Mac Mini on TV stand (Photo credit: Larry Magid)
There are plenty of ways to bring Internet content to a TV set, but with the exception of PCs and Macs they all have their limitations. One limit is the fact that some content providers that are accessible from PCs and Macs attempt to block access from game consoles, Google TV, Apple TV and other Internet-connected devices. Another is that different devices run different applications. An Apple TV, for example, gives you access to iTunes content but not content from Amazon's library. Non-Apple TV boxes don't provide access to iTunes.
But by placing a Mac or a PC to a TV you can access pretty much anything you want.
The key to connecting PC or Mac to a TV is to make sure that the computer you purchase has an HDMI port which is standard on a lot but not all machines these days. The HDMI will always handle the PC's video but may or may not handle audio. If not, you'll have to connect the audio via the PC's headphone or audio out jack.
Another important piece is to get a wireless keyboard and pointing device or a remote control for the PC. There are several wireless technologies for both PCs and Macs, starting at under $30. Ideally you should buy one with an RF radio signal or Bluetooth rather than infrared.
It's also necessary to have a PC with Wi-Fi unless you can run Ethernet cables into your living room.
You can buy a PC specifically for this purpose but if you are upgrading to a newer PC, it could be a good way to use your old one. If your old PC doesn't have Wi-Fi or the hardware for wireless keyboard and pointing device, you can easily add it through the USB ports.
Mac Mini is a simple but expensive solution
This week Apple loaned me one of its new Mac Minis along with a Bluetooth keyboard and Bluetooth trackpad. I placed the new Mini next to my TV and connected an HDMI cable from the back of the Mac to the back of the TV, and that was the extent of the installation. The video and audio worked fine, though I did have to adjust the video resolution of the Mac so it was suitable for my TV.
The Mini's small size and ease of installation would make it an ideal set-top box if it weren't so expensive. A more economical solution would be to find a used Mini or a cheap PC as long as the device has an HDMI out port. Unlike iPads and iPhones, the Mac works fine with flash so the entire Internet was accessible.
And because it's a personal computer, I was able to do other things such as checking email and even writing this column via Microsoft Word. Sitting back on the couch accessing a 55 inch computer screen isn't exactly the most ergonomic way to work, but it does work.
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