How do I make my laptop into a media center?
September 24, 2017 12:03 PM   Subscribe

I want to make my old Windows PC, a two-year-old Toshiba laptop, into a media center. What do I do first?

It has a touch screen so I am hoping that I can easily use it to run videos through iTunes and to play Netflix on the TV, thus eliminating the need for an Apple TV box. Do I just plug it in with an HDMI cable or is it more complicated?
posted by ficbot to Technology (7 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Are you just wanting to mirror what's on your laptop screen to your TV? I'm not a Windows guy but I'm sure that this is possible, probably by setting up the TV as a secondary monitor.

If you're actually looking to serve other content from your laptop, such as movies or TV shows that you've copied, you'll probably want a media server like Plex or Kodi. I have a Mac Mini I use for this, running Plex, which I connect to through my Roku. I could bypass the Roku and connect the Mac Mini directly to my TV using an HDMI cable, but since I already use the Roku to stream other content I just added the Mac to it so I can access everything from one place.
posted by ralan at 1:21 PM on September 24, 2017

An HDMI cable is all you need for the video, and probably the audio (I think most, if not all PCs with HDMI will send an audio signal). You may have to select HDMI (or the TV name) as the current audio output. So yes, plug one of those in first and see where you're at.

I can't see you wanting to crouch in front of the TV, or having an HDMI cable from the couch to the TV; fortunately you have additional control options. If you're using something like Plex or Kodi, which are full-screen deals, you might consider a wireless XBox 360 controller with a PC receiver, something I find convenient. Or you could invest in a bluetooth keyboard/touchpad combo, which come in everything from TV-remote sized to full-sized desktop things. The second option will work with iTunes/Netflix/VLC Player or any other windowed player.

You should also make sure you're getting a good speed from wherever you're pulling the media from - Internet, NAS or other network or local source.
posted by pipeski at 2:31 PM on September 24, 2017

Best answer: Truthfully all you need is an HDMI cable.

Here's my basic setup:
-desktop computer
-connected via HDMI cable to the
-large tv that I use as the monitor
-wireless keyboard+trackpad so I can do everything from my couch

So basically, my tv IS my computer, and using it is no different from using a laptop or whatever, just with a much bigger screen. You don't need anything special to do any of the things you'd normally do (youtube, netflix, watch videos, whatever). It's also my primary computer at home. I'M WRITING THIS ON IT RIGHT NOW. HELLO FROM THE TV.

A few more things I have going on that enhance my computer-to-television experience:
-a TV tuner
-HD antenna
-Windows Media Center on my computer
-good size external hard drive for media storage

Windows Media Center comes with a baked in DVR. You can plug your tuner into your computer, plug your antenna into that, and use the recorder on WMC to save/record anything you'd get over broadcast channels. (It can also be used with cable if you have cable but who has cable anymore.)

As for VLC, it'll play anything and is free and isn't shitty about updates. win win win
posted by phunniemee at 3:11 PM on September 24, 2017 [5 favorites]

If you want to go wireless, you can also use a Chromecast instead of hdmi cable.
posted by soren_lorensen at 4:25 PM on September 24, 2017

I've done the straight computer-to-tv thing, but I found the experience was improved dramatically with Kodi and a remote. Mousing and navigating websites to play videos from 12 feet away is just way more complicated on a daily basis than using Plex or Kodi or both. I say this as someone who used to read/post on MeFi using the computer plugged into my living room TV.

Use the PC, they make great media players as long as the GPU is new enough to hardware decode H264, which a two year old laptop should be, but the desktop interface is not the way to go long term. A bit of effort up front makes the entire household happier.

That said, phunniemee's list of accessories is a good one. A TV tuner is definitely nice to have. Sadly, Windows Media Center is discontinued and if it isn't already out of support, it will be fairly soon. Otherwise it is fairly nifty, especially for a DIY DVR. Happily, there are many other options that are still being developed. Plex is probably the easiest, but it may cost you. (Plex Server is free for me, but I believe that's because NVidia is paying my license fee)

(If you don't already have the hardware lying around, the NVidia Shield TV is the STB that requires the fewest compromises in terms of having decent app support as well as the customizability nearing what can be done with a PC)
posted by wierdo at 6:36 PM on September 24, 2017

Yes, all you need is an HDMI cable, but you can use a Chromecast type streaming device to send the picture to your TV.

I bought a TV tuner called Hauppauge to get television directly on my PC. I'm sure there are solutions that are non-hardware. I'm considering just trying YouTube TV.
posted by AppleTurnover at 8:37 PM on September 24, 2017

Yes, depending on what market you're in (assuming US here), one of PlayStation Vue, DirecTV Now, or Sling will have most or all of your local networks if you are in a major market. It can cost less than $100 one time to avoid the relatively high monthly fees they charge, though. Less if you have an actual TV with an antenna input rather than a 55" monitor that happens to have a Chromecast (well.. literally last week the manufacturer pushed a firmware update that gave the set an on screen UI, but until then, and it still doesn't have a tuner, obviously) like I do.

If you have a TV and live within 20-30 miles of the TV towers, a cheap Goodwill antenna will most likely pick up the broadcast stations. You only need additional hardware if you want to time shift. Then you get to decide whether to do it with your computer or a TiVo or one of the more recent "dumb" DVRs for broadcast TV. Basically, it all boils down to you paying money for the convenience of plugging fewer things in or spending less time setting things up, but over time rather than any major up front expense. You can do amazing things with a spare PC and an HDMI cable and no money if you're willing to spend time on it.
posted by wierdo at 1:52 PM on September 26, 2017

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