A Simple HTPC Setup

by Kevin Hisel

I have a semi-ancient 46" DLP 720P TV and ever since I got it I've wanted to find a way to play PC content on it (it has VGA but no HDMI). Back when I bought the set in mid 2004 I hooked up a lappie with Windows XP just to try it out and the results were terrible. For some reason the PC didn't know what the heck it was hooked up to so it defaulted to 1024x768 or a 4:3 resolution. The TV then stretched the image to fill its 1280x720 screen and everybody looked like they had gone all William Shatner on me.

Just for fun the other day, I slipped a new lappie with Win 7 on it into the VGA cable and Windows 7 said, "Hey it looks like you've got an ancient Samsung DLP TV. Here's 1280x720." And it looked pretty okay. Actually not bad at all. So I thought, hey now I can get an HTPC (Home Theater PC) and be all set to watch Internet video in the living room.

I've got a pretty nice Comcast DVR so I wasn't interested in TV tuners and PVR functionality. I just wanted something to watch and listen to content from my network, Miro, Netflix and other Internet video stuff. Dell has some nice "Zino" units but they were a little out of my "this-is-a-toy" budget. Other HTPC solutions were more than I needed.

So I grabbed a dirt-cheap ($379) Dell Vostro 14" lappie on Black Friday. It's got all the requirements: decent HD playback, Core 2 Duo 2.1GHz, wireless (running Cat 5 to that location would be a pain), 250GB, 2G RAM and Windows 7 Home Premium (with Media Center) and the all-important VGA-out. To complete the package I grabbed a Unisen iPazzPort wireless remote keyboard/touchpad that fits in a shirtpocket and works remarkably well. I piped the audio out through the headphone connector into my even more ancient Harman-Kardon audio receiver.

So, for a little over $400 I can now watch back-to-back episodes of Top Gear, anything on YouTube, Hulu or the network sites as well as all the stuff on my network (including my whole CD collection) in the living room in glorious 720P on my 6-year old TV that still works. Unlike Google TV, I am not blocked from any content and the variety of stuff out there is limitless unlike something like a Roku box or Apple TV (but more money, admittedly).