Connecting a PC to your TV is dead simple. All you’ll usually need is an HDMI cable, and then you can access every media service, streaming site, and PC game — on your TV.

Simple streaming boxes like the Roku, Chromecast, Fire TV, Apple TV, and others are still slick and convenient. But not every app is on every box — a PC gives you access to everything, plus web pages, plus PC games.

PCs Are a Living Room Swiss Army Knife

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PCs are a little bit more awkward to use because they don’t have the polished interface and dedicated remote of a Roku or similar TV-optimized box. But using a PC in your living room isn’t as awkward as it sounds, and you gain an extreme amount of flexibility:

  • Use Any Service: Different devices support different apps. For example, only the Apple TV allows you to watch iTunes content. But the Apple TV can’t watch Amazon Prime videos. Amazon’s own Fire TV can, but it can’t play HBO Go. A PC can play absolutely everything via a web browser and desktop apps like iTunes. If nothing else, it’s a good fallback when your primary streaming box can’t play something.
  • Bypass Limitations on Streaming to TVs: Some services prevent you from streaming certain content to TVs, but allow it to PCs. For example, Hulu offers some shows for free streaming on PCs, but not to TV boxes. Plug a PC into your TV and you can watch all that content on your TV.
  • Play Local Video Files: A PC can download and play local video files easily, too. You don’t have to copy them to a USB stick and then connect that to the streaming box in your living room, worrying about limited media codec compatibility. VLC can play practically everything.
  • Stream Videos and Music From Websites: Whether it’s a streaming site, a music-streaming service, or just an individual TV show site that streams a TV show via a Flash player, but doesn’t have an app, it will stream on your TV. It’s not just that every service available as an “app” works on a PC — many websites without apps at all will work on a PC.
  • Play PC Games: PCs give you access to a much wider universe of games, so you’re not stuck playing whatever version of Angry Birds comes with your Roku or the handful of games available for your Fire TV. Just fire up Steam, connect an Xbox controller, and play some proper games.

A TV can even be thought of as a big computer monitor. It could be used as a secondary monitor for your PC’s desktop or make a good big screen for a presentation.

itunes on tv via laptop

It’s Just an HDMI Cable Away

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If you’ve connected a streaming box, game console, or another type of device to your TV, you’ve done it by connecting an HDMI cable to the HDMI-out port on the device and the HDMI-in port on the TV. To connect a laptop or desktop to your TV, you just need to do the exact same thing — connect an HDMI cable to the HDMI-out port on your PC and the HDMI-in port on your TV.

Laptops make this extra easy, as you can just carry the laptop into your living room and set it down within cable length of your TV. With a desktop, you can hook everything up next to your TV.

With some laptops, it won’t be quite this simple. Many laptops don’t have a full-size HDMI port to save space, so you may need to adapter cable. This will vary from laptop to laptop — perform a web search for your laptop’s model number and “HDMI out” for more information. If your computer or TV is old and doesn’t support HDMI, it may support VGA or something similar.

Plugging In Hdmi Cable To Laptop

Controlling Your PC

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Now you can view your computer’s screen on your TV. A wireless mouse and keyboard — either using Bluetooth or a USB receiver — are convenient here, allowing you to control the interface from across the room. If you want to play PC games on your TV, you can plug an Xbox controller or similar game controller into your PC and treat it like a game console.

There are specialized interfaces to make this better. For example, the Kodi (formerly XBMC) media center software provides a media center interface for your TV. Steam’s big-picture mode makes launching PC games easier. But these interfaces aren’t really necessary — just firing up your web browser, going to a streaming service’s website, and entering full-screen mode will give you the interface you need. For local files, VLC or another media player software is good, too.

xbmc tv interface

If you have a Roku, Chromecast, Apple TV, Fire TV, or similar box, we don’t recommend throwing it out. Using a Roku to play back Netflix ,or casting YouTube content to a Chromecast is convenient. But, at some point, you’ll run up against the limitations of that streaming box and want to do something it doesn’t support. A general-purpose computer will let you do anything you want to do.

It’s just like computing in general — smartphones are great, portable devices, but sometimes you need a PC to get the job done.

Image Credit: William Hook on Flickr, Alan Levine on Flickr, Jorge Sanz on Flickr

Profile Photo for Chris Hoffman Chris Hoffman
Chris Hoffman is Editor-in-Chief of How-To Geek. He's written about technology for over a decade and was a PCWorld columnist for two years. Chris has written for The New York Times and Reader's Digest, been interviewed as a technology expert on TV stations like Miami's NBC 6, and had his work covered by news outlets like the BBC. Since 2011, Chris has written over 2,000 articles that have been read more than one billion times---and that's just here at How-To Geek.
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