Want a smart TV? Upgrade your old PC

Want a smart TV? Upgrade your old PC

A home theatre personal computer being built. Picture credit: www.flickr.com/ William Hook

Stuck with an older LCD TV but want to watch YouTube, Netflix or Amazon Prime Video on the big screen? A home theatre personal computer (HTPC) is a great solution without the need to spend a lot of money.

An HTPC is just like any regular computer and can be a desktop or laptop. The HDMI and audio outputs can be connected to the television for audio and video signals. Some desktop motherboards also have the option of putting out six channel surround sound.

LCD TVs can last quite a few years and there is no point in buying a new one just for a few smart features that the later ones offer. And if the TV supports high-definition picture, it is all the more reason to retain it.

There are a few devices in the market that could be used to stream Netflix or Amazon Prime Video to the TV. However, an HTPC has more advantages. Apart from watching movies or serials, it can be used like a regular computer for work with the addition of a mouse and keyboard.

An HTPC will not cost a lot of money because it need not have massive processing power or huge amounts of RAM. Since the HTPC will not be used for grahpics-intensive tasks, the configuration can be kept to the bare minimum. Of course, a desktop PC can be upgraded when the need arises.

There are chances that one will have an old desktop or laptop lying around in the house unused. If either has HDMI or regular computer RS232 output port and the TV has the same type of inputs, you are in luck.

An old desktop or laptop may have an old, mechanical hard disk drive (HDD) that has slowed down over years of use. The RAM may also be insufficient to play video. Upgrading the HDD to a solid state drive and adding a bit of RAM will speed up the computer. Of course, these upgrades are easier on a desktop because a better graphics card could also be added.

The first upgrade would be to get rid of the HDD and install a solid state drive (SSD). Using an SSD itself will speed things up because it reads and writes data faster. The operating system will also load faster. One should just keep the basic operating system and a couple of programs to play audio/ video files. Even a 240 GB SSD is sufficient for the purpose and will cost about Rs 2600. About 4GB of RAM is sufficient but 8 GB is recommended. A 4 GB stick of desktop RAM will cost about Rs 2000 and it is about the same for a laptop RAM module. However, this is for RAM that run at slower speeds to suit the older laptop or desktop that it will be used for.

It would be advisable to try playing video after just the SSD upgrade. If video is playing without any glitches, more RAM need not be added.

An upgrade to SSD and adding more memory can be done easily on an old laptop as well. However, upgradation of a laptop is limited to RAM and a new SSD.

After adding the new SSD and RAM, a licenced copy of the operating system can be installed. There are open source software like Linux or specialised HTPC operating systems like Kodi (formerly XBMC) that can be downloaded as freeware. However, Linux, Kodi or such similar open source operating systems may need a bit of technical expertise to install and operate.

Once the operating system has been installed, one has to just log into the streaming service account and begin to watch using an internet browser.

A laptop will generally have a Wi-Fi modem but a desktop may not. So, the solution is to buy a Wi-Fi adapter, which can cost as little as Rs 1000. 

If there is no old desktop or laptop that can be upgraded and used, a new desktop without the monitor will serve the purpose. The cost will depend on the hardware configuration. At a minimum, the cost will be Rs 25,000 or so and could go up to about Rs 45,000.

Building a desktop with parts bought separately tends to be cheaper and there is a lot more room for customisation. The suggested configuration for an HTPC would be an Intel i5 or AMD Ryzen 5 processor with a suitable motherboard, a 240 GB SSD, 8 GB RAM and a cabinet. This could cost something in the region of Rs 30,000. The cost will go down by a few thousands if the basic Intel i3 or AMD Ryzen 3 processors are chosen.

While choosing a motherboard, one should ensure it has HDMI, USB 3.0, optical output connectors as a minimum. The HDMI is to be used for video output to the TV, the USB 3.0 to connect a mouse, keyboard or even an external drive containing audio/ visual media. Optical output is to send the sound signal to an external speaker system or home theatre receiver.