Why Connect your PC to a TV?
The most popular purpose to connect your PC to a TV is to playback Movies or TV Shows on a TV using XBMC (I use the OpenElec distribution). You don’t have to limit your choices just to XBMC of course. Applications like Media Player Classic (Windows), VLC, Plex, Windows Media Center, MicroDVD Player and Apple FrontRow are most certainly suitable for this purpose as well.
Alternative purposes can be Video Conferencing (using Skype or FaceTime), business presentations with PowerPoint or KeyNote, Gaming, Halloween pranks or showing a big scoreboard during an event.
Audio / Video Connections
When connecting a computer to your TV, the computer will serve as an audio and video source. To make that happen we of course have to make sure that both devices support the same connectors. Therefor, an overview of available connectors, conversion options and required computer settings.
Too many options … HDMI Recommended!
If all your choices are wide open, then I highly recommend using HDMI on both your TV and Computer, as it offers Audio and Video transport in highest quality. HDMI has pretty much become the standard for audio and video, supported by numerous computers, TV’s and Projectors.
Some additional HDMI features that might be available for your equipment:
– HEC (HDMI Ethernet Channel) or ethernet over HDMI,
– ARC (Audio Return Channel) which allows Audio to go in two directions,
– CEC (Consumer Electronics Control) which allows devices to control other devices.
Analog vs Digital
In this day and age we have the option to use Analog (classic) or Digital signals for Audio and/or Video.
Digital Audio and Video is not only recommended over Analog for it’s superior quality and reduced sensitivity to interference, but standards like HDMI and DisplayPort often combine everything in a single connection or wire. An exception is DVI, which does not support Audio over the same cable.
TV to PC – Digital Audio and Video often are combined in one connection
When using Analog Audio and Video, you’ll find that you need to hookup at least 2 connections or “wires” – one for Analog Audio (typically the 3.5mm Headphone jack on your computer) and one for Analog Video (RCA Component, RCA Composite, VGA, S-Video).
PC to TV – Analog often requires 2 connections
HDMI and HDMI to Analog Converters
When using HDMI to Analog converters, for example HDMI to Composite, one will have to pay attention to the fact that HDMI signal can be encrypted with HDCP. For example, the output of your NetFlix box, or BluRay player, will most likely be HDCP protected. An analog converter will not be able to convert this HDMI signal to an analog signal.
To remedy this, one would need a converter that is HDCP capable (rare!) or use a HDMI splitter which by accident strips the HDCP. See our article How to remove HDCP from HDMI signal for more details on how that can be done.
Identify your Video connectors
In this day and age we have quite a selection of video connectors. Some have Audio and Video, some just Video, some are Analog, some Digital, etc.
It’s relatively common that next to the connector on your PC, Laptop, TV, or Projector, a writing or a symbol is placed to indicate the type. But that is not always the case and quite often the text is quite unreadable (same color as the casing, microscopical print, etc). That’s why I’ve made a list of common video connectors and what they offer.
I placed them in preferred order. My criteria are based on best picture quality, how common a connector is, and if audio is available. In this table I only cover the relatively common connectors so don’t expect old or exotic connectors …
Common Video Connectors
|EXAMPLE (Male vs Female)
|The current standard for A/V. Originally designed and used for home A/V, more and more computers switch to using HDMI as well. Depending on the HDMI version, HDMI can also carry Ethernet (HEC), return Audio (ARC) and control signals (CEC).
|HDMI through a smaller connector, typically found on tablets, laptops, cellphones, camcorders and digital camera’s.
|The smallest HDMI connector, typically found on cellphones and camcorders.
|DVI was originally the successor to the old VGA connector, moving computer video to the digital era. Today it’s still typically used on computers and some flatscreen TV’s offer this connection as well. The male connector (on the left) fit’s in DVI-D, DVI-D Dual Link, DVI-I and DVI-I Dual Link.
|DVI-D Dual Link offers a higher “bandwidth”, allowing higher resolutions, through one connector which should not be confused with dual monitor use. The male connector (on the left) fit’s in DVI-I Dual Link as well.
|Digital and Analog
|Combines DVI-D Single Link with an additional, VGA compatible, analog signal. We see these connectors often on video cards of desktop PC’s. The male connector (on the left) fit’s in DVI-I Dual Link as well.
|Digital and Analog
|Combines DVI-D Dual Link with an additional, VGA compatible, analog signal. We see these connectors often on video cards of desktop PC’s.
|For a while, brands like HP used this format for their computer monitors. Seems however that DisplayPort Mini and HDMI have replaced this format connector.
