Why Your PC May Be Your Best TV

There are several ways to watch online videos from the comfort of your living room couch. I've tested several over the past few months, including the Apple TV, Boxee for ATV, PlayOn for the PS3, Wii, and Xbox 360. In this final installment (for now, at least—you know how it goes with gadgets), I look at one of the most obvious ways to port online videos to the big screen. This may sound crazy, but I used—wait for it—a good ol' fashioned PC.

Here's the problem: While online media receivers like Apple TV and software like Boxee and PlayOn are steps in the right direction, they're still too limiting or require too many complicated steps to expand them in a way that truly lets you have access to all the things on the Web.

For those who want the Internet's entire video collection at the click of a button, turning an inexpensive desktop into an online media hot spot is ideal—and it's a lot easier to do, since most desktops now feature TV-friendly connections such as HDMI, DVI, or VGA. (And if they don't, that's not a huge problem—you can often get adapter cables.)

Here's the other nice thing about a PC for your TV: You don't need a fancy-shmancy desktop computer to make this happen. All you need is a PC with a decent processor (somewhere north of 2 GHz should be fine) and graphics card (64MB and up should work) and WiFi. Bluetooth is an added bonus for setting up a wireless keyboard and mouse, but there are other wireless options for those who don't want to chip in for the extra feature.

What operating system you use is really up to you. You'll probably want to stick with whatever you're already comfortable with. I personally find Apple's OS to be extremely easy to use and rather foolproof, but I know there are plenty of diehard Windows and Linux users out there so I'm not going to attempt to convince you to switch in this post.

A big decision you have to make is actually a pretty superficial one. What do you want sitting with the rest of your media set-up?

I recommend getting something small and demure. No one wants to look at a huge tower next to a sleek flat screen—much less have to find room in an already—crowded media cabinet. You will have to pay a premium for a PC that easily camouflages with the rest of your home theater, but if you're like me and care about interior design, it's worth the extra dough.

In order to try out both major OS flavors, I tested a Mac Mini and a Shuttle H7 G4500 running Windows Vista.

Mac Mini
Roughly the same size as Nintendo's Wii, this midget PC is a powerhouse. It features a Mini-DVI port (the Mini also comes with a DVI adapter or you can buy an HDMI or VGA adapter) which can display 1920 x 1080 HD. It also comes bundled with Bluetooth.

Apple sent over a small Bluetooth keyboard and mouse and—let me tell you—this made all the difference. Whenever I can avoid tripping over cables is a good thing, plus it made it easier (Bluetooth doesn't need a line of sight to the PC in order to work) when the TV was angled to face different sides of my studio apartment.

Because I already use a MacBook for work, maneuvering through sites and videos on the Mac Mini was easy. I didn't need to learn a new user interface or find plug-ins in order to access specific sites. The main issue is the price. At $600, the Mini's a lot more expensive than Apple's media-receiver solution, the Apple TV. But in my opinion, it's well worth the extra cash. Being able to sit back on the couch and stream video from any source (iTunes, Hulu, Netflix, you name it), while also pulling up Google pages to answer doofus questions about Survivorman, highlights the value of watching something via a computer.

Shuttle H7 G4500
This bad boy (7.5 x 8.2 x 12.8 inches) is hefty but still sleek with its squat, square shape. In terms of real estate, I'd say this is going to take up roughly the same amount of space as a decently sized shelf speaker. It comes bundled with Windows Vista, along with HDMI and VGA outputs.

While the Shuttle was easy to use, it did take a while to get started. I needed to install a wireless card as this model doesn't come with one pre-installed and then had trouble with some of the drivers, which needed to be reinstalled in order to work. It's these hiccups that make me like Macs better, but if you're used to Windows machines, this is child's play.

Like the Mac Mini, once everything was installed and working it was hard to consider going back to any other solution. To have everything the Web has to offer—not just videos—from your couch is just too convenient to ignore. This model also features a Blu-Ray DVD player, so when I got bored of what was online, I could pop in a movie.

As with the Mini, price is the issue with this model. At $999, it's not cheap, but Shuttle offers more barebones systems for as little as $700. You'll lose Blu-ray playback, but that may not matter much to you.

Here's what will matter, though, regardless of what system you buy: Unfettered access to as much free and paid video content as you can find. Plus all the standard browsing and other Internet-related activity you can think of. You'd like to think that this sort of functionality would be integrated into a TV or a set-top box or a DVD player or something more consumer-friendly by now, but clearly that's not the case.

The reasons why this hasn't happened aren't technological, but commercial: TV networks, production studios, cable operators, hardware manufacturers—they all have different interests in Web video, and those crossed purposes lead to pretty-good-but-not-quite solutions like Hulu and Apple TV. This will likely sort itself out over the coming years, but in the meantime, it may be that the best way to get video off of your PC and onto your TV is, well...to turn your TV into a glorified monitor for your PC.

Article by Sonia Zjawinski

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