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Untethered: Watching Live TV on Your Laptop Without Wires

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Imagine being able to watch live television on your laptop without any wires. Now imagine no more — you'll learn the step-by-step procedure right here. With some inexpensive hardware, a desktop and laptop, and a wireless network, you'll be ready to go in no time.
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Pinocchio once dreamed that he could be untethered, void of the strings that bound his livelihood. Although Pinocchio is a fairytale, the untethering I cover here is a tangible reality.

Imagine being able to watch live television on your laptop without any wires. In this article, I'll teach you how to do that. The hardware equipment required to pull off the wireless endeavor is pretty inexpensive and readily available. You'll need a desktop machine and a laptop machine co-existing in a wireless network. The one thing you might not have already is a TV-tuner card for your desktop machine. If you don't have one, I suggest considering the Win TV-Go of Hauppage. You can usually find this at computer stores for around $50 (if not less). USB TV Tuners are also available for those who are timid about performing surgery on their desktop computer When it comes to software for your wireless endeavor, you won't need to fork out any cash; the software you'll need is free from Microsoft.

As stated earlier, I assume that you are trying to set things up in your house, where you already have a wireless network setup. A wireless G network is preferred because the high data rates offered by the network specification are ideal for streaming video. A wireless B network can work, but the results might be a bit choppy.

This setup works in a client/server scenario, as seen in Figure 1. The laptop acts as a client to a desktop machine that plays the role of a server.

Figure 1

Figure 1 A pictorial representation of the project.

The desktop streams a TV signal that it gets through its TV-tuner card via Windows Media Encoder 9, which you can download from Microsoft for free at http://www.microsoft.com/windows/windowsmedia/9series/encoder/default.aspx.

As you will see, once you have things set up on your desktop server, you simply have to connect to the server via Windows Media Player to view your live TV broadcast.

Server-Side Setup

I assume that you have already set up your TV-tuner card in your desktop computer so that you are able to watch TV directly on the desktop machine. Refer to your TV-tuner card's documentation for this prerequisite. Next, you need to download and install Windows Media Encoder 9. This installation process is pretty straightforward: Simply agree to the unabridged dictionary (a.k.a. the end user license agreement) and choose a hard-drive location to install the encoder (see Figure 2).

Figure 2

Figure 2 Installing Windows Media Encoder 9.

Next, fire up Windows Media Encoder by going to Start, Programs, Windows Media, Windows Media Encoder (see Figure 3).

Figure 3

Figure 3 Starting up Windows Media Encoder 9 Series.

By default, when you start up Windows Media Encoder, you are presented with a New Session Wizard. However, before you create a new session, you need to make sure your video format is set properly. Click Cancel to exit the New Session Wizard. Go to Tools, Options, and, on the General tab, make sure your default video format is set properly for your TV-tuner card. If you live in the United States, this setting should be NTSC, as shown in Figure 4.

Figure 4

Figure 4 Choosing the default video format for your TV-tuner card.

With your default video format set properly, you are ready to move on to creating your streaming session. Microsoft provides an easy-to-use wizard, which, if you recall, you saw upon startup but cancelled out of. You can get back to the wizard by clicking the New Session button (see Figure 5).

Figure 5

Figure 5 Creating a new session.

When presented with the wizard, choose the Broadcast a Live Event option, shown in Figure 6.

Figure 6

Figure 6 Choosing the Broadcast a Live Event option.

The New Session Wizard presents you with a Device Options screen. You need to specify a video and audio source for your live broadcast. For the video device, choose your TV-tuner card's option (in my case, Hauppage WinTV Capture) from the pull-down menu (see Figure 7). Then click the Configure button next to the device to set properties for the device. The properties you are presented with vary according to device.

Figure 7

Figure 7 Selecting and configuring your video device.

For the Hauppage TV-tuner card I have, I was presented with the option to change the channel to stream, as well as my video source (cable or antenna), as you can see in Figure 8. I was also able to control such things as the contrast and brightness of my video signal. Take your time to configure your TV-tuner card to the appropriate settings. If you are unsure of what settings are appropriate, refer to your TV-tuner card manual.

Figure 8

Figure 8 Setting properties for your video device.

The next item of business is to configure your audio device (which should be set to the default audio device). (See Figure 9.)