|Smaller version of the DisplayPort connector, typically used on laptops. Please note that the a ThunderBolt port on Apple devices ( ) looks exactly the same as a Mini DisplayPort connection ( ). A DisplayPort device can be connected to Apple’s ThunderBolt port. However a ThunderBolt device, like a hard-drive for example, cannot be connected to an Apple DisplayPort mini connection on your computer.
|VGA connectors have been around for years and originate from the old IBM PC era. Sometimes referred to as HD15 or D-15 connector, quite often blue colored. Other names are SVGA, XVGA and UXGA although these names only refer to the video resolution.
|Component video keeps video signals separate using 3 wires. For the longest time this was considered one of the best video quality connectors and uses round so called RCA connectors (also known as Tulip or Phono connectors). They are typically bundled as 3 wires.
|This rather large connector, commonly seen in Europe, can carry a variation of input and output video and audio signals. The video signals can be Component Video or Composite Video like. Note that it’s not uncommon that not all formats are supported by SCART devices.
|S-Video (4 pin)
|S-Video provides video quality close to what we see with Component Video and was popular with laptops for a while. Implementation however can cause connectivity issues when 7 pin or 9 pin variations are used.
|S-Video (7 pin)
|The 7 pin S-Video is a variation of the 4 pin S-Video often used in Computers, providing additional signals. This connector should be compatible to the 4 pin S-Video, but from experience I can tell you that this is not always the case, specially when the computer relies on the additional signal for recognizing a TV being connected.
|One of the oldest in this list, and probably the “cheapest” format as well. Most TV’s have this connector still available.
Video Conversion options
If you have a situation where there is a mismatch between available connectors on your PC and your TV, then signal conversion might be an option. The only conversion I can recommend exploring is Digital Video to Digital Video, or conversion between older analog signals like S-Video/Component/Composite video.
Which ever “conversion” you pick: make sure to pick the correct cable ends (male vs female connectors).
Amazon and the likes offer quite a nice selection of video adapters – but be very skeptical and carefully read the reviews to make sure you’re not buying cheap junk.
Digital Video to Digital Video
- Digital to Digital can often be done cheap and usually works well.
Signal converters for converting one digital connector to another are relatively common. For example there are plenty cheap converters that allow exchange between HDMI, DisplayPort and DVI-D. For example, HDMI to DisplayPort, or HDMI to DVI-D.
Digital Video vs Analog Video
- Digital to Analog, or Analog to Digital are not recommended, image quality will be inferior and good converters are not cheap.
Digital Video can be converted to Analog signal with the proper hardware. If you can avoid it though, I most certainly would. The required hardware is not really cheap and the resulting video quality isn’t the best.
Be aware that so called DVI to VGA converters (for example) often highly depend on the capabilities of your computer and TV. In this example, your DVI connector needs to be support analog video, and quite often you’ll find out if it works or not when it’s too late. Not all DVI connectors support analog video.
Converter cables that claim HDMI to Component for example, often simply do not work. You’ll need a REAL converter and these converters are often more expensive.
Also note that Analog signals, with the exception of VGA, cannot handle true HD video (i.e. 720p, 1080p, etc). So converters that do convert an Digital video signal to an Analog one, will not maintain the picture quality of the original video. Converters from Analog video to a Digital TV on that same note, will not suddenly become high quality either.
Analog Video to Analog Video
- Analog to Analog conversion can be cheap and work well, with a few exceptions.
Converting an Analog connector to another Analog connector is very well possible and does not need to be expensive. In most cases it’s not even difficult to build your conversion cable yourself.
Keep in mind though that in some scenarios, conversion might be a little more tricky than others.
SCART specifications for example, indicate that Component to SCART, S-Video to SCART and Composite to SCART should be possible. The manufacturer of your TV however might not have implemented all of the specifications.
Another exception is VGA. When converting VGA to for example Component Video, you’ll need a real converter. VGA uses much higher frequencies than what your TV would expect, so a converter will need to adapt the signal to a lower frequency.
7 pin versus 4 pin S-Video connectors, to mention another example, can come with other problems. For example, some 7 pin S-Video connectors use the extra pins as a way to identify if a TV is being connected. If those extra pins are not being used, getting your computer to display video can become quite a challenge.
Since the use of Analog signal has become less and less popular, price drops of these converters can be significant. See for example this Generic PC to TV Converter for only $12. In all cases though: do your homework, and read reviews.
TV’s WITHOUT Video Input
Some older TV’s might not have any audio or video input options, in those cases you will need to convert the video output of your computer to a so called RF signal. In more simple words: a little box needs to convert the audio and video of your PC to a “TV station”.
