At some point, you’ve probably considered hooking your computer up to your TV. Maybe you even purchased a video cable, only to realize that being hunched over your computer and tethered to the TV is far from the awesome setup you had in mind.
Hooking up your computer to your TV can be as simple or as complex as you want. A basic setup lets you stream the occasional Web video, while a more advanced rig lets you access movie and music files from computers across your home network.
But the most brag-worthy home theater PCs (HTPCs) includes all the right elements: carefully chosen hardware, proper display settings, ergonomic accessories, and software that turns your PC into a set-top box.
It all starts with the PC. An out-of-use laptop or desktop is the ideal candidate for your HTPC, since it can be stationed in your media center along with the rest of your home theater equipment. Alternatively, you can use a roving laptop that gets put into HTPC mode when you plunk down onto the couch after work.
In the end, what really matters are the guts of your computer. An old PC is fine, but one that’s too elderly will leave you with a laggy interface and inconsistent video streaming.
When you choose (or build) your HTPC, aim for these minimum system configurations:
A Windows XP SP3 PC with an Intel Core 2 Duo processor 2.4GHz or better
At least 2GB RAM
HDMI- or Mini DisplayPort-out
A Windows XP SP3 PC with an Intel Core 2 Duo processor 1.6GHz or better
At least 512MB RAM
A Macintosh computer with an Intel Core Duo processor 1.6GHz or better
At least 1GB of RAM
Mac OS X Snow Leopard 10.6.3 or newer
HDMI: Accepted as the standard for high-definition video, HDMI-out has trickled into many Windows PCs on the market, offering high-def video- and audio-out.
High-speed HDMI (note that this is different from a standard HDMI cable) can transmit 1080p, 4K, and “deep color” video. Even if you don’t care for extras like deep color, high-speed HDMI cables are about the same price as standard, so grab one anyway. And, please, don’t empty your wallet for a name-brand HDMI cable — they’re essentially all the same.
Mini DisplayPort (MDP): Though MDP was initially popularized by Apple, the open-source video format is slowly being adopted by other PC makers like Lenovo and Dell — it’s even integrated in Microsoft’s Surface Pro. It offers HD video quality up to 2,560×1,600 pixels, and can carry audio. And like HDMI, it can also do 4K and deep color.
If your PC has a Mini DisplayPort, grab a Mini DisplayPort-to-HDMI cable, like this one from ComputersSale.
DVI: A longtime PC video standard, your computer’s DVI output paired with a dual-link DVI-to-HDMI cable will render crisp video on your TV. For the technical folks, dual-link DVI offers a maximum resolution of 2,560×1,600 pixels and can transfer data at up to 9.9Gbps. In layman’s terms: you’ll be able to transmit full HDMI with a DVI-to-HDMI cable. BUY DVI CABLE
Though its video quality easily matches MDP and HDMI, DVI does not carry audio. You’ll need an additional audio cable (check out your options below).
Audio cables (maybe)
When working with a DVI or pre-2010 MacBoook MDP output, you’ll need an audio-out cable to go along with it. You can transmit audio to your TV (or receiver) with one of three types of connections: a headphone jack (1/8-inch), coaxial, or optical.
The headphone jack is the standard across all PCs and transmits an analog signal, while coaxial and optical offer a digital connection. Audiophiles will certainly notice the difference between analog and digital, but the vast majority of people will be plenty happy with the 1/8-inch hookup.
To hook up your PC to your TV via the headphone jack, grab a mini-to-RCA cable in the length you need.
Because you’ll probably be streaming a lot of high-def video, it’s crucial that you set up a direct Ethernet line to your HTPC. Even if you don’t plan on stationing it in your media center, have an Ethernet connection handy for your laptop.
If the router is farther away and that’s just not possible, don’t throw in the towel — a solid Wi-Fi network and speedy Internet connection will do. You might experience some delayed buffering here and there, but it’ll still do the job.
No matter which cable you choose, you’ll likely have to adjust some computer settings to optimize the display. Once a cable is hooked up to the TV, most computers will automatically start mirroring, but you might notice some weird cutting-off or a fuzzy picture.
