August 16th, 2010
I’ve been revisiting the practicality of personal computing in the living room this month, especially as it pertains to gaming and entertainment. The hypothesis I’m challenging: Instead of spending $1500 (or more) on hardware that sits in both the home office and living room, why not reduce said hardware down to a portable (but still powerful) laptop and an HDTV used as a monitor?
The basic premise is nothing new. After all, people have been sending computer signals to TVs for years, myself included. But thanks to the recent rise of HDMI ports on laptops and ease of services like Steam, Netflix Streaming, and wireless displays, it makes a lot more sense now than before.
For my review, I went as budget as I could go (while still being able to play demanding games) in an effort to appeal to the lowest common denominator of consumer. That means affordable-but-still-big TV (Remember: The living room is a "lean back" experience compared to the “lean forward” experience of the desktop, so you have to adjust for room size). Specifically, a 50” Samsung. The $700 set is only 720p HD, but it looks fantastic, even when compared to higher-end 2009 models. (TV technology improves fast, folks. Don’t let that Best Buy guy belittle your choice.)
As for computer, I’ve been using the base model M11x by Alienware (which, in case you didn’t know it, sponsors this site and provided a base model for review). The machine retails for $800. And it plays most current games at maximum settings; all games at reduced (but still adequate) settings.
Without detailing each and every game I played (Bad Company 2, Osmos, Mafia II, and Trine to name a few), let me say this: portable PC gaming in the living room is a viable and “oh so” close replacement setup. It’s impressive. And when armed with a wireless gamepad, lapdesk, and other input setup, it succeeds in recreating the PC gaming experience you know and love in a fresh setting. All this without sacrificing the “get away” default option of playing in the den or study, since you can simply transport your gaming laptop where you need it.
I say “close replacement” for the following reasons. First, a better user interface is needed to make browsing Windows on a TV less tedious. Finding your way around works on such a large TV, but it’s obvious the icons and menus were meant to be viewed from 2-3 feet as opposed to the 6+ feet of most living rooms. And no, I don’t see Windows Media Center as a practical and open solution—at least in its current form. (Individually speaking, Steam’s Grid View looked great on the TV; now if we can only apply that menu mentality to every operation in Windows.)
Secondly, the setup described above isn’t ideal for power users. Competitive gamers striving for maximum actions per minute might balk at the more laid back experience of gaming on a sofa. And home office professionals understandably need a superior desktop environment. But for everyone else—myself included when I want to get away from my home office but still game on PC—it’s an attractive option. And of course, it can be upgraded to suit your tastes.
Most of all, though, this experience reminded me of how important the PC is to my daily consumption of entertainment. When connected directly to my TV, I don’t have to worry about transferring, syncing, streaming, or converting files before being able to play and share them in the living room. I can play almost anything in the living room, knowing that it will all be compatible, since it’s coming from the source I first viewed it on (such as Amazon On Demand movies, which only play on machines you download them to). I can play HD games without the console markup or multiplayer surcharges.
And that’s the biggest benefit of personal computing in the living room: it merges the world’s no. 1 content machine with the world’s no. 1 monitor. While others have unsuccessfully tried to dominate the living room with proprietary media extenders—Apple and Microsoft included—maybe all they needed to do was connect the beloved PC to the beloved TV.
Which is where I think we’re headed. Death of the PC, be damned!