Ask MAKE: TV as computer monitor

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Ask MAKE: TV as computer monitor

Ask MAKE is a weekly column where we answer reader questions, like yours. Write them in to or drop us a line on Twitter. We can’t wait to tackle your conundrums!


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.

8 thoughts on “Ask MAKE: TV as computer monitor

  1. Silverlokk says:

    Some laptops have High-Definition Media Interface (HDMI) ports, as do some newer TV sets. Might be worth looking into HDMI-RCA converters. HDMI includes both audio and video.

    1. Stephen says:

      @Silverlokk – that couldn’t possibly work… HDMI (which is based on DVI) is worlds away from a PAL or NTSC signal (HDMI is digital and PAL and NTSC are analogue for one thing) – you’d need an expensive converter box… Not really worth it.

  2. Fjr says:

    The guy at best buy hasn’t got a clue. The last 4 video cards that I had (all with nvidia chipsets) included a CABLE with S-video, Rca Composite, and Component Outputs, and when you set the video card for tv output in the drivers it would send a signal to all three of these connections AT ONCE! I used to have a 20in tv on my desk and watch movies/videos on it. More recently I hooked my computer up to my friend’s 37in hdtv through composite.

    I just did a search on newegg for a video card with the same options (btw all the ones I had before were under $100 at the time) I’ve found two cards with composite connectors, one AGP and one PCI express.

    The composite connector used to be a commonly included feature for the last 5-6 yrs but apparently is going the way of the dodo now that everyone has big beautiful HDTV’s. I haven’t looked but finding one on ebay or a similar outlet shouldn’t be a problem (not just a cable but video card+cable). I would check the HardOCP forums and signup and possibly get them to help you locate/setup a solution.

    Of course all this only applies if you have a desktop and can install a video card. If your working with a laptop or otherwise closed system then your options are severly limited.

    I would also encourage you to learn everything you can about hardware. And next time you goto best buy remember you know WAY more than anyone they’ve convinced to shill their merchandise. I betcha that guy doesn’t even know what a video card looks like. Don’t take anything they say to heart, they just want you to leave with shiny new toys whether you wanted them or not.

  3. Volkemon says:

    DVI to HDMI adapters are available at Walmart, and I use one now to connect my g-force5500 card to a 47″ LG TV. EXCELLENT picture. No sound comes through it, however. I have the sound fed to the home stereo, and use that when better sound than the computer speakers is desired.

    There are cables that are DVI/HDMI, but the cost was about the same as buying a conventional HDMI cable and a separate adapter. I liked having the two pieces, as they allow other combinations in the future…

    I realize this doesnt help the original question of RCA input only, but offer it to others who might have a newer TV.

    There is an S-video out on the card also, and I used that with a 36″CRT I had before. Not nearly as good a pic as the DVI/HDMI setup, but that is to be expected.

    I also have a VIA EPIA M-II mini-ITX motherboard that I am setting up for use with a 22″ monitor and a 7″ touchscreen monitor. The MB comes with RCA/S-video and VGA outputs, but the RCA output was not close to the quality I wanted for even the 7″. I have not tried the S-video out to see its quality.

    My two cents:)

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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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