We’re living in the future, yet you’re gaming like you live in the past. It’s time to get that gaming PC off your desk and into your lounge room. Here's what you'll need to get started with lean-back gaming in your lounge room.
Gizmodo’s Home Entertainment Guide is presented by the new HP Spectre x360. Any way you bend it, the Spectre x360 delivers. With four modes, lightning-fast performance, and impressive battery life, this convertible PC has the best of all worlds and the shortcomings of none.
What You'll Need
If you're shopping for a TV specifically for lean-back gaming, aim for a TV with a high refresh rate for gaming.
Using a keyboard and mouse is great when you're gaming on a desk, but when you're sitting on your couch, everything gets a bit...uneven. You don't get much room with your mouse on the arm of a chair, and keeping a keyboard on your lap means it will probably see it overbalance onto the floor.
Microsoft to the rescue: the gaming giant makes a version of its Xbox 360 controller that works on Windows via a dongle. It'll cost you less than $50 in Australia, meaning that for around a quarter of the cost of a new wireless keyboard and mouse set-up, you can have a device geared to lean-back play.
If you really want to go the keyboard and mouse route, you can invest in a variety of different wireless options. Don't bother with wired set-ups here: the cables included on almost every keyboard/mouse combo are way too short for the task at hand. That means you'll not only need to go wireless, but you'll need to invest in a solution to keep them all flat. Perhaps it might be worth investing in a mousepad you can put on the chair next to you, or some sort of handy stable table for your gaming gear.
When setting up my lean-back gaming install at home, I had to install the PC tower next to the lounge. That meant ugly HDMI, speaker and networking cables needed to run between the floor and the couch. If you invest in a funky rug from IKEA, you can cover up your web of cables for less that $100 to keep everything neat and tidy.
Steam is one of the biggest and best gaming clients in the world. It's ideally suited to lean-back gaming, as it comes with a new mode called Big Picture Mode.
It’s a simplified interface for your TV that gives you access to your games, your media and the Steam community. That means get everything on your TV that you got with your PC environment.
There’s even a built-in web browser that supports Flash so you can browse the ‘net from the comfort of your couch, too. Nifty.
Big Picture supports controllers as well as the traditional keyboard and mouse setup, so you can enjoy gaming in a few different modes.
If you’ve got a gaming PC with an HDMI-out, all you need to do is treat your TV like a giant monitor and plug it in like you would any other console. From there, you’ll need to switch on Big Picture mode.
Big Picture is built into Steam these days, and activating it couldn’t be easier.
In the top, right-hand corner of your Steam window these days is a button labelled BIG PICTURE. Hit it, and you’re transported into Steam for your lounge room!
How To Make The Most Of Steam Big Picture Mode
Boot Into Big Picture Mode
When you sit down to do a bit of lounge room-based gaming, you don't want to have to fiddle with the interface to get it working every time. No, instead you want to tweak it so that your connected PC launches in Big Picture mode first time, every time.
You can do that in three easy steps:
- Open Steam's Settings pane and click "Interface".
- Check "Run Steam When My Computer Starts"
- Check "Start Steam In Big Picture Mode
Flesh Out Controller Support
Out of the box, many Steam games include controller support. The preferred device is the Xbox 360 controller and we highly recommend it. However, not every title has controller support by default.
For those games that aren't supported, you can use an app called JoyToKey to map your controller's inputs to the corresponding keyboard and mouse inputs you're used to. Obviously, you'll need to have regular PC inputs connected for the initial setup, but you should be able to control any game with just a controller once it's done. Once you've installed JoyToKey:
- Create a new profile for each game you want to map. Name it after that game.
- Map each button of your controller to the corresponding key for in-game controls. The list of buttons here will help identify which buttons are associated with which key map. Repeat for each unsupported game you need to map. Note: This step may require some trial and error, so be sure to test your layout before finishing.
- Click Settings and select "Associate profiles with applications".
- Click "Add" to start a new profile association.
- Enter the game name in the first box.
- Locate the .exe file for the game you want to run and enter its entire file path into the second box.
- In the drop-down box at the bottom, select the profile you created that you want to associate with that game (which should have the same name).
- Click OK.
JoyToKey will run in the background and activate the profiles needed for each individual game as it launches which means, after the initial setup, you shouldn't need to touch the keyboard or mouse again. If you add a new game that doesn't have controller support though, you'll need to bust that hardware out.
JoyToKey is a free program, but the interface is a little clunky. You can also try out Xpadder, which costs $US10 and has a somewhat less obtuse interface. Mac users can also try out previously mentioned Joystick Mapper.
Stop And Smell The Daisies
Entering text on a console has always been a drag. Alphanumerical panels on-screen always suck, so to get around that, Steam has introduced something called the Daisy Wheel keyboard that makes everything so much better for controller users. Mastering it will make your Big Picture experience so much better.
Steam Big Picture’s keyboard looks more like a lotus flower. In order to select keys, you move your left thumbstick in one of eight standard directions, then pick one of the buttons on the right side of your controller. When I looked at the mode, we were using a standard Xbox 360 controller, and each of the four coloured buttons represented a different letter. So to press M, N, O or P, for example, you just tilt the joystick diagonally right-down and hit the corresponding button.
Already this gives you instant access to every character in a way that a virtual QWERTY keyboard can’t. And the cool thing about this lotus is that it’s not awful. In fact, it’s actually kind of great. It’s intuitive and quick. Seconds after picking up the controller and playing around with the interface, I was writing sentences at a solid, if not perfect pace. It can’t quite match a physical keyboard, but it’s better than any other virtual typing I’ve ever tried.
If you have a powerful gaming PC hidden away in one corner of your house, but want to knock out a quick game of Crysis or Dark Souls II on your laptop or home-theatre PC, you're officially in luck. Valve has made its In-Home Streaming service available to any Steam customer.
Steam In-Home Streaming is a simple enough concept — when you have two computers sitting on the same network, log into Steam on both computers, and they're automagically linked; after that, you can remotely install, launch and play games from your laptop (or any remote PC on that network) as if you were sitting in front of your gutsy gaming rig.
All the processing is done on the more powerful PC, and not only Windows PCs are supported — since you can run Steam on a Mac OS X PC, for example, you can stream games from your Windows gaming machine to your svelte MacBook Air. It's highly dependent on the quality of your home network, so don't expect dodgy 802.11g Wi-Fi to work, but if you have a solid wired network or some high-speed 802.11ac, you should be set.
Set Up Your Network Properly
Of course, your home gaming experience is often only as good as your home network. We've done extensive guides on how to get the most out of your home network before, which you can check out here.
Steam can be an addictive experience. A library of thousands of cheap games in the centre of your home means that your funds will be drained like water out of a plugless bathtub.
If you want to be super-economical about buying new games, you'll know to strike when particular titles are on sale in the Steam store. Steamdb.info is one of the best ways to do that.
By following Steamdb closely, you'll know exactly what's on sale, when, and have your universe opened up to games you never even knew were on Steam in the first place.
Alternatives To Steam
Of course, there are other alternatives to gaming on your TV than Steam and its legendary Big Picture mode.
UPlay in particular is doing its best to attract you to its platform by giving you additional unlockables in games like Watch Dogs as you play, and more loot for your in-game character.
Campbell Simpson, Jason Schreier and Eric Ravenscraft contributed to this article.
Bend the Rules with the HP Spectre x360