We’re slap bang in the middle of the 2016 Steam Summer Sale, and if your wallet isn’t hurting from shelling out for all those super-cheap PC gaming deals, your back probably will be for being hunched over your desk playing them. For, while the console has ruled the living room for decades, PC gaming is most often relegated to a spare room, bedroom or study.
But it doesn’t have to be that way! PC gaming, often offering far more impressive visuals, modding options and free online play, deserves its place on the biggest screen in the house just as your marathon gaming sessions deserve to take place on the comfiest sofa you have.
From the simple to the slightly more involved, these are some of the best ways to play PC games in your living room.
The Simple Solution – Just Move Your PC
Yeah, I know. Cop-out answer. If you’ve got a gaming PC already and want to play its games in the living room, the simplest solution will be to just move the bloody thing. But “simplest” doesn’t necessarily also mean “most convenient”. For starters, you’ve got the hassle of unplugging all the cables snaking around your desk, gathering up the peripherals, and then finding somewhere to hide them in the snake pit that is ‘round the back of the telly'. Most desktop gaming machines tend to be big and ugly, with noisy fans to keep them cool. So it won’t be ideal unless you’ve plenty of room in the living room.
If you do go down this route, you’re likely going to need to buy an adaptor to hook your computer up to your TV too. In my experience with the vast majority of modern graphics cards, their HDMI connections poking out the back of your PC tend to be of the mini-HDMI variety. So you’re going to either need to shell out for a mini-HDMI adapter, or a special mini-HDMI-to-HDMI lead.
Then there’s the question of peripherals. Sure, you can simply plug your keyboard and mouse in as ever. But there’s a good chance that, depending on the size of your living room, those cables aren’t going to stretch that far and, if you’re looking to game with a keyboard and mouse set up, you’re going to need some sort of desk to rest on.
Where possible, for that full leanback fix, I’d say it’s worth shelling out for a controller. The Xbox One controller (£37.99) is great, and while it’ll work just as well with a lengthy USB cable, it’ll be worth investing in its wireless adapter (£19.99) too.
If you’d rather use a keyboard and mouse, your best bet is Razer’s Turret combo (£149.99) – it’s a wireless mouse and keyboard set aimed at gamers, with the keyboard housing a fold out pad to rest the mouse on. It works really well, as we discussed in our full review.
Buy (or Build) a Mini Gaming PC
The past few years has seen a surge in popularity in mini-build gaming PCs. Small form factor PCs are pretty much designed with the living room in mind for the most part. And just because they’re on the dinky side, don’t let be fooled into thinking they’re low powered – thanks to some clever cable and heat management and economic use of space, you’re likely to find full-sized, full powered desktop graphics cards tucked away inside.
As ever when it comes to PC gaming, the cheapest place to start is to try to build the machine yourself. There’s a good guide here to get you started, while our friends at PC Gamer have handpicked some of the best cases here.
You’ll still be best off grabbing the peripherals we mentioned above, too.
If you’re new to the whole PC gaming thing, and definitely have your eye on playing in the living room, a gaming laptop might be a good solution. You’ll have the flexibility and functionality of a laptop for both work and pleasure, mobile enough to bring with you wherever you like, and powerful enough to run AAA games.
If you start looking at laptops with 4K screens, or insane ideas like the ASUS ROG GX700 beast packing its own external cooling unit, things will quickly get expensive. But setting some simple parameters can keep the cost down. Rather than splashing out for the latest pricey machines, TechRadar’s PC editor Kane Fulton reckons that “anything with a 970M graphics chip from Nvidia in it will be good enough for most gamers.”
“The 960M isn't future-proofed enough,” he added. “The 960M will game fine for the most part in less demanding games, but AAA’s like Fallout, Doom or The Witcher 3 will struggle.” This 14-inch MSI laptop hits the sweet spot for performance and price at £1,099.
With a gaming laptop with a HDMI port, it’s simply a matter of plugging a cable into the back of your living room telly and kicking off. Picking up a controller is still a good idea, and maybe a wireless mouse, too. But depending on the laptop you end up with, their keyboards can be pretty good. So if you end up mostly playing with a controller, or with the laptop literally on your lap, you can probably skip buying a standalone keyboard.
Steam In-Home Streaming (for Regular Laptops)
Providing you’ve got both a laptop (not necessarily a gaming one, either) and a gaming PC, Steam In-Home Streaming might be the best option for you. Essentially, it “does a Netflix”, beaming the video from your big gaming PC to the screen of your lesser laptop, letting you control the action remotely over your home network. Providing your internet connection is up to scratch, and your secondary machine hits the paltry minimum specs required for the streaming feature in game download platform Steam to work, you can get AAA, spec-intensive games running on laptops that couldn’t normally dream of it. All you’d then need to do is hook the laptop up to your telly and you’d be away.
Compatibility is pretty wide across Mac, Windows and Linux operating systems. The computer receiving the stream just needs a GPU that supports hardware accelerated H264 decoding. Which should be pretty much every recent laptop on the market.
It’s also worth considering the Steam Link box. It’s an affordable gadget you can pop under your telly and achieve the same Steam In-Home Streaming experience from. It costs £27.99 on sale currently, or £50.38 with a funky Steam controller.
Expect a little lag when using Steam In-Home Streaming, and some variable video quality unless you’ve a consistently speedy connection. But for anything other than competitive shooters, it should be more than enough to get your game on.
I think we’ve all come to the conclusion now that Steam Machines are a bit shit. They’re overpriced and, unless they’re dual-booting Windows, their linux-based Steam OS can’t even play every game on Steam. But some of them look quite cool, and Steam’s wacky touch-pad controllers are worth fumbling with for five minutes before throwing it down in frustration and picking up an Xbox pad instead. If you’re still intrigued, we looked at some early entries into the Steam Machine market here. To be honest, little has changed since, either – it seems that most manufacturers have seen that the idea hasn’t resonated with gamers, and have moved on rather than putting much money into developing superior Steam Machines.
A Great All Rounder - the Nvidia Shield TV Console
I’ve waxed lyrical about the Nvidia Shield TV box (starting at £149.99) in the past, and I stand by its capabilities for living room PC play still. Provided you’re running a desktop machine elsewhere in the house packing a relatively-recent Nvidia graphics card, the Shield’s PC game-streaming capabilities are as solid as they come. Though using the same concept as Steam In-Home Streaming, Nvidia’s GameStream, by virtue of Nvidia having developed both ends of the hardware pipeline, seems to be of a better quality visually and in terms of connection stability.
As a standalone device, it’s really rather good too. Running Android, it comes with it’s own Xbox-like controller (capable of accepting voice commands), has access to the Android TV app market place, and is 4K-capable, with HDR support for Netflix. And, if you’ve not got a gaming PC at all, Nvidia’s GeForce Now subscription streaming service lets you stream a catalogue of games directly from Nvidia’s own servers. The service costs £7.49 a month, and while the library isn’t incredibly deep, it’s a nice way to dip your toes into the deep waters of the PC gaming world before splashing out for a dedicated desktop rig.