Hands-on: Is Intel's Wireless Display a game changer?

One of the CES announcements we were most excited about, at least in theory, was Intel's Wireless Display technology.

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The relationship between TV and PC is a complicated one. Over the years, we've used desktops, laptops, and small form factor machines to act as media centers, networked entertainment hubs, and more recently, as Hulu and streaming-Netflix players.

Our love/hate relationship with getting a PC signal on a large TV screen has recently moved toward ambivalence, as living room game consoles have taken over many streaming media tasks, adding Netflix streaming as well as their own libraries of movies and TV shows to buy or rent.

To that end, one of the CES announcements we were most excited about, at least in theory, was Intel's Wireless Display technology . This combination of hardware and software would allow you to wirelessly stream whatever was on your laptop display to a nearby plasma or LCD TV.

Having seen a few demos of varying effectiveness (which didn't stop the technology from winning CNET's People's Voice award at CES 2010), we were excited to be able to hook up a Wireless Display (or WiDi, as it is also known) setup in the CNET Labs to test it out.

While the underlying technology is part of Intel's 2010 Core series platform, to start it'll be available only in three specific laptops, one each from Dell, Sony, and Toshiba. All three are Best Buy exclusives, but they also, fortunately, come bundled with all the hardware you'll need to hook the WiDi up.

That means these three laptops are WiDi-certified, and each comes bundled with an adapter from Netgear somewhat awkwardly named Push2TV. When and if the WiDi technology gets rolled out on more laptops, the Netgear box will be available separately for $99.

Though there are other ways to wirelessly stream audio and video to your big-screen TV, the possibility of effortlessly mirroring whatever is on your desktops to another display, with near-zero setup, makes this a much better candidate for mainstream adoption.

With a new Toshiba E205 laptop (one of the three initial WiDi models) in hand, and the included Netgear adapter, we set out to test Intel's Wireless Display. In practice, the actual results were not completely effortless, but they came pretty close.

Our first step was to take the Netgear-branded receiver (pictured here) and connect its AC adapter, then connect it via the included HDMI cable to our monitor (RCA composite connections are also supported). The Netgear box is about the size of a wireless router and small enough to sit unobtrusively behind or next to your TV. After turning on the set and selecting the appropriate input, the screen displayed a message that read, "Ready for connection. To get started, launch Intel Wireless Display on your computer." So far, so good.

Then we opened up our Toshiba E205 laptop, and launched its Wireless Display app, via a quick-launch button on the panel of media touch controls. This launches a window that shows you all the compatible Wireless Display adapters in the area, similar to a list of Wi-Fi connections. We had a brief moment of angst when the app first said there were no detectable adapters in range, but we hit the rescan button a couple of times until it popped up.

We were then instructed to download a software update, which took a couple of minutes and sent us through the scan-for-adapter process again. When we finally connected, we had to type in a four-digit code displayed by the Netgear adapter on the TV screen.

The setup message displayed when the Netgear Push2TV box is connected to a TV.

However, once we figured out this initial setup process, the connection was seamless, and we were even able to grab the Netgear adapter and hook it up to other monitors without having to do any additional setup.

Our desktop was then mirrored on our TV, fulfilling the basic promise of Wireless Display. Keep in mind that you can only mirror the laptop screen, not extend it. There's a very noticeable lag between the laptop and the TV, making this largely useless for Web surfing or PC gaming, but music and video--where you hit play and sit back--seem like natural applications.

There are a few basic settings you can access, including a tool for resizing the remote image. This just makes the entire image larger or smaller, so if your desktop doesn't have the same exact aspect ratio as your laptop, it won't line up perfectly.

We played a variety of 720p and 1080p video files on the Toshiba E205, and they popped right up on our TV after a couple of seconds. This initial generation of WiDi products support only resolutions up to 720p, but video files of both resolutions played fine. We also checked 480p Hulu videos, but DVD and Blu-ray optical discs won't play, due to DRM issues. Also note that, at least in this test system, the transmitted audio wasn't controlled by the laptop's volume controls but instead by the specific media-playing application or by the TV's speakers.

Image quality was good, but your TV may require some fine-tuning of its picture controls. We did, however, see that our streaming HD video displayed what looked like minor compression artifacts, and hit an occasional stuttery patch, but it generally worked very well. We could see this being especially useful for showing off YouTube clips (OK, or CNET TV videos).

A scene from an HD movie trailer streaming from our laptop to the TV.

While the system is intended for "same-room" use, according to Intel, we were curious to see how far away we could get. Walking the Toshiba E205 backward, we managed to get about 90 feet from the Netgear box before the signal broke up. That's probably enough range for most people.

Though there are a ton of ways to get IPTV content or downloaded videos to play on your TV, the reason we think Wireless Display has potential is that it's easy to set up, easy to use, and could be built into a huge number of upcoming laptops. If you've ever tried to connect your Xbox 360 to your networked home PC and play videos through it, you know how wonky that process can be. Walking your laptop over to the TV and physically plugging it in is also an option (and a good one in many circumstances), but it's not for everyone, and requires plugging and unplugging cables.

While the availability and usefulness of WiDi is limited for right now, we look forward to seeing this technology improve, find its way onto more systems, and, we hope, reduce the lag enough to make big-screen PC gaming easy for anyone to hook up.

Update: As often happens with new technology, a handful of initial successes do not guarantee future functionality. The very next day, the Intel WiDi setup we had hooked up refused to see the Netgear adapter, requiring us to reboot several times, and disable and re-enable the laptop's antenna, before it mysteriously started working again. Your mileage, as they say, may vary.

Check out some more shots of the setup process below:

 

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