When OnLive first demoed its service at the Game Developers Conference in March of last year, it showed us concept images
of what the MicroConsole might look like. Just 21 months later, things have hardly changed -- it's the exact same shape and size, and as you can see, it's a pretty attractive little brick. Dwarfed even by its own game controller, the half-pound MicroConsole fits in a medium-sized hand
and is solid as can be, with no flex or creak anywhere even when very
firmly squeezed. OnLive told us key members of the team responsible for Apple's Mac Mini and Magic Mouse worked on the unit, and it certainly shows here, as the MicroConsole feels much like an angular counterpart to the rounded-off Apple TV
The case is a pair of wedges almost seamlessly sandwiched together, with nothing but an OnLive logo on its ultra-glossy top, four wedge-shaped rubber feet and a label on the bottom, and completely bare sides. The front sports two USB 2.0 ports and the power button, which has a tiny LED inside, and the rear houses all the MicroConsole's connectivity options, including HDMI, optical S/PDIF (stereo only for now), a 3.5mm stereo minijack, 10/100 LAN, and a spot for a breakout A/V cable. By default, the Game System comes with an HDMI cable and an ethernet cable, but you can buy a component video package that supports 1080i and 720p for $30 more, which comes with both your standard RGB RCA cables as well as a 3.5mm to stereo RCA splitter to handle analog audio. Internally, the box also has Bluetooth, but there's no support for wireless headsets quite yet -- Bluetooth and surround sound support are scheduled for a firmware update in early 2011, and after that the company's looking to offer 3DTV signals as well.
How can the box be so tiny? By virtue of what's inside
: an underclocked Marvell Armada 1000 chip, likely less powerful than your smartphone. It merely decodes the variable-bandwidth 720p stream of images that OnLive delivers to your door and outputs them to your HDTV. Marvell lists the Armada 1000 as a dual-core 1.2GHz system-on-a-chip, but OnLive tells us it's actually underclocked here, such that it only uses about 6.7 watts (according to our Kill-A-Watt meter) when running at full bore. Thanks to the energy savings and a pretty hefty heatsink, the MicroConsole doesn't need a fan, and is merely pleasantly warm to the touch after piping games for a while. After a number of extended sessions with the unit, the only hardware nitpick we can think of is this: if only the power LED had drastically different colors when turned on (orange) and off (red), we'd be able to tell if it's really off from a distance.
Thanks to those two USB ports up front, you can use a wide variety of controllers with the MicroConsole, including just about any USB mouse, keyboard and gamepad, or even the official Xbox 360 controller if you've got the dongle you need
. However, the OnLive Game System comes with one controller already, and it's a doozy of a pad. OnLive's pitching it as a hybrid of the Xbox 360 wireless controller and the PlayStation 3's DualShock 3, and truth be told it actually feels more
durable, if not quite as ergonomic, as either of Sony or Microsoft's units. The basic shape of the controller is cribbed directly from Microsoft's playbook, with a pair of handles on either side of a removable battery pack and nice big triggers up front. Sadly, OnLive didn't give quite enough thought for larger hands -- there wasn't enough room for our middle fingers between the handles and battery, unlike with competitors' pads. On the upside, vibration aficionados will be pleased to hear that rumble comes standard
Twin analog sticks occupy the center of the controller, just like Sony's controller, but with comfortable concave indents for thumbs on top, while your index fingers wrap around two pairs of triggers both thicker and more solid, but functionally identical, to those on Microsoft's. The eight-way directional pad emulates Sony's with four buttons poking through a cross-shaped gate, but with a bit more tension than we're used to, and not much give when pressed -- they're fine for occasional use, swapping items and the like, but we found ourselves switching to the more comfortable analog sticks whenever possible. Meanwhile, if you're a fan of Microsoft's face buttons, you'll be in good company here, as the A, B, X, and Y are a virtual reproduction of the Xbox 360 ones in terms of placement and resistance, albeit a little more domed. The center also sports the standard Select, Start and Guide buttons, a series of LEDs to designate the player order, and there's a micro-USB port on the front. (OnLive told us the port is presently for charging only, and sure enough, the controller wasn't recognized when plugged into a nearby PC.) Last but not least, there are five media buttons on the bottom side, the only unique feature of the lot. Right now, they just navigate through pre-recorded video content -- game trailers and the like -- but we're told there are some exciting ideas in store.
Another interesting thing about OnLive's controller is that it doesn't use standard RF technologies -- it's got a IEEE 802.15.4 wireless solution
designed to minimize lag. OnLive claims they propped up the artist formerly known as ZigBee
with a custom wireless stack that responds to input in 800 microseconds flat, and while we weren't exactly able to test that figure with equipment lying around the house, we'll tell you it worked well enough. It isn't quite as responsive as a dedicated game console due to OnLive's inherent lag (more on that in a bit) but the controller slightly bested the experience we had with a standard wireless mouse and keyboard, and the wireless range wasn't bad. You can't cart the controller quite as far away as you can an Xbox 360 pad and keep playing, but it worked across a large room and through a couple layers of antique drywall. We weren't able to test controller battery life as our controller hasn't yet needed a charge, but when it does the solution is simple enough -- just like with Xbox 360, the unit comes with a cartridge that holds two AA batteries, and you can buy a rechargeable lithium-ion pack for $20 more.
We've been skirting the truth for paragraphs and paragraphs, but the reality is this: that beautiful little box and quality controller are just another way to access the same cloud service
you can get for free on any old Mac or PC. From the moment you connect the MicroConsole to OnLive, everything you see -- down to the dashboard interface -- is actually running in a data center miles and miles away, with each and every video frame compressed and streamed to you as quickly as possible. The MicroConsole just means you don't need a dedicated computer, as it does all the dirty work of decoding and upscaling OnLive's variable-bandwidth 720-pixel-wide stream to a nice big 1080p, and puts a controller in your hand so you can kick back in front of your HDTV. As far as that leanback experience is concerned, however, the MicroConsole does a pretty decent job -- as soon as you hit that big OnLive button in the center of the controller, it's on and ready to connect, and that Marvell chip does fantastic work upscaling those images. Testing with a 1080p-native Panasonic plasma set, 1080p over HDMI and 1080i over component both looked great, even as 720p appeared rough and pixelated due to the TV's own futile attempts to enlarge. There's also something to be said for sitting a good distance away from an OnLive screen, as when you're across the room it's much harder to notice OnLive's video compression artifacts than on an in-your-face PC display.