An increasing number of people are watching video, including TV shows and movies, on their computers, instead of via traditional TV sets.
Many young people don’t even bother with a cable or satellite subscription and just use their PCs or Macs to get their video fix.
But computer screens are small, so some folks hook the computer up to the TV for their viewing sessions. The problem with this is that it can be complicated for the technically challenged. And it can involve long cables stretching across the floor, or leaving a computer you might want for other tasks permanently connected to the TV. So companies have been working on ways to beam Internet video wirelessly from your computer to your TV.
I’ve been testing two of these wireless PC-to-TV solutions. Both require a secondary device that remains connected to the TV to receive the wireless signal from the computer.
One product is a new system from Intel (INTC), several major laptop makers and the networking equipment company Netgear (NTGR). It’s called Intel Wireless Display, or Wi-Di for short. The other is a software product called PlayOn, from a company called MediaMall. It beams video to your TV through popular game consoles such as Microsoft’s (MSFT) Xbox 360, Sony’s (SNE) PlayStation 3 and Nintendo’s Wii. Both of these products only work on Windows computers.
In my tests, both systems mostly worked as advertised, but each had some downsides. The Intel system works with any video from any site you can play on the computer, but the video disappears from the TV if you are playing it in full-screen mode and get the impulse to use the computer for any other purpose while it is playing. And it only works on a handful of new, specially equipped PCs.
The PlayOn system will work on an existing computer, and it keeps showing a video even if you choose to use the PC for some other task. But it can’t beam just any old video to the TV, only those from services PlayOn has enabled. For instance, you can watch TV shows and movies from Hulu (partly owned by News Corp., which also owns The Wall Street Journal and its Web sites) but not from your favorite random Web site.
Intel’s new Wi-Di system is so far only available on three specific laptop models, one each from Toshiba, Sony and Dell (DELL), that range from $900 to $1,050. And these laptops are so far only available from Best Buy (BBY). It also requires a small $100 adapter called Push2TV from Netgear, which comes free with these laptops.
Wi-Di requires computers equipped with Intel’s brand new 2010 Core processors, Intel’s graphics chips and Intel’s wireless chips. Netgear and Intel say the feature will be available on other PC models later in the year.
I tested Wi-Di with the $900 Toshiba E205, a capable laptop with a 14-inch screen. Setup was a breeze. I just plugged the Netgear box into my TV and pushed a special Wi-Di button on the Toshiba. I typed in a code number the first time I used it, and I was in business.
Instantly, anything showing on the Toshiba’s screen was wirelessly replicated on the TV screen, even though I was eight feet away.
I tested the system with YouTube, Hulu and many other Web sites with no hitches or glitches. I also played videos stored on the PC’s hard disk.
Video mostly played smoothly over Wi-Di, though the quality on the TV was a bit degraded from that on the laptop screen, and HD videos didn’t look nearly as good as normal HD TV broadcasts. Also, the system isn’t satisfying unless you are streaming a video that can be viewed in full-screen mode on the PC.
I tested PlayOn with a Lenovo ThinkPad laptop and a PlayStation 3. After hooking up the PS3, I installed the $40 PlayOn software, which runs in the background. I then navigated to the Video section of the Sony’s menu, found PlayOn listed and used the Sony’s remote control to select from supported services, which include YouTube, Hulu, Netflix (NFLX), CBS.com (CBS), Amazon (AMZN) Video on Demand, CNN.com,and ESPN.com.
PlayOn also allows third-party plug-ins to add other Web video sources, such as NBC.com, but the company admits that the plug-in process can be clunky.
Video quality was about the same on PlayOn as on Wi-Di, and most programs played smoothly. With PlayOn, you don’t see the actual Web site, and you’re limited to the navigation system and options of the game console you’re using. So, I had to tediously find shows on the Sony by trolling through long lists.
PlayOn failed to display videos and photos stored on my PC, though to be fair the company lists this as a beta feature. And it displayed brief error messages frequently, even when it proceeded to play my chosen video properly.
PlayOn costs $40, and can be downloaded from www.playon.tv. You also must own or buy a game console, or one of a smattering of less- well-known TV adapters that the system supports.
Watching Internet video is a better experience with no wires to get in the way. But it can cost a lot, and needs some work.