Make your dumb TV smart: use your laptop to get it online

Just like 3D, the TV industry is hoping that smart TVs — that is, TVs that can connect to the internet — will halt the price slide and reinvigorate the flat panel market.

Craig Simms Special to CNET News
Craig was sucked into the endless vortex of tech at an early age, only to be spat back out babbling things like "phase-locked-loop crystal oscillators!". Mostly this receives a pat on the head from the listener, followed closely by a question about what laptop they should buy.
Craig Simms
9 min read
The future!
(Credit: Apple; fedek6, royalty free; CBS Interactive)

Just like 3D, the TV industry is hoping that smart TVs — that is, TVs that can connect to the internet — will halt the price slide and reinvigorate the flat panel market.

Unlike the 3D push, which had a lot of money behind it but was always doomed to draw a "meh" from the crowd, smart TV has a chance of seriously altering the industry.

While being able to browse the internet and stream video through your TV (otherwise known as IPTV) is certainly a step forward, it runs a few dangers, most notably that of fragmentation.

Sony, Samsung, Panasonic, LG — no matter which manufacturer you go to you'll find a different execution, different interface, different feature-set and even different content for your television. There's a long way to go in presentation too, with interfaces proving clunky at best.

There's also a trap for newcomers: since you'll be connecting to the internet to get some of your TV content, this will affect the download/upload quotas of your internet account. Heavy watching could see your quota disappear rather quickly, unless your ISP has signed a peering deal for the content in question.

Still, it's a glimpse at the future, but it's very early stages, and if you already have a large screen TV you're better off looking into other ways to get the internet on your TV.

Microsoft's Xbox 360 for one is making a huge push, with Foxtel, movies and TV series available for purchase. Sadly, only BigPond offers Foxtel content quota free.

There's also FetchTV from iiNet, Westnet and Internode, which are quota free from those ISPs. Adam Internet and Optus are expected to get FetchTV soon too.

They would all like to drink your digital milkshake. (Credit: Microsoft, Apple, FetchTV)

Then you've got the likes of AppleTV, even if the local catalogue is decimated compared to the US one. The options aren't limited for getting IPTV on the box.

But what if you wanted a better, more flexible experience? What if you just wanted to use the humble PC?

Getting your laptop on your TV

First things first, see the "PC" input on your TV? Only use it if you have no other choice. If you've got an older laptop you may be out of luck — it may only have a VGA port for video out.

PC port
Whether you call it the PC port, VGA, DB15, DE15 or otherwise, tryto avoid using it if you can. (Credit: Craig Simms/CBS Interactive)

The reason we don't want to use the PC port is that it's an analog connection. By choosing analog you'd be adding a needless image conversion (Digital > Analog > Digital) into your display chain, and losing quality along the way as a result. So long as your laptop has an HDMI port, an HDMI cable is our best bet for high quality video.

PC port
HDMI cable (Credit: Craig Simms/CBS Interactive)

Buying HDMI cables

A word of caution: unless you need a cable that's longer than 5 metres, don't bother going into the local JB Hi-Fi or Harvey Norman, you'll just get fleeced. While it is true that not all HDMI cables are alike, unless you've got heavy duty signal and length requirements, you'll be fine ordering something from the likes of Space Hi-Fi, OzNetics or HDCity. There are often deals listed on OzBargain as well, although make sure to check the reader comments to determine if the dealer is reputable.

Getting your laptop to output to your TV

After plugging in a cable between your laptop and your TV, you'll need to switch the TV's input to the HDMI port that you just plugged in to.

These days most laptops will detect the live connection and automatically mirror what's on the laptop screen to the TV. There are a few things you can do from here. The first is to set up the mode you want.

You'll want to look for a key that looks like this:

Monitor switch key
(Credit: Craig Simms/CBS Interactive)

It won't necessarily be the F5 key — it could also be F7 or any other function key — the importance is finding something that looks similar to the symbol above it. If you hold down your Fn key, then press that key, you should be able to cycle through display modes (although some manufacturers have an on-screen dialog box pop up that you need to select from with the mouse).

Common display modes include mirror (show what's on the laptop screen on the TV), extend (add the TV as an extra monitor for extra desktop real estate), laptop monitor on only, and TV screen on only.

Things vary a lot here, down to some manufacturers even calling the extra display a projector rather than TV — just play a little and you should get the result you want.

I own a Mac!

If you've got a fairly recent Mac, you'll have a port called Mini DisplayPort. Apple doesn't make its own Mini DisplayPort to HDMI adapters, but some companies do. Just make sure that both the cable you get and your Mac support audio. Older Macs won't run audio over their Mini DisplayPort: you'll need to find another way to get the audio to your TV.

Dealing with overscan

You may notice that when you plug your laptop in the sides of the desktop are cut off. This is called overscan, and is a legacy of the days when the big cathode ray tube TVs ruled the lounge room. It was an effort to ensure that the whole screen was filled, and people weren't presented with black bars if their equipment wasn't up to scratch.

For reasons beyond our comprehension, this carries over into the digital age, and there's a good chance you'll need to adjust your TV to fix this.

If your TV doesn't support the adjustment of overscan (sometimes called scaling), you're going to have to do it from the computer. Keep in mind that this is usually achieved by setting up a custom resolution that's less than the usual, so it's not ideal. To begin with, you should set the resolution output to the TV to the highest possible — likely to be either 1920x1080 (1080p) or 1280x720 (720p).

