Monday, September 20, 2010

Do PC Gaming On Your Couch Or Sofa

Sometime in the last console generation, it became unfashionable to sit at a desk to play games. This happened sometime around the release of Halo, when - shock horror - people sat on their couches to play a first-person shooter of all things. Although there were plenty of FPS games released on consoles before this, none had quite succeeded as well as Halo did in bringing the hardcore game to the mainstream audience. In turn, this meant that millions of people previously playing Quake and Counter-Strike at their desks turned to their couches to get their hardcore gaming fix from games like Halo and Gears of War.

It is easy to see why people have turned to the couch to game. Firstly, it's just much more comfortable to sit on a couch than at a desk. People spend 8 hours a day working at an office, going to classes, sitting all day and people don't want to do that when they get home. Secondly, whatever TV and sound system that you have invested in also do double duty for whatever multimedia experiences you have, for example, high definition movies, music and TV can be piped through the same equipment. Why invest in a 5.1 surround sound system for your PC when it could be used in the living room for your whole family to enjoy? Thirdly, gaming in front of the TV on a couch is a more welcoming and social than your PC. The TV has replaced the fireplace as the warm thing that families huddle around. The couch is a 3-player co-op chair.

The PC wasn't designed to be used from the couch. It was designed to be used with a keyboard and a mouse whilst sitting at a desk. PC gaming, however, can exist in the living room too. Nay, the PC is best in the living room. Why play the watered down Xbox 360 version of Mass Effect when you can play it in glorious 1980x1080 at 60 FPS from your couch on your TV?

The reason people don't do this is because is firstly, it costs a lot. But more importantly, people have no idea that it can be done comfortably and without ruining the look of your living room. If you have the means, a few simple purchases can transform your living room couch and TV into the ultimate PC gaming setup.

Guide To PC Gaming On The Couch

The Couch Desk
The Ikea DAVE is the ultimate adjustable couch desk. It allows the keyboard to be stable at exactly the right height and to give plenty of level space to use the mouse. This single purchase has is the single most important part of the PC couch gaming setup and has completely changed the way I use my PC, which is no exaggeration. It is more comfortable than using craning over on a coffee table to use a keyboard, or having the keyboard on your lap. And the mouse is much more accurate on a hard and firm surface instead of on a couch arm. My mate DAVE is available from any Ikea internationally for the price of £14.99 and $17.99.

Easily the best and cheapest part of my PC gaming setup.
UPDATE: DAVE From Ikea, An In-Depth Look At The Best Couch Desk / Laptop Table.

Keyboard & Mouse
In the past I've had a great deal of frustration finding a combination of wireless keyboard and mouse that functions reliably over a space of 2 metres, since I would often have lag or the connection to the keyboard and mouse would break. The key to fix this with any wireless set is to make sure that the wireless receiver is in direct line of sight of your keyboard and mouse. This means that you will need a powered USB hub such as D-Link 4-Port USB Hub to place near the base of your TV to guarantee line of sight. Don't bother with USB hubs without an external power supply, they don't have the voltage to reliably run a Bluetooth or RF wireless receiver.

Preferably, you will want a Bluetooth wireless keyboard and mouse, since Bluetooth provides the strongest signal. However, if you can't afford this setup, RF wireless keyboard and mouse also work fine.It is difficult to make a recommendation for this since new Bluetooth sets are created all the time, and new iterations are not always an improvement than the last. That being said, Microsoft produce great quality Bluetooth sets such as the Microsoft Wireless Desktop 7000.

Personally I use a combination of the Trust ComfortLine Bluetooth Mini Mouse which is an excellent and very comfortable Bluetooth mouse, and the Genius Luxemate 810 Wireless Keyboard which is a RF keyboard with a 'nub' for extra mouse input. Sadly this really great keyboard seems to be out of production and rather now only available for a high price, so I would look to other products by Taiwanese companies for good value peripherals. Both Trust and Genius make excellent budget choices.

