Now that We Have Haswell, How About Making A Console Out of It?
No, I'm not talking about the Steam Box here. A few months ago, it occurred to me that I could hook up my MacBook Pro with Retina Display to my TV via HDMI. I booted into Windows 8, connected a USB keyboard to the laptop, and played a few games (mostly Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit). It was a decent experience. Though I set the resolution to 720p (my TV is 1080p), the details and framerates were both solid. But what struck me was the ease of navigating to where I wanted to get: getting around the Start Screen required only arrow keys, and shutting down the machine only required Win+C (for Charms), arrow keys and the Enter key. It was easy. In the games I played, all stuff can be done via the keyboard. If you are only concerned with playing games, as long as you remember to pin them to the Start Screen, Windows 8 has you covered on the navigation front. On another note I've always liked the Mac mini, as an HTPC (though admittedly I was never allowed to actually get one). It's small and elegant, and would be a perfect device to sit beside any TV. Obviously hooking up a laptop to TV is a bit odd, but the Mac mini would be perfect for that purpose. The only problem with the Mac mini, though, is that it's underpowered on the GPU front since it uses Intel's integrated graphics, and hence not suitable for playing games.
But this year, things changed. Along with Haswell, Intel introduced Iris integrated graphics. The highest end in the Iris lineup, Iris Pro, is claimed to match the performance of nVidia's GT650M. Later, AnandTech benchmarked the new Iris Pro graphics on the i7-4950HQ, and reached the conclusion that in some cases, Iris Pro can indeed be very close to the GT650M, and at the very least, offer performance similar to the desktop GT640 in most cases. The GT650M is just the dGPU that is used in the 15' rMBP. On the other hand, I also know that the Razer Edge, which is equipped with a GT640M LE that offers much less performance than the GT650M, is a serviceable gaming machine. Given that Iris Pro delivers performance comparable to GT650M, it's safe to assume that it will deliver a decent experience if you are looking for casual gaming. Now consider this. The i7-4950HQ has a TDP of 47W, while the CPU in the higher end current-gen Mac mini (i7-3615QM per Ars Technica) is likely to have a TDP of 45W. It's only a 2W difference, which means it is perfectly possible to create a small PC with an Mac mini-like form factor yet utilizes the Iris Pro graphics. Consider a machine like that. Given Iris Pro's decent performance you will have a perfectly serviceable gaming experience at lower settings; and since you are viewing your TV from a distance, lower settings become easier to ignore. What's more you get a fully functional PC, which means expansion of functionalities and 3rd party apps are much less reliant on whether developers are interested in targeting specific platforms such as the PS4 or XBox One, and you get the full, big catalog of PC games. Plus, the Start Screen is TV-friendly enough, and even if you have problems you can always fall back on Bluetooth mouse and keyboard. Grab a good controller, install a couple of games, and you get something close to console experience but more importantly, much more flexibility and potential. Adding to these benefits is the fact that since a machine like that is actually a very svelte PC with good enough performance, you can even repurpose it as a proper computer when you are no longer using it for gaming on TV. Oh and it's small and beautiful: much smaller than any console, and also well-designed. It's an appealing deal, and even though I've never had a console I would consider such a thing over a console if it ever hits the market. It would serve as a console, but it looks more like a well-designed set-top box and being a PC means much more in addition to playing games and watching Netflix. The main roadblock here would be price. The current price for the i7-4950HQ listed on Intel's website is $657, very close to the current high-end Mac mini itself. Even the cheapest option with Iris Pro, the i7-4750HQ, comes at $440 as opposed to the $378 i7-3615QM allegedly used in the current Mac mini. But should an imaginary Mac mini with Iris Pro come to the market (actually, a Windows 8 machine with comparable design will be better due to Metro), and is marketed as an HTPC that is capable of decent gaming, I believe that it will be a very attractive deal to potential console buyers and casual gamers alike.