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Hands-on: Spawn HD-720 brings your games to you

Justin McElroy

Now that's it's The Future, we've grown increasingly intolerant of being tied down to any specific location, even when it comes to console gaming. When you can talk on your phone and watch movies on the go, who wants to be tethered to their couches as they explore a post-apocalyptic wasteland? Nobody, that's who.

The Spawn HD-720 from Spawn Labs is designed to fulfill that promise of futuristic mobility by taking console video games and (in technical terms) squishing them inside your computer. We recently went hands-on with "Slingbox for games" to see if the future had truly arrived.

Gallery: Spawn Labs HD-720 | 14 Photos

What it is:

If you're a real gear head, you can read all about how the system works, but we're going to break it down for you layman-style. First, you pick the system you want to play and feed the video and audio into the Spawn. The device is compatible with Xbox 360, Xbox, PS3, PS2 and Gamecube -- there's no Wii support at the moment, though it's apparently the first item on the to-do list after release -- and you can hook up two systems simultaneously. The box also connects to the controller port on your console.

Next, you load up the Spawn Labs software on a PC (we're told Mac support will be available by launch), which will display the consoles to which you have access. With a USB controller plugged into the computer, you remotely boot the system and have full access to its functionality. You can even turn it on and off remotely using an included IR transmitter (though you'll need to purchase an adapter for IR-less PS3). There's no need for a computing powerhouse, since it's not doing any of the raw processing, so any laptop or desktop PC capable of playing a 720p video stream will work.

If you haven't put it together yet, this means: 1. Playing your games from any room in your house (like when your significant other would rather watch the Cake Boss marathon than your personal zombie holocaust). 2. Playing games from anywhere on the continent with a internet connection (overseas play isn't recommended). 3. Giving your friends access to your console and letting them play your games remotely. 4. Letting friends spectate on your games. 5. Plugging a remote friend into the Spawn and tricking the game console into thinking he or she's the second player, allowing "couch" co-op anywhere. 6. An easy solution for capturing high-def gameplay.

Of course, that's all in the world of theory. Let's get our hands dirty and see how things actually pan out.

What works:

Put simply, the technology pretty much functions as advertised. We played both Borderlands and Mass Effect on a 360 system over a LAN, which is admittedly (from a networking perspective) the optimal setup. At this time, the Spawn has to be physically plugged into a router or modem; there is no wireless solution.

Video looked crisp, though not quite as good as if it was actually being displayed directly on your screen, and solid, with no stuttering and only two extremely brief graphical hiccups in 15 minutes of play. We're told that playing over the net, rather than a LAN, shouldn't cause video chugging or stutters since the quality of the video is adjusted depending on connection strength.

The only structural difference in playing through the box is that the guide button on the controller doesn't work (we're told it's a security feature to keep console sharers out of your dashboard), so you'll physically have to click on a menu option to access those features. But otherwise, you can do anything you'd be able to on 360 or PS3 (with one notable exception that we'll cover soon), including playing movies and music stored on your system. This, combined with access to XBLA and PSN games, helps to soften the blow from the obvious shortcoming of being unable to switch game discs when you're out and about.

Spawn Labs software is programmed to work with several of the top USB controllers, which all have a configuration for each of the five supported consoles. If you don't like the pre-ordained setup or if you're using a non-configured controller, it's completely customizable.

In a "putting a man on the moon" sense, the Spawn achieves what it sets out do: It beams your console video games to your computer. But if you're curious how well it accomplishes the task, well ... that's a little more problematic.

What doesn't work:

While the video signal gets to your computer just perfectly and the controller signal is absolutely getting back to your console, there's something in the middle of the interaction causing problems -- and that something is time. When you first play a game through the Spawn, you're undoubtedly going to notice a delay between what you're doing and what you're seeing on the screen. The company says it's shooting for 100ms of latency over a LAN with an additional 25 to 75ms of latency if you're playing over the web.

We can't tell you how long our latency was, but we can tell you when we first started playing Borderlands it felt all but insurmountable. Fine-tuning our aiming was incredibly difficult, and the whole thing was, at first, very disorienting. But we found that the more we played the more we adjusted, and the more comfortable our brain was with not seeing our actions instantly represented on screen. It got even more manageable when we switched to Mass Effect, which relies less on precision aiming.

The fact is (and this is dictated by the laws of physics as much as Spawn Labs' technology) playing a fast-paced action game just doesn't feel as good remotely as it does in front of your TV. It would barely be noticeable in some genres (we're thinking RPG and strategy here) but we imagine it could be a deal breaker in a fighting or rhythm game.

The other thing that doesn't work at the moment is chatting, though it's probably not something we'll miss that much since we're told that playing online multiplayer over the Spawn is a less-than-optimal experience.

Final thoughts:

Alright, the Spawn may not be the perfect realization of console mobility. If you're not able to make the adjustment for input lag and it's something that's going to constantly annoy you, you could probably find many better uses for $200. If you're on the road or share a TV, you just can't live without Game X and you don't mind dealing with some latency, the box gets the job done.

Perhaps the very best thing about the Spawn is the potential. Its creators are already talking about the possibility of streaming games to an iPhone rather than a computer, which has incredible implications (lack of controller not withstanding). The box could also be adapted, its designers say, to work with pretty much any device with an IR port and video out, meaning the system might someday stream your cable or satellite box as well as your games.

If it weren't for the latency issue, this would be a total game changer and a must-have appliance. As it stands now, it's a good solution for a pretty specific subset of people. Spawn Labs hopes to release the system no later than January, giving you until 2010 to figure out if you're one of them. We'll have more in-depth impressions when preview units are sent out in the coming months.

If you'd like to see the Spawn HD-720 in action for yourself, check out the latest episode of the Engadget Show.

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