If you want to reuse existing USB keyboard and mouse, this is possible too using a decent extension cable such as the Belkin USB Extension Cable 1.8m. With this method (which I used for many years) it's best to run cables somewhere safe like the edge of a room or underneath a rug so that it's not a hazard for others. Obviously having wires everywhere does not look good, but if you have good cable tidying techniques it can work well.

Digital cables carry the best quality image and sound. These include HDMI, DVI and DisplayPort. The analogue cables such as VGA, component and S-video are sometimes acceptable, but not ideal. Depending on what ports are available on your graphics card, TV and your existing cable, you can either opt to buy cables (such as a DVI male -> HDMI male) or you can buy adapters which will allow you to add on an HDMI adapter to your DVI cable. Your soundcard may also support either optical audio out or 3.5mm jack, and you should choose whichever cable that your TV supports.

Most LCD and Plasma TVs that I have seen built in the last 5 years have a single VGA input, single set of component inputs and multiple HDMI, and accept both optical audio (SPDIF) and 3.5mm jack.

The reason that TVs work well in a PC gaming environment is that modern LCD TVs are built on the same technology as LCD monitors of the last 10 years. However what is different is that many TVs come by default with enhanced video processing, such a 100Hz motion and functions like autocontrast. This looks fantastic on the shopfloor, however it can add between 50-200ms of input lag. This level of input lag makes gaming on the TV sluggish and unacceptable.

Most TVs do not add video processing through their DVI and VGA inputs. If you are using HDMI, most TVs allow a 'Game Mode' option which you will want to switch on which eliminates the processing. It is also very likely that you will want to find any 'sharpness' or 'fineness' settings and turn them to 0 so that high resolution text can be easily read. In your operating system, you will want to make sure that ClearType is switched on so that you can read websites too. Windows 7 also has excellent interface scaling options which you may want to turn on to 125% or 150%.

If considering a new TV purchase with gaming in mind, it is best to try to find a model with little input lag. Paradoxically, the best TVs for gaming are also the cheapest and best value for money. It seems that added features of TVs slow down the processing of images. One highly recommended set is the Samsung range of LExxC530 of the last which is much cheaper than the LExxC630 of the current generation and also has the best input latency with <50ms lag. An extremely detailed review of this set is available at HDTVtest, which goes into depth about the differences between the different models of Samsung TVs available in 2010.

Samsung LExxC530 (in the UK)
LE32C530, LE40C530 and LE46C530

Samsung LNxxC530 (in the US)
LN32C530, LN40C530 and LN46C530

Controllers And Gamepads
There are a growing number of PC games that support controllers and gamepads better than even. For example in Batman Arkham Asylum, activating the Xbox 360 controller instantly changes all the on-screen prompts from PC keys to Xbox 360 buttons. There is a thorough list of games which support gamepads on Steam in this thread. This list is more comprehensive than Steam's own official list, which omits titles like Borderlands.

However, with my earlier advice regarding the Ikea DAVE table, there is no reason to be using a wireless controller when you could be using a keyboard and mouse. The mouse will always beat the controller in terms of accuracy and speed, and it can be used comfortably when supported by the Ikea DAVE table. Furthermore, many PC versions of games do not even support controllers even if the console versions of that game do. For example, Mass Effect and Dragon Age both play well on the Xbox 360 using its controller, but on the PC version they omit the use of a controller as an option. But like I said before, why would you want to use a controller anyway? The keyboard and mouse is the high end accurate control scheme, and the definitive first choice for the PC gaming enthusiast.

However, I will admit that certain types of games are more suited to Xbox 360 controller support, for example 'analogue' control games like Burnout and also platformers like Braid. To get Microsoft official wireless controller support on your PC, you will need 2 things, an Xbox 360 1) a wireless controller (any Xbox 360 controller will work) and 2) a wireless receiver. This can be bought in a single Xbox 360 Wireless Controller For PC which includes both for a lower price. If you already own an Xbox 360 controller, you can just buy the wireless receiver to take advantage of your current controller.


Bringing the PC into the living is not necessarily a difficult or expensive venture as one may have thought. I hope that I have shown that PC couch gaming can be as comfortable as using a PC at a desk. Please leave a comment if you have any of your own input into this article.