Getting the web into the TV

April 24, 2010 at 8:47 pm | Posted in Scott | 2 Comments

As you already know, my wife and I plan to cancel our cable subscription and compensate with DVDs and streaming video from the web. Streaming video to your computer is fine if you don’t mind watching shows while sitting at your desk, in an office chair (in other words: you’re alone.) If you intend to watch a show with someone else, you’ll either want a huge monitor, or a computer hooked up to your TV.

Now, it’s true that our TiVo can stream YouTube videos and Netflix on demand, but that’s a small percentage of the video material available online. Hulu alone is a compelling argument for having a PC in the living room. Drunk History on FunnyorDie is another. There’s also iTunes. There are dedicated boxes out there that will give you some of these things, but the only solution I’ve ever seen that give you all of them is a full-blown computer.

Much has been written about Home Theater PCs (referred to usually as HTPCs). Indeed, if you read Lifehacker (and you should) you know there are numerous software/hardware combinations available to the user designed to turn an ordinary PC into an appliance that will be at home in your entertainment center.

My goals when setting up our HTPC was for it to be as simple to operate as possible, as flexible as possible and as cheap as possible. I don’t see how I can possibly fail with such realistic goals.

The Hardware

If you want your HTPC to act as the world’s greatest jukebox, holding all of your music collection and (ahem) perfectly legal copies of DVDs that you purchased from a licensed vendor and still own, then you’ll want something with a big hard drive and a decent video card. I just want something that can stream video from the ‘net in full screen. I don’t need much of a hard drive or a great video card. Luckily, I have an old computer sitting here gathering dust. It was the slowest, cheapest computer HP sold, three and a half years ago.

I am also lucky that my TV was made by VIZIO, a company forward-thinking enough to include an RGB input on their TVs, making it really easy and cheap to plug a computer into the TV. (If your TV doesn’t have such an input, there are other options.)

The Software

The computer I’m using runs Windows 7, but you don’t need the latest operating system to make this work. As I said earlier, anything that will smoothly stream video full screen will do. Windows Vista and Windows 7 are a bonus because they both come with Windows Media Center, a pretty graphical façade meant to make it easy to access your videos, music, pictures, and TV shows (if your HTPC has a TV tuner) using a remote control from your couch. It’s a beautiful, slick piece of software, which I’m not going to use.

The whole point of this thing is to make it simple to watch streaming web video. Windows Media Center has video from some of the networks (which we get through broadcast HD anyway) and it’s possible to make Hulu integrate smoothly into WMC, but to watch anything else, WMC would just be the program we have to shut down to get to what we want. Therefore, to start with I simply have bookmarked the sites we expect to visit often, and put shortcuts to those sites on the desktop.

The Remote

I have ordered a remote control online for $15. It has not yet arrived. In the meantime I’m using an Android app called Gmote to control the mouse with my phone’s touchpad … which is awesome, but feels way more sophisticated than we need. When the remote comes I’ll let you know what I think.

The system has been in place for three days now, and is working well. There was one evening when everything we watched had a slight stutter, but it’s only happened once. I think it might have been due to Windows Update downloading in the background.

I’ll keep you posted.



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  1. I’m following your lead and setting up our laptop to work with the TV- an idea I’ve been toying with recently, but just didn’t go ahead and do. Our trial run was last night and very nice. We did get a little stuttering and not sure what was causing it, but it was good enough.
    What links do you have set up on that thar desktop?
    I recognize Hulu and iTunes, any more that you could recommend?

    Do you have any more information on the remote control? Every time the ABC on-demand video went to a commercial break, it shifted from full screen to windowed and it was annoying. A way to resume full screen from the couch would be epic.

    • We don’t have the remote yet — and of course it won’t show up today, being Sunday. We expected it a couple of days ago, so BOOO to the company selling it for taking the long shipping option.

      Scott’s testing out a new piece of software that looks like one ring to rule them all. He’ll be posting about it soon.

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