs PC that contained all sorts of video content that I wanted to watch upstairs. I mapped a network drive to the shared folder and installed VLC in order to avoid any potential issues with audio and video codecs. The video files played perfectly over my wireless LAN.
- Games look great on a 42 inch screen! Remember that since this is a standard PC you can install any application or game that you want to!