Hands-on with the OnLive MicroConsole

OnLive's MicroConsole is here, bringing the cloud-based game service to TVs in a simple $99 box, making it an intriguing low-cost alternative to traditional living room game consoles.

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As a $99 set-top box, OnLive's MicroConsole offers an intriguing low-cost alternative to traditional living room game consoles, which can cost two to three times as much. We've just gotten our hands on a final hardware unit and tested it with a variety of games and controllers.

If you're not familiar with the OnLive streaming game service , it's essentially cloud-based PC gaming. The original PC client allows nearly any laptop or desktop to play high-end PC games by offloading the CPU- and GPU-intensive tasks of actually running the game software to a remote render farm, then beaming the gameplay back to you as a streaming video.

The PC-based version worked surprisingly well , so expectations are high for this standalone TV-friendly box. Ditching the computer altogether, the MicroConsole acts as a dongle and media streamer , connecting to your TV via HDMI (or component video) and to the Internet via an Ethernet cable (Wi-Fi is still wonky on the PC client, so we don't expect to see it on the MicroConsole anytime soon).

The setup is simple enough: if you have an existing account you can log directly into it, and one of the nice unintended consequences of cloud-based gaming is that your saved games and library travel with you wherever you log in. The interface is identical to the PC client, and includes a marketplace for buying games (you're actually buying a license to play the game on OnLive's servers), a list of your purchased games, and an arena view, which lets you drop in and watch other players' live game streams (this can be turned off in the privacy settings).

The system includes a solidly built wireless controller, which looks and feels a lot like a third-party Xbox 360 gamepad. Response time with the controller felt tight some of the time, but slightly laggy at others; the entire ecosystem is very network dependent. We were also able to swap in a wired Xbox 360 controller, which felt a little more responsive, but that may be because it was more comfortable (the current official Xbox 360 gamepad is arguably the best game controller ever made).

Either controller worked well for third-party action games, such as Darksiders, but first-person shooters were tougher. We'd chalk that up to a couple of factors. First, even the slightest bit of lag can throw off your FPS experience, and second, we were using a gamepad to play a PC shooter.

OnLive package
The $99 package includes the MicroConsole and a custom wireless controller. Sarah Tew/CNET

OnLive works well on PCs because you're playing the PC versions of these games. Connected to a TV, however, it's important to remember that you're still playing the PC version, not the console version. That's especially important in first-person shooters, where the console versions often have snap-to-aim assist features, but the PC versions do not.

However, when we plugged in a standard keyboard and mouse (using the two USB ports on the front of the MicroConsole), our FPS experience improved dramatically, no doubt giving comfort to PC-only gamers who swear that a mouse/keyboard combo is the only way to really play a shooter. It still wasn't always as tight as playing a game installed directly on a high-powered PC, but it was certainly very playable.

OnLive says the MicroConsole can output a full 1080p signal, but the image quality doesn't match what you'd get from plugging a high-definition game console directly into your TV. Images typically ranged from good to very good, with occasional compression artifacts and a slightly softer focus than we're used to. Still, the image quality was excellent at times, especially considering this is a $99 all-in-one solution that doesn't require a computer to run off of.

OnLive MicroConsole
Along with the Ethernet connection and HDMI port, there's also an optical audio output. Sarah Tew/CNET

Hardware aside, the system will live or die based on its software catalog, which currently has a decent selection of recent games, including Mafia II, Splinter Cell Conviction, and Lego Harry Potter, but is missing hot PC-centric games such as Call of Duty: Black Ops or Civilization V. The Coming Soon section of the dashboard, however, looks very promising for 2011.

The OnLive MicroConsole is available for preorder now, with units expected to ship in early December.

 

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