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Use a Laptop PC as a Video Server for Your Home Entertainment System

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DanRollins
As more and more media become available over broadband Internet, a common question is:  How can I watch these movies and TV episodes (eps), anime, YouTube subscriptions, etc... on my big-screen TV?  

Why limit your viewing experience to the small screen at your desk?  Wouldn't you rather lie back in your Barcalounger® with a bowl of pretzels and an adult beverage?  Of course you would.  Aren't TV eps meant to be viewed by the family... in the living room in the evening?  Of course they are.

Your "video experience" has already been revolutionized by your PVR.  You are no longer a slave to the broadcast schedule... or are you?  Odds are, you occasionally have to watch one show live (brain-damaging commercials and all) so you can record another show for later viewing.  And what about those TV shows that present a continuous storyline?  Shows like, 24 or Damages or Crash or Dexter or... well, any of the best dramas?  You will generally need to wait a WHOLE WEEK between episodes.  And what about that irritating deal where the network ends a popular show at, say, 10:01 just so your TiVo won't start recording the other network's show that starts at 10:00?  

Frankly, my TiVo doesn't get much attention these days:  I have a Terabyte of quality video downloads in the queue.  When I'm in the mood for a particular drama, I watch three episodes of it back-to-back-to-back.  If my wife's in the mood for some Hugh Laurie, and we're up-to-date with House, MD we (re)watch an evergreen ep of "Wooster and Jeeves."

Should you go out and buy a dedicated computer to hook to your TV?  Maybe spec-out a high-end system and shell out $2000... just so you can use it to watch True Blood?  You could (it would be worth it -- though that box might look odd sitting on the living room floor, and where do you put the keyboard and monitor?).  But that's not what I did.

I got my daughter's old (circa 2004) laptop computer, sat it down on the cabinet next to the TV, hooked up a few cables, and had myself a video server.  When I put on my 24-Hour Science Fiction Marathon, I used the same "old" laptop PC to drive a Epson presentation projector to display a 100-inch diagonal-measure screen on the wall.  I didn't spend a penny on hardware (plenty on Raisonets, popcorn, and Red Bull, but nothing at all on hardware :-)

Here's all that's required:

The laptop needs to have s-video output, and the TV needs to have an available s-video or RCA input.  Connect a cable between them.  You also need a cable to connect the speaker output of the laptop to the audio-input of the TV.  It's that easy.  

Not all laptops come with s-video output, but many do.  Just check the specs.  Most TVs accept s-video on at least one the inputs (say, AUX 2).  If all of the TV inputs are RCA, you can get a cable that converts s-video to RCA for about the cost of a 12-pack of Corona.

It's also possible that your TV has S-VGA input.  Just look in the back!  If it does, then you can buy/use an even cheaper laptop.

You don't need a really blazing-fast laptop, either.   I'm using one with a  750 MHz Celeron processor (so ancient, you probably can't even buy such a  dinosaur any more).


Anything Else?
Well, you'll want access to the Internet, of course, and that means connecting to your home network.  You can either use the laptop's wireless hardware to connect to your home network wireless router, or you can run a cable from the home-office to a spot near your TV.  I've gotten the best results using a wired Ethernet connection.

Do you need to buy special software to display the shows?  No. You can use any of the many media players -- Windows Media Player, Media Player Classic, or (my recommendation) VLC Media Player -- all of which are free downloads.  

The Windows Control Panel on a laptop with s-video output will support the ability to "extend the desktop" across both screens -- its own and the TV.  What I do is drag the VLC Media Player window so that it appears mostly on the TV screen (part of it remains visible on the laptop screen).  I queue up one or more shows in the separate VLC playlist window (which I keep entirely on the laptop screen) and then double-click in the player window.  It immediately goes full-screen on the TV, and begins playing.

The Convenience Factor
OK, you admittedly need to start the show(s) by physically getting up from the sofa, walking those terrible four paces to the laptop and double-clicking an icon.  But that's not trivial, when compared to simply pointing a remote control at the TiVo.   And you'll lack the oh-so-handy Pause and Skip-Back remote options.

But even these slight inconveniences can be overcome.  You can get an RF mouse -- you'll need one with a good 20-foot capacity -- if you want more control.  I actually went another direction:  I have a small Sony VAIO PC that I keep at the sofa, and I use MSTSC (Remote Desktop Connection) or VNC to remote-control the laptop.  This is total overkill, but it's a "vidiot's delight" -- I do it more because it tickles my techy bone than because it's worth doing.  The VAIO is great for looking up trivia facts on IMDB while viewing the show.

Another option would be to purchase a longer s-video cable and keep the laptop on the side-table by the sofa.  That would mean running another wire through the crawlspace (you really don't want it dangling loose on the carpet), but it's worth considering because then you would have complete control without moving your body at all.

The Best Part...
... is some of the "little" things that you don't immediately realize until you take this route:

You can get rid of (or avoid replacing) your broken/aging DVD player.  Your laptop has one!
Your TV probably has great stereo audio output... maybe even better than what you usually need for TV viewing.  Well, now you can play all of your MP3 music though that high-quality sound system!  Bonus:  You can have the screen display the Media Player's hypnotic "visualizations" for background ambiance while listening.
You don't need to store your video files on the laptop -- the files can reside in any shared directory on any computer in the home network.  Your network is easily capable of the bandwidth needed by compressed video streams.
Yes, you can show your favorite YouTube videos to the in-laws when they drop in -- without forcing everyone to crowd around the computer in your messy office.
Yes, you can show the photographs of your Hawaiian vacation or the recent brush fire behind your house on the BIG SCREEN where they may have some impact.
Two words: Dr. Horrible.
Having a computer in the living room is great for browsing the web to answer questions like "I know I've seen her before... I wonder where..." and "Is this the third TNG ep with Q, or the fourth?"
The laptop is not a dedicated video server.  It's still a laptop PC that you can take with you on business trips or whenever you travel.  Unhook the three cables from the back and off you go!  If you're at all like me (something I don't particularly wish on anybody, but nevertheless...), you probably don't use your laptop much when you're at home.  So you are simply making sensible use of your existing hardware assets.
Disclaimer:
Although it is possible to illegally download complete seasons of every TV program that has ever been aired by using any BitTorrent client, neither I, nor anyone associated with this website in any way condone such illegal activities.   Many TV programs and movies can be downloaded legally for free and such pay-per-ep sites as as iTunes and Amazon are charging smaller and smaller fees every day.

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Author:DanRollins
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3 Comments
 
LVL 38

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by:lherrou
Nice! I'm going to have to try this myself when I next retire a laptop.

I gave this article a "Yes" vote :)
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by:WaterStreet

Nice, useful article.
Got my yes vote, above.
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LVL 38

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by:lherrou
So, with my Droid capable of VNC, I've been using the Droid to control my multimedia computer, which means I can control what plays from where ever I am... always handy when you have teens!
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