Figure 9

Figure 9 Selecting and Configuring Your Audio Device.

As before, what you are presented with when you try to configure your audio device varies based on audio device. As shown in Figure 10, for my audio device, I was presented with the option to control the balance of my audio signal, as well as such things as treble and bass. I had to press the Enable button before I was able to stream audio properly.

Figure xxx

Figure 10 Configuring the default audio device.

After returning to the Device Options screen, click Next in the wizard. You then are asked how you want to broadcast your encoded content. Choose the option Pull from the Encoder (see Figure 11) and click Next.

Figure 11

Figure 11 Choosing the Pull from the Encoder option for your broadcast method.

Next you are presented with a Broadcast Connection screen. Here you establish a port through which clients will access the live broadcast. You can specify a port manually, or you can click the Find Free Port button to discover an open port, as shown in Figure 12. I suggest using the Find Free Port option.

Figure 12

Figure 12 Establishing the port through which players will access your stream.

When a free port has been established and specified, you should take note of the URL in the box labeled URL for Internet Connections (see Figure 13). You'll use this URL later when setting up your client workstation (a.k.a. the laptop in your setup) to listen to your broadcast. After jotting down the URL, click Next.

Figure 13

Figure 13 Use the Find Free Port utility to discover an open port on your server via which clients can connect to your stream.

You are presented with an Encoding Options screen. The options you pick here depend greatly on what type of a wireless network you have. As you might know, wireless network performance varies on the density of the walls that the wireless signal must pass through. In short, the higher the total bit rate and the frame rate are, and the larger the output size are, the more demands there are on your network. If you choose settings that are too high or too low, your stream will become choppy. I suggest modifying your encoding options a few times via an iterative process to figure out which encoding methodology is optimal for your network. As shown in Figure 14, I found that the options Multiple Bit Rates Video (CBR) for both video and audio were good. In particular, I checked the 1128Kbps Total Bit Rate, 29.97fps Frame Rate, and 320x240 Output Size options.

Figure 14

Figure 14 Choosing the encoding options for your stream.

Next in the wizard, you can choose if and where you want to create an archive of your broadcast stream (see Figure 15). Windows Media Encoder uses the WMV format to store your archives. Note that video files can become huge if you are recording for a large amount of time, so use this setting judiciously. You are not required to archive your stream.

Figure 15

Figure 15 Opting to archive a copy of your broadcast to a file.

Next you are presented with the ability to include video files at the beginning, middle, or end of your video stream. This is a provision via which you can include such things as prerecorded video previews or snazzy "brought to you by" screens. Skip this option for this exercise by selecting No, I Want to Encode from My Selected Devices Only (see Figure 16).

Figure 16

Figure 16 Choosing not to include video files in your stream.

After clicking Next, you are presented with a Display Information window (see Figure 17), where you can add display information about your content. If you want to specify this information, you can do so here; it will be seen by clients that connect to your broadcast stream. Otherwise, you can leave this blank.

Figure 17

Figure 17 Specifying display information for your feed.

Click Next; you are presented with a summary of what you configured with the wizard (see Figure 18).

Figure 18

Figure 18 Viewing the summary of your session configuration via the New Session Wizard.

When you are finished with the wizard, you are presented with a dialog box stating, "By default there is no restriction on which clients can connect to this broadcast" (see Figure 19). In short, you are being told that anyone on your network can view your broadcast. If you'd like to restrict who on your network can view the broadcast, Windows Media Encoder enables you to do this. This restriction process is an advanced topic and is beyond the scope of this article. However, you can learn how to restrict via IP address with the Help documentation provided with Windows Media Encoder.

Figure 19

Figure 19 Dialog box telling you that you can restrict access by IP address.

After you click OK on the dialog box, you should be able to see your incoming TV channel that you want to broadcast as a stream. If you do not, click the Properties button to modify the configuration options of your video device set earlier until you start seeing your incoming TV-tuner signal. If you see your TV-tuner signal and it is presenting the channel you want to broadcast, you are ready to start broadcasting. Simply press the Start Encoding button to start the broadcasting and encoding (see Figure 20).

Figure 20

Figure 20 Start encoding and streaming your incoming TV signal by clicking the Start Encoding button.

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