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The Living Room PC, Part 2: The Keyboard and Mouse Problem

By Nathan Edwards

If you're setting up a gaming PC in the living room, you're going to consider using a keyboard and mouse to play some types of games. Unfortunately, using those peripherals is maybe more trouble than it's worth on the couch. We go over the caveats of keyboard and mouse gaming on the couch.

Hello, and welcome back to What Are You Doing With That Computer In Your Living Room (working title). Last week we talked about setting up a living room PC with XBMC and Steam and controlling it with an Xbox 360 controller, smartphone app, or universal remote. I really believe that a full keyboard and mouse are both unnecessary and undesirable in the living room.

Unless, of course, you want to play some types of PC games.

The Xbox controller (or any similar gamepad) is perfect for many games, including those that you're most likely to play in the living room--platformers, action-adventure games, RPGs, and casual shooters. Anything that can be easily ported to or from a console, essentially (insert booing, hissing noises). But there are some types of games that are awful without a keyboard and mouse: MMOs, real-time and turn-based strategy games (like Starcraft II and Civ V), and MOBAs (like League of Legends and DOTA 2). And, of course, twitchy shooters. There are plenty of shooters developed for controllers, of course, but if you're playing on the PC you're playing against PC players, and all the auto-aim and thumbstick sensitivity in the world won't save you from a good player with a keyboard and mouse.

So you want a keyboard and mouse in the living room. But there are problems with this, and rather more problems than solutions.

As it turns out, the couch is not a good place to use a keyboard and mouse. Let’s dive into why that is.

From Here To There

The first thing you need to figure out is what kind of keyboard and mouse to use. Obviously, a wireless keyboard and mouse will be the most flexible option for the living room, and fewer cables means fewer tripping hazards.

Wireless keyboards and mice have their own problems, though. Range is not a huge issue, unless you've got an enormous living room. but if you're playing games that are twitchy enough to require a mouse rather than a controller, input lag can be a killer. Not a literal killer, though. Just in video games.

Logitech makes many fine wireless keyboards and mice that use its Unifying receiver, including the K800 keyboard and the K750 solar keyboard (which also, thankfully, works with regular house lights). Logitech has some good mice that work with the Unifying sensor, like the Performance Mouse MX, although their wireless gaming mice don't work with the Unifying receiver.

If your computer has a Bluetooth receiver, you can also consider a Bluetooth mouse; Razer's Orochi gets pretty good reviews, although it's not a full-sized mouse.

If you're serious about input lag, though, you probably don't want to use Bluetooth or Logitech Unifying. Both Bluetooth and the Logitech Unifying dongle have a polling rate of about 125Hz, or once every 8ms, so there will be input lag. Whether or not it's perceptible to you will depend on your screen refresh rate, your play style, and the types of games you're playing, but it'll always be there.

Razer, Mad Catz, Logitech and others have 2.4GHz wireless mice with ~1ms response times, rather than the 8ms response times of Bluetooth and Unifying, so they're the best bet for proper wireless gaming. Our own Matt Braga wrote a guide back in 2010 that can help you minimize OS-caused lag.

Don't plug your USB mouse dongle into a USB 3.0 port, by the way. USB 3.0 ports can interfere with 2.4GHz devices (including Bluetooth) in a big way. If you have a USB dongle for your wireless keyboard or mouse, plug it into a USB 2.0 port, as far as possible from your USB 3.0 ports. One more argument favor of wired peripherals.

There are other arguments for wired, too. Any mouse that runs on battery power will run out of batteries while you're playing. It's inevitable, so you'd better have a backup battery you can quickly swap in. Some wireless mice can charge via MicroUSB while you're using them, but then you're back to using ten feet of USB cable.

If you're dead set on using a particular keyboard and/or mouse, a USB extension cable is your best bet.

Most gaming keyboards, and many gaming mice, don't come in wireless flavors at all. If you're dead set on using a particular keyboard and/or mouse, a USB extension cable is your best bet. You'll get lightning-fast performance without the danger that your mouse or keyboard will stop working mid-match. Unless someone trips on the ten-foot USB extension cable stretching across your living room, of course.

For most of my testing the past few weeks, I've been using a Corsair Vengeance K60 with a USB 2.0 extension cable, and a Mad Catz Cyborg R.A.T. 9 wireless gaming mouse, which has worked just fine with a couch-to-PC distance of 10 feet.

A Solid Surface

Once you have a keyboard and mouse, the next step is figuring out where to put them. Some people insist that they do just fine with the keyboard on their lap and the mouse on the arm of the couch, but that's not really an ideal solution for a number of reasons.

