What Do You Need to Connect Your Laptop to Your TV?
If you’re like me, you watch a lot of movies and TV shows on your computer. It’s still the ultimate media machine, capable of playing any file format and outputting to any device with the right cables. It’s also the ultimate video game system, able to play the widest library of games available with the biggest variety of controllers. There are just one catch: Most monitors (and all laptop displays) are smaller than the average TV. So why not just connect your laptop to your TV and watch or play anything you want on a bigger screen?
You can, and there are several different ways to do it. Not every method is suitable for every situation, though. Depending on where your TV is, where your computer is, how your home is set up, and what media you plan to consume, you need to consider exactly how to connect your laptop to your TV.
Here are your options, and the benefits and drawbacks to each of them.
Connecting With a Cable
This is the most direct and reliable way to hook up your laptop to your TV. It’s also the most limited by your home layout. It’s a simple solution: Run a physical HDMI cable between your computer and your TV and you’ll get the best performance and reliability. A wired connection means the best picture quality and lowest input lag, and it won’t be affected by the wireless network environment around your home. It’s what I use in my apartment.
Of course, my apartment is a studio, so it’s easy. If you keep your computer in a separate room, running a cable isn’t the most convenient or realistic solution. If you don’t mind a little construction, you can build conduits between rooms and keep a cable in-wall to avoid clutter, but that isn’t feasible for everyone (especially renters). There’s also the distinct limitation of range. At best, you can run 50 feet of HDMI cable before losing signal quality. More realistically, you might seem some hiccups in the picture if you go past 25 feet. There are HDMI amps that can extend the reach of your cables, but that adds more cost and complication to the setup.
Pros: Best picture quality and input lag. Most reliable connection.
Cons: Physical wires can be a pain to run between rooms or across long distances. Limited range without additional equipment to boost the signal.
Hook Up Wirelessly
If running a physical cable between your laptop and your TV isn’t realistic, you can run a wireless HDMI cable between them. Wireless HDMI extenders send HDMI data wirelessly between a transmitter and receiver, letting you simply connect your laptop to a nearby small box with a short HDMI cable, and your TV to another nearby small box with another nearby HDMI cable. With the paired extender devices powered and connected, they work just like an HDMI cable. Many have better range than HDMI cables alone, reaching up to 100 feet, and since they’re point-to-point they won’t be affected by traffic on your home wireless network.
The wireless connection requires some compromises, though. First, most wireless HDMI extenders top out at 1080p, so you can forget about streaming 4K HDR video directly through them. Second, they tend to be pricey, running from around $130 to over $200. Third, they tend to show significant video lag. It won’t be an issue if you’re just watching video, but it can make playing PC games feel very awkward.
Pros: The same easy, direct connection as HDMI cables. Longer range without physically running cables. Doesn’t rely on your home network.
Cons: Doesn’t usually support 4K. Too much lag for games.
Intel’s WiDi wireless display technology has been discontinued, but Miracast carries on the torch, and it’s natively supported in both Windows 10 and Windows 8.1. Just click on the notification button in the system tray, expand the buttons on the menu that pops up, and click Connect. You’ll be able to mirror your screen directly to any Miracast-compatible device on your network. That includes many smart TVs and media streamers. You can also get a dedicated Miracast receiver and plug it into your TV. With your PC connected, the screen will show up on your TV through the Miracast app or receiver.
It’s a more economical solution than using a wireless HDMI extender, and depending on your TV’s smart platform, you might already be able to use it. Like the extender, though, video resolution usually tops out at 1080p. If you have a higher-resolution monitor, the screen will probably be scaled down as it’s transmitted to the TV or adapter. Like most wireless solutions, it can also suffer from display lag, which can hurt playing games over it.
Pros: Natively supported by Windows 8.1 and Windows 10, and some smart TV platformers. Receivers are relatively inexpensive.
Cons: Doesn’t usually support 4K. Too much lag for games.
