5 Ways to Stream from PC to TV or Digital Display
There are several tools that enable video content to stream from PC to TV. Here I will take a look at a few easy setups for doing this depending on the type of equipment you want to use.
This article assumes your TV or display has HDMI inputs. If you have an old TV with just component cables, so help you—a HDMI composite converter is your only hope.
Also, there are a few basic networking concepts to understand when streaming video.
- Wired Ethernet network connections will always produce higher quality streams compared to Wi-Fi.
- To extend wired Ethernet range without hanging a lot of cable, a powerline adapter can pass Ethernet through the electrical wiring of a building. Learn about how they work.
- A dual-band IEEE 802.11ac wireless router is recommended for multi-device wireless networks and will suffice for the setups mentioned here.
- So-called Smart TVs simply connect to a wireless network without an external device. You do not need to have a smart TV for these setups.
Stream from PC to TV directly with an HDMI cable
Pros: Simple setup; HDMI cables are capable of full HD and audio in one cable.
Cons: Usually not a permanent solution; mobility is limited by the cable; using a tower PC may be cumbersome.
Setup overview: HDMI outputs come standard on newer laptops, PCs and Chromebooks. Many tablets have mini HDMI outputs, a smaller version of the same thing. Simply run a HDMI to HDMI cable between the HDMI ports of the computer and TV to mirror content on both screens. Use a Mini HDMI to HDMI for connecting a tablet to the larger display.
- iOS devices with a Thunderbolt output will use a Mini DisplayPort adapter for porting into HDMI.
- For streaming 1080p content onto a 1080p source (or higher, like 4K or 3D) a high-speed HDMI cable is recommended.
- Some HDMI cables are designated as “HDMI w/Ethernet” for device networking. Functionality is only available if both linked devices are HDMI Ethernet Channel-enabled.
Limitations: Standard cable length for HDMI tops out at 50 feet due to HD signal degradation at longer distances. An HDMI signal can be extended further (with Full HD reaching up to 228 feet or more) using Cat5/Cat6 extenders and Ethernet cable. Note that higher resolutions like 4K have shorter max distances, usually around 100 feet depending on the extender.
Pro Tip: The resolution of laptop or tablet screen matters for picture quality. You can find Full-HD (1920 x 1080) laptops priced under $600—for example, there is a lot of value in Acer Aspire E (Intel Core i7-6500U / 8 GB / NVIDIA GeForce 940M) as a multi-media laptop.
Stream from PC to TV with Chromecast
Pros: Easy setup, inexpensive
Cons: High-resolution content may lag or stutter over a wireless network.
Setup overview: Chromecast plugs into a TV or display’s HDMI port and draws power from a USB port on the television. In the absence of a USB port, Chromecast can plug into to an AC wall socket. Once connected, Chromecast joins the Wi-Fi network, and other devices on the network are then able to stream content through the Chomecast onto the TV. Basically any Apple, Android, or Windows device supports the Chromecast app.
The device itself comes in two form factors, a stick-like chassis that resembles a USB thumb drive, or round, dangling unit designed for better receptivity.
Limitations: Quality of streaming may vary depending on available Wi-Fi network bandwidth.
Pro Tip: Use the 5 GHz channel on a dual-channel wireless router for Chromecast. It tends to encounter less interference than the 2.4 GHz channel.
Stream from PC to TV by installing Plex software on your PC
Pros: Plex software organizes media on a PC or NAS, making it a media server accessible to any device on your network.
Cons: Quality of stream is subject to wireless network performance.
Setup overview: Install Plex software on the computer that contains the files you wish to stream. The software setup wizard helps organize media files on the server, and you install the mobile application on devices where you want to view the content—here is where a Wi-Fi-enabled smart TV is useful, but there are workarounds (besides an HDMI direct-in from the server) if you don’t have one. Keep reading.
Limitations: For “non-smart” televisions to network with a Plex server, any media streamer will do the trick— Roku 3, Roku 4, Chromecast, Apple TV, current gaming consoles—all of them have Plex support. These devices connect to the TV via HDMI, and a router via wired Ethernet.
Pro tip: You actually do not need additional software to stream from PC to TV—Windows, OSX and Linux operating systems have built-in DLNA (“Digital Living Network Alliance”) server features. Since DLNA is a dated standard, not every kind of media file will be recognized by the server. Plex is capable of transcoding on the fly to accommodate streaming these otherwise unsupported file formats.
Stream from PC to TV by plugging in an Intel Compute Stick or Google Chromebit
Pros: Your TV becomes a computer monitor with full OS functionality by plugging in a tiny device.
Cons: You might already have portable computers, do you need another one?
Setup overview: Stick computers plug into the HDMI port of a television, essentially putting full a Windows 10 (Intel Compute Stick) or Chrome OS (Chromebit) on the screen. Sticks have Bluetooth support for connecting a wireless keyboard and mouse, and they access the Internet over a Wi-Fi connection.
Limitations: Used strictly in a display capacity, there are no real weaknesses to mention other than lack of wired Ethernet support. Stick computers are about as powerful as a tablet, so it might be underpowered for anything beyond basic office work and media consumption.
Pro Tip: When on the road, use it to sync with your cloud applications like DropBox and OneDrive and work from anywhere with a TV.
Stream from PC to TV using a Small Form Factor (SFF) computer as a dedicated media center
Pros: A PC the size of a deck of cards that mounts behind a TV and is powerful enough to stream 4K video and do real-time transcoding? Yes, please.
Cons: Performance comes at a higher price. Some assembly is required, like inserting RAM and mSATA card.
Setup overview: A SFF computer can stream content directly into one or several displays via HDMI; it connects to the network via Ethernet or Wi-Fi to accept streaming content from other networked devices; it can act as a Plex server to steam media to other devices; it has fast USB 3.0 or Thunderbolt ports for connecting external storage; and has peripherals that connect via Bluetooth or USB 2.0.
There are lots of options to choose from for SFFs. Learn more about the different types of SFF computers.
Limitations: There aren’t many. SFFs come in various hardware configurations so you need to understand how to buy a SFF with the right specs. Generally, you need more power for pushing content to more than one display and for playing high-res media.
Pro Tips: Use the Mini-PC Barebone configurator to pair needs with SFF computer specs. Maker enthusiasts use a Raspberry Pi and external HDD storage to build a small, inexpensive SFF variant. There are RPi media center packages that include all the dongles and cables to get up and running. Learn more in my favorite tutorial for this.
Surely one of these scenarios will provide the streaming setup that fits your AV needs. If you have another method, or tips to stream from PC to TV, please let me know in the comments.