Screenshot: Can a few cables and a laptop stand in for an expensive gaming system?

Due to the recent indie game boom, there are now numerous high quality games that use much less processing power than most mainstream releases. — photo by Rachel Jessen

For many consumers, this holiday season will mean making a difficult decision about what video game console to purchase. There’s the recently released PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One, as well as Nintendo’s Wii U. Some consumers might also choose to wait for the forthcoming Steam Machine. All of these options carry hefty promises of not only offering improved gaming, but also providing an “all-in-one” entertainment system with video streaming, audio playing and social media features. But before figuring out what console to buy, it’s important to determine if purchasing a new system is actually necessary. One often-overlooked alternative for laptop owners is using a portable computer as a living room entertainment system.

Laptops have become nearly ubiquitous in American households. In fact, Deloitte’s 2012 “State of the Media Democracy” survey indicates that over 80 percent of American consumers between the ages of 14 and 46 own a laptop. With a few small, low-cost additions, many modern laptops are capable of serving the same purpose of a video game console for all but the most hardcore of gamers.

TV Transformed

To begin with, a living room entertainment system needs to connect to the television. This is both easy and inexpensive with laptops. The key is determining the television’s input capabilities and the laptop’s output capabilities. Newer televisions have high-definition multimedia interface (HDMI) inputs. Connecting via HDMI not only provides the highest quality image, but it also plays the laptop’s audio through the television with no additional cables. Many new PC laptops include an HDMI port, making it easy to connect to a HD television with just an HDMI cable.

Some new Mac laptops also have an HDMI port. The ones that don’t often have a Mini DisplayPort, which can also be used to connect to HD televisions through an adaptor (costing as little as $5). Older laptops and/or older televisions usually require digital visual interface (DVI), video graphics array (VGA) or S-Video connections. These options don’t transfer audio, and need to be paired with an audio cable.

Get Comfortable

Next, it’s important to be able to control the laptop from a distance, such as from a favorite couch. This requires a wireless mouse and keyboard as well as a lap desk (around $15) that they can rest on. Gamers partial to controllers can also purchase wired or wireless controllers (ranging from $20-$60) for their laptops. Wireless mouse and keyboard combos have a large price range, but the most basic models cost only $15.

A final optional—but recommended—piece of equipment is a laptop cooler. These go underneath laptops and use fans to keep the computer from overheating. They’re particularly useful for gaming on laptops, since games use a lot of the computer’s processing power. Most laptop coolers cost $20-$40.

Let the Games Begin

Of course, connecting a laptop to a television and controlling it from a distance is of little consequence if the laptop can’t provide similar gaming and entertainment options to a video game console. Most games available for video game consoles are also made for computers, and some games are exclusive to computers. Depending on the laptop’s components, some can run the vast majority of games, while others are limited to the smaller titles. Most distributors of computer games list recommended requirements for each game, making it easy to determine whether or not a computer can run it properly.

Due to the recent indie game boom, there are now numerous high quality games that use much less processing power than most mainstream releases. Consequently, there are lots of options even for laptops with limited gaming capabilities. Additionally, computer games often cost a fraction of the price of console games due to more frequent and larger price cuts. Computer game download services, most notably Steam, will frequently reduce the cost of even their most popular games by 50 percent or more for limited amounts of time. And, while Windows offers the widest range of game titles, there are an increasing amount of games built for both Mac and Linux operating systems.

As for non-gaming entertainment, laptops have more to offer than video game consoles. While new consoles are aiming for more and better entertainment applications than ever before, they still pale in comparison to laptops which offer anything accessible through the internet, and anything that’s already on the computer. Additionally, many of the applications available through video game consoles (notably, Netflix) are much easier to navigate on a computer. One advantage video game consoles have over laptops in terms of non-gaming entertainment is that the video applications are optimized for a television display, and in certain cases provide a superior image over a connected laptop.

As noted, using a laptop as an entertainment system isn’t for everyone. Its viability largely depends on the users needs and their laptop’s capabilities; however, it’s $50-$100 option for many laptop owners, and one that deserves consideration before shelling out $500 for a new video game console.

Michael Gallagher is a 25-year-old communications professional at Iowa State University and a freelance writer. He graduated from Grinnell College in 2010 and received a Master’s degree in journalism from the University of Iowa in 2013. Michael has written articles for a variety of publications across Iowa for the past three years.