How We Built An Internet TV Box for $30

I have constructed an Internet TV device that allows us free access to a wide range of TV shows and movies using an old computer and $30 worth of additional hardware. It was very easy to setup and a big improvement over our previous over-the-air offerings.

As you know my wife and I canceled cable when we purchased our current house. We have been watching HDTV over the air ever since, but we have never made the full adjustment. We always thought we were sacrificing with the limited content available. For my wife it was House Hunters - she loves that show and while she was ok giving it up short term, she always interrupted me whenever I suggested that no cable was a permanent adjustment for us.

My long term plan was to build a media device that would allow us to watch stuff over the Internet. I had a vision of buying a full loaded computer with Windows Media Center that would allow us to download digital content and watch it on our main tv. However after doing a little price shopping recently that would likely cost us $700-$1,000 for all the hardware so I have been holding off thinking there was a more cost-effective option for us.

Over the past several weeks I think I have stumbled into the most cost-effective starting point that gives us more content with no subscription costs and minimal setup costs. To build it I needed 4 things:





1) Hulu Desktop Application (Free)
Ah the missing link. Hulu.com has released a beta Hulu Desktop application that allows you to watch their TV/movies outside of a internet browser. There is a wide range of regularly updated content that available.
2) An old PC running Windows XP Pro (Free or ~$250 used)
Turns out I have an old laptop that worked perfectly for this application. Although the speed, memory, and hard drive were all smaller than required for a full blown media center, they work great for just running this 1 Internet application.
2) A Windows Media Center Remote Control (Cost $9-$24)
Turns out you don't need Windows Media Center to use a Media center remote. Buy one that comes with an IR receiver. You can install it on a Windows XP system and it can be used to control the Hulu Desktop Application from the comfort of your sofa.
3) Cables to pipe the video and sound on my TV (~$6 audio, video)
Obviously you need a cable to connect your computer video to your TV's video. The cable required depends on what video ports you have available on your computer and your TV. If nothing else a video port to RCA port should connect most people's computer to their TV. It turns out both our laptop and TV have S-Video ports so we only needed to buy an S-Video cable. I also had a headphone jack to RCA port cable for the sound.

Putting our Internet Box Together
This was very straightforward. I downloaded and installed the Hulu Desktop. I plugged in the Remote IR received and let Windows XP Pro install the drivers. I had to install this Media Center Update 2 for media remote control to get the remote working under XP. As soon as I launched Hulu the remote was able to navigate the application. Then it was just a matter of connecting the video and audio to our tv and putting the computer in our entertainment center.

What Kind of Content is Available on Hulu?
There is lots of content available on Hulu - too much to highlight here. However many currently popular shows have full episodes on Hulu including House Hunters, House, 30 Rock, etc. There is also a decent selection of full-length movies available. Check Hulu.com for more information.

Whats the downside to this Internet TV box?
For us the video quality is pretty consistent with standard definition TV - which is not an issue for us. If you require HD picture quality this probably won't be something you would enjoy yet (at least in this configuration).

There also are commercials that run in the video just like regular tv. They have to make money somehow. Doesn't bother us because it allows us to watch more content that what is available on over-the-air channels.

Internet connection could limit your viewing ability. For instance we are using a wireless internet connection and if the wireless adapter doesn't get a good signal obviously the video will be choppy. However with a solid internet connection it runs fine and we don't notice any difference compared to regular TV. I might suggest a wired internet connection for permanent installation - that might be our next step.

With this configuration you really can only access Hulu content without additional work on your part. The remote control is limited to the Hulu application - other content on different applications would require a keyboard, mouse etc to access.

Additional Benefits of this Internet TV box
On demand content. Ability to pause the video. A large, wide variety of content for free. Very easy to use, on screen menu navigation.

My wife and I am very happy with our Hulu Internet TV device. It was easy to put together and gives us a lot of content for a very small investment. However its just the tip of the iceberg is what can be done. Eventually you can build an entire media center device that would allow you to run the Hulu Desktop Application, Netflix Movies, your own media library, etc. Even a full media center device would pay for itself if it replaces your cable television subscription.

Here are a few additional resources:

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Comments (6)


good stuff - BUT s-video SUCKS for larger TVs or High-Def

if you have a VGA out on the laptop/computer and a VGA in on the big screen TV then your picture quality will easily beat the s-video signal...

try it...

You can use HDMI cable to get HD quality. For this I have a laptop with HDMI port and a HDTV with HDMI port as well. I recently bought a decent laptop for $350 bucks. Get Wireless router for $50. Your laptop will have wireless connectivity and you can stream Hulu etc over internet. Its awesome quality on your HDTV. You can also watch lot of other movies over internet.

Great article, unfortunately hulu is only available in The United States.

I attached a desktop computer to my TV and use a bluetooth keyboard and mouse to control it. They have a 30 foot range. Works great for all video viewing and any website. Simple.

Window 7 has a much better WMC, worth the upgrade. you can get the pro version for $30 right now if you or someone in circle qualifies as a student w/ .edu email address

No mention of live sports? if I could get live sports via espn3.com or something, id be all over dropping my cable bill, but there is really no good solution for streaming live sports

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