Ask MAKE: TV as computer monitor

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Ask MAKE: TV as computer monitor

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Mike writes in:

I’m writing to see if you can help me hook up my old TV to view on it, what I see on my computer monitor. The TV only has RCA jacks on it. The guy at best buy said a cable to do this directly wasn’t made, but a could buy a new $300 TV that had the right plug in. Please help if you can, building things isn’t a problem for me, but electronics, I’ve never understood, so, I guess I’m asking for directions to build such a cable.

As it turns out, there is such a cable, it’s just not very common. Depending on your video type coming out of your computer, you’ll need a different cable. I’m guessing your machine has a VGA port (usually blue with a trapezoidal shaped plug), so you’ll want to look for a VGA to RCA converter. It usually comes bundled with an s-video plug on it, too. It should be noted that most of these cables require your graphics card to have a “TV out” function, which means it just adapts the connections (one wire to another wire), but does not convert the signal. You can usually tell the difference by the price and size. If it’s super cheap and just looks like the different connectors with a bit of wire in between them, it’s just an adaptor. If it’s more expensive (usually between 20 and 50 dollars) and has a bit more heft to the hardware, it’s probably a converter.

Some computers already have s-video ports on them, and if you do you could go straight for an s-video to RCA adapter. Apple computers have all kinds of shapes and sizes in video ports, but they make an adapter to RCA for all of them. If your computer only has a DVI port, look for a DVI to RCA adapter.

TVs usually aren’t great for use as computer monitors if you’re just browsing the web or doing other text-heavy stuff, but they can be great for watching movies, playing games. or including TVs in art installations or other display settings.

If you’re looking to get sound into the TV as well, you’ll need another cable in addition to your video adapter. This adapter is way more common and can be found by asking for or looking up a 1/8 inch (3.5mm) to RCA adapter. They come in all different combinations of male/female and stereo/mono, so pick whichever one fits your situation (probably male-male stereo to left and right channels).

I used to work in a computer lab organizing equipment and checking out cables and adapters to folks, and I learned a lot about the different ways things can be connected together. If there’s one thing I remember the most, it’s that you should come to a connection/adapter problem knowing what all the different ports are that you want to connect. The guy at the big box store might not know if there’s an adapter to suit your needs, but the internet sure will, it just needs to be fed the right terms. Here’s an excellent page describing common video connectors. Best of luck with your endeavor!

Image above is used under a creative commons by-sa-nc license and is by Lionel Fernández Roca on Flickr.

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Becky Stern is a Content Creator at Autodesk/Instructables, and part time faculty at New York’s School of Visual Arts Products of Design grad program. Making and sharing are her two biggest passions, and she's created hundreds of free online DIY tutorials and videos, mostly about technology and its intersection with crafts. Find her @bekathwia on YouTube/Twitter/Instagram.

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