July 19, 2007

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Main screen turn on
Is it a computer monitor or is it a television?
By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com

How many screens does one house really need?

Televisions are a staple in nearly every American household, and increasingly, computers are too. Newer and better PCs come with newer and better monitors, while flat-panel high-definition TVs are gracing more and more walls. It’s reasonable to wonder if maybe you couldn’t consolidate a little.

Some of the first personal computers used TVs as their displays. Part of that was a cost consideration — the PCs themselves cost thousands of dollars already, so adding another display might have dissuaded buyers. The video signal was also much simpler than the color 3D graphics of today.

Using a standard-definition television as a computer monitor these days will leave you sorely disappointed. TVs are designed to be viewed from across a room rather than right up close, and their display technology was developed decades ago. There are only 480 lines of resolution, and only every other line is refreshed each frame. Text that would be sharp on a monitor is fuzzy on a TV, and the whole picture just looks blah.

In addition, televisions are traditionally analog devices. They simply can’t handle the digital signals put out by your computer through its monitor port — you need an adapter box or a dedicated TV-out port, which does the digital-to-analog conversion.

High definition TVs do a little better. They’re designed to accept digital signals and decode them into the picture you see on the screen, so they’re pretty much monitors already. The most detailed HDTVs have a resolution of 1920 pixels horizontally and 1080 vertically. My laptop screen runs at 1280 by 800, so it would scale up nicely. Many HDTVs include both analog and digital inputs, so the right cable is all you need.

Turning things around, can you get a monitor to act like a television? Simply put, yes. You don’t even need to go through a computer if you have an external tuner. Since many HD televisions don’t have internal HD tuners anyway, it’s a pretty even game.

The options are a little different depending on what kind of monitor you’re using. If it’s an old, bulky CRT, something like the Kworld External TV Tuner will do the trick. It just hooks up to your monitor and cable or antenna and boom, you have a new TV. With a newer LCD monitor, you’ll probably want to step up to a high-definition tuner. It’ll cost a little more, but a lot less than a complete HDTV.

In both cases, you’re getting video only, not sound. No worries — the tuners can be hooked up to external speakers or your home stereo system. A serious home theater geek would be doing this anyway. What, use the dinky speakers installed in the TV? Bah!

Many external tuners will provide extra connections so you can keep your computer hooked up, and even provide picture-in-picture of a television signal while you work. For even more integration, you can install a TV tuner in the computer itself. That will let you record stuff, output your own video projects — oh, but that’s a column for another week.