For this you’ll need a so called “RF Modulator“.
This can also be practical when you want to duplicate the audio/video to multiple other TV’s. You might recall how you could split TV antenna cables back in the day. The same trick could be used.
Keep in mind though that this will only work for old TV’s that still use an analog TV tuner. Modern TV’s can have either analog, digital, or analog and digital TV tuners, but I’m sure that analog tuners will disappear over time. The video feed needed for the RF modulator is also analog and typically this is either Composite Video or S-Video, but other combinations exist.
RF Modulator (for Analog TV Antenna)
Computer WITHOUT a Video Output
If your computer has no video output, then don’t worry too much.
Option 1, if your computer allows this, is to install a different video card. The video card doesn’t need to be expensive, specially since often 3D capabilities of the video card play no role in video playback!
Option 2 is the use of USB … As long as your computer has a USB port (at least USB 2.0) available, you can still resort to so called USB to HDMI Adapters, USB to VGA Adapters, or USB to Composite Video Adapter. Do keep in mind though, that even if these adapters do work, they can sometimes be a tad laggy when using higher resolutions. You’re also dependent on proper drivers and support for the Operating System you’re running, so your milage may vary …
Simple USB to HDMI adapter (USB 2.0)
These kind of converts can also be found in a wireless fashion, but do not support all operating systems, like this Q-Waves Wireless USB to HDMI Extender which uses an USB port on your computer and transmits wireless video to it’s receiver which connects to your TV over HDMI or VGA cable. Keep in mind, that these kind of devices do work great for some, but distance is limited (so your computer has to be within a 3 to 10 meter radius, in the same room) and driver support can be cumbersome.
USB wireless to HDMI and VGA
As you might have noticed in the table above: not all video connectors carry an Audio signal. If you’re about to use one of those video connectors, additional cable(s) are needed to transfer audio from your PC to your TV.
Common Audio Connectors
|EXAMPLE (Male vs Female)
|The classic red and white RCA connector seen mostly on the back of your stereo set or your TV. This type of connector only supports Stereo Analog audio. Typically the 2 wires are attached to each other.
|3.5 mm Jack
|Originally designed for headphones (and the voltage levels are definitely higher than those from an RCA), and often found on MP3’s player, cellphones, cordless phones, and computers. This type of connector can only offer Stereo Analog audio. This connector is sometimes referred to as a “Sony” jack or head phone jack.
|Optical audio, always digital, guarantees a great audio quality without any loss or interference. I’ve found that optical Audio isn’t as widely spread as we’d like it to be, and cables are often expensive and short. The arrival of HDMI makes this type even less popular for Audio/Video puroses.
|Direct competition to the Optical connector, and more popular in part due to it’s simple RCA connector and cheap cable. This type of connection can be found more often than the optical connection, but the arrival of HDMI has made it this type of connector is less used for Audio/Video purposes as well.
Analog Audio Conversion
Conversion of audio signal is typically limited to converting analog audio, for example from a 3.5mm Audio Jack to the two wired RCA connectors.
Typically, if you’re not using HDMI or DisplayPort for example, you’ll end up converting the 3.5mm Jack on your computer to match the RCA connectors on your TV. Cheap and simple cables can be found that accomplish that without a problem and quite a few Audio cards, back in the day anyway, even included them.
Note though that the 3.5 mm stereo jack is typically intended to connect a headset (in other words: speakers!). The RCA connectors however are NOT intended for that purpose and uses a much lower current. Having said that: don’t with the volume of your computer to max, and even though it could technically cause damage, I haven’t experienced anything breaking because of the voltage range differences.
Examples of 3.5mm to RCA
In the above illustration , you see two different ways of converting 3.5mm to RCA, I recommend the left type, as the one on the right might put extra strain on the 3.5mm connector on your computer and you’d still need an additional RCA cable.
Similar cables can be found for SCART connectors where RCA often combined with Component Video, Composite Video and/or S-Video, are “converted” to a SCART connector. There is no real conversion in these cases besides overcoming the physical limitations of connectors that do not fit on each other.
Putting it all together
Once you figured out what audio and video connectors your computer and TV have in common, it’s time to connect the two.
When connecting the audio and video, combined or not, to your TV, take note of the name of the connector you’re using. Most TV’s call these connections AUX, INPUT, EXT or HDMI, typically followed by a number. This will be the “channel” you’ll need to set your TV to if you’d like to actually see the video.
If you decided to use an RF Modulator, you’ll be connecting the antenna output of the RF Modulator to the antenna input of your TV. Most RF Modulators has a switch to choose the channel – this channel number is what you will have to tune your TV to to see the video feed.
