Goodbye, consoles


— 8:30 AM on December 27, 2013

For more than a decade, an Xbox console has lived under my television. I started with the original and moved on to the 360, and I have to admit that both offered a great couch-gaming experience in their day. The Xbox One isn't in my future, though. Instead, I'm going to build myself a new home-theater PC.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not anti-Xbone or even anti-console. The latest generation of Xbox and PlayStation machines has definite appeal. But, for the first time ever, the PC is comfortable enough in the living room that I don't need a complementary console.

PCs have long worked in the living room, of course. I've had one hooked up to my TV forever. For a long time, though, home-theater gaming rigs felt like transplanted desktops. Even when dressed up in spouse-friendly enclosures and filled with quiet hardware, they were always hampered by a Windows operating system that wasn't designed to be used from the couch.

Steam's Big Picture UI

Then, along came Steam's Big Picture GUI. Unlike the Windows desktop, this interface can be navigated comfortably at a distance with little more than a gamepad. The graphics are decent, the layout is reasonably intuitive, and everything feels generally snappy. Big Picture Mode fundamentally changed my living room gaming experience for the better, and it's the single biggest reason I'm passing on the new generation of consoles.

The supersized Steam UI still has some rough edges. Not all games have controller support, and some of those that do still require a keyboard and mouse to log in to third-party services like Uplay and GFWL. New additions can require a trip to the desktop to install DirectX and other packages. These quirks are annoying, but they reinforce the superiority of the Big Picture UI. When everything works as it should, the interface offers a seamless experience from purchasing to playing.

Big Picture mode is limited to Steam games, but that's more of a benefit than a detriment. Steam is easily the best game distribution platform around. Downloads are speedy, the DRM restrictions are generally reasonable, community-generated content is encouraged, and the selection of titles is incredibly diverse. Bargains abound, too, making it possible to build an extensive game library on the cheap. I've amassed a collection of really excellent indie titles at only a few bucks a pop. Blockbusters aren't as cheap, but they receive plenty of discounts of their own.

Skyrim for $7.49? Sold.

Thanks to Steam, PC games are generally cheaper than their console counterparts. I wouldn't go so far as to say PC gaming is cheaper as a whole, but over the long run, the difference is narrower than the console sticker prices suggest.

Up front, there's no question that buying a gaming PC is more expensive than getting the latest console. Once you factor in the cost of comparable hardware, a decent controller, and a Windows license (sorry, SteamOS just isn't there yet), it's hard to come anywhere close to the Xbone's $500 price tag, let alone the PS4's $400 sticker. PCs deliver a lot more flexibility—and often a lot more power—but you pay for it.

The thing is, consoles aren't really as cheap as they seem on the shelf. The Xbox One and PlayStation 4 both have subscription fees attached to online multiplayer gaming. Microsoft charges $60 for a year of Xbox Live Gold, and Sony demands $50 for its equivalent PlayStation Plus package. Even with the attached freebies and perks, those fees add up to quite a lot over the typical console lifespan.

Well, they do over the typical console life cycle. It's not uncommon for consoles to die long before their successors are released. I'm on my third Xbox 360 already, and I was never a heavy user. I know folks who have suffered more Xbox failures and some who have been through multiple PS3s. Most of these deaths have occurred after the warranty expired, leaving owners on the hook. Console prices tend to fall over time, so at least replacements are cheaper than the initial units. They still represent an additional cost, though.

PCs fail, too. Unlike with consoles, however, DIY repairs are a breeze. Individual components can be replaced with off-the-shelf hardware—and without special tools or firmware hax0ring. PC parts may not get cheaper like consoles do, but the options at each price point improve over time. For example, low-end graphics cards generally perform similarly to mid-range offerings from a few years prior.

The rapid rate of PC hardware development has definitely lowered the cost of a decent living room rig. Even relatively modest machines can render the latest blockbusters at 1080p resolution without issue. Yet the Xbone and PS4 have to scale some games back to lower resolutions to deliver smooth frame rates. There's no way to upgrade their guts to get better visuals, either. Equipping a PC for the latest 4K TVs isn't cheap, but at least it's an option.

To be honest, cost has never really been a deciding factor for me. My home-theater gaming rigs have largely been cobbled together from old review hardware, so they've always been cheap to build. They've also had a lot more horsepower than the consoles sitting next to them. But, for more than a decade, I kept using consoles because they provided a smoother, more enjoyable overall gaming experience from the couch.

The Xbone and PS4 are still simpler propositions than a modern gaming PC. However, this latest console generation faces a PC gaming ecosystem that's much more competent in the living room. The gaming rig under my television no longer feels like a second-class citizen, so I can finally ditch consoles completely. Anyone want to buy a dust-covered Xbox 360?

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