Hands on with the Asus WiCast, wirelessly connecting your laptop and TV

The Asus WiCast system solves many of the problems of Intel's Wireless Display, while injecting a few of its own.

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Getting PC content onto the more communal view screen of the living room TV has always been a challenge. Media Center PCs , which plug directly into your home theater setup, are cumbersome and necessarily tethered to a single location; media streamers and hubs only work with a subset of content, and can't handle games or social networking. Plugging your laptop directly into the back of a TV isn't always convenient, especially if you want to still access the keyboard and touch pad at the same time.

One solution worth looking at is wirelessly transmitting the video output from your laptop to any nearby television or monitor. Two current laptop-focused choices in this area are Intel's Wireless Display and wireless HDMI boxes such as the Asus WiCast.

We've been reasonably positive about Intel's Wireless Display technology since its introduction earlier in 2010, but the platform has a handful of major issues keeping it from being a tool mainstream users will embrace.

If you're not familiar with WiDi, it's essentially a technology built into select laptops running Intel's latest CPUs and chipsets that allows the laptop's display to be wirelessly duplicated on a remote screen (say, a big-screen TV). Though the transmitting hardware is built into the laptop itself, the receiver is a small box that retails for $99 and plugs in to the HDMI port of your TV. The big problem with WiDi is that there's perceptible lag between the laptop and TV, making it fine for set-it-and-forget-it video playback, but useless for gaming or real-time Web surfing. It also can't play certain kinds of DRM-protected content, such as Blu-ray, and the current version tops out at a 720p resolution signal.

The Asus WiCast, and its assorted cables. Sarah Tew/CNET

The Asus WiCast system solves many of those problems, while injecting a few of its own. The system, which sells for $199, is composed of two boxes--a standalone transmitter and receiver--instead of Intel's built-in transmitter and external receiver. This lets you use it with nearly any laptop that has an HDMI port, but also creates a less-than-portable bundle of hardware that must remain tethered at both ends.

The transmitter is about the size of a small external hard drive, whereas the receiver is larger, about the size of a Wi-Fi router. Both units connect via HDMI cables to your laptop and monitor, and both require power. The receiver must be plugged in via an AC adapter; the transmitter can use an AC adapter or get power from a double-USB plug. In either case, you end up with a lot of extra wires and hardware hanging off your laptop.

Once you get past the logistics of setting it up, however, the WiCast is easier to use than Intel's solution. The transmitter and receiver see each other almost instantly, with no need to visit a software control panel to set them up. You do, however, need to be mindful of screen resolutions, as your host laptop treats the wireless display the same as any secondary display plugged into a video output. That means you can jump into the Windows display options and change the resolution or choose to duplicate or extend the display.

The only time you'll definitely be forced to make adjustments like that is when playing Blu-ray movies. Because of DRM issues, the Blu-ray video signal will only play on one display at a time, so you'll have to use the Windows display options menu and select the option to only use the external display (as detailed in the video above). Once we had that set up properly, our Blu-ray played wirelessly on our remote display with no trouble, although the image had a slightly compressed quality, and it wasn't as good as you'd get from plugging a Blu-ray player into the TV's HDMI input.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Our next big test was gaming, as Intel's Wireless Display technology imparts just enough lag to make gaming an impossibility. Using the PC version of Mafia II (running at 1,920x1,080 pixels), we were able to launch the game and have it display simultaneously on both the laptop screen and the TV. This is a fast-paced action game, with no leeway for laggy screen response, but playing via a controller plugged into the laptop, we were able to ignore the laptop display and focus entirely on the big-screen TV with no noticeable lag. Note that the brightness and contrast settings for the two displays were very different, and we had to choose one to focus on when adjusting the in-game display settings.

Gaming via the WiCast is especially handy if you're looking to play PC-only games, such as Starcraft II or Civilization V , on a bigger screen, without dragging your laptop over to the TV to plug it in directly.

Asus claims that the WiCast will transmit from up to 10 meters away, although walls and other interference can make that very case-specific. We were able to run it from the back end of our lab (about 45 feet) easily, but the signal started to show some blockiness and pixelation after about 15 feet.

If you're looking to wirelessly transmit your laptop signal to another display, both the Asus WiCast and Intel's WiDi have strengths and weaknesses. The WiCast is more flexible, allows for Blu-ray and gaming, and even works on other devices (we successfully used it to hook up an Xbox 360)--but it also results in a tangle of hardware and wires that makes it less portable. At $199, it's probably best for those with a specific use in mind, but we look forward to the day when we can get the same functionality with either internal or USB-key-size components.

It's also worth noting there are other PC-to-TV solutions out there. For example, the Warpia Wireless USB PC to TV and the upcoming Veebeam HD both use USB dongles instead of your laptop's HDMI output. Wireless HDMI transmitters and receivers have also been around for a while, but previous models have been expensive and aimed more at home theater enthusiasts.

 

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