So you just bought a shiny new high definition TV set and you're loving the quality you get from digital cable and DVDs. If you also have HD video on your PC, whether downloaded from the Internet, recorded with a TV tuner, or imported from your HD camcorder, you're in luck: You can send it from your computer to the TV for the ultimate digital entertainment experience.
There are two basic options for sharing flicks and tunes with your TV. Either connect your computer directly to your TV (see "Making the Direct Connection" below), or use a set-top box that acts as an intermediary, retrieving video from your PC over your home network and delivering it to your HDTV through direct HDMI or component connections. Most of these boxes also stream music and photos, and some even handle podcasts, Internet radio, YouTube, downloaded rental movies, and other streaming video sources.
If you have Vista Home Premium or Ultimate, the simplest box to add is a Windows Media Centre Extender (or an Xbox 360). Extenders basically put the familiar Media Centre interface — like the one you see on your PC's monitor — directly on your TV screen, making it easy to navigate your shared files just as if you were sitting in front of the computer.
Note: Media Centre extenders have been around a while, and they're not all created equal. For HD support, be sure to buy a second-generation extender with HDMI output, like the D-Link DSM-750 the Linksys DMA2100 and DMA2200, or the forthcoming Niveus Media Extender.
Using a Windows Media Centre Extender
To see how well the new Media Extenders work, we tried out the Linksys DMA2200 ($450). This model adds a 1080p up-scaling DVD player to the basic DMA2100 extender. If you already have a progressive-scan up-converting DVD player, the DMA2100 is all you need.
To get up and running with your Media Centre Extender, start by plugging it into an HDMI or component video port on your HDTV, then run through a few configuration screens to configure your TV resolution and aspect ratio, and the type of network you will use (wired or wireless). If your network is wireless (as most home networks are), you also need to choose your network and encryption settings. All this is easy to navigate with the included Linksys remote. Finally you'll be presented with a key to type into Media Centre on your PC, so it can recognise the extender. In our case, the extender was automagically recognised by Vista, which popped up the "Found new hardware" balloon to prompt us. Click the balloon to complete the setup, and enter the key you received from the extender.
Once Windows Media Centre connects to your extender, you'll need to set up the media folders you want the extender to be able to access, and then Media Centre will check the quality of your network connection, which is vitally important for smooth HD streaming. This is where things fall apart for many users, since most people still use 802.11g Wi-Fi at home; in this configuration, most extenders will barely function. Switching to wired Ethernet on the PC side yields a slight improvement, but the change remains non-functional for HD video. In our trials, we swapped our old 802.11g router for Linksys' WRT600N 802.11n model, which finally gave us near-acceptable performance on the 2.4-GHz band, and perfect performance on the 5-GHz band. (The extender includes dual-band 802.11n Wi-Fi.)
To be fair, Linksys strongly recommends using 5-GHz 802.11n Wi-Fi with the extender, but we just wanted to see for ourselves, since most people don't have a dual-band N router, and it costs about $US250. If you plan to upgrade your router anyway, it's not a big deal, but at a total cost of $US450, there are less pricey alternatives. The cheapest of these options is to simply run wired Ethernet to the extender — something we strongly recommend for trouble-free performance. No matter how good your wireless network may be, you may still experience the occasional dropout. Wired networks have no such problems.
Once you clear the network hurdle, your extender will offer you a wide selection of Internet content and movie downloads as well as whatever media is on your PC. However, many of these offerings — such as Vongo's movie rental service — come at a premium price.
Media Centre alternatives
If you have Windows XP or Vista Home Basic, you won't be able to use a Media Centre Extender with your PC, but there are plenty of HD-capable options ready to fill the gap for you. Notably, if you own an Xbox 360, you may be pleased to hear that it works with all XP and Vista systems. With Vista Home Premium and Ultimate, they work just like the D-Link or Linksys extenders; with XP or Vista Basic, they interface with Windows Media Player 11. WMP doesn't give you the whole Media Centre experience, but it does let you stream most content from your PC. Note that you'll need an Ethernet connection or 802.11n Wi-Fi for smooth HD streaming, just as with the Linksys Extender.
