Introduction and wireless connection
Your laptop, phone or tablet offers the perfect medium for watching movies and other media on the go. When you're at home, however, your big-screen TV rules the roost for a good reason. Why make do with squinting at your mobile's cramped display when you can – with the help of our guide – hook it up to your telly, wirelessly or with cables? Read on to discover everything you need to know.
How do I connect my mobile or laptop wirelessly?
These days, it's easier and cheaper than ever to connect to your TV wirelessly, eliminating the need for any unsightly (and awkward) trailing cables. If your flat-screen TV is a smart model with support for DLNA media streaming, then you can send movies, photos and other media files directly to it without the need for any additional hardware – just locate the right app on your TV to receive the content.
You'll then need a suitable app for your laptop or mobile that allows you to send or stream content using DLNA. There are simple, relatively unsophisticated solutions such as AllCast for iOS and Android – this lets you display locally stored media as well as media hosted on another local DLNA server or in the cloud via supported services (including Dropbox, Google Drive and Instagram).
If you're serious about streaming media, then a full-blown media server solution is worth considering:Kodi is an open-source solution that offers basic media server capabilities and works on everything except non-jailbroken iOS devices.
Alternatively, take a look at either Plex or Emby. While Kodi bolts on basic server features to its fancy looking frontend, these put the media server front and centre. Install the desktop server component to stream content from your laptop, or purchase the appropriate mobile app (around £3-4 per app per platform) if you want to use it with your phone or tablet.
What wireless device can I plug into my TV to stream media and mirror my display?
If your TV isn't smart enough – or you want to be able to mirror your device's display on your TV – then you'll need to purchase a smart box. There are two main choices here, both of which plug into your TV via a spare HDMI port. If you're exclusively wedded to the Apple ecosystem, then the Apple TV allows you to stream media as well as mirror your MacBook or iOS mobile's display on the big screen.
Alternatively, Google's Chromecast is cheaper, and works across a wider range of devices –Windows, Linux and Android as well as Mac and iOS. You can stream media from your mobile using a range ofsupported apps, and you'll be pleased to learn that both Emby and Plex are supported.
Chromecast works on laptops via the Chrome web browser and Google Cast add-in. Once installed, click the Cast button to the right of the Address Bar to choose what to cast and where. By default, the contents of the current tab will be sent to your TV, so if you're looking to stream media you can do so by accessing your server's web-based UI through this tab – it's 127.0.0.1:32400/web/ in the case of Plex for example. Any media you subsequently play back on this tab will then appear on your TV.
Click the down button to the right of 'Cast this tab to…' and you'll see two further options: 'Cast this tab (optimise for audio)' is for playing music through your TV, while 'Cast screen/window (experimental)' is there should you wish to mirror all or part of your laptop's display. Once selected, you can choose to display a selected application window or your entire desktop on your TV.
Connecting laptop and cables
What do I need to physically connect my laptop to my flat-screen TV?
If you'd prefer to go down the cabled route, all flat-screen TVs offer at least one HDMI port, as do practically all non-Apple laptops that have been manufactured in the last eight years – HDMI is the best solution as it supports both audio and video (HD and beyond). All you need therefore is an HDMI cable to connect the two.
You could spend a small fortune on expensive HDMI cables, but the truth of the matter is that for HD video transmitted from your laptop, any HDMI cable will do. You can buy perfectly functioning, gold-plated cables for under £5 (and as little as £2) from the likes of Screwfix, Maplin or Amazon.
How do I connect my MacBook to my flat-screen TV?
The latest MacBook models require a USB Type-C adapter to connect them to your TV. Apple provides a Digital AV Multiport Adapter for £65, but if you want a simple USB-C to HDMI connection at HD quality, you can get away with Camac's HDMI-only adapter, which is much more affordable at £26.
MacBook Airs and MacBook Pros ship with Thunderbolt ports that double up as Mini DisplayPorts. There are plenty of third-party cables and adapters available, but they're not all equal. Future-proof your cable by making sure it supports 4K resolutions as well as audio – one such adapter is StarTech's 2m cablefor around £21.
What cables do I need for older laptops and TVs?
If you don't need HD video – you're connecting up to an older CRT television, for example – then the best option is to use the S-Video port. It doesn't provide High Definition (HD) quality, and only carries the video signal, so you'll also need to hook up a separate audio cable – typically from your laptop's 3.5mm headphone jack – to the audio inputs on your TV.
Your TV will need one of two things: either separate S-Video and phono audio ports, typically found on the front of the TV, or a SCART socket found on the back. You'll then need to purchase an S-Video cable of suitable length such as this 2m cable, along with a suitable audio cable. If necessary, purchase a SCART adapter to connect both sets of cables to your TV.
What's the alternative to S-Video?
As analogue technologies become depreciated, modern laptops increasingly ship without an available S-Video port. If this is the case, you'll need to use the laptop's VGA port instead. This is a practical solution if your flat-screen TV has a VGA port included – a standard VGA cable coupled with an audio cable (see above) will be sufficient. You may even be able to view HD content this way.
If you're trying to hook up to an older analogue TV, however, then it becomes less feasible. You'll need an expensive VGA to TV Converter box that costs almost as much as a budget HD Ready 19-inch TV with the required VGA port built into it.
How do I connect my laptop to my TV?
Connecting your laptop to your TV with the right cable is often only half the battle. You also need to switch your TV to the correct input, plus configure your laptop or MacBook to re-route its display through the TV. This may happen automatically, but if it doesn't – or you want to configure the display differently – read on.
PC laptop users should be able to cycle through the available display options using a special function key in conjunction with the [Fn] button. Keep pressing this to cycle between laptop display only, TV only, and laptop and TV together. Alternatively, right-click the desktop in Windows 7 or 8 to select screen resolution; from here you'll be able to manually detect and select your TV's display.
MacBook users can configure the display via System Preferences: select Displays followed by the Arrangement tab (click Detect Displays if it's not present). Tick Mirror Displays to put your TV perfectly in sync with your MacBook's display as opposed to acting as an extension of it.