The computer is one of the most versatile video players ever invented. It can play discs, various files or stream video from the web. There’s little that isn’t available on a PC, and if something is off limits its usually due to DRM and not the hardware.
Yet the PC has always felt strangely isolated from other devices, including those that are designed to display video. Almost all computers have the ability to output video but the connections used can be confusing to the uninitiated.
This article will help you resolve any unfamiliarity by explaining all of the different output options, how they’re used and their advantages. After that we’ll briefly touch on how to resolve a couple common issues that arise when trying to display PC video on a HDTV.
VGA is an old video output that was first introduced back in 1987 and became the standard PC video output during the 1990s. It is a 15-pin connection that that is often colored blue to distinguish it from other ports with pins.
You will still find VGA connections on many desktop PCs and on many HDTVs. Televisions sometimes refer to the VGA connection as a “PC input.” Though developed during a time when resolutions were much lower this connection has the ability to display resolutions up to 2048×1536.
Quality depends significantly on signal output, cable quality and cable length. Many people report that a newer digital connection offers better quality, but others notice no difference.
VGA output from your desktop or PC will often require that you enable an additional display connected this way by using Windows display properties. Some laptops include a button or keyboard function key that toggles VGA on or off.
Introduced in 1999, DVI took over for VGA as the PC video output of choice at the turn of the century. It was built to carry digital signals but it also had the ability to handle analog signals.
DVI was and still is incredibly common on desktop computers but it’s not as common on laptops. It’s also not that common on HDTVs, which tend to just offer a single VGA input instead of both VGA and DVI. Still, you can find it on some models. 1080p output is no problem unless you are attempting to connection a PC to an HDTV with a cable 15 feet long or shorter. Degradation of the signal can create problems with longer runs.
This usually acts as a plug-and-play connection, so all you’ll likely need to do is plug one end of the DVI cable into your PC and the other into your TV.
If you own a modern HDTV you almost certainly have HDMI inputs, and if you own a fairly recent desktop or laptop you probably have an HDMI output. This has become an incredibly popular standard for all sorts of devices capable of video input or output.
HDMI is a digital connection that can handle resolutions up to 1920×1200 (with versions earlier than 1.3) or up to 2560×1600 (with versions 1.3 and later). It is very much a plug-and-play solution. Your PC should be able to automatically detect and configure any display plugged in via HDMI.
Unlike earlier PC compatible outputs, HDMI also bundles in audio. For a few years this was problematic because PCs were built on the assumption that video and audio output would be handled separately by separate chips.
However, Intel’s integrated graphics has supported audio over HDMI since 2006. Nvidia and AMD also support audio over HDMI with current video cards, but cards that are more than a few years old may not offer this support. Some Nvidia cards in the 200 series included audio over HDMI but it would only work if you connected a S/PDIF wire between your internal computer’s internal sound card and an input on the Nvidia video card.
DisplayPort / Thunderbolt
This digital video connection was thought up in 2006 as a replacement for DVI. Unlike HDMI, DisplayPort was built with computers in mind. It can output a resolution of up to 3840×2160 and also has the unusual ability to connect to multiple displays from one output with a daisy-chain connection.
DisplayPort is common on some computers. AMD video cards often include it and Apple MacBooks rely on it entirely. Its not a common input for televisions, however, so you will usually need to acquire a DisplayPort-to-HDMI adapter.
Thunderbolt, a recently introduced connection, supports DisplayPort. It is an unusual connection because it bundes a video connection (DisplayPort) with a general data connection (PCI Express).
Mini-DisplayPort and Thunderbolt connections are compatible out of the box. That’s a good thing, because not many devices offer Thunderbolt support at this time. No televisions support Thunderbolt at this time.
Fixing Overscan / Underscan
You’ll find that 99% of the connections between a computer and a TV are basically plug-and-play. The television and computer will automatically communicate (provided the TV has the right input source selected, of course!) and a picture will be display.
Even the optimal resolution will automatically be detected and configured in many cases, and if it’s not, you can fix this easily using Window’s display properties. You may find, however, that the image is either too large or too small even when you properly adjust the resolution.
This issue is called overscan (if the image is too large for your television) or underscan (if the image is too small). You can’t fix it with Windows display properties but you can usually fix it using your computer’s display drivers.
Right-click on an empty portion of your desktop and look for AMD Catalyst Control Center, Nvidia Control Panel or Intel Graphics Properties. Once you’ve opened the driver control panel look for the HDTV settings panel and then find the image scaling options.
You might also be able to fix the issue using your TV’s settings, but since various TVs have very different menus, I can only refer you to your manual.
Other Common Display Output Problems
Though an HDTV should work with a modern computer automatically you may occasionally receive only a black screen or a message that tells you no input was detected.
Such problems are usually the result of an incompatibility between a setting on your computer and a setting on your TV. Refresh rate is a common culprit. Most TVs only support a few specific modes and won’t display an image if the refresh rate is incorrect.
You can fix this by opening your Display Properties, selecting Adjust Resolution and then clicking Advanced Settings. You will find the refresh rate under the “monitors” tab. Most every TV supports 60 Hz.
Resolution can also trip up a TV in some cases. For example, if you have a 720p television but your computer tries to output 1600×900 or 1920×1200 the signal may be rejected. You can usually fix this by opening Display Properties and going to Adjust Resolution and then selecting an appropriate resolution for the second display (your television).
Misuse of video output can also sometimes be a problem. On desktop computers with a video card you will usually have two sets of video outputs, one for the integrated video solution (which is inactive) and one for the video card. If you try to use the outputs connected to integrated video while the video card is installed you will not receive a signal.
This means that a computer that physically offers numerous video outputs may only be able to output to one or two TV displays because the outputs are split between the active video card and the inactive integrated video.
A Note About Standard Definition
You may have noticed that I spent this article talking about connecting to an HDTV.
It is not impossible to connect a computer to a standard definition television. Your best bet will be to output via VGA and convert the signal to composite or component. Heck, maybe you’ll even find a fancy standard definition TV with a native VGA input.
That’s not likely, however. And even if you manage it, don’t expect much for your trouble. Computer output is notoriously terrible on standard definition TV. The resolution of older televisions can’t properly handle the fine text used by a computer’s user interface.
I hope that this article will help you better understand PC video output to a television. If you have any questions or suggestions feel free to leave them in the comments.