Smart TVs are the latest thing. You can make your own – and save hundreds of pounds – by linking your PC to your TV or laptop. We explain how to get started
You’ve probably heard a lot of talk about ‘smart’ televisions. It’s a broad term that refers to the latest generation of sets that combine normal TV with bunch of functions more typically associated with computers, such as web browsing, photo sharing and social-networking tools like Facebook and Twitter.
This may sound clever but smart TVs can be expensive – and the non-TV functions are rarely a match for what can be achieved with even a basic PC.
In this article we will explain how to put together a powerful internet-connected TV that can do the job properly. The trick is to connect an ordinary PC or notebook directly to the TV.
Using free software and some (optional) extra hardware, it’s possible to add a TV-friendly interface and watch internet videos, play games, read your email or just browse the web from the comfort of your sofa.
Many new TVs include an Ethernet connector at the back, or a USB port for plugging in a wireless network adapter. The idea is that these ‘smart’ tellies can be hooked up to the web via a broadband router. They generally have built-in applications for watching paid-for online movie services, such as Lovefilm or Blinkbox, or viewing Youtube videos.
It’s all quite impressive but there are limitations. The TV manufacturer has control over what programs are provided (or can be installed), and these vary between manufacturers. Moreover, the control systems can be awful and if the TV doesn’t support a keyboard and mouse you’re stuck with using the remote control for web browsing, which is not fun.
There is an alternative, though. Connecting a PC to a TV can make for a smarter telly, with the benefit of a familiar interface and the ability to install any program you want.
Pick a PC
Almost any PC or laptop will do. Some newer PCs and laptops will have a built-in HDMI connector that is ideal for use with a high-definition (HD) TV, but there are plenty of other ways to connect any PC using standard DVI, VGA or S-Video connections.
Even the £150 model we built as a project recently would do for this purpose. Choose an attractive slimline case, such as the Antec Minuet 350, if you want it to blend into the living room. As it will be mainly for internet use, the PC doesn’t even need a massive hard disk, unless you decide to add a TV tuner (which we’ll discuss later in this article) and use the PC for video recording. An old laptop would do, so long as it can play video reliably.
A more expensive but neater option would be a PC like the £410 Zotac Zbox (read our review). This attaches to the back of the TV and, to keep costs down, it can even be used with the Linux operating system.
Connect it to the internet
Though not essential if intending to view only your own content, the computer driving your smart TV really needs to be connected to the internet. The best way to do this is via a wired connection, as your entertainment may be spoiled by interference to wireless connections.
If it is not possible to run network cables consider a powerline adapter kit, such as the £100 Netgear XAVB5001, and only use wireless if there is no alternative. Make sure the wireless connection is optimised by reading our article 'How to make the most of your Wifi'.
If there are no spare wired network connectors on the router, add more by plugging in a switch such as the £35 Linksys SE2500. Less expensive models are also available, such as the £14 TP-Link TL-SG1005D.
Now get some software
The real secret is in the software. Viewing Windows on a large TV screen can look horrible, with menus and buttons too small to read or use comfortably. What is needed is an interface that is easy to use from a distance, using either a keyboard and mouse or a remote control (we’ll discuss these later).
Windows 7 and Vista users with the Home Premium or Ultimate versions of the operating system have Windows Media Center (or WMC) included. This is a much-neglected gem of a program with a great interface that can play videos, photos and music from the PC or over a home network, and even play games and connect to one or two online video services. With the addition of a TV tuner card it can even act as a digital video recorder.
WMC is certainly the easiest option. However, it is not the most flexible and there are free alternatives. Boxee, for example, plays all the same file types as WMC but is much more focused on streaming video, movie, TV and music services. Many of these are free (and, more importantly, completely legal).
To get it, visit the Boxee website and click the Make a Boxee link for the download section. Boxee has dozens of free ‘apps’ (such as YouTube and Flickr viewers) that can be downloaded and installed from within its App Library. Boxee works on Windows, Mac and Linux computers. It can even be bought preinstalled as the D-Link Boxee Box for £200 (see our review).
Another free program that works well if you mainly want to play files stored on your PC or home network, rather than internet TV or videos, is XBMC. However, there’s nothing to stop you using all these programs if you wish – they will happily live side by side on the same PC, giving you more choice.
Lights, camera, action
WMC is often confused with Windows Media Player, (which is a different program) but it doesn’t need a TV tuner card to work, and setup is simple. If you haven’t used it before, click Start, followed by All Programs then Windows Media Center. When the Welcome screen appears, click the Continue button, then Express and follow the instructions.
WMC automatically scans the PC for media files and adds them to the relevant sections: to add new or different folders move to the Settings screen then choose Media Libraries.
Use the up and down arrow (cursor) keys or mouse scroll wheel to scroll through the menus, and the left and right arrows to move through the sub-menus. Press Enter, Space or left-click to open an item.
