How do I use a TV as a monitor?
September 26, 2007 10:58 PM   Subscribe

How do I make my TV a monitor for a couple of months.

I am having some surgery on October 12. Following the surgery I'll be stuck in bed for 6-8 weeks. I need to figure out a way to use a Dell Desktop computer as a "laptop" Basically, I want to hook it up to my television, so I can be in bed, using a cordless keyboard and mouse, yet still be able to get online.

Help? Thanks in advance.
posted by SuzySmith to Computers & Internet (11 answers total)
Does the desktop have an S-video output on its video card? If it does, you only have to get either an S-video cable and hook it up from the computer to the TV, or get an S-video cable plus an S-Video to composite adapter, and hook it up.

For the video card to output to S-Video, you may need to fiddle with something in the control panels, or unplug the regular monitor and reboot (at least on my NVidia 5600 cards, this forces the card into using the S-Video output).

If your video card doesn't have an S-Video output, then you are stuck either using a VGA-to-composite adapter (which requires fiddling with your monitor settings and may not work, and runs the slight but not-zero risk of damaging your TV if you do it wrong). Alternately, there are converter boxes (scan converters) that take VGA and convert it to a TV signal without requiring you to adjust anything on your computer, but they can cost as much as a cheap laptop.

Note that you will want to set the screen resolution to 800x600 or lower first, since anything else will be lost in the TV. (Unless you have an HDTV, which is a completely different question...?)

Personally I think you will be very disappointed. Using normal computer applications while using your TV as a monitor will be basically impossible; the text will be too small and blurry. Web browsing on picture-and-headline type pages will be OK, but everything else? Instant headache. Most applications that are designed to be accessed via a TV screen instead of a TV monitor have huge font sizes and lots of contrast (cf. the TiVo's interface, for example); they're designed much differently than desktop apps. You may want to look into screen-magnification apps to make it easier on your eyes.

If your video card doesn't have an S-Video output already, I'd think very hard about whether this is worthwhile, compared to borrowing a laptop or working out some other system (maybe putting your monitor on a cart/table/complex-system-of-ropes-and-pulleys where you can see it). If you do have the S-Video port, I'd try it out ASAP so you can see the results and decide if it will work for you.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:22 PM on September 26, 2007

Crap, correction:

Most applications that are designed to be accessed via a TV screen instead of a computer monitor have huge font sizes and lots of contrast (cf. the TiVo's interface, for example); they're designed much differently than desktop apps.

Computer monitors have much higher resolution than (non-HD) televisions. A computer monitor might have a resolution of 1080 pixels horizontally; an NTSC television can probably show 500-600 on a really good day. And that's without getting into refresh/sync and interlacing.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:28 PM on September 26, 2007

Regular text on a TV will be unreadable. Get a second-hand laptop? Use the laptop to VNC into your desktop? Get one of those trays they use to put dinner plates for people in hostitals, and plonk a regular monitor on it, using a monitor extension?

Good luck for your surgery.
posted by stereo at 11:32 PM on September 26, 2007

The specifics of what you need to do will depend on your television, and on the operating system you're running (Windows Vista complicates things a lot, Windows XP has several options, etc.). Assuming you have Windows XP:

If your video card has a TV-Out port, you can just hook up your TV to that (you may need to set your card and TV to cooperative channels, and if you want to retain DVD or VCR on Channel 2 or 3, you may also need an external switcher box to expand that function). The result on your TV may not be particularly good quality, especially if you plan to read text on older standard CRT type TV, but if you have HDTV with DVI inputs and a quality video card with DVI out, you may find it is fine.

If your video card does not have TV-out, you can purchase a VGA to PAL/NTSC scan converter. Again, this wouldn't be necessary if you have an HDTV setup, with DVI inputs, and DVI out from the computer video card.
posted by paulsc at 11:34 PM on September 26, 2007

What kind of input connections does your TV have? What model number is it? (An older TV (pre-HDTV) would only be
'EDTV: 480p (640 x 480) or worse, I guess. via

Secondly, what output connections does your video card have? What model is it?

Do the two machines have both have S-Video or DVI ports in common?

(It is difficult to answer computer questions without necessary relevant information.)
posted by sebastienbailard at 11:34 PM on September 26, 2007

If you have a regular TV, you will find this plan absolutely unworkable. You will need either an HDTV or a rigged up tray/shelf to put a regular monitor on. Normal TV is so fuzzy with text that you might as well not even bother.

posted by Malor at 11:50 PM on September 26, 2007

I think you would do far, far better off buying or borrowing a notebook computer to use for the duration.

Per Sebastien Bailard's post, most video fed to standard NTSC televisions is 640*480 (e.g. from a DVD player), but the reason for that is that it exceeds the display ability of the TV so that the video source won't be the weak link. (It's sort of like how most decent stereo equipment tries to satisfy a frequency range of 20-20,000 HZ, which is greater on both ends than normal humans can hear.)

In practice you can only see 440 vertical rasters at most (the rest represent the time used for the vertical retrace) and the horizontal resolution is usually 500 lines, if it's a really, really good television with an excellent clean signal. Which you won't have.

Figuring a 10*10 character cel (including horizontal and vertical spacing), that means you get 44 lines of 50 characters -- which will be blurry and ugly, if you use the entire screen for text.

You don't want that.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 11:52 PM on September 26, 2007

You can buy a second hand laptop for less than $300. It won't be great, but it'll get you online and once you're out of bed you can resell it on recoup much of your investment.

A laptop would be a lot easier than mucking around with wireless keyboards, mice, televisions, and who knows what else it'll take to accomplish what you want.

Try Craig's List or Ebay.
posted by wfrgms at 6:54 AM on September 27, 2007

Ugh, I hope your surgery goes well - I wish you the best of luck with recovery.

Using a television as a computer monitor is a hard problem that doesn't usually provide cheap, great results. I'm nth-ing the cheap laptop purchase idea. There is a good chance that someone you know has an older laptop in the back of their closet and would loan it to you.

Would moving your computer screen near your bed be an option? If not (e.g. you have a huge monitor/wall mounted/whatever) you can get a small used computer monitor for under 25$.
posted by enfa at 7:45 AM on September 27, 2007

Were you considering getting a Nintendo Wii? Now may be the time. The web browser's not bad and has a pretty good zooming function. And the news channel allows you to read some AP stories. And you can play classic games while in bed! Wii Sports would be out of the question though. But once you try loading a video or audio file on a non flash site, you'll wish you had a laptop.
posted by ALongDecember at 9:24 AM on September 27, 2007

Not what you asked, but we used one of those bed trays they have at the hospital for a long term patient. We used duct tape to keep the junk from falling off it, and a laptop. You can probably buy a used one cheap; people are always not needing those any more. Tape a surge strip to the edge, so you only have one power plug to worry about.
posted by unrepentanthippie at 11:21 AM on September 28, 2007

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