If you mostly want to send streaming movies and TV shows from your laptop to your TV, the Google Chromecast is an easy way to do it wirelessly. Just plug it into the back of your TV and connect it to your network. You’ll be able to stream any Chrome tab from your notebook to it with the click of a button. That means Netflix, Hulu, and almost every other major streaming service. It also means any YouTube video, animated gif, interesting web page, or any other content you can load in Chrome.
If that isn’t compelling enough, it’s very inexpensive for a physical device, with the 1080p Chromecast available for $35 and the 4K-capable Chromecast Ultra available for $69. If you have a TV that uses Android TV as its connected platform, you get all the benefits of the Chromecast built-in, without buying anything extra.
Chromecast is very functional for computers, but it’s more designed for mobile devices that support Google Cast. If you have an Android phone or a chromebook, you can stream the device’s full screen to a Chromecast directly without going through a Chrome tab. A wide variety of streaming apps also feature Google Cast support, so you can stream media from those apps to the Chromecast and use your phone as a remote. PC control is a bit more limited, focused mostly around the Chrome web browser as a front-end.
Pros: Inexpensive. Streams video or web browser tabs. Chromecast Ultra and some Android TV devices support 4K.
Cons: PC integration and support are limited compared with Android and ChromeOS devices.
If you’ve built a big media library on your computer, you can stream it easily to your TV using Plex. Plex is media server software that can catalog all of your video and audio files and stream them to any device running the Plex app. It can also act as a front-end for streaming media services, and can even record live TV with a USB tuner.
All major media streamers support Plex, along with many smart TV platforms. It can even stream to your phone, tablet, or any other compatible device outside of your house, as long as your computer is on and connected to the internet. Plex is available for free, but for more advanced features like live TV and DVR, you need to get the premium Plex Pass for $4.99 a month, $39.99 a year, or $119.99 for a lifetime subscription.
Plex is very functional for media playback and streaming, even in its free form. It doesn’t support any sort of screen mirroring, however; anything streamed to the Plex app on your TV or media streamer must be registered through the server software. That means no games. It also tops out at 1080p, so it can’t stream 4K.
Pros: Robust media format and service support. Accessible outside of the home. Free, with optional premium subscription for advanced features.
Cons: Doesn’t support 4K. Doesn’t work with games.
Valve released the Steam Link a few years ago, and while it didn’t make many waves, we were impressed by its performance. It’s a media streamer designed specifically for PC games. You connect it to your TV, pair a controller with it, and you can play games on your computer through it. Your PC handles all of the graphical processing, and the Steam Link manages the audio/video and input data. It’s surprisingly responsive if you have a very good wireless connection, or even better, can connect at least one of the two devices in the chain to your router over Ethernet.
If you have a TV that uses Android TV, or an Nvidia Shield TV media streamer, you can even simply use the Steam Link app instead of the Steam Link box. Though, at the time of this writing, the Steam Link device is on deep discount for just $2.50, direct from Valve.
Steam Link is specifically designed for games, so you’re not going to be able to do much general media streaming or screen mirroring with it. In fact, since it depends on Steam’s Big Picture mode for an interface, you can’t actually access any content not directly available on Steam. It isn’t a solution if you just want to watch movies and TV shows (though some movies, like John Wick, are available on Steam and can be watched through the Steam Link). You can work through your PC’s desktop by minimizing Big Picture mode through the Steam Link, but it’s an awkward, unreliable solution.
Pros: Low latency for PC gaming (with the physical box and a wired connection).
Cons: Not suitable for streaming non-PC game content.
Which Solution Is Right for You?
All of these methods are useful in different situations. I like the old-fashioned HDMI cable as the best short-range solution, but in a multi-room apartment, the Steam Link might be one of the best ways to play PC games over your TV. Similarly, Google Cast and Plex are excellent options for streaming media, while Miracast and wireless HDMI adapters are more functional if you specifically need to mirror your screen to your TV.