MacBook Pro

(Screenshot by CBS Interactive)

After connecting your Mini DisplayPort to HDMI adapter and HDMI cable to your TV, go to System Preferences and select Displays. A pop up will appear with your TV's details (sometimes it appears under the Color LCD dialog). Make sure the resolution is set to the maximum that your TV can support, then use the Underscan slider to adjust the screen size.

Windows: Nvidia

(Screenshot by CBS Interactive)

Nvidia cards are a pain in the neck when it comes to overscan, and have been for as long as we can remember.

Make sure your driver is up to date by downloading the newest one for your card, then connect to your TV and use your keyboard to show your display only on your TV. You have to do this, as Nvidia hides the option for scaling otherwise.

Right-click on the desktop and choose Nvidia Control Panel, then under the Display section click Adjust Desktop size and position (if this doesn't appear you may need this file). Click the size tab, then check Enable desktop resizing, then click the Resize button and adjust as required.

Windows: AMD/ATI

(Screenshot by CBS Interactive)

If you've got an AMD graphics card in your Windows laptop, you'll need to check first whether you've got a hybrid laptop or not. If you right-click on the desktop and you see the option "Configure Switchable Graphics", then this is what you have.

Sadly, this means you're stuck with whatever driver the laptop vendor gives you, and they're notorious for letting them go out of date. You'll also need to ensure you're using your AMD graphics card and not your Intel one — as although custom resolutions are available under Intel's Graphics Properties, they don't work. Depending on the age of your laptop, how you switch to the high performance GPU will vary, and you may even need the laptop to be plugged into the wall.

If you've just got an AMD card, great! Grab yourself the latest update from AMD's website and install.

Either way, at this point you'll want to access the Catalyst Control Center. You'll either find it in the right-click menu on the desktop, or in your start menu (sometimes called CCC).

Once it's open, you'll need to select My Digital Flat-Panels, then select Scaling Options (Digital Flat-Panel). Adjust the slider until the display is correct.

Windows: Intel

(Screenshot by CBS Interactive)

If you've just got Intel HD graphics, after you've updated your drivers from Intel's site, right-click on the Intel HD Graphics icon in the system tray and choose Graphics Properties.

Select Advanced Mode and click OK, then under Display, select your television and change the scaling from Maintain Display Scaling to Customize Aspect Ratio. Intel, sadly, doesn't let you preview the results, so you'll have to engage in trial and error by hitting Apply and tweaking until you get things right.

Taking it wireless

So you've got your PC displaying to your TV, you can browse photos, watch videos and surf the web — but it's more than a bit clunky with that HDMI cable in the way. Let's look at the options for getting things wireless.

Controlling your PC wirelessly

The first thing we'd recommend is to get some wireless input. It's really not easy to get any more, but something like Logitech's diNovo Mini might be exactly what you need. Alternately, a bog-standard wireless keyboard and mouse would be a good first step, although you'll never get into the reclining position with those. If you're up for some experimentation, you can even control your laptop with your Android phone or iPhone. If you're heading more towards a media centre set-up, perhaps a gyroscopic mouse is more your style.

Logitech diNovo
Logitech's diNovo Mini is hard to get now in Australia, but it's excellent and tiny. (Credit: Logitech)

Wireless video

This is still a developing field, with only a few players in Australia. At this point in time, connecting wirelessly to a TV requires extra hardware on top of your wireless router.

Some newer Intel-based laptops come with a feature called WiDi, or Wireless Display, with the concept being that you only have to push a button on your laptop to get things working on the TV. It's not prolific, and we've yet to see a TV that supports the feature. Belkin plans to bridge the gap by introducing an adapter, although it's yet to be released. We'll have to look into other options then.

It's smaller than it looks. The McTivia is only slightly longer than a smartphone, and twice as thick. (Credit: AWind)

This is the McTivia — a device you hook up to your TV using HDMI, and connect to via Wi-Fi with your laptop. You'll need to install software before it works, but our initial testing shows that it works rather well. There are some caveats though: due to lack of bandwidth it will only output in 720p with stereo sound, and expect some latency when connected over Wi-Fi. There are other options coming down the path, but for now streaming your laptop screen wirelessly won't give you the best possible results.

Software that makes it easier

For those who want their experience to be more media-centre-like, on Windows there is at least Windows Media Center. It's quite good for something that comes free with your operating system, although you'll likely want to install some extra codecs so more videos will play back.

For an even nicer experience, try the Media Browser plug-in, which brings things a little closer to the visual splendour of XBMC, another media centre app. If you're on the Mac side, we'd definitely favour XBMC over the included FrontRow.

Media Browser
Media Browser gives Windows Media Center a fresh coat of paint. Ladies not included. (Credit: Media Browser)

Finally, if you want a browsing experience more optimised towards TV, you could give Kylo a try, crazy ring controller optional.

What's next?

If you've been bitten by the capabilities of your laptop on your TV, but are more attracted to the video side and large screen-friendly interfaces, perhaps it's time to start looking into building a full-fledged Home Theatre PC (HTPC). Hooked up over gigabit Ethernet, with TV tuners, proxies to get access to Hulu, Netflix, Spotify and Pandora, running XBMC with the official remote installed on your smartphone, perhaps an infrared remote, all linked to a heavily decked out NAS containing your local digital media library and tweaked to the extreme with advice from AVSForum. But that, friends, is another story...

Antec Fusion Remote Black
The Antec Fusion Remote Black chassis. One potential home for one potential HTPC. (Credit: Antec)