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Easy Home Theater

theaterSome really great ideas aren’t complicated and they don’t take a lot of words to explain. This is one of them.

Your Objective: Turn your existing or spare tablet or laptop into a media streaming device far more powerful than the little black media streaming boxes that all seem to cost about $100. You want to control it from across the room on demand. It must not cost much to run. You don’t want to have to get all edumacated in anything complicated to set it up or use it.

Well, I have it right here.

It’s true. For this, you go low tech and it should take a minute or two to install. Configuration is limited by your imagination and you probably already know how to do it. All you need is a computer or tablet with;

  1. wireless network capabilities
  2. USB and / or bluetooth
  3. HDMI out on the tablet or PC

Your TV should also have an available HDMI port.


[Update June 28,2016 – A lot has changed since this article was three years ago. Technology has advanced and prices have dropped. Additionally, my home network has improved significantly. Taking it all into consideration, the original article will appear a bit dated but still has some good ideas to consider.

Having said that, here’s what I now work with.

I now own a Samsung 4K TV that has quite advanced smart features. Samsung includes HBO Go. You otherwise need a ROKU TV or a ROKU to get HBO Go. Only a small number of other smart devices include HBO Go. No other smart TV, at this time, includes HBO Go. Prices have dropped on smart TVs to the point it makes sense to buy one. In the past a dumb TV with some smart attachments was a better idea. Not now.

My home network has gone from mostly wireless to mostly wired. The first floor of my house is wired with cat6. I built a small fanless PC and installed pfSense on it, which supplies amazing OpenVPN capabilities along with enhanced firewalls (snort and pfBlockerNG). One wireless router is an access point and another is a wireless bridge to get the signal upstairs.

The Home Theater is supported by an  i5 3320M processor in a used laptop. It’s wired into the home network and an HDMI cable connects it to the Samsung 4K TV. A Plex Server on the laptop feeds an abundance of free legal streaming media from the internet and it was rather easy to configure. The Samsung 4K TV includes a client Plex app. Using it is no more complicated than changing channels. If needed, the laptop can stream directly to the TV just by switching inputs on the TV.

The QNAP TS120 still provides streaming music although it could be moved easily to the laptop media server, along with all other file server needs. The Samsung TV supports DLNA and connects the QNAP sourced music to the home audio system. A HULU subscription without commercials is the best bargain around. I use Microsoft Remote Desktop to access the laptop over the local lan, although I also use a wireless keyboard when I feel the need to use a 60 inch monitor from across the room. A 4K TV also makes a razor sharp PC monitor. Windows 10 Pro has no problem keeping the screen output clear and readable.

The great thing today about used laptops is the ones available today in abundance have 3rd generation Intel processors, USB 3.0 ports, and HDMI, although some have Display Port. (I still don’t understand Display Port or why anyone would want it.) Certified refurbs with an i3 or better processor can cost as little as $250 if you shop well.  Sometimes less. This is ‘A’ and ‘B’ stock, too. A lot is off-lease merchandise. The manufacturers made their money on the original lessee.  Used bargains also exist on eBay from myriad sellers, although this implies you know how to read specs and feel a little lucky. Power consumption on an idling laptop is similar to a couple of old style non-led nightlights. 

Off topic – Regarding the OpenVPN servers mentioned above, my pfSense router supports two simultaneously and could support more than that if needed. One is used for pass-through; this allows me to browse the internet securely via public wi-fi. The other is for bridging into the home network. Security is tight. Both servers require the laptop or tablet to have specific certificates installed and the user id must correspond to the specific certificate. The server that bridges requires two passwords. Once on the local network, I can  get into the QNAP file server or use Remote Desktop to access the Media Server. TeamViewer also works well in this regard although I prefer access over the local lan only, hence my preference for using OpenVPN for this purpose. The gateway is easier to secure. Allowing access from the WAN, or from outside the network, without tight controls that you design yourself is just asking for trouble. Even better, OpenVPN is almost stupid simple to configure on pfSense, although you still need to understand OpenVPN and the use of certificates, which can be a little complicated.]


 

What’s So Special About That?

On one hand, nothing. If you have a computer or tablet with HDMI, you’ve already watched something from your computer on your TV just by connecting them with an HDMI cable. If you haven’t, then try it. Buy an HDMI cable off the internet for maybe $5 to $10. Make sure the ends match the size of your connectors (normal or mini or micro). Don’t buy one locally because HDMI cables have immense markups in stores. There are no performance differences between the $5 one from Amazon and the $50 one from you local vendor.

The magic happens when you add a USB wireless keyboard / mouse combination to the laptop or a Bluetooth keyboard / mouse combination to the tablet. Add a micro USB to full size adapter and you can use the wireless USB keyboard / mouse combo on a tablet. You now have remote control.

You can sit in your easy chair across the room and control your new streaming media device, known formerly as an old tablet or laptop, and watch anything you want without getting out of your chair until you need a kitchen break. Configuration is up to you.

Tablets use minimal electricity. Figuring whether to leave it on all the time or whether to walk over to wake it up are personal decisions.

Laptop computers can be put to sleep and awakened by jiggling a mouse. While asleep, they use perhaps 1 watt of electricity per hour. If you pay 10 cents  per kWh, this relates to an annual expense of about $1.00. (24 x 365 = 8670 hours = 8.67 kW x $0.10 = 87 cents). This is far less than a night on the town.

Perhaps that old laptop with Windows XP is ready for the donation box because you thought you had no other use for it.  Replacing XP with a copy of a popular linux distro would elevate this to a family project that includes cheap TV as a bonus.

