Like millions of other people, I watched Katie Couric's interview with President Barack Obama from the comfort of my living room couch. But instead of watching it on TV. I was tuned into CBSNews.com. I watched Katie and the president on my 52-inch high-definition TV connected to a Windows PC.
It's long been possible to connect a PC to a TV, but doing it in 2009 is bucking the trend. Unlike previous years, we heard almost nothing about plugging PCs into TVs at last month's Consumer Electronics Show. Instead, companies were talking about a variety of devices that would stream Internet video directly to TVs. There were even sets from Samsung and Toshiba with built-in Internet connectors that won't require a set-top box. And even before CES, we saw a number of Internet-to-TV products like Apple TV and the Roku digital video player, which streams Netflix programming to TVs.
There was a time when the PC industry lobbied hard to get consumers to put PCs in their living rooms. Microsoft, Intel, and a variety of companies have showed off Windows XP Media Center Edition and various other schemes designed to integrate the PC into a home entertainment center.
There are plenty of reasons why none of these schemes took off. For one thing, until the last couple of years, very few people had high-definition flat-screen TVs. Though you can hook a PC up to a tube TV, the experience isn't nearly as good as what you get from a flat-screen set, which is basically a computer monitor with speakers and a tuner.
Another reason the technology never took off is because of a dearth of content. For most people, surfing the Web and sending e-mail isn't reason enough to hook up a PC to a TV. But now there's tons of content, including thousands of online movies, TV shows, news clips, and YouTube videos.
Also, PCs never made it into the living room because they are too complicated to set up and use. That's still largely true but recent developments are beginning to solve these issues.
The big advantage to a PC over dedicated boxes, or even the built-in Internet connected TVs, is there are no limits to what you can watch. Every dedicated system that I'm aware of has some limitation.
The Roku box--for now at least--only works with Netflix. Xbox Live, which lets you stream video from any PC in the house to a connected TV, only works with programs supported by Windows Media Center. Apple TV only works with programs that are compatible with iTunes. Yes, it includes YouTube, and you can purchase TV shows from NBC Universal and other content providers, but you can't use it to watch shows from Hulu.com or live streams from CNN.
Even as these vendors rush to sign up more content providers, they'll never have as many as are available on the Internet as a whole. With a device like a PC that has a full Web browser, there are no limits to what site you can visit and what media you can view.
In addition to streaming live video, I used the PC and TV to watch downloaded videos on Apple TV and movies that were copied from a DVD.
Of course, there are other advantages of having a PC connected to a TV, including being able to visit Web sites like Internet Movie Database to find out what other movie that actor on the screen played in. And, just to prove I could do it, I wrote part of this column in Word from my living room couch looking at text that is easy to read, even though the TV is several feet away.
There are PCs you can buy that are equipped to hook up to a TV, but I opted to have a custom-PC built around an Intel DG45ID motherboard . The board has all the usual PC-centric features plus a built-in HDMI port that allows me to plug the PC directly into my TV with a single cable that carries both high-definition video and high-quality audio.
It works well with both Windows Vista Premium Home Edition and a beta copy of the upcoming Windows 7, which actually recognized the model number of my TV as the monitor.
In addition to the motherboard, which costs approximately $120, you'll need a CPU, memory, DVD/CD drive, a hard drive, a case and necessary cables. That puts the total cost of a system like mine at about $450, plus the cost of Windows ($109 for Vista Home Premium) and any labor involved, along with an additional $50 or so for a wireless mouse and keyboard. But if you think building your own PC saves money, consider that you can buy an equivalent PC from Dell for $509.
Building and configuring the PC was easy compared to the task ahead. The hard part will be convincing my wife, Patti, to let me keep the PC in the living room. She already vetoed the laptop in the bedroom.