Turn Your Old Laptop Into A Media Box

If you're anything like a geek I am or if you have the chance for it, you might find yourself owning a laptop that can't keep up with everyday use. Whether it be a dead battery which renders it incapable of moving away from a power port or like me, a blown out backlight rendering the LCD screen useless.

It doesn't have to be the end of your laptop. Far from it, it just means you have to tweak it a little bit in order for you to bring new life into an aging laptop. While there are many ways for you to make use of an old laptop, as part of my series on networking your computers to your media box, I'm going to focus on turning your laptop into a central media box for your entertainment system (mainly that sweet TV that's connected to a decent surround sound system). So without further ado, let's get on to it.

  1. Ensure your system can run – I'm not just talking about software as well. If you got a damaged hard disk drive, make sure it's replaced or better yet, get an external hard disk drive and connect it to your laptop. If you have faulty LCD screen, borrow someone else's monitor to plug in while you get the system up and running. There is no point in going any further if your system is as operational as a paperweight. So make sure you can actually boot it up fine.
  2. Connect your laptop to your entertainment system – Since you're going to plug your laptop into the TV, make sure that your laptop at the very least has a TV output at the back of it. Most laptops from 2003 onwards have TV or S-Video output allowing you to display whatever you're watching. At the same time, following closely with the first step, make sure your line-out or headphone jack is working properly. In my case, repeated use of my headphone jack wore it out, so I bought myself a replacement soundcard that fit into the PCMCIA slot (the really thin flat slot at the side of older laptops) of my laptop. You can also find USB versions of soundcards to plug into your USB slot. Also remember to get the right cables for the right occasion.
  3. Restore your system to its original settings – The first thing you should do is to wipe your system clean and return it to its default factory settings. I'm assuming that you already have several other systems at home that you can back up your data to and that your laptop came with a backup CD to reinstall everything. The reason why you want to start from scratch is to keep the system as light and crap free as possible. The simpler you make it, the easier it is for your system to run.
  4. Update your system – You might want to consider updating your system to the latest program. Windows XP Service Pack 3 for instance does speed up your Windows and offers considerable protection being connected to the net. Go to your laptop's site (you might have to do a little searching) and see if there are any updated BIOS, drivers or software that you can use.
  5. Install codecs – Video and audio codecs are like the programs that allows your computer to run certain kinds of video and audio files. Anything from your standard MP3 music and DVD's to more unconventional DivX, XviD, FLV (flash movies) and MKV (animes rips do tend to love this codec) files. While there are a lot of codecs out there, some from very shady sites. To save you the trouble, the 3 codec packs I use are FFDShow, Real Alt (allows you to play RM movies without a RealMedia player) and Quicktime Alt (allows you to play MOV movies without needing Quicktime). Download and install these codecs. As an added bonus, Both Real Alt and Quicktime Alt will install Windows Media Player Classic – a lightweight video media player that is very good.
  6. Install a Torrent download client – Your system isn't quite complete without being independent in downloading movies and music on it's own, especially if you went ahead and attached a large external hard disk drive to your laptop (like I did). Even if you have 2 or 3 other computers at home sharing the same line, it's actually more effective to have only one system downloading movies and files. It saves on bandwidth and doesn't quite choke the line when other people want to use it. Later on in the series, I'll write something on maximizing what you can do with your torrent client. In which case, I highly recommend installing utorrent. It's lightweight and highly configurable. Perfect for your downloading needs.

Even if you don't connect your laptop to a large network. Plugging it in permanently to the TV by itself gives you the ability to watch movies in formats that you otherwise are unable to with your TV alone. Even if you have an Xbox 360 which plays DivX movies quite well, you're still amiss with other formats like flash movies (from Youtube for instance) or MKV encoded animes with subtitles. Having an old laptop you're not going to use, doing the job for you is simple a good way of recycling it.

I hope that you can put that old laptop to good use. It's a shame to have to throw it away because it's too obsolete to keep up with current technology. But, if you follow these steps, you can actually teach an old dog new tricks. That's better than seeing it become a very expensive paperweight.

If you got any further questions or suggestions on sprucing up your laptop further as a media box, don't hesitate to comment or email me directly.

Alternatively, instead of restoring your laptop to its original factory default settings and if you think you want to give it a go. Install a Linux operating system instead. Ubuntu should give you the widest driver support, although I did have problems getting TV output to run from my laptop. More recent laptops shouldn't have this problem like I did (mine was just too old). Remember, if you have trouble getting it to work, Google is your friend.

Alternatively, instead of going through the trouble of installing all the codecs, you can just install VLC, a lightweight media player which comes with a wide range of codecs already installed. Personally I don't like the interface and I have had some problems with certain codecs. While it will play almost every format of movie out there, it also doesn't readily come with realmedia and quicktime support. Once again, for a solution, Google is your friend.

