Free and cheap alternatives to cable and satellite TV

October 1st, 2016 By Brian Shim

If you have a modern TV, one way to watch all of the free video on the Internet is to connect your computer directly to your TV and use your TV as a huge computer monitor. It might sound scary but it's not too hard.

The HDMI Way

The easiest way to mirror your computer screen on your TV is to use an HDMI cable. All modern TV's have HDMI inputs, but not all computers have HDMI output. Check your computer specs to see if it has HDMI output (some laptops do; most desktops don't). If you've got HDMI, connect an HDMI cable from your computer to your TV, select that input on your TV's menu, and you're off and running!

The cool thing about this is that the video and audio go on this one cable, so you don't need a separate cable for sound.

If you have a Mac laptop that doesn't have HDMI, you can get an HDMI adapter. However, older Mac laptops (before mid 2010) do not support audio, so in that case you'll have to get a separate audio cable (see below).

The VGA Way

If your computer doesn't have HDMI output, you might have another option. Many modern TVs come with a VGA computer input that looks like this:

computer video input on tv

Connect this output from your computer to your TV.

The only pain is that sound does not go through that cable. If you want sound, you'll have to connect a second cable for audio. On my TV, there is a 1/8" stereo input just below the computer VGA input (shown above) for this purpose.

Here is a photo of my Mac Book Pro connected to my TV. Note two cables, audio and video, shown::

Computer to TV

Here, I am watching a full episode from on my TV for free. If you have a Windows PC, you won't need the white adapter - just use your existing VGA monitor cable. You might need to adjust your TV's display setting to get the picture to fill the whole screen.

The audio cable is be a 1/8" stereo cable. Plug the 1/8" end into your computer's headphone or line output and the other end into your TV. But before getting this cable, make sure your TV has this input first.

The Wireless Way

Google Chromecast finally did this right. It allows you to watch anything that is in your computer's browser on your TV... wirelessly. However, it only works with modern TVs with HDMI input (sorry, not tube TVs), and you'll need Wi-Fi. If you satisfy these two requirements, Chromecast is fantastic. You can read a full review at my blog.

If you own a newer Mac (mid 2011), you might be able to use Apple TV to stream wirelessly. OS X allows wireless "Airplay Mirroring" from your computer to your TV screen. You can read my review of Apple TV here.

Computer to Tube TVs

If you have an older tube TV, you can get a video adapter. Exactly what kind depends on what kind of video inputs your TV has. Check your TV's manual.

But, I don't really recommend connecting a computer to a tube TV due to the low resolution and cost of the converter. You're better off just buying a new TV.

Pros and Cons

Plugging your computer into your TV is a great way to get content from the Internet on your TV!

There are some downsides though. The user interface is that of a computer - it's not streamlined like a TV. You can't just surf channels by clicking a remote, however, you can come close with my free Internet Remote Control. Just go to that page on your computer and select a "channel" to watch.

A computer also takes a long time to start up compared to a TV, so you might want to keep it in suspend mode.

The other problem is how to use a mouse and keyboard all the way from your coffee table. You can get long cables for your laptop or keyboard or use wireless versions. But you might not want these big ugly things cluttering up your coffee table. Here is a cool solution though - a small Bluetooth keyboard with built-in touch pad, so you can control the computer from across the room, if your computer has Bluetooth (most laptops do, and most desktops don't, but you can add it)..

Rii Wireless Keyboard

Note, this is a professional review site that receives compensation from the retailer or manufacturer when you purchase through the affiliate links such as the ones below. I test and/or research each product or service thoroughly before endorsing it. This site is independently owned and the opinions expressed here are my own.

This incorporates a keyboard an touch pad in one small unit so it doesn't clutter up your coffee table. I tried it out at a trade show that I went to and liked it a lot! It works with PC, Mac, Google TV boxes, Android TV boxes, Sony PS3, and Xbox.

iPad to TV

Many people have discovered ways to get some free TV programming by hooking up their iPad to their TV.

The Original Way

If you have an iPad generation one through three, you can do this using a 30-pin to composite video cable along with a 1/8" stereo cable for audio.

This type of cable doesn't "mirror" what you see on the iPad display, but rather sends certain content from the iPad to your TV such as YouTube videos, for example. Certain apps work with it and others don't. I've heard that Netfilx works but Amazon video doesn't. The advantage of these cables is that they will connect to old tube TVs.

The HDMI Way

The iPad generation four and newer don't have this analog video output, so you have to buy an iPad-to-HDMI cable which only connects to newer TVs (not tube TVs). This cable dongle is called a "Lightning Digital A/V Adapter" and costs $49. The advantage of this cable, however, is that it will mirror whatever is on your iPad display on your TV, and you don't need a separate audio cable.

Wireless iPad to TV

You can also get this functionality by purchasing an Apple TV, which does the same thing, but wirelessly. Not only does this mirror exactly what is on your iPad's display, but it enables you to watch other content from the Internet like Netflix and iTunes on your TV. Read my complete review of Apple TV here. It's the perfect device if you want to mirror your iPad or iPhone to your TV.

Here the links below to find Apple TV at Best Buy:

Apple TV 32GB Black

Apple TV 64GB Black

How to Watch Broadcast TV on Your Computer (Advanced)

You can also watch broadcast TV on your computer (and ditch your regular TV altogether). This is more tricky to do and I don't recommend it unless you're pretty techy. You'll need a video tuner card for your computer. These are in the $99 range, but require you to open up your computer install a card, install drivers, and install software. Often this software is buggy and uses up a lot of computer horsepower (don't try it if you have a really old computer). You know whether this is your cup of tea or not. Here are some examples:

After installing the card in your computer, connect your antenna to the card.

Another downside of all of this is that the user interface for computer TV software is not as elegant as your TV's. Some are downright clunky and slow to start up. I also found that the tuner card in my computer was not quite as good as the tuner in my TV, meaning that I couldn't pick up as many TV stations on my computer.

You can also turn your computer into a TiVo to record programs that you receive from your antenna when you're not around. The downside of this is that you'd have to have to leave the computer on all the time, something that you might not want to do (it does waste power).

One added bonus of installing a TV tuner card into your computer is that they usually have a composite video input, meaning that you can use it to rip VHS tapes to your computer. I did this and got rid of boxes of VHS tapes and eventually my VHS player altogether. Not only did this save room, but it made the videos easier to watch. Using my Roku, I can even stream them to my TV and watch them there.

The Best of Both Worlds (Very Advanced)

The solution might be to have two antennas: one for your TV and one for your computer. When just watching TV (not recording), you would use the antenna attached to your TV, thus avoiding to have to boot up your computer. When you want to watch pre-recorded shows or make a new recording, you boot up your computer.

Become a Cable Disabler

Stay informed abou the latest tips for free and cheap TV! I'll send you an email with links to my latest articles, no more than once a month.

You can also like my Facebook page, or follow me on Twitter. For more info, read my blog. To contact me, leave a comment! I try to answer every question I get.


Leave a Comment. Ask a Question.

Tell us about your experiences of watching TV on your computer! Your email address will not be shown.