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Using an HDTV as a Monitor - You Can, but Should You?

written by: M.S. Smith•edited by: Lamar Stonecypher•updated: 5/24/2011

The rise of HDTVs, and the resulting slide in prices, make the idea of owning an HDTV specifically for use with a computer more compelling than ever before. But HDTVs only excel at certain tasks - which means you've got some thinking to do before tromping home with a lovely new flat-panel TV.

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    A Dream Come True?

    Before HDTV, the idea of using a TV as a monitor, as interesting as it seemed, was a non-starter. The reasons aren't completely obvious, and didn't dawn on me when I was young and first encountered PCs. Playing Oregon Trail, I wondered - why were we using it with this useless little thing? Why not hook it up to my grandfather's 40" tube TV? Everything would be so much bigger!

    What I didn't know about was resolution, or the number of pixels that are fit into a screen. The term "pixel" is actually not entirely relevant to traditional tube TVs, but since an explanation of why would require a significant detour, I'll simply say that tube TVs have a resolution of about 640x480. That is very low, and when a resolution that low is spread across 40 inches, it becomes impossible to make sense of things that are important to the PC experience. Like small, easily distinguishable text.

    But then, around the turn of the century, HDTV was announced. Suddenly, the old dream of using a massive TV as a computer monitor was revitalized. Unlike old tube TVs, HDTVs promise high resolutions - resolutions similar to what computer monitors use. Does this mean that dream is at last a reality? Well, yes - and no. Using an HDTV as a monitor is fairly easy to do, and can, in certain situations, be a good choice. But there are downsides, as well - and considering the price of HDTVs, it is best to be well versed in them before you buy.

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    Higher Resolutions, But Not High Enough

    Most HDTVs have a resolution of 1280x720 (720p), 1920x1080 (1080i/p) or 1366x768, which is also generally designated as being 720p. These resolutions are significantly similar to what can be found on computer monitors, although not exactly the same, as widescreen HDTVs use a 16:9 aspect ratio, while most monitors use 16:10. The higher resolutions of HDTVs allow them to display a much finer picture than possible on standard tube TVs. At first glance, then, you would think that modern HDTVs, with resolutions so similar to computer monitors, would be easy to use with a computer.

    Unfortunately, that isn't always the case. Size matters, and the larger the television set in compared to the resolution, the less fine the image will become. When watching Jackie Chan beat down thugs with a trashcan lid, this isn't noticeable. But when viewing small text, like what might be on a website, the limitations become easier to see. Sure, a 42" television offers a resolution of 1920x1080. But the similar monitor resolution - 1920x1200 - is commonly reserved for 24" monitors. 42" is much bigger than 24", but both have the same resolution. That means the pixels are larger.

    This means is that when viewing things that require very small pixels, like a text document or a web page, an HDTV tends to flunk out. Even when using large text, anti-aliasing, and other methods to mitigate the problem, it is still unlikely that any HDTV will serve very well as a tool for doing work. Also, although the 42" television may be much larger than the 24" monitor (and much more expensive, as well) you won't be able to do more with it. They have a similar resolution, and it is the resolution, not the physical dimensions of the display, which determine how much you can view at once. In other words, if you're planning to buy an HDTV to, say, use Photoshop or edit web pages, forget about it. You'd be wasting your money.

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    HDTV: What Is It Good For?

    Now that we've aired that dirty laundry and scored a solid hit against the dream of using a TV with a computer, let's talk about the advantages of HDTVs, and one advantage in particular - the fact that an HDTV is, uh, a TV.

    Monitors are great for viewing text or other things that require a very fine image. But when viewing video or even playing games, the high resolution can be a nuisance. Every little artifact in a video stream stands out like a polar bear in the Florida keys - watching low-resolution video in full-screen is a hideous affair that is best avoided. Games also suffer, in a way, from high resolutions on relatively small displays, due to the amount of GPU horsepower required to pump out high-resolution graphics and the relative ease of modern anti-aliasing. It is less demanding on a GPU to run a game at 720p with anti-aliasing turned on than it is to run a game at 1080p.

    This is where HDTVs swoop in. High-definition televisions may be glorified for their high-resolution displays, but they are more than just jumbo-sized PC monitors with an attitude. HDTVs have a lot of processing power hidden inside them, and that power is used to compensation for problems in image quality. While a monitor just displays whatever it is fed, a HDTV will process the data and, if it finds the resolution is low, it will attempt to compensate. As a result, low-resolution video is far more tolerable on an HDTV than on a monitor. Considering how many TV shows can be streamed to your PC these days - at laughably low resolutions, in most cases - an HDTV is a nice thing to have hooked up to your rig.

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    Making The Choice

    So, there you have it. You can use an HDTV as a monitor. But you should use it only if you plan on using it as a media monitor, rather than a primary display. If you were hoping to write emails to your folks on your HDTV set, then scram. As good of an idea as it might sound, it probably won't work out like you'd hoped. However, if you're planning to use your HDTV as a secondary monitor, used primarily for watching videos or playing games, then let the dream live on, and stick around - this is the first article in a series, and you've still got a lot to learn before you're ready to use your HDTV as a PC monitor.

How to Use an HDTV as a Monitor

Using An HDTV as a monitor is not difficult, and is a good idea if you use for computer as a media center more often than not. But there are certain pitfalls that you must avoid, some of which can badly hurt your pocket-book should you mistakenly fall in them.
  1. Using an HDTV as a Monitor - You Can, but Should You?
  2. Using an HDTV as a Monitor - What You Need?
  3. Using an HDTV as a Monitor - Buying a HDTV
  4. Using an HDTV as a Monitor - Hooking it up


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