Other posts in this series:

8 Comments

  • Pingback: Networking Your Computers To A Central Media Box » Footsteps in the Mirror

  • SexyThang
    October 12, 2008 - 05:29 | Permalink

    just reading through. i want to suggest some improvements. download TinyXP latest. instead of normal windows xp. it will run faster and more compatible with anything than linux ubuntu 804. 30-45sec bootup and 15-20mins for install. Use klite codecs pack with media player classic. it runs better than vlc and is less taxing on the system with better results with ffdshow etc… unless u want the special features on vlc. least taxing antivirus is avira and firewall use codomo. though avira has some pop ups. AVG is good but reacts badly with codomo firewall. after all this just Ghost the system so ur reinstall is cut to 5-10mins should anything go wrong. cut out protection if u are secure in ur network.
    im running on my 8 year old laptop on pentium 3 650hz and 320mb. . BTW use VGA cable or dvi. Svideo is just horrid. all up i beleive tinyxp would take about 35-60mb of RAM.

  • October 12, 2008 - 06:11 | Permalink

    SexyThang: Personally I do use a lightweight custom modded version of Windows XP which does take the same amount of space and time to install. The problem is that for some older laptops like mine, the laptop drivers are NOT separate to that of the Windows installation CD. So it does take a fair bit of tweaking and searching to get all the laptop functions working with a Windows CD meant for a desktop PC. For simplicity, users with limited experience can afford to stick to the original factory settings to save time.

    Unfortunately, I found the Klite codec pack more taxing than FFDShow. It’s a good alternative though if you find that FFDShow is giving you problems (I can’t think of why)

    I prefer not to use an antivirus and rely on the hardware firewall from my router as well as the default firewall. The logic is that both third party antivirus and firewalls consume a lot of memory and processing power especially for an old laptop. The only reason you would connect the laptop to the internet is to download torrents off it. The browser is never open, so theoretically, the system itself should be pretty secure.

    Lastly, correct me if I’m wrong, but the TV output is limited to whatever the laptop has, and in older systems, it’ll either be a basic VGA output or S-Video. There is nothing you can do about it. I’ve never had problems hooking up S-Video to older TV’s. You just have to contend with the resolution problem. However because you’re only watching movies or listening to music off it, it isn’t going to be a problem. If you plan on controlling your system though, there is a better way at it than staring at a 320 x 240 or 640 x 480 screen. I’ll cover that in a later post.

  • SexyThang
    October 12, 2008 - 18:00 | Permalink

    thats about right. I was assuming ur using at least a 720p lcd tv or 1080p which come at about 700aud for the 720p.

    personally i run a shuttle with a 8800gt factory overclocked to run it as a media centre box. thinking of getting the msi wind 2 (u120) or apple macbook if it comes in at about 1200aud hopefully even less with student discount. both have enough firepower to run at least 720p video and hopefully the wind will take less power to run. of course the wind will dual boot as a hackintosh with vista. once the network/wifi drivers are sorted.

  • October 13, 2008 - 01:23 | Permalink

    Using a previously unused item for a useful purpose tends to provide a feeling of getting benefit out of thin air. As you have shown here, optimizing/cleaning the laptop’s file system, and getting it updated to current versions of programs, causes it to be an entity with a useful processor once again.

  • October 13, 2008 - 06:49 | Permalink

    SexyThang: Well in the previous article, I listed out all the systems I was using, including the Toshiba Satellite 2410 that has a broken LCD that I turned into the media box.

    The idea here at least isn’t to build a custom rig as a media box (though I wish I had the money to do that right now) but to recycle what you already have for those purposes. Besides, at the end of the day, it all depends on the TV you have now. DVI won’t do you good if you don’t have a HDTV with you. For the most part, a lot of us still use the aging standard TV.

    Though, isn’t using the Wind a little pointless since it is a perfectly good netbook? The purpose at least is for the ultimate road warrior, not being “tied down with commitment”. :)

    Armen Shirvanian: What throw away what you paid for and still can use? Sure, donating a perfectly good laptop to charity is a good idea, but when it’s less than perfect, there are always ways to bring Lazarus back from the dead.

  • SexyThang
    October 13, 2008 - 23:53 | Permalink

    wind is an all in one package that you can just pack up and go. come home and just plug it in. besides being powerful enough to run high def but also slightly quiet/cool and low power consumption.

  • October 15, 2008 - 06:49 | Permalink

    SexyThang: Pack up and go, I agree. I have an Asus EeePC with me all the time and I use it for portability, but I wouldn’t think of using it to power my home entertainment system. I don’t think systems like that are designed to run 24/7. But I will show later on what you can do with it that would make your network worth having.

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