But The Media Streamers Are Specialized For Home Theater

True, but your PC and / or tablet can do everything your media streamer can do plus thousands of things it can’t do. One popular streamer doesn’t support DLNA. If you want to stream music from your file server, you first need to install Plex, then figure out how to use it. Or you buy a subscription to a music streaming service. Media streamers limit you to what they provide and whatever plugins may be available.  Not much is free.

But My Old Laptop is Too Old!

My Old Laptop has Wireless-G: No problem. A strong wireless signal is all you need. Wireless-G is said to run at 54Mbps, but really runs at about 15 Mbps, more or less. A high definition movie needs only a fraction of that bandwidth to play. Good, usable, not 1080p internet video requires even less.

It’s not too hard to replace the wi-fi card in your laptop. I’ve done it. The biggest problem is finding one that will work with your laptop. Some only work with Intel processors and some only work with the bios of certain computers. Reading the specs will help you identify the correct card. For about $5.00, you can upgrade wireless-G to 150Mbs wireless-N. For about $25, if you have an Intel based laptop with the proper chipset,  you can bump it up to dual band wireless-ac with bluetooth.

Or you can try powerline adapters. Performance is acceptable. I used powerline for years to connect my Slingbox to my home network. Recently, I replaced the powerline adapter with a TP-Link travel router configured as a wireless access point. Performance improved dramatically for less than $20.

My Old Laptop Doesn’t Have HDMI: You can work around it and MacGyver up a series of connectors that convert what is on the laptop to what is available on the TV.

A lot of old laptops have an audio jack that can be split into right and left channels by using a $2 RCA adapter. Your TV certainly has audio-in RCA jacks. The video is a little more complicated. A simple RGB to RCA Video adapter might work. Your TV might have an RGB monitor connector.  An RGB / DVI adapter costs about $7. DVI doesn’t carry sound, but another adapter can turn DVI into HDMI and the RCA jacks might carry the sound. Will that work? I have no idea but that’s the fun of home projects.

Or you can investigate USB to HDMI adapters. Not all carry sound and not all are signal converters, so read the descriptions carefully.

Will My Smartphone Work? Maybe. Aftermarket smartphone oriented USB to HDMI adapters are available. Some also require 5 to 11 pin adapters. You obviously want to connect to your home network to avoid data charges from your provider. Maybe your smartphone has an aftermarket dock with HDMI ports available. Then pair a Bluetooth mouse and keyboard. If you have an old smartphone, it might be fun to see if it can operate as a small tablet. Please note that you can’t recharge your smartphone if the USB port is busy with HDMI conversions.

What If I Bought a Cheap Netbook From eBay For a Little More Than a Media Streaming Device: You think like me, but slow down. Netbooks are out of style for a reason. They lacked sufficient processing power to do very much. Most likely, all have more than enough oomph to dish out some entertainment. But most lacked sufficient cpu power to support a standard internet security suite.  Buying an old, used, or refurbished device is a good idea, but think it through first. (read below for more on this)

Passmark scores for processors provide relative measures of capability. For example, a CPU with a Passmark score of 1500 is, theoretically, less powerful than one with a score of 3000.  The Passmark table is incredibly useful. By referring to it, you can instantly decide if the bargain laptop being offered to you is an amazing find or a dog that drools. Windows 8 has opened up a big market for refurbished, but otherwise new, computers. I assume many people buy a new PC, become shocked by the utter cluelessness of the design of  Windows 8 interface, and ship it back for a refund. Had they loaded Classic Shell, a free download, and added a fully functional start menu, they likely would have kept the computer. By referring to the Passmark scores, you can decide if that new bargain Windows 8 refurb is the deal of the year or the dog of the year.

Why Don’t I Just Get a Chromecast?

Personally, I think that’s  great idea. I have one and it’s an amazing invention. I can stream anything showing in my Chrome browser to the TV across the room with full sound at high quality. Just recently, Google opened up the Chrome API to outside developers. This means you can expect a growing number of apps specific to Chromecast.

Apps specific to Chromecast appear to cast quite well. My Motorola Xoom tablet can stream from YouTube at high quality. So can my cell phone (Samsung S3).

Streaming from a laptop through the Chrome browser provides mixed results. Some videos that play well on your PC will stutter when cast to the TV. Congestion on the 2.4GHz frequency may be one cause. Attaching your PC to your router using a wired connection may improve video quality. Using the 5GHz range, if possible, for normal laptop connectivity will decrease congestion on the 2.4GHz range. It’s also possible your router doesn’t have the processing power to handle the full workload you’re putting on it at 2.4GHz.

Some videos have a little Chromecast icon next to the other controls. Clicking this is said to cast an optimized video to your TV.

Also, it looks like casting adds a little overhead so if your PC is on the edge of its capabilities then the stream to your TV might be choppy. Some video requires a lot of processing power, even to simply watch it on your laptop.  A video that looks good on your i7 Haswell powered laptop might buffer and stutter on your old dual core laptop. Chromecast won’t improve this problem.

The biggest downside to Chromecast is it’s hotness. No, in this case I mean actual heat. After running a while, it’s quite warm to the touch. Heat buildup is the natural enemy of high tech electronics. I’ve read about Chromecast modules giving out after a couple of months. I suspect heat degradation is the culprit. When not using Chromecast, I recommend disconnecting the USB power cable.

The other issue is some videos leave a huge amount of stuff in your temp folders. CCleaner or another free utility with similar features will quickly remove it. This didn’t appear to be a problem on my tablet. I suspect the apps keep things tidy by design.

As I said, easy home theater.

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