Hacking the hotel TV - making the most out of being stuck in your room
We've probably all been there at one point - you are stuck in a boring town, with nothing more than the hotel TV to keep you occupied. It doesn't really matter where you are, the channel selection on most hotel TV's is going to be useless.
You'll usually get one or two hotel welcome channels, some local news stations and a couple of sports channels. Forget HBO or any of the "other good stuff", unless you are willing to pay for it.
In this article I'll describe how you can use the TV for your benefit - and how you can bring your own TV programming with you.
(Despite the catchy title, this article will not describe theft of service, or physically hacking the hotel entertainment network, sorry!).
The aux input - the "holy grail" of personal in-room entertainment
On virtually every hotel TV, you'll notice a set of connectors on the front of the unit - usually yellow, white and red connectors. These are the plugs you'll need in order to plug some better entertainment into the tube.
On more modern TV's they may be on the side, or even the back. Just be sure you don't slide the TV off the dresser when you move it check on the rear, as most hotel tend to frown on a TV with a busted picture tube.
Once you find the inputs is where things can get tricky - hotels would much rather have you spend $19.95 for the latest movie than have you watch your own content for free. The agreement hotels have with their entertainment provider means they grab a pretty nice chunk of whatever they charge you.
The easiest way to check whether the inputs on the front of the TV are enabled is to simply plug something in and press "play" on your device.
I've been in many hotels that specifically mention that their TV video inputs are disabled, and from the remote it would indeed seem like they removed the option.
However, as soon as the TV detects a signal in those inputs, it switches right to it, without the need to press any buttons. When on the video input, the TV will usually say "camport", "aux" or "line in".
If you find one of those TV's, life is easy, but if you plug something in, and nothing happens, it may be time to become a little more creative, so here are some tips to get the video channel enabled on your hotel TV:
- Use the channel buttons on the front of the TV, not on the remote. The line-in channel is often right before, or right after the regular channels.
- Try channel numbers not in the usual "up/down" lineup, like 00, 000 or 100.
- Try a universal remote control and program the various codes for that specific TV into the remote, then try the "input' button on the remote, you'll be surprised how often a $10 remote can bypass what the hotel does not want you doing. It may take a couple of attempts, but what is 5 minutes of your day when the alternative is watching the TV welcome channel over and over again.
- When I travel, I carry a Logitech Harmony remote, which can be programmed using my laptop - its remote code database is extremely extensive, and I have yet to run into a TV I can't "tweak". You can find a Harmony remote for as little as $40.
Unfortunately for them, simply unplugging the cable/Lodgenet/OnCommand box on the back of the TV fixes that problem.
Of course, some may ask whether any of this is ethical - in my opinion it is - as long as you leave the TV in the same condition it was when you arrived in the room, nobody should care, switching to the AUX input does not break the TV, and the only "damage" you cause, is preventing the hotel owner from making money off selling overpriced movies.
Modern TV's make life easier (sometimes)
Some hotels are slowly coming to the realization that guest need more than just a 26" 80's wood grain TV.
Those hotels are beginning to replace the old tubes with nice flat panel TV's. Of course, the less-than-smart ones replace the TV, but still broadcast non-HD stuff on it.
One disappointing trend I've noticed is that these hotels provide a really nice TV, with a ton of inputs, but screw a panel over said inputs to prevent you from watching your own content. Of course, this is where a screwdriver in your carry-on bag can help. In some cases, you may even be able to use a spoon to unscrew the panel and plug your cables in. Just be sure to remove your own cables and replace the panel before you leave.
Then there are the hotel chains that really care for their guests, and understand that you'd like to have access to all those plugs. Those hotels are installing "AV boxes" next to the desk, which let you access all the ports without having to reach behind the TV. A good example of such a hotel chain is Aloft, which is part of Starwood.
Connecting a media player
Once you figure out how to change the TV input, it is time to connect your media player. I'll focus on the player I personally find the most pleasant for travel - the Microsoft Zune.
Why the Zune? Its AV connection kit is affordable, and the docking station comes with a remote control. The Zune also displays its menu on the TV, unlike the iPod which forces you to pick your movie on the device, then switches the TV output on.
Trust me, it is much more comfortable when you can lie in bed and use your remote to pick a movie instead of having to get up all the time (and yes, I am that lazy).
The Microsoft Zune AV kit retails for about $55, and comes with a video cable, docking base, power supply and remote control. The kit is nice and compact, and provides everything you need to entertain yourself in your room.
A similar branded solution for the Apple iPod/iPhone costs $100 and still doesn't provide the ease of use found on the Zune.
Connecting your laptop
If you'd prefer to use your laptop computer to watch movies, you'll usually need to invest in a special video cable. Almost every laptop on the market can output its video to a TV, as long as it has the right cable.
A compatible video cable can be found on places like Ebay for as little as $5, or you can check with the manufacturer of your laptop and order an (overpriced) cable from them.
Take TiVo with you!
Anyone with a TiVo back home probably hates being stuck in a hotel. Whenever I am watching TV in my hotel room, I always find myself reaching for the remote to skip commercials, only to find the sticky hotel remote.
There is thankfully a way you can bring TiVo with you, get access to digital programming and your familiar TiVo remote.
Last year, Nero (of the famous CD recording software) teamed up with TiVo to release Nero Liquid TV.
This software/hardware package turns your computer into a full TiVo, with all the features you'd expect, including season passes.
The $125 package includes a digital TV tuner, a TiVo remote control, a remote control receiver and a 12 month subscription to the TiVo service.
The package allows you to do several things - it can network with your home TiVo and transfer recordings from the box to your laptop (and the other way around), plus it can use the included TV tuner to record shows with the included antenna when you get to your hotel.
Just to clarify - this is not the same as TiVo desktop - Nero Liquid TV actually turns your computer into a TiVo, which goes way beyond what TiVo desktop can do.
When you get to your hotel, you simply configure your location (based on zip code), and you can immediately start watching live TV, and schedule recordings.
If you'd rather not bother with a tuner, you can watch programs you transferred off your home TiVo, or even watch movies in one of the many media formats supported by the application.
There are one or two minor limitations to the software - it does not work with digital cable, even though the included tuner is compatible, and I found the TiVo to PC transfer option to be a little unreliable at times, but being able to turn your laptop into a TiVo is absolutely fantastic, and helps you feel a little more at home when you are stuck in a hotel.
You will need a fairly powerful laptop to run Nero Liquid TV, but I've found that it actually works fairly well on a 1.6GHz Netbook, as long as you have a fast hard drive and 2GB of memory.
Watch your home TV - away from home
The final option I'll be describing in this article is potentially one of the coolest - it involves "streaming" your home TV signal, over the Internet to your hotel. No matter where in the world you are, as long as you have a reliable Internet connection, you can use your computer to watch whatever is on back home.
One of the more advanced products for TV streaming is the HAVA Titanium HD WiFi. This $249 device (currently on sale for $179) combines several devices in one - it can stream your home signal inside your house to other PC's, or over the Internet to a PC, smartphone or Internet tablet. It can also act as a DVR, and finally, it is also a media player (when you plug an external hard drive into it).
The HAVA Titanium goes between your cable box/satellite receiver/DVR/TiVo and your TV, and broadcasts that signal wherever you want. The included infra-red dongle controls your devices, and you are presented with an on-screen remote on your PC that looks just like the one back home.
The quality of the streamed image is great - as long as your Internet connection is reliable. The Hava can adjust the quality of the image based on the speed of your connection.
Of course, the final stage of watching your home TV in your hotel room, is connecting your laptop to the TV, and sitting back to relax, and watch all the channels you have back home.