Ditch Cable and Satellite for Free Internet TV
Third Strategy: A PC and a DVR
What if you don't have a spare PC to use as a DVR, and you don't want to spend $500 for a new one? You can buy a DVR for time-shifting broadcast TV, and plug your laptop into the TV (and the closest ethernet outlet) to watch Internet video.
Since you won't need TiVo's Internet offerings, you can save some money and instead buy the only other DVR that receives over-the-air broadcasts, the DTVPal DVR. Like the TiVo HD, the DTVPal costs about $250 if you shop around, but it imposes no subscription fee--buy it, and it's yours.
If you're currently a Dish Network subscriber, the DTVPal will feel familiar (Dish Network owns it). The remote, behavior, and menus are nearly identical.
But there's a price to having no subscription. The Guide is limited to the program information that stations broadcast with their digital signals, and that means you can see only what will be playing for the next 12 hours or so. That puts a pretty serious limit on searches.
As far as the PC is concerned, the only possible difficulty is getting the signal to the TV. See below.
From the PC to the TV
Depending on what ports are present on both your PC and your TV, making a connection can be difficult or impossible. Check the back of each device, and keep your fingers crossed.
If you have any of the following matches, you could be in luck.
Both have HDMI: You should be all set. A single cable will bring a great, high-def image and powerful sound from the PC to the TV. You may have to change Windows' audio-output device setting to HDMI.
Both have VGA: Of course your PC has this standard video adapter, and your HDTV probably has it, too. But just because an HDTV has a VGA port that doesn't mean the set can produce a decent-looking image from it. Try it out, and check your TV's manual for instructions and tips.
Even if the picture looks good (and with a newer HDTV, it probably will), you'll still have an audio problem. VGA is a video-only signal, and I've yet to see a TV with audio inputs matched to the VGA port. The solution: Find another set of speakers to plug into the PC. Or plug the PC into your stereo system. Doing so may require attaching a Y-adapter audio cable with a 1/8-inch stereo miniplug (like the one on your headphones or earbuds) on one end, and two standard RCA audio connectors on the other.
Computer has DVI, TV has HDMI: You can buy a DVI-HDMI adapter at any electronics store for $10 to $20. The result will look great, since the video portion of an HDMI signal is identical to a DVI signal. You'll have the same audio problem as with VGA--but fortunately, the same solutions will work.
Both have S-Video: The result won't be HD quality, or even DVD quality. But it will work, and unlike the connections above, even your pre-HD television probably has an S-Video input.
Anything else: Outside of upgrading your PC's video card, you probably don't have an option. You can buy adapters to convert VGA to various common TV inputs, but the expensive ones look lousy and the cheap ones simply don't work.
You have other alternatives for bringing the Internet to your television. Some HDTVs and Blu-ray players come with Internet connectivity and support Netflix, YouTube, and other entertainment providers. See "12 Ways to Bring YouTube to the Boob Tube" for details.
Lincoln Spector is a veteran tech journalist who writes PC World's Answer Line blog.