The dominant interface for communications has moved from print -- books, magazines, newspapers -- to digital devices, fixed and mobile. These tools are Internet-enabled and their outputs are increasingly moving from text to visual displays. It's an icon-driven world.
A big issue for many older people is whether they want to make this shift or think the learning and adjustment curve is just too steep. Today's computer technologies and tools have become mainstream communications platforms. If you don't adapt to use them, you will increasingly be unable to communicate with family, friends, and colleagues. You risk becoming isolated, and with economic and lifestyle trends strongly favoring what's come to be called aging in place, you may be stuck as the star of a senior version of Home Alone. Remaining connected to the community and social activities is one of the main reasons to look forward to those extra years that medical and wellness breakthroughs have brought us. New communications technologies are becoming essential to that process. [Use our Mutual Fund Score to fine the best investments for you.]
As daily activities move increasingly onto video platforms, you can participate in your family's lives as never before. OK, maybe not ALL of that is a good thing. But your grown children can live half-way around the world and you can help babysit your grandchildren, reading to them via a two-way connection or even keeping an eye on them in their bedrooms as they sleep. You will be able to do the same thing for your aging parents, including monitoring their health remotely and working with on-site caregivers. This is not science fiction. It's already here for leading-edge adopters. It will come soon to the rest of us.
We're not going to get that fancy right now. The objective today is to provide basic tips to help you get comfortable watching TV on your computer monitor. Then, you can migrate that viewing experience to your TV, which you can think of as another computer monitor. Our guide is Stokely Marco, a desktop computer product manager for HP (Hewlett Packard for you analog types). And I'll tell you right off the bat that if there are any mistakes in this advice, they're mine, not his.
Step One. You need high-speed Internet service to enjoy online video programming. It is possible in some cases to download a video file via dial-up service and then watch it later. But watching streaming video in real time is becoming the dominant way to consumer online video, and you need high-speed Internet access to do this. If you already have cable TV programming, your provider may also offer Internet service. The best deals bundle Internet, phone, and TV in one package.
Step Two. Make sure your computer can process and play video files in an acceptable way. Google your favorite TV show and find our where you can download free episodes. Try it. Playback should be smooth and not jerky. If the playback pauses regularly for your computer to go back online and get more video content for a show, that's not a good thing. Don't get fancy. If you've got a PC, use a free Windows Media Player that is compatible with your PC's operating system. If you don't already have this installed on your PC, you can download it from Microsoft. There are lots of other free video players out there, and some are really good. But for now, stick with this basic playback tool. If your PC is not capable of playing back video you face a decision of whether to buy a new PC. The good news here is that prices for new desktop PCs are really cheap these days -- $500 can easily get you all the bells and whistles you need.
Step Three. Start viewing TV shows for free on the various network web sites. They may not be available at the same time the program is being shown on TV but it's not hard to get used to a small delay. Get comfortable with the process.
Step Four. Experiment with other program sites, such as Hulu, where you can view shows from multiple networks for free. If you use Netflix for movies, use its online service to watch streaming movies on your computer monitor. Netflix automatically optimizes the viewing experience to match the capabilities of your computer system.
Step Five. You're ready to begin thinking about watching Internet video on your TV. Computer monitors and newer TVs are not that far apart in capabilities, Marco says. "If it will work on your monitor, it will work on your TV." He uses his 65-inch flat-screen as his primary Internet display device. Maybe you will start on a smaller scale.
Step Six. Is your TV up the job of displaying Internet video? Older TVs generally aren't. You need a digital TV and, most likely, a flat-screen TV that can display images with high-enough screen resolutions to make Interet video enjoyable to watch. The measuring unit for such displays is called a pixel, and the more of them your screen can display, the sharper its image will be. Full HD (high definition) displays have resolutions of 1,920 by 1,080 pixels, Marco says, but lesser resolutions work just fine. A key is to find out the resolution on your computer monitor that you find works best with your viewing experience on your PC, and then see how this setting displays on your TV. If you can, you might need to increase the screen resolution on your PC to produce a good TV viewing experience. Your TV screen likely is much larger than your computer monitor. Having the same number of pixels in a bigger viewing area means each pixel will display its content over a larger area, and some fuzziness may result.
Step Seven. If your TV is not up the job of displaying Internet video, you've got a decision to make. You can settle for watching TV, movies, and other videos on your computer. You can buy a new TV. Or you could buy a bigger computer monitor and simply use it for all your viewing. If you buy a new TV, it is likely you should look for an LCD (liquid crystal display) model. As long as you're upgrading, full HD capabilities are a good idea. They're pretty much standard on new TVs anyway.
Step Eight. Connecting your PC to your TV. There is a growing array of slick solutions here. Some include set-top boxes. Some connections are enabled by the latest PCs. Some new PCs can communicate wirelessly with some new TVs. Very cool. If you have a wireless Internet network and a new laptop, you can simply take the laptop into your TV room and stream video from your laptop to the TV. If you have access to the online
Wall Street Journal, check out some of Walt Mossberg's columns on this topic. Sticking with our basic approach, however, you can connect your PC to your TV with cables, if your PC is in the same room as your TV (which means your Internet provider's modem is also in that room).
Step Nine. The video cable from your PC to your TV will, for most people, be the 15-pin VGA connector. All PCs have them, Marco says, and most newer TVs have inputs to accept such cables. This cable carries only video signals so you also will need to connect the audio output jack from your PC to a comparable input jack on the TV. This will most likely be a cable with a single plug from the earphone jack of the PC. Newer TVs have a single input plug for audio; older TVs need as cable with two connectors -- one white and one red -- that go into the "audio in" connections on the TV. This sounds more complicated than it is. If you have a new PC and a newer TV, each should have connections for what's called HDMI (High-Definition Multimedia Interface). HDMI cables (you'll need to buy one) carry video and audio and is the only cable you'll need.
Step Ten. Start a movie or video on your PC and set your TV input to accept this signal. Bust out the popcorn.