OnLive Game System review

We’re still a little ways away from completely disposable laptops that do everything in the cloud, but if all you want is a completely virtual game console connected to your TV, you can buy one right now. Eight years after the Phantom slowly got laughed off the face of the planet, the OnLive MicroConsole fulfills the same basic promise: it’s a box less than an inch tall that streams games from powerful remote servers. We already told you what to expect from the OnLive’s Game System, but now that we’ve given it our all, we can help you find the answer to the only remaining question: is it worth your funds? 

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.

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