Setting up your Xbox for either Media Centre or Media Player support is simple — just download the software from the Xbox site and you'll be watching all your media files in no time. The Xbox 360 Universal Media Remote even has a special Media Centre button to make navigation easy. Make sure you have the Xbox hooked up to your TV using HDMI to get the best picture quality. If you have a non-HDMI Xbox 360, Mad Catz makes a $US90 conversion kit.
If an Xbox 360 isn't in your arsenal, consider the Netgear Digital Entertainer HD ($US400), D-Link MediaLounge Wireless HD Media Player (US$250), or Apple TV ($449). All three devices will grab video, music, and photos from networked PCs and play them back on your HDTV. The Netgear and D-Link models support up to 1080i playback, while the Apple TV supports up to 720p. All have HDMI ports and built-in Wi-Fi networking, but many of their other features vary widely.
The D-Link and Netgear systems have the advantage of being able to play back media stored on NAS drives as well as multiple PCs on your home network, so you could keep your photo and audio libraries on a shared network storage drive, while using your PC as a DVR to record TV shows. Both boxes support a wide range of audio, video, and photo formats, including Windows Media DRM-protected content (although DRM content must be played back from a PC, rather than from a network drive).
The Apple TV has its own 40GB or 160GB internal drive, but the contents must be copied from iTunes on your PC or downloaded directly from the iTunes Store, so it's not as versatile as the others. Aside from its simple graphical interface, the main reason to buy an Apple TV would be to view content downloaded from the iTunes Store.
One more option to weigh is the LaCie LaCinema Premier Drive. This unique hard drive, available in 500GB, 750GB, and 1TB capacities for $US250 to $500, first connects to your PC via USB to copy over media files, then directly to your home theatre via HDMI and optical audio to play them back, neatly avoiding any networking issues. It supports most major photo, audio, and video formats, has 1080i output resolution, and comes with a remote control. If you don't add new content frequently, and just want a big drive to store your home video, photo, and music libraries for playback on your TV, it's a simple and economical solution.
Finally, consider simply hooking an inexpensive Media Centre PC like the compact HP Pavilion Slimline s3300t right into your home theater. At $US600 including an HDMI graphics card and 500GB hard disk, it costs no more than a Media Centre Extender plus a network-attached storage (NAS) drive, and gives you more flexibility. You can use it as a NAS drive for your other PCs, or as a DVR with an add-on TV tuner (about $100), and even burn your shows directly to the built-in DVD recorder.
Making the direct connection
Don't want to buy a Media Centre Extender or other new equipment? As long as your video card has a DVI output (which most reasonably recent cards do), you can cut out the middleman and hook your existing PC directly to your HDTV with a simple DVI-HDMI adapter cable, and then play online games or view videos and photos from your computer in all their high-def glory on your big screen.
What's the catch? Not all HDTVs are suited to such uses, and you may have to do some tweaking. First, check your HDTV's manual to see if has a 1:1 pixel-mapping mode (variously termed "Dot for Dot," "Full Pixel," or "Unscaled"). If it does, it will reproduce your PC input, pixel for pixel, and you are all set. Just be sure to check which input resolutions are supported in this mode, and change your PC's video card output settings accordingly. For a 1080i/p HDTV, that will be 1920 x 1080; for a 720p set, it will be 1366 x 768; see this excellent online Wiki for more details.
Without 1:1 pixel mapping, you can still try connecting, but you may get unimpressive results, especially when viewing text, since your PC's video may be stretched or scaled, creating weird on-screen artefacts. The picture may also be cut off at the top and sides, causing overscanning. If so, find the setting on your TV to turn off overscan (or turn on underscan). A simple way to check if your PC signal is coming across correctly is to change your desktop background to the appropriate-size video test pattern found here.