PC Gaming in the living room - making do with what you've got

A few months ago Alienware launched its X51 series of gaming PCs The X51 is unusual because it looks like a gaming console and yet it uses standard components so that it's fully upgradeable. The design is clearly intended to be used in your entertainment center.

It got me thinking. I'm a gamer who plays on both PC and consoles. I love gaming on a Windows PC because of the variety of titles you can find there, often at bargain basement prices. I also love the modding scene, at least for some titles. Generally speaking Windows gaming feels very open.

I love console gaming because it's convenient and hassle free, and because I can do it from the couch. I sit at a desk all day and when it's time to relax and enjoy a game that couch is very tempting.

The X51 struck me as a way to combine the best of both worlds so I thought I'd give it a try, and after hearing about the SteamBox I figured it might be helpful if I shared my experiences in a couple of blog posts.

Before I took the plunge I decided to test the waters by hooking up an old PC to the living room home theater system. I'm not talking about real Home Theater PCs here because I'm not bothering with a TV tuner card or any of that; I just want to play games. In my case I had an old Core 2 Quad core system that had been my last generation gaming PC, and as luck would have it I'd given my girlfriend a new graphics card for Christmas and the old one, an AMD Radeon 5850 with an HDMI port, was gathering dust. So I installed her old card into the Quad and dragged the tower into the living room.

I expected to have to do a lot of fidding to get this working but I didn't. Plugged in HDMI, ethernet and power cables, turned the system on and off I went. It detected the TV as a 1920x1080 display with no problems. I plugged in the receiver for a battered old wireless keyboard, another for a wireless laptop mouse I carry around, and finally a wired Xbox 360 controller.

The first game I played was Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. I chose it for two reasons. First it was new and hot, and second because I read somewhere that 38 Studios (the developer of Reckoning) founder Curt Schilling's preferred way to enjoy the game was playing the PC version while using a gamepad controller.

Early results were encouraging. The PC version of the game looked better than its console counterparts (no surprise there) and it controlled beautifully too. The fly in the ointment was the cable stretched across the room to the controller, and having to launch the game via a cumbersome mouse & keyboard combination. So I went shopping.

Microsoft unironically offers a "Wireless Xbox Controller for Windows" that Amazon sells for about $45, so I ordered one of those, plus a new wireless mouse and keyboard, both from Logitech and both of which used Logitech's tiny new "Unify" dongle/receiver. I spent a little extra and got a backlit keyboard since it's usually quite dark in the living room when I'm playing. Last of all was the Lenovo N5902 Enhanced Multimedia Remote with Backlit Keyboard for those times when I don't need to do more typing than the odd password or email address.

A couple of days later the new peripherals arrived. The Xbox Controller worked perfectly, as anticipated. The Lenovo N5902 was an unexpected delight. It's very small and is made for thumb-typing but the tiny optical mouse pointer works really well. This is the perfect controller for launching games or typing in usernames, passwords and URLs.

The Logitech gear I've had some problems with. That tiny Unifying dongle is, I think, too small for 'across the room' signals. The keyboard works adequately but the mouse stutters and jerks. Luckily Logitech supplies an extension cable for the dongle so I jury-rigged a way to elevate the dongle up above the height of the coffee table and other furniture that might block the signal. That addressed the problem but it doesn't exactly scream 'professional installation.' My research tells me I should have purchased a Bluetooth mouse and keyboard; maybe down the line I'll upgrade.

And that was "Phase 1" of my experiment; I ran like that for a few weeks while I waited for the X51 to arrive.

There are still some challenges and not every game works well on a big-screen TV. My best experiences have been games with controller support. Reckoning, Skyrim, driving games like the Dirt series. Most MMOs don't work as well since they're so text heavy; it can be hard to read text from across the room and of course you want a full keyboard to keep up with Guild Chat. I haven't tried a lot of strategy games but again I worry about anything with a lot of text/numbers that are essential to smart play.

In addition to the signal issues with the mouse and keyboard, I still haven't figured out a good way to manage them physically. I could set them on the coffee table but that's not exactly the 'leanback' experience I was hoping for. I've tried just holding the keyboard in my lap and setting the mouse on a rigid mousepad on the couch cushion next to me, and that works, after a fashion, but the mouse tends to slide off the mousepad every time I let go of it, and it isn't a dog-friendly situation (my dog invariably joins me on the couch when I'm gaming...she's my good luck charm). I bought a 'lapdesk' but it's not really big enough for both keyboard and mouse.

As I said, this isn't a Home Theater PC and there's no TV functionality on it, but one happy side-effect is that I finally have a really good way to enjoy 'long form' web video. Youtube, Neflix, Vimeo, Hulu (with or without the Plus), HBO Go, Amazon VoD... no longer am I jumping from device to device to find the one with the app the supports the source I want to watch. They're all on the TV PC.

In Part 2 of this series I'll tell you about some tweaks I've made to my setup and go over the 'living room friendly' features of the X51 and some of the challenges they present.

Read more of Peter Smith's TechnoFile blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Peter on Twitter at @pasmith. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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