Only the finest in $6 Ikea shelves.

For one thing, it does nothing to prevent couch slouch--no good for your neck and back--and it keeps your arms at different heights and different angles.

Yes, you need to care about ergonomics. The standard lean-back posture for TV watching is not conducive to playing games via keyboard and mouse. At the very least, you need a board to rest the keyboard on, and enough room to use a mouse.

If you just put your mouse and keyboard on the coffee table and perch on the edge of your couch, you're gonna hurt your neck and back, craning your neck to see the TV.

The most basic improvement is a board that you can put on your lap. At least that way you can get rid of some of the neck strain, and your keyboard and mouse will be closer to the ideal position. There are several lapboards and lapdesks on the market for gamers, including the somehow-not-vaporware Phantom Lapboard. You probably shouldn't get the Phantom Lapboard, unless you want no control over which keyboard and mouse you use.

There are actual "gaming lapdesks" available, but any flat surface will do as long as it's comfortable enough to go on your lap and has room enough for your keyboard and mouse. I've been using a $6 Ikea Ekby Viktor shelf because I have it around for a future project. This is better than no platform, but it still puts the keyboard and mouse too low.

The next step up is having a height-adjustable platform that you can put the mouse and keyboard on while you're on the couch. Ikea's DAVE is a popular choice because you can adjust both the height and the pitch, and it's $20. It's only two feet wide, though. You can always get a rolling laptop stand, though that particular one doesn't tilt like DAVE does.

You know the scenes in movies where kids serve their moms some horribly burnt breakfast in bed on a special tray? You can use trays like that for your keyboard and mouse, too--the legs on the side mean you don't have to have anything actually on your lap. Just make sure you can find one without lips on the edges.

Image via Nerdytec

Europeans and crazy people can get the Couchmaster for just $200! (Correction: Steiger Dynamics reached out to let us know that the Couchmaster is indeed sold in the US.)

Unfortunately, I haven't found a really good ergonomic way to use a mouse and keyboard long-term from the couch if you don't live in Germany. If you have, please let us know in the comments.

Ergonomics

Image via Ergotron

The ideal ergonomic posture for using a keyboard and mouse is, frankly, not something you're going to find on the couch. The Ergotron diagram above shows good standing and sitting computing postures. In each case, your body is very close to its natural resting position--not slumped over like a marionette with the strings cut, but the ideal neutral posture, biomechanically speaking, for the human body.

Your keyboard and mouse should be at elbow height, such that your elbows are bent 90 degrees and your forearms are parallel to the ground.

Your keyboard and mouse should be at elbow height, such that your elbows are bent 90 degrees and your forearms are parallel to the ground. This prevents strain on your shoulders, upper back and arms over long periods.

The top of the TV should be no higher than eye level, and the TV itself should be at a slight 10 to 20 degree angle. Your neck should be in a neutral position, neither tilted up nor down. This prevents neck and upper back strain cause by tilting your head to see the TV.

If you're sitting, you should have your thighs parallel to the ground and your feet flat on the floor. This helps keep your hips and spine aligned in their natural resting position, which keeps your back from hurting and your muscles from weakening. You also need lumbar support to keep your lower spine from slouching outward. Good chairs provide lumbar support, but you won't find that very easily on the couch, so you should put a pillow or a cushion behind your lower back so your spine doesn't go into a C shape while you're leaning back.

Why is good posture important even while gaming? We sit too much as it is, and spending hours slumped in front of the TV, especially with our necks and backs in unnatural positions, can lead to weaker, more injury-prone muscles. "I hurt my back playing video games" is not something you want to have to say in conversation.

Ideally you'd have a smaller TV, closer to you and higher up, with the keyboard and mouse at elbow height, and some sort of seat that's the right height and offers proper lumbar support.

A desk. I'm thinking of a desk.

Short of putting a desk and desk chair in front of your TV--not unheard of for gamers--you may be able to come up with a good long-term gaming setup using your coffee table. Set up your keyboard and mouse on the coffee table as if gaming, then lower yourself towards the floor until your forearms are parallel to the ground. Note how far your butt is off the floor when in that position, then try to find a pillow or cushion to sit on to raise your butt to that level. You'll need to have good posture to game in this position without slouching, though. You might try putting your back against the front of the couch for some back support.

Don't forget to take a break to stretch and move around every couple of hours. This is as true when gaming as it is when working.

If you have come up with a good ergonomic way to game with a mouse and keyboard from the couch, please let us know in the comments!