Connect your computer to your TV, then head to the display settings from the Control Panel. Here, choose to Extend your PC onto the TV (listed as a monitor). Only the “extend” option gives you full HD on the big screen. Apply the changes, then drag to adjust the resolution until it best suits your TV.
The best (highest) resolution often requires you to sacrifice some TV screen space, as the dimensions don’t match perfectly, so expect to see thin black bars across the top and bottom or along the sides of your TV screen. Finally, for laptop users, adjust your PC’s settings so that the computer doesn’t go to sleep when the lid is closed. From the Control Panel, choose Power Options, and change “When I close the lid” to “Do nothing.”
Connect the video cable to your TV first, select that input source on the TV, then plug the cable into your Mac. Your computer screen should flash blue, and the desktop will display on your TV. If you have a Mac from 2010 or later, your MDP-HDMI cable will also carry audio. Older machines require the use of a mini-to-RCA cable.
Once the cables are connected, go to System Preferences > Displays and uncheck the “mirror displays” option (if enabled) and set the resolution to 1080p so as to maximize the output of your TV.
Finally, for laptop users, adjust your Mac’s settings so the computer doesn’t go to sleep when the lid is closed. Some Macs let you do this in the power settings, but other models don’t include this option.
Head to Preferences > Energy Saver to see if there’s an option to prevent your PC from going to sleep when the lid is closed. If the option is available, enable it. Those who don’t see this option will have to choose between keeping the lid open (presumably to allow for air circulation), or installing a program like NoSleep, which overrides your Mac’s settings and prevents the computer from going to sleep when the lid is closed.
The key to an enjoyable, ergonomic PC-to-TV experience is employing the right accessories. Once your PC is hooked up and you’re seeing video, how will you control your computer from your couch?
Here are the best options for wireless controlling:
Best full-size keyboard: Logitech Wireless Touch Keyboard (K400)
If you’d like the option to comfortably perform long-form typing or play PC games, this keyboard might be your best option. This Logitech keyboard was built with HTPC users in mind. A built-in touch pad, dedicated media buttons (like play/pause and volume up/down), and even a power button for your PC are all included. The keys are slightly smaller than a standard-size keyboard, but your coffee table will be thanking you for the space saved.
The good: Almost full-size keyboard gives you complete control over your PC. Dedicated buttons make navigation snappy. Super-lightweight. Compatible with OS X and Windows.
The bad: No backlit keys makes navigating in the dark difficult. Smaller keys make it undesirable for transfer to regular computer setup.
Keyboard in a pinch: Wi-Fi keyboard app
If a new keyboard isn’t in your budget, the best keyboard is the one you already own: your phone. Apps that turn your phone into a keyboard and mouse for your PC are available on all platforms, including Windows Phone. Once you install a program (actually, a server, but it’s as easy as installing a program) on your computer, your phone becomes your PC’s input device.
One thing to note, though, is that these Wi-Fi keyboard apps can be unstable, and you should expect some delays when typing or mousing around. These apps communicate with your computer over your local network, and even a great Wi-Fi network can’t combat this issue.
Making your PC easy to navigate
Cables are connected, settings have been tweaked, and your PC is just one step away from being a true HTPC.Navigating your computer from a distance and deciphering a tiny font is hardly a way to enjoy your HTPC. What makes a PC an HTPC isn’t just the hardware and accessories — its the way you modify the interface to make your media files and streaming services easy to navigate.
The best way to make this happen with with a free program called Plex. Available for Windows and Mac OS, Plex morphs your desktop into a Roku- or Apple TV-like interface, where large tiles and large-font navigation make it easy to control from a distance.
Plex isn’t the only program of its kind, but it’s certainly the most robust and easy to use, easily kicking the alternative XBMC to the curb. (Actually, Plex was built on top of XMBC code, but broke off into its own software.) From adding channels (like Netflix, YouTube, and TED), to accessing media files on your PC and other computer on your network, Plex makes the process easy. It supports a range of devices, including Mac OS and Windows, and offers a host of features that go beyond the living room.
Setup can be as simple or as in-depth as you like. With this setup guide, you’ll end up with a fully-configured Plex experience that lets you access files on your PC and in your network, and lets you stream video and music from your favorite Web channels.
Beyond your HTPC, Plex will even stream your media collection to other devices, like an office PC or your smartphone.