Its been about 4 years since I first had a computer that was dedicated to running media on my television. At the time, it was a rare thing to do. The resolution on TVs wasn’t that good, streaming video wasn’t as mature as it is today, and storage was more expensive and less available then now.
The biggest inhibitor to switching to the computer as the primary input on the television has been the audience. My wife is the primary customer when it comes to the television and if she doesn’t agree to what’s going on, it ain’t happening.
There are a lot of applications and considerations that made this finally a workable (and nearly ideal) solution. Here’s the list of things that needed to happen.
1. The media needed to be there
A computer can be used to get media from locations that a TV just can’t match. Internet-based media is great because it is on demand by nature; which means that it can be watched when it is convenient. With all major networks streaming their shows and Hulu emerging, Internet media is almost good enough to replace traditional TV viewing by itself.
To make it easy enough to replace a standard television, applications that put all of this media in one place, while using a consitant interface, is a must. I use Boxee to fill this role. Boxee is a gets rid of the need for having a keyboard and a mouse to control the computer with. Also, it has an app to utilize Netflix’s streaming service. With Boxee, I can watch Onion News with just a couple of clicks, and then switch over to listing to a Shoutcast radio station. Internet media is a check.
Even with all of the Internet media out there. HDTV is still a must. This is the last form of media I that I got running through the computer. The reason being is that it requires special equipment to get going. I didn’t want to spend the $100 to buy a HDTV tuner card. Until March of this year, I didn’t have a machine capable of running a HDTV tuner card anyway. I finally caved and purchased the Elgato EyeTV Hybrid tuner. It fills the role very well. I can now watch HDTV on the computer. As an added benefit, the included software (Eye TV) works as a PVR; meaning that live TV can be paused, rewound, and recorded. I can set it to record shows that I would like to watch. HDTV is a check.
I have a collection of pictures and videos that I keep on my home server. These need to be able to stream to the television. I accomplished this with Boxee and a NFS share from my home server. Boxee can connect to media across a network and display it. My media is a check.
2. The hardware has to be there
Here’s a money making opportunity for someone. Make a Mac Mini-sized machine with a HDTV tuner, N wireless in it, an OS that requires almost no maintenance, but can play anything thrown at it (Linux?), ability to display HD video without a glitch, and make it quiet. There are a couple of possible options here. For my own solution, I have a Mac Mini with components replaced in it to add a faster processor and N wireless. There is a company that appears to be trying to solve this problem. Visit http://www.neurostechnology.com/ and see if there is something that may work for you (it wouldn’t for my situation). The EEE Box 206 may be a good solution for this. There is no working solution that I know that comes right out of the box and works for this solution.
Game console manufactures are trying to get into this market. The XBox360 does Netflix streaming now. It may be a possible solution for some. But again, not me.
N-wireless is a must for HD content. I am running a WNHDE111. It is a good solution because it runs over the less-crowded 5Ghz range. In a place with a lot of other houses around, avoiding interference is key to smooth video playback.
3. There must be a way to control it with one remote
A programmable remote is a must. This is the part that most people will be turned off by. I have 4 remotes: one for the TV, one for the home theater, one for the Mac Mini, and one for the Eye TV. In a stroke of luck, I had purchased a programmable remote a couple of years back that works great for this. It is the One for All URC-9910B01. All 4 devices are now programed in to the one controller. This was a pain, if you decide to make the ultimate computer-to-connect-to-a-TV setup a good, programmable remote is a must.
I also have a wireless keyboard and a gyro mouse. These sit under the couch for the most part. If you want to browse the web on the TV-connected computer, they are a must. I can’t expect most people would want to have a full-sized keyboard and a mouse under their couch. The Logitech diNovo mini is an interesting move in the right direction, but it is horribly expensive and doesn’t to IR. A perfect remote would have IR over RF to increase the range of the signal as well and not put line-of-sight restrictions on the user. This is probably the most sub-optimal part of this configuration.
A good application launcher is needed because multiple applications are used in my setup. Mira is the application I am using to accomplish this task. With it, it is easy to launch applications if for some reason you’re stuck at the desktop without mouse.
4. It must be cheap
Overall, I have spent somewhere around $600 in hardware costs. I am notoriously thrifty though. All of the purchases were done in a way where I didn’t have to pay retail price. My monthly costs are just what I spend on Netflix, $8 a month.
Compare this to what you would pay and the features you would get from cable or dish services. I see it as a compelling option. Good luck with your setups.