Note : When I refer to “video card” I mean either the physical video card in a slot in your computer, like ATI of nVidia cards, or the video chipset integrated into your computer main-board (often Intel).
Before we begin on the Computer Settings:
- Make sure your Operating System is UP TO DATE
- Make sure the DRIVERS for your Video are UP TO DATE
The video drivers are typically the cause for all kinds of headaches, so I strongly recommend getting the latest drivers for your video card.
Laptop users should first try the most recent video drivers of the laptop manufacturer. If they don’t work, you can still resort to video chip manufacturer drivers or patched drivers. Use Google!
Some older video cards have trouble detecting a TV being connected and require you to:
- First connect the computer to the TV,
- Next power on the TV
- Finally power on the computer.
If video still doesn’t appear, specially when using S-Video cables, specific cable requirements might be needed specially when you see that your computer has a 7 pin S-Video connector (older IBM Thinkpads are notorious for this problem).
Go to the Display settings in the Control Panel (Start button Control Panel Display).
Under the “Settings” tab you’ll see your main screen and (hopefully) your TV.
Depending on your Video Card, things might look different and more options might be available.
In all cases I strongly recommend to use the TV as the “Default” monitor, or as “Mirror“.
The option “Extend my Windows desktop on to this monitor” should be avoided!
Tip : If you’re not sure if you picked the right monitor, click the “Identify” button.
Tip : Some video cards come with much more extended settings – utilize this tool instead, as it often offers better setting options.
Windows XP TV Settings
Windows 7 and 8 are definitely more convoluting than Windows XP, but the driver support in general is better and video playback appears smoother at time.
You can use the Key combined with the “P” key to pull up the “Projection” settings and choose “Duplicate” for what Windows calls “Projection on a second screen”.
Alternatively you can open Screen Resolution by right clicking the desktop and selecting “Screen Resolution“.
Here you can see what screens Windows has detected and select your TV. Click your TV and click and click the “Project to a second screen” option where you choose “Duplicate“.
With your TV Connected, go to the Apple menu, and choose “System Preferences” “Displays” “Arrangement“.
Next check the option “Mirror Displays” in the bottom-left corner.
MacOS X – Display Settings
Settings under a Linux distribution (at this time anyway) is much more complicated to describe and often depends on the video card your computer is using. Ubuntu (v12+) has improved these “issues” greatly though.
Go to “System Settings” “Displays” where you can see your TV (if detected, if not click the “Detect Displays” button).
Select your TV and make sure to check the “Mirror Displays” option.
XBMC distributions, like for example OpenElec, come with a complete Operating System (Linux) and typically have a broad spectrum of supported video cards. Some OpenElec versions are even build specifically for particular computers or computer configurations and even supports devices like the 1st generation AppleTV and the Raspberry Pi.
One of the cool things of OpenElec is that you can actually run it of an USB stick – so it gives you the option to test compatibility before deciding to clear your harddrive and install OpenElec.
Using an A/V Receiver with HDMI and ARC
A/V Receivers do not need to be expensive and can greatly enhance the Audio experience. My favorite models are the Yamaha AV Receivers. They are very affordable, perform very well, have great connectivity and support ARC for HDMI amongst others.
With this type of setup, you will typically have more options, and some these AV Receivers even have the ability to convert Analog Audio and Video to a digital signal (often HDMI). They can be a little complex when you first look at them though.
My preferred setup, which needs your TV and AV Receiver to support ARC (Audio Return Channel) for HDMI is as follows:
The Audio and Video Output of your computer, preferably HDMI, goes to the AV Receiver’s input.
From the AV Receiver’s output, a HDMI connection goes to your TV.
AV Receiver example setup
This way, we can play video from the PC back on the TV over the AV Receiver, which of course means that the AV Receiver needs to be set to the Audio and Video input you use for the PC, and your TV must be set to the Audio and Video input you used to connect the AV Receiver.
With this setup however, audio from regular TV broadcasts or TV Apps will not go to the AV Receiver, not exactly what we would like right?
This is where ARC comes in (ARC is only available for HDMI and not all devices support HDMI ARC!).
On your TV you will now need to enable ARC, if it supports this. Some TV’s do not support ARC, others have it always ON and some require you to do this manually. Also note that the naming convention can be different per TV. Some refer to it as CEC or “remote control”.
This enables the TV to send Audio back to your AV Receiver when watching for example regular TV. Note that ARC often works with CEC (Consumer Electronics Control). It uses CEC to switch the AV Receiver to a different input, often called “TV Audio” or something like that.