Zap To The Future (Part 1)

3/23/2013 9:26:36 AM

Smart TVs are all the rage. We explain how to make your own -and save thousands of rupees into the bargain

In this New Year you’ll hear a lot of talk about ‘smart’ televisions. It’s a broad term that refers to the latest generation of sets that combine normal TV with bunch of functions more typically associated with computers, such as web browsing, photo sharing and social-networking tools like Facebook and Twitter. This may sound clever but smart TVs can be expensive - and the non-TV functions are rarely a match for what can be achieved with even a basic PC.

Smart TVs have a variety of interfaces but few are as versatile as a PC

Smart TVs have a variety of interfaces but few are as versatile as a PC

In this article we will explain how to put together a powerful internet-connected TV that can do the job properly. The trick is to connect an ordinary PC or notebook directly to the TV. Using free software and some (optional) extra hardware, it’s possible to add a TV-friendly interface and watch internet videos, play games, read your email or just browse the web from the comfort of your sofa.

Worldwide telly

Many new TVs include an Ethernet connector at the back, or a USB port for plugging in a wireless network adapter. The idea is that these ‘smart’ tellies can be hooked up to the web via a broadband router. They generally have built-in applications for watching paid-for online movie services, such as Lovefilm or Blinkbox, or viewing Youtube videos.

It’s all quite impressive but there are limitations. The TV manufacturer has control over what programs are provided (or can be installed), and these vary between manufacturers. Moreover, the control systems can be awful and if the TV doesn’t support a keyboard and mouse you’re stuck with using the remote control for web browsing, which is not fun.

There is an alternative, though. Connecting a PC to a TV can make for a smarter telly, with the benefit of a familiar interface and the ability to install any program you want.

Pick a PC

Almost any PC or laptop will do. Some newer PCs and laptops will have a built-in HDMI connector that is ideal for use with a high-definition (HD) TV, but there are plenty of other ways to connect any PC using standard DVI, VGA or S-Video connections - see the ‘Making the connection’ box later in this article for more help with this.

Even the model we built as a project recently (see would do for this purpose. Choose an attractive slim-line case, if you want it to blend into the living room. As it will be mainly for internet use, the PC doesn’t even need a massive hard disk, unless you decide to add a TV tuner (which we’ll discuss later in this article) and use the PC for video recording. An old laptop would do, so long as it can play video reliably.

A more expensive but neater option would be a PC like the Zotac Zbox. This attaches to the back of the TV, and to keep costs down it can even be used with the Linux operating system.

Connect it to the internet

Though not essential if intending to view only your own content, the computer driving your smart TV really needs to be connected to the internet. The best way to do this is via a wired connection, as your entertainment may be spoiled by interference to wireless connections.

If it is not possible to run network cables, consider a power line adapter kit and only use wireless if there is no alternative. If there are no spare wired network connectors on the router, add more by plugging in a switch.

Now get some software

The real secret is in the software. Viewing Windows on a large TV screen can look horrible, with menus and buttons too small to read or use comfortably. What is needed is an interface that is easy to use from a distance, using either a keyboard and mouse or a remote control (we’ll discuss these later).

Windows 7 and Vista users with the Home Premium or Ultimate versions of the operating system have Windows Media Center (or WMC) included. This is a much-neglected gem of a program with a great interface that can play videos, photos and music from the PC or over a home network, and even play games and connect to one or two online video services. With the addition of a TV tuner card it can even act as a digital video recorder.

Windows Media Center comes with the Home Premium editions of Vista and 7

Windows Media Center comes with the Home Premium editions of Vista and 7

WMC is certainly the easiest option. However, it is not the most flexible and there are free alternatives. Boxee, for example, plays all the same file types as WMC but is much more focused on streaming video, movie, TV and music services. Many of these are free (and, more importantly, completely legal). To get it, visit: www.boxee.tvand click the Make a Boxee link for the download section. Boxee has dozens of free ‘apps’ (such as YouTube and Flickr viewers) that can be downloaded and installed from within its App Library.

Boxee works on Windows, Mac and Linux computers. It can even be bought preinstalled as the D-Link Boxee Box.

Another free program that works well if you mainly want to play files stored on your PC or home network, rather than internet TV or videos, is XBMC (wwVKxbmc.OIg). However, there’s nothing to stop you using all of these programs if you wish - they will happily live side by side on the same PC, giving you more choice.

The ability to install new apps is one of Boxee’s best features - the software is free and can access the vast App Library

The ability to install new apps is one of Boxee’s best features - the software is free and can access the vast App Library

Lights, camera, action

WMC is often confused with Windows Media Player, (which is a different program) but it doesn’t need a TV tuner card to work, and setup is simple, if you haven’t used it before, click Start, followed by All Programs, then Windows Media Center. When the Welcome screen appears, click the Continue button, then Express and follow the instructions.

WMC automatically scans the PC for media files and adds them to the relevant sections: to add new or different folders move to the Settings screen then choose Media Libraries. Use i the up and down arrow (cursor) keys or mouse scroll wheel to scroll through the menus, and the left and right arrows to move through the sub-menus. Press Enter, Space or left-click to open an item.

Assuming the PC has all the latest updates downloaded and installed (via Windows Update, within All Programs from the Start menu) scrolling to the left in the TV section will reveal an icon labeled ‘MSN Video Player’. (If you see a link to Sky Player, ignore it as this service was discontinued in July 2011.) Click the icon and follow the on-screen instructions. When done, you will be able to browse and watch dozens of old and new TV shows free.

The Zotac Zbox PC attaches to the back of a TV

The Zotac Zbox PC attaches to the back of a TV


In WMC’s Extras menu you’ll find links to games such as Solitaire, and in the Explore sub-menu is a pay-per-view movie service called Cool room. Although this does work, it is not very user-friendly: many of the links to online video services, such as ITN, are defunct. It does have a few free movie trailers and music previews to try, though.

To have WMC launch automatically when Windows starts, go to choose Settings followed by General then Startup and Window Behavior, then click to tick the box labeled ‘Start Windows Media Center when Windows starts’.

A very useful add-on for WMC (but only the Windows 7 version) is the Tuner Free MCE {, which provides legal access to live streaming and catch-up programs from the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and 5, plus some other online services like Seesaw The same developer also produces an add-in for the Lovefilm movie-streaming service (, although you need a Lovefilm account.

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