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What the 'console-ification' of PCs means for gamers

Brad Chacos | April 24, 2013
Simple, streamlined, and cheap: The words once used to describe the strengths of console gaming may soon apply to PC gaming, too.

Good--A "good" Steam Box seems highly reminiscent of the Ouya Android console. Costing around $100, it would run only casual Web or mobile games. Newell also wants these "good" iterations to double as gaming set-top boxes of sorts, streaming games that are being run on more-powerful, traditional PCs to your TV.

Better--Valve will reign over the approved specs at this tier, and its own Steam Box will be of the "Better" variety. These "consoles" should cost around $300 (good luck with that) and contain CPUs and graphics processors powerful enough to play most recent titles at solid frame rates. Since most TVs top out at 720p or 1080p, that shouldn't be too difficult to achieve.

Best--Beefy and boisterous, these represent the current status quo in PC gaming, without any size or spec restrictions. If manufacturers bother to get a certification for this class of machine, they'll likely be Steam Boxes in name only rather than viable living room alternatives.

Having Big Picture mode, a roughly $300- price point, and a Steam Box certification plan would go a long way toward bringing PC gaming into the living room. The price point is especially noteworthy.

"If you come out with a PC that's going to be twice as much money as a typical game console, I think that you're going to have a very tough time gaining marketshare, no matter how powerful the hardware or how many games you have available," says Lewis Ward, a gaming-focused research analyst at IDC.

All that said, a pair of GeForce-branded solutions from Nvidia--a company that is also looking to crack the living room with its Project SHIELD handheld--could do even more to console-ify PCs by keeping it simple, stupid.

Streamlined simulations in the cloud

Driver maintenance and settings optimization have long been two of the biggest pains in PC gaming. Simply put, making sure your games are running as sweetly as possible is a headache. Nvidia's nascent GeForce Experience changes that.

The cloud-connected software pings Nvidia's servers to automatically check for driver updates--hallelujah! But, more crucially, it also scans your PC's hardware configuration, and then checks it against Nvidia's crowd-sourced database to intelligently optimize the graphics settings in your games. You read that right: With GeForce Experience, you'll never have to slog through tedious tessellation options to achieve tip-top frame rates again.

At least, that's the theory. GeForce Experience is still getting its sea legs. The technology currently works with only a limited number of titles and Nvidia's last three generations of graphics cards, so it'll be a while before we get a feel for its full potential.

Another Nvidia initiative could negate the need for GeForce Experience entirely. Nvidia's GeForce GRID promises far greater cloud gaming potential than forebearers like OnLive and Gaikai. The ability to simply and seamlessly play games on any piece of hardware--console, tablet, PC, smart TV, whatever--is the Holy Grail of gaming. Nvidia will have to conquer bandwidth and latency concerns in order for GRID to take off, however, as well as prove that there's actually consumer demand for cloud gaming--something OnLive, sadly, has yet to do.


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