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[Disclosure: A review unit was loaned to Gaming Blend for the purpose of this article]
The Asus Republic of Gamers GL551JM has recently launched and the company has been sending out review units for the purpose of being reviewed. Instead of just going through the basic “is it worth it or not” articles, I thought about doing something a bit more relevant to the discussions currently happening in the PC gaming circles: how well do some of these small form-factor devices work as living room consoles... or Steam Machines?
Well, with the Asus RoG GL551JM, I decided to put to the test the idea of using the laptop as a home console. That's right, using a laptop as a living room home console.
So first up, you'll need to be able to hook-up the laptop to an HDMI port in your television. The GL551JM comes with a single HMDI-out port, so you can plug it into another monitor or right into an HD compatible TV.
Next up is software. The SteamOS is supposed to be designed to allow PCs to function – right from boot-up – as a home console. You can use a controller and navigate menus without a keyboard or mouse, no different than how you use your current Xbox One or PS4. However, there's a couple of things that need to be mentioned: I've only been loaned the laptop for a limited time, and because of this I did not install the SteamOS beta onto the device because it requires a full wipe of the system's hard disk. There's also the risk that if any damage or problems occurred, I would be liable for said damages; so I opted to play it safe.
Instead, I installed Steam and tried to run everything from Big Picture Mode, a mode that enables you to use a controller to navigate menus, select games, scroll through the friends list and modify system settings without using the keyboard or mouse.
Unfortunately, Big Picture Mode is still very buggy. The entire thing would begin to flicker shortly after the “Library” tab was selected. This wasn't even due to the HDMI – once going full-screen in Big Picture Mode and going into another tab menu, the screen would soon became unstable. This isn't limited to the Asus GL551JM, as Big Picture Mode being glitchy is a problem that's occurred on two other desktops and a few other laptops.
Nevertheless, if you want to use Steam – without installing SteamOS – from the comfort of your couch without having to rely on the built-in mouse and keyboard, you might need a wireless mouse to compensate until Big Picture Mode gets fixed.
As for the controllers... an Xbox One, Xbox 360 or DualShock 4 controller should work suitably well for just about every game with partial or full controller support. This means that any multiplatform title is already designed with the aforementioned controllers in mind (warning: most are actually designed with an Xbox 360 controller and its button prompts in mind, so just take that as a heads-up). As you can see in the image above (and the one below) there's a USB multi-tap hooked up to one of the three available USB ports. This makes it convenient for local play or couch co-op.
You can pick up a USB device like this from Amazon for about $8, give or take. It's not necessary if you only plan to play single-player games, or if you only plan to hook up a max of two controllers, but if you do plan on inviting people over and playing some four-player (or higher) games, a multi-port USB device isn't a bad way to go. Of course, if you already have a wireless receiver and some wireless Xbox 360 controllers, you can hook that up and still get your game on.
Now, I should add a bit of a warning here: if you want to setup the controllers to replicate the mouse, you're going to have a hard time trying to make that work. I tried a couple of the usual programs that help gamepads emulate the typical keyboard and mouse behavior, but they weren't compatible with Windows 8. Vjoy had troubles recognizing the gamepads or opted to not respond to any button presses when it did recognize them, and Xpadder, one of the most reliable programs I've been using for years (not with Windows 8, mind you), was completely broken on start-up. Even after running it in compatibility mode it would only recognize certain button prompts before locking up, or accepting a key assignment or two before crashing.
If there are any other programs out there that properly work with Windows 8 when it comes to emulating the mouse and keyboard, feel free to drop them below in the comment section.
In-Home Streaming, another feature available in Steam, also works really, really well. If you have a high-end GPU with accelerated H264 decoding and a fast wired (or very, very fast wireless) connection, you can actually use the GL551JM to stream games from a larger gaming rig... or vice versa. You can use a smaller device to stream games while you move around the house from the GL551JM. I gave it a test run on a few games and found that it doesn't always work as intended, as some games with pre-launch windows will sometimes have odd resolutions that prevent you from properly selecting the “Play” button (i.e., Rise of the Triad and ManiaPlanet games, to name a few). But otherwise, if you can manage to get into the actual game it works like a charm... so long as the bandwidth is free and you aren't downloading or uploading anything heavy at the same time. I was especially impressed with how responsive and quick the controls were for twitch-based games, which is exceptionally important for stream-based gameplay.
As far as accessibility goes, yes you can easily hook up the GL551JM to your HD or 3DTV without any problems. You just turn to the channel where the HDMI device is set and you're good to go. Can you use controllers? Yes. But sadly the mouse/keyboard emulation software didn't work so well, so it meant that I did have to get up to go over to the laptop to switch games, as opposed to using the gamepad to select from the list, which is actually no different than getting up to switch discs in a home console. Does Steam's Big Picture Mode work? No. Valve needs to fix it pretty badly. There's also a resolution issue in BPM where games are down-scaled to what looks like either 800 x 600 or 1024 x 768. Messing with the Big Picture Mode settings and trying to force the resolution didn't work, either.
Nevertheless, the Asus GL551JM runs most games buttery smooth and has high-end system performance capabilities. I wasn't able to test a clean install of SteamOS, but even using Windows 8 plus a standard Steam install still works quite well as a makeshift Steam Machine for living room entertainment. Hopefully Valve can sort out some of the issues on the software side before the real Steam Machines launch in 2015.
Stay tuned in for the final review of the Asus Republic of Gamers GL551JM. For more information feel free to visit the official website.