Imagine a game console the size and thickness of two iPhones stacked one atop the other, that can serve up nearly any computer game with high definition clarity, sips just 6 watts of power, and costs just $99 (£61).

Meet the OnLive MicroConsole, the next salvo in OnLive's plan to sell "gaming in the cloud" to the masses. It's a set top box for your TV, comes with a wireless gamepad and a free game you can choose once you've logged in, qualifies as unanticipated and potentially serious competition for Microsoft and Sony's consoles, and it's available on December 2. In fact you can pre-order it now.

You've heard of OnLive, right? Crunch the data one place, broadcast the visual output to many? It's the old school "mainframe" approach iterated through the decades, the battle between client/server and distributed computing (the latter now trendily referred to as "cloud" computing) throwing off its corporate shackles and reaching toward the multitudes. Think PC Anywhere, VNC or GoToMyPC. OnLive's more sophisticated than any of those, but the underlying concept's identical. Instead of mousing around someone's dull 2D desktop, OnLive dishes out discrete 3D video feeds of the latest games running smoothly at high detail and up to 1080p (1920 x 1200) screen resolutions.

OnLive's PC and Mac client rolled out this summer free of charge. At less than 10MB and offering a futuristic interface that deserves a shelfload of trophies, it surpassed elegant. The only catch was that you had to pay for the games, though even there, it had the edge over consoles: The newest titles topped out at $50, instead of the $60 you routinely pay for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 games. What's more, instead of downloading multi-gigabyte demos, OnLive lets you sample any game for up to 30 minutes of playtime. Load times? Instantaneous, since you download nothing. And if you'd rather just rent something for a few days, you can do that too for between $5 and $10.

The upcoming MicroConsole should please environmentalists, drawing a minuscule 6 watts of power. By contrast, a slimline Xbox 360 uses between 70 (idling) and 90 (playing) watts of power. A slimline PlayStation 3 uses about the same. Your computer's power usage varies dramatically depending on what's under the hood, but if you're a gamer, you know a high-end dual-GPU rig can idle at over 200 watts and consume upwards of 600 to 700 watts under load.

And as noted above, it's insanely small. If you didn't know better, you'd think it was a USB hub, with it's two frontside USB ports bounding a slight rectangular power button. Flip it around, and you'll see the engineers managed to cram an HDMI port, analogue audio out, optical audio out and the RJ45 ethernet jack. That's it. The gamepad's wireless. No strings attached.

The only two caveats remain the occasional drops in visual fidelity when your internet service lags and with the MicroConsole, the fact that you'll need to run an ethernet cable to wherever your HDTV's situated. While OnLive just rolled out a wireless beta for its PC and Mac client, the MicroConsole is hardline-only, no integrated WiFi. That's a problem for me, since my fibre-optic 24Mbps router has to sit in the kitchen to tap the nearest RJ11 phone jack. I'll need to pick up a wireless bridge to make it work.

OnLive says they'll be offering a flat-rate subscription plan that provides "unlimited access to a growing library of big studio games and indie titles." I don't think they mean the entire library, but who knows, and even if it's just a stable of the best and brightest, if the pricing's right, it might actually save you some cash.

I have the MicroConsole in hand (literally, beat that SonyMicrosoftNintendo) and once I sort the ethernet cabling issue, I'll weigh in on the ups and downs.

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