Connecting your computer to your TV for streaming video

This isn’t the kind of thing I normally write about, and this post is far from comprehensive, but I got into a conversation with two colleagues recently about how to connect a computer to a TV and stream your shows without needing a cable box. I wrote them a long email with my experiences, and, as is my wont, I decided I’d post that email here in case it’s helpful.

The Mrs and I shut off our cable TV service about seven months ago and have since been using a Mac Mini plugged into our Vizio HDTV for streaming video. It’s not necessarily an easy transition and takes some fiddling, but if you’re the kind of person who likes fiddling, it’s a good way to save about a hundred clams a month (for now, until the cable companies and content providers figure out better ways to charge for it).

Here’s the advice I gave my colleagues:

Here’s a good video that lays out all the steps. It gets a bit bogged down in all the cable options. My advice would be to Google specific questions about your TV and your computer, e.g., “connect Macbook Pro to Vizio HDTV.” Most likely someone has already done what you’re trying to do.

Basically, hooking up your computer to a modern TV is no different than hooking it up to a monitor. You just need to find the right cables.

For us it was easiest to connect our Mac Mini to our Vizio TV using a VGA cable plugged in to the TV, and a mini display port to VGA adapter to plug it into the Mac.

A lot of PCs have a VGA port already, so for a PC you can get a VGA cable and just plug it in to both devices. I did that when I was using an HP laptop with the TV.

The next challenge once you get it plugged in is setting the display and finding the right resolution. The video gives a good overview of how to do that. One thing that helps is finding the “native resolution” of your TV, which is probably shown in your TV manual, or you can probably find it online. If you set your computer’s display properties to the same resolution as your TV’s native resolution, you should be able to get full screen video with no letterboxing effect.

Of course, as with all things computer, sometimes it works easily and sometimes it doesn’t. I tried to use my Mac Mini with a mini display port to HDMI adapter, following specific instructions people had posted on the web, and could never get the color or resolution right. I gave up and went back to the VGA cable, which works fine.

The VGA cable doesn’t transmit sound, however, so I had to plug my computer into my stereo with a headphone-out-to-RCA-in cable to get audio output, but I was going to do that anyway. If you can get an HDMI cable to work, it will transmit sound as well, through your TV’s speakers.

We mostly watch network shows free on We also have Netflix, so we can stream movies and TV shows from For the few shows we like that are not available in either of those places, we buy a series subscription through iTunes and download them.

There’s also a free web-based service called Boxee that aggregates a lot of feeds and attempts to make this all more streamlined, but I haven’t given it a good try.

None of this is simple and tidy. It requires a lot of fiddling at the start and a lot of web searching, unless you hit it lucky right away. Then, you have to hunt to find the shows you want. Depending on the strength of the network connection in your neighborhood, you may find that streaming video starts and stops. Most of the services like Netflix and Hulu will allow the show to “buffer,” so that it runs smoothly, but that means you might wait a minute or two for it to start.

You can run a free test at Speedtest that will tell you the download and upload speeds for your network and give you an estimate of the time required to download different types of files. Be sure to test it more than once, at the times you are most likely to be streaming TV shows. If you get a reading significantly below average, you might want to call your cable company and ask. One of our neighbors found ours to be very low, and the cable company investigated and made some changes to match the high load in our neighborhood.

All in all, for us it’s been worth the $100 a month savings, and we find we’re watching TV more selectively, which was one of our goals. Also, there are fewer commercials on shows than on the broadcast equivalent, but already we’re seeing signs that is changing.

In other words, the free lunch won’t last forever. But for now, it’s worth it.

photo by Paulpod