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That Tired Old Computer Could Be a Neat Media Streamer

One antidote to escalating household budgets is to cut utility services. However, dropping trash pickup and dumping your garbage in neighbors’ receptacles in the middle of the night probably wouldn’t go down too well in the community.

Likewise, terminating your electricity supply won’t play too well with the family after the novelty wears off — possibly less than an hour if there’s something good on TV, or it’s cold.

One cost that can be cut, though, is your media bill — and it’s possible to do it, with little sacrifice, by moving to an a la carte, Internet-delivered model.

Step 1

Identify the latest-model redundant computer you have lying around. The nature of technology evolution means this should be a relatively easy step.

Connect the PC to a TV with an HDMI cable, if you can. Otherwise, use a DVI to HDMI adapter at the PC end, or use an old VGA monitor cable and connect the PC to the TV’s “VGA PC In” jack.

Connect the green 3.5mm “Audio Out” jack on the PC to the 3.5mm “PC Audio In” jack on the TV if you’re using anything other than HDMI to send the video signal.

Connect the PC to your Internet router with an Ethernet cable. If the router is nowhere near the TV, use a WiFi adapter. The simplest are the kind that insert into a USB port.

Step 2

Turn the computer and TV on, and press the “Input” or “Source” button on the TV’s remote control until the PC’s desktop displays on the TV.

Step 3

Connect the mouse and keyboard, and clean the PC. It’s likely that one reason the PC was retired was due to an accumulation of junk, including spyware, orphaned DLL files, and so on.

If you have the OEM discs that came with the computer, perform a reformat of the drive and reload the operating system and drivers.

If you don’t have the OEM discs, download a free cleaning program like Advanced System Care, or similar, and run all of the deep cleaning tools like “Registry Fix” and so on. Follow any on-screen prompts to update the operating system and browser.

Step 4

Test the PC’s functionality in relation to the TV. Right-click on the Desktop and choose “Properties” and then the “Settings” tab. Adjust the “Screen Resolution” settings until the desktop image displays properly. Test the audio connection.

Step 5

Download a PC-streaming application like the free Boxee, which will aggregate media-streaming services like TV-oriented Netflix and music-oriented Pandora.

The Boxee PC application replicates a cable-like user experience, with a sit-back type of user interface with larger labels and text than you’d get from a regular browser. Follow the prompts to download and install the Boxee software, then choose streaming services. Many services will be free.

Or, simply use the PC’s existing Web browser to browse to the individual streaming service’s website. Look for TV-streaming services such as Amazon Instant Video, Netflix, Hulu and Walmart’s Vudu.

Look for music streaming from Pandora. Be aware that Hulu’s browser-based service is free, but the service called “Hulu Plus” that’s included in the aggregators has a monthly fee.

Step 6

Weigh the pros and cons, based on cost and convenience. This solution could cost you nothing per month, as opposed to a cable bill of US$90 or more a month.

However, some Internet programming, including Fox’s, is embargoed for a few days after regular broadcast. Also, keep in mind that the interface and hook-up can be more fiddly than that supplied by a classic cable box.

If you’re confident this a la carte model will work for you, call your service provider to disconnect your TV service, thus slashing your monthly bill. Don’t forget to retain your Internet service, though.

Want to Ask a Tech Question?

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Patrick Nelson has been a professional writer since 1992. He was editor and publisher of the music industry trade publication Producer Report and has written for a number of technology blogs. Nelson studied design at Hornsey Art School and wrote the cult-classic novel Sprawlism. His introduction to technology was as a nomadic talent scout in the eighties, where regular scrabbling around under hotel room beds was necessary to connect modems with alligator clips to hotel telephone wiring to get a fax out. He tasted down and dirty technology, and never looked back.

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