Many of us are forgoing the days of owning desktop computers and working primarily with mobile laptop computers instead. However, the old-school desktop computer still has its uses: particularly as a media center. But what if you don't own a desktop yet still want to stream media to a television? Simple: use your laptop!
I regularly talk to people who have no idea of the true power their laptops have. They don't know that these mobile machines are media centers in their own right. Many can easily output 720p or 1080p video to that HDTV sitting in your living room.
The big question is, of course, how could you do this. Well, first off, you need to check on a few things to make sure it is possible. Mainly, you need to ensure that your laptop has the necessary outputs to render a picture to your television.
You will want to check your computer's ports, as there should be either a Mini-DVI, DVI, VGA, Mini-VGA, Mini DisplayPort, HDMI, or Mini-HDMI port (yeah, lots of possibilities here) located on the side or rear of your laptop. Having one of these is crucial in being able to use your laptop as a media center. Barring that, I am going to assume you have one of these ports (if not, it might be time to consider an upgrade).
Once you have found one of these ports, you are in business. The only thing left is to connect your computer to your television. This is where it can get a bit complex, and you will probably have to spend a few bucks or do some online shopping, but it isn't as bad as it sounds.
First off, I prefer purchasing a computer port to television port cable with the adaptation built into the cord, but sometimes this is not possible. However, if you are able to find one of these cables (as apposed to purchasing a stand-alone adapter and having to attach it to your television or laptop), it will make things much simpler.
As for audio, you need to read the instruction manual on how your laptop computer outputs audio, and you might want to look up how many channels it outputs as well. Many laptops offer audio output directly from the headphone jack or even a dedicated port.
In my case, I own a two-year-old Macbook, and it has a Mini-DVI port and it outputs surround sound from the headphone jack. After determining this, I went onto Amazon and purchased a Mini-DVI to HDMI (female) adapter, 3.5mm to Digital Fiber Optic Audio TosLink cable, and HDMI cable. The total cost, at the time, was around $16 for for everything, so that wasn't bad at all.
In any case, I would opt for HDMI, but for older televisions, this might not be an option. Choose to your own needs accordingly.
All recent laptops should be capable of outputting 720p or 1080p video as well as 5-channel surround sound.
All you need to do is ensure that you have the proper ports and that the computer actually does output these signals.
Once you get everything setup, you might need to tinker with the settings in your display preferences for both Mac and Windows, but you should have a picture on your television. After that, you could simply play your movies from the laptop and maximize the screen, or you could install media center software like XMBC or Boxee.
So, you finally have everything running now, right? However, let me quickly mention some of the pitfalls of using a laptop as a media center.
The first issue is that you'll need to have the laptop wired up in a hackish fashion. You'll likely need to have it plugged into a power source, the video converter, the audio converter, and, even then, you'll need to run these wires to the display. It is not going to look pretty, no matter how you handle this. Again, it won't be pretty, but it will work.
Another issue that became quickly apparent is that this will make your computer run hot — very, very hot. I have seen my Apple Macbook approach 85-degrees celsius when it normally runs, at max, at around 72-degrees celsius. It is sometimes concerns me that I am somehow reducing the life of the laptop at temperatures that high. So, this is something worth thinking about.
The final issue with using your laptop as a media center is that, quite simply, it isn't convenient. Does the thought of having to pull out a few cables, connecting them to your laptop, finding a place to put your laptop, setting up your laptop to play the movie, and then potentially having to stand up and come to the laptop to control it (if you don't own a remote) sound appealing, especially when wanting to just sit down, relax, and enjoy a movie at that very moment?
Those are some pretty big tradeoffs, but, again, you don't own a dedicated media center, this laptop solution could be for you.
I currently do this as I don't own a dedicated media center, and didn't feel the need to buy a media center extender — although I eventually plan on purchasing one. This solution is very affordable, and, as I've said numerous times before, it isn't convenient, but it works!