by Kevin O’Brien
The notebook computer can serve two uses these days, one being standard duty for web browsing and stuff like that, and the other being the center of your home theater system. Almost every full-size notebook sold today has a drive that can play DVD movies, but what most consumers don’t know is that if they have broadband, they have access to a huge online media collection. Today we have pay services like iTunes or free online streaming services like Hulu that give many users instant access to new TV shows and movies, many of which beg to be played on the big screen. This guide will show what you need to connect your notebook to your home stereo and HDTV, and then outline services you can use to take advantage of this new capability.
To make your notebook setup worthwhile, and to get the best experience possible, you need to ditch the S-Video or analog audio out from your notebook. S-Video doesn’t support high resolution content, and analog stereo audio won’t support multi-channel surround sound. This guide will assume you have HDMI or VGA out form your notebook, and a TV that supports one of those formats. For audio the best solution is to buy an output device with either coax or optical digital out so you can route the digital signal to your home stereo without much trouble. These are fairly inexpensive, and some you can pick up for less than $30.
Once you have one of those audio devices plugged in and setup, it is just a matter of routing that signal to your stereo. In Windows XP you use the "Sound and Audio Devices" control panel to set the new device as the default sound playback source, and in Vista you would do the same thing, setting the new source in "Playback Devices."
For the video output I like to set the HDTV to be my main display. For the resolution it is best to set the screen to the native resolution of your TV, which can vary between brands and models. Some TV’s will output the correct data to your computer and make this step easy, while others will require some internet searching of your particular model to find the correct resolution. For 1080P FullHD displays, I usually set mine to 1280×720, since it scales down well and is easier to navigate when having a computer as the video source. Otherwise some content will appear way too small, unless you enjoy viewing your TV from only a couple of feet away.
With the audio and video working correctly you are now ready to enjoy some content on the big screen. Just remember to select a full screen option when watching content to get the best visual experience. The next step is finding the content you want to watch, and grabbing a bowl of popcorn. Below we give a few examples of some of the more popular sites and software that you can use to watch movies or TV shows.
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These days iTunes is probably the most recognized online media service, with access to music, podcasts, TV shows, and movies. It has an extensive collection with something for everyone, but the majority of it comes at a cost in terms of fees ranging from a few dollars to more than $30 for complete seasons of some TV series. The main advantage of iTunes is that it has brand new movies and TV shows. Downloading TV shows is as simple as searching for your favorite series, clicking the episode you want, and downloading it to your computer. This process is repeated for every other type of content.
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Hulu is quickly becoming one of my new favorite sites, and giving my TV quite a workout. It offers tons of content completely free with only minor (30 seconds) ad interruption every 10-15 minutes. Most of this content is provided in 360p or 480p quality, and streams through a proprietary Flash-based player. With popular shows like American Dad, Firefly, The Office, and many others I have barely watched cable TV in the past month. Combine this online service with a decent antenna, and you might never have to buy TV service again.
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For those with a Netflix account, you probably have free online access to movies and TV shows. The selection is a bit dated, but it is completely free and unlimited if you have anything but the base $4.99 a month plan. The player is proprietary as well, and isn’t the most stable unless you are using Internet Explorer. I personally don’t use this service since I don’t have a NetFlix account, but friends and coworkers who use it find the service to be acceptable.
Almost every notebook sold these days (ultra portables not included) has an optical drive that can read DVDs. If you still watch those things, your notebook is more than happy to play them. The notebook would act like an upscaling DVD player, and with our audio setup would also send out a Dolby Digital or DTS signal to your stereo if it was available.
Blu-Ray and HD-DVD
For those lucky (or unlucky) individuals that have an HD media drive already present in their notebook, you can be happy to know that your notebook can output the full HD signal to your TV. The output will be as clean and clear as a standalone player, with the only difference being the HDMI output probably won’t have audio mixed in. You will need to use your digital audio output device to route to your stereo for surround sound.
Since this setup is primarily targeted towards an HDTV, a TV Tuner isn’t really needed. If you were using a large monitor and needed a tuner, one that worked well in our office was the AutumnWave OnAir GT.
With an ever increasing collection of cheap or completely free media appearing online, notebook users can have their notebooks take center stage in their home theater. In many cases the online content is so good that you might find yourself not even using the cable or satellite box anymore.
Some users with poor work ethics will also be happy to know that while this stuff is great for home viewing, you can also use it to kill time at work if you are ever bored out of your mind. Just don’t let your boss catch you, since you could either be fired, or worse … be required to show them how to use it.