Assuming the PC has all the latest updates downloaded and installed (via Windows Update, within All Programs from the Start menu) scrolling to the left in the TV section will reveal an icon labelled ‘MSN Video Player’. (If you see a link to Sky Player, ignore it as this service was discontinued in July 2011.)
Click the icon and follow the on-screen instructions. When done, you will be able to browse and watch dozens of old and new TV shows free.
In WMC’s Extras menu you’ll find links to games such as Solitaire and in the Explore sub-menu is a pay-per-view movie service called Coolroom. Although this does work, it is not very user-friendly: many of the links to online video services, such as ITN, are defunct. It does have a few free movie trailers and music previews to try, though.
To have WMC launch automatically when Windows starts, go to choose Settings followed by General then Startup and Window Behaviour, then click to tick the box labelled ‘Start Windows Media Center when Windows starts’.
A very useful add-on for WMC (but only the Windows 7 version) is the Tuner Free MCE, which provides legal access to live streaming and catch-up programmes from the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and 5, plus some other online services like Seesaw (though it does assume that you have a TV licence).
The same developer also produces an add-in for the Lovefilm movie-streaming service, although you need a Lovefilm account.
Alternatives to WMC
As we mentioned, WMC isn’t the only TV-friendly media-playing application on the block. If you installed Boxee earlier then start it now. It requires a free account (a verified email is all that is needed), which can be created during installation or beforehand via the website.
Once signed in, it runs as a full-screen application and can be navigated with a mouse and keyboard. Pressing the Escape (Esc) key on the keyboard shows the navigation menu from any screen.
Before starting, set your location by clicking the cog-wheel icon at the top left, choose Look and Feel, click Location and type in your nearest city.
Fortunately, you aren’t limited to what’s in the preset categories. Click on the Apps icon in the main menu, then select Apps Library to browse dozens of free video, photo and music applications, including online video sites such as Youtube, Vimeo and music-video service Vevo, photo sites such as Flickr and Picasa, and educational services such as the educational resources like the Open University’s podcasts.
There is also a web browser built in (the Boxee Browser) but this is clunky to use and it’s best to exit to Windows and instead use a normal browser such as Internet Explorer or Firefox.
To play content from your PC or home network, click Files in the main menu and browse for content. DVDs and CDs can be played, too, but currently Boxee does not support Blu-ray playback.
Finally, while we think most people’s TV-viewing needs will be well-served by either WMC or Boxee, the aforementioned XBMC is at least worth a look – especially if you are intending mainly to use media files that are stored on your PC or home network. It also works on Linux PCs or Apple Macintosh computers, if either of those are your preference.
Back to Windows
With a PC connected to the TV, there is nothing to stop you using Windows as normal. The only problem is that the menus can be small on a large TV – but there is a remedy.
In Windows 7, right-click an empty part of the Desktop and choose Screen Resolution. Click the link labelled ‘Make text and other items larger or smaller’, then choose the Medium or Large radio button (try both to see which works best). Click Apply, then log off and log on to Windows again. All text and menu items should now be larger and more legible.
Vista users should right-click the Desktop, choose Personalize, then click ‘Adjust font size (DPI)’. Click Larger scale followed by Apply, then restart the PC.
In XP, right-click the Desktop, choose Properties, then click the Settings tab. Click Advanced, and on the General tab choose ‘Large size (120 DPI)’ from the dropdown menu. Click OK, then click Yes if prompted, then click Close to restart the PC.
As well, some online video services have websites optimised for use on TVs – so you may decide that using or installing additional media-playing software is unnecessary. See Youtube XL and iPlayer Bigscreen for starters. These use bigger buttons and menus, making them easier to navigate.
Remotes and keyboards
Of course, the whole idea of connecting a computer to a TV is so that it can be used from the sofa. We’d suggest that a wireless keyboard is good idea: compact models with media playback keys, such as the £40 Microsoft Wireless Desktop 3000, are best.
If you can afford it, a device like Gyration’s Air Mouse Elite is worth considering, as it makes it much easier to control Windows from a distance.
However, a remote control is the most comfortable method for navigating the likes of WMC, Boxee and XBMC. Maplin has a £20 model that will control all three.
If you decide to add a TV tuner card to your PC, these typically come with their own remote control that’s likely to be compatible with WMC, Boxee and XBMC. And for those who own a suitable Apple gadget, such as an iPhone or iPad, there is a free Boxee Remote app, which controls the Boxee via your router.
Smarter than the average TV
We hope that our advice shows that there’s really no need to spend hundreds of pounds in order to get a smarter TV. Really, the entire setup can be summarised like this: attach a basic PC to your TV, connect it to the internet and away you go.
Obviously, customising the system so it works just the way you want takes effort but it is worthwhile: a homemade smart TV will be better than anything you can currently buy in the shops.
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