GeForce Now hands-on preview

GeForce Now turns budget laptops into monster gaming machines

Nvidia’s GeForce Now will make you a believer in game streaming.

Game streaming isn’t new: The now-defunct OnLive service pioneered it back in 2010, and Gaikai came soon after — and was quickly gobbled up by Sony, which now uses Gaikai’s technology for PlayStation Now. Then Nvidia entered the fray, launching GeForce Now for the Shield console way back in 2013.

Despite the age of these services, there’s a good chance you’ve never used one. 2018 may be the year that changes. Blade, a French start-up, used CES 2018 to make the North American debut of its Shadow streaming service. Shadow isn’t a supplement to a game rig, but a straight-up replacement for top-tier gaming desktops.

Then there’s GeForce Now for Mac and PC. While Nvidia isn’t pitching it as aggressively as Blade, the beta does more or less the same thing. It gives access to a virtualized PC that can run any games you own on Steam or Battle.net, at whatever detail settings and resolution you want.

Can it really compare to having a great gaming PC at home? Surprisingly, yes – as long as you have a big, fat internet connection.

How does this even work?

As a streaming service, GeForce Now for PC can get away with a very thin client. If you’ve ever used Netflix, Hulu, or any other video streaming service, you already know what you’re getting into. The software, a mere 55-megabyte download, installs in seconds. All you have to do is create an Nvidia account or log in to the one you already have.

As you can probably imagine, this doesn’t come free. Game streaming services usually ask for a monthly fee. GeForce Now is in beta, however, so it’s free if you manage to get in (there’s a waitlist). The home screen even shows an array of popular games – some you may own, and some you may not – so it seems you can play any of them.

That’s not how it works. You need to personally own a game to play it. Launch Overwatch, and the GeForce Now streaming client will take you to a Battle.net login screen. You then log in to your Battle.net account, and launch Overwatch from the Battle.net interface, just as you would on your home PC. The rule, then is simple; to play a game on GeForce Now, you must already own it on a supported digital Storefront (Steam, Battle.net, or UPlay, at time of this writing).

Big fat pipes

You must clear one other hurdle before playing: a bandwidth test. GeForce Now requires at least 25Mbps of bandwidth, or a recommended 50Mbps. That’s actual bandwidth, not what your ISP advertises. The client tests to make sure your pipe is big enough, as well as the latency and reliability of your connection.

The client gives you a little wiggle room, but it won’t let you play if it doesn’t think your connection is up to the task. I tested GeForce Now on two different  systems. First was a desktop computer with a 1440p monitor over Ethernet, with Gigabit Ethernet connected. The client had no complaints there.

asus zenbook ux330ua ah54 ux330 hero3v2
Asus Zenbook UX330 Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Next, I tried using an Asus Zenbook UX330UA connected to the same network, but over 5GHz Wi-Fi. It managed a passing grade, but just barely; the client threw up a warning that 3.2 percent of all frames were lost, and our bandwidth was measured at just 48Mbps. I re-tested the Zenbook in a couple different areas, at different distances from the Wi-Fi router, and the client was never entirely satisfied with the results.

That should tell you how stringent the client is. In this case, it seems the Zenbook UX330UA itself was the pinch point, as its Wi-Fi adapter couldn’t make the most of the Gigabit connection. Frankly, I’d never noticed this before, even when downloading large games. GeForce Now really pushed it to the limit.

I also tried to use GeForce Now on a Lenovo ThinkPad T420, which has a 2.4GHz Wi-Fi adapter. It didn’t stand a chance, as its old Wi-Fi adapter limited bandwidth to less than 20Mbps on most tests. GeForce Now wouldn’t even launch the streaming client. That wasn’t unexpected, but still a bit disappointing. You can’t use this service to turn a five-year-old laptop into a gaming capable machine – at least, not without buying a new Wi-Fi adapter for it.

Gorgeous graphics, occasional buffering

A key bullet point on GeForce Now’s list of features – one that’s shared with its emerging competitor, Blade – is gorgeous graphics.  The service lets you play games with the details ramped all the way up even on a PC like the Asus Zenbook UX330UA, which has Intel UHD 620 graphics and can’t play some games even at low detail and 1080p resolution.

It’s a big promise, and one that’s delivered. You can adjust the in-game settings however you’d like, so you can turn everything up – way up. That includes the most outrageous graphics settings, like super-sampling and maximum shadow quality, which can drag framerates down even on a GTX 1080 or AMD Radeon RX Vega 64.  I didn’t see any evidence of locked graphics settings in PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG), Overwatch, or World of Warcraft. The only limitation was resolution, as GeForce Now supports a maximum of 2,560 × 1,600.

Performance seemed solid, too, in frames-per-second. Nvidia says it can deliver up to 120 frames per second, enough to satisfy many high-refresh gaming monitors. Games don’t always play at that pace, as the company also promises “GTX 1080-class performance.” Overwatch, at 1440p with 200 percent resolution scale and every setting at maximum, delivered between 40 and 60 FPS. World of Warcraft dipped into the high 30s when pushed to the limit.

We also tested the performance by running 3D Mark. Technically, you’re not supposed to be able to do so, but we were able to find a loophole. We saw a 3D Mark Fire Strike score of 16,134. That’s in line with GTX 1080-powered desktops we’ve tested, such as the Lenovo Ideacentre Y900. A GTX 1080 Ti is quite a bit more powerful, generally hitting 19,000 to 20,000 in the same benchmark.

Nvidia’s core promise of ultra-quality gaming even on a $500 laptop stands up to scrutiny. But there’s a catch.

GeForce Now is, of course, a streaming service. The client operates a bit like Netflix or YouTube, streaming a feed of the game you’re playing to your PC. When your bandwidth is solid, the quality of the stream is solid, with no easily discernible difference between the stream and what you’d see playing the game off your local PC. When your bandwidth isn’t so hot, though – and remember, the requirements are quite high – the stream compensates by reducing resolution. Here’s a few screenshots from a single round of PUBG.

Take a close look, and you’ll see lots of variance in quality. Inspecting the interface, with its small text elements, is the easiest way to spot the differences, but they’re also visible when you examine details like the license plate on the truck, the thin powerlines in the distance, or the barrel of a gun. These screenshots were taken on either our desktop, connected via Ethernet to Gigabit internet, or on a laptop connected over 5GHz 802.11ac Wi-Fi to the same internet service provider. These are optimal conditions, but I still saw decreases in resolution from time to time.

I also played World of Warcraft under the same conditions. Blizzard’s MMORPG is a bit of a different beast, because it relies on many fine UI elements and small icons.

Blizzard’s cartoonish art style arguably holds up better when the stream’s resolution is downscaled, but the many UI elements, like quest text, make the dip in resolution obvious. This is an example of where GeForce Now is at an image quality disadvantage. Many games allow some form of UI scaling, which preserves the quality of the interface at any resolution. GeForce Now can’t change the game’s UI based on stream resolution, so any reduction can be easy to see, depending on the game you’re playing. You can, for example, play Football Manager through GeForce Now, but it wouldn’t be ideal unless you had enough bandwidth to almost always stream at your monitor’s native resolution.

It’s not all bad news. While a few of the screenshots may look dire, the resolution drops didn’t affect actual gameplay. It was occasionally noticeable, but I was usually too caught up in the action to care. PC gamers treat playing at a display’s native resolution as the gold standard, but there’s some wiggle room before a decrease becomes truly disruptive — as console gamers can easily tell you. I never thought the decrease so severe that it made a game unplayable. On the contrary, the stream remained smooth and consistent, even on the Asus Zenbook UX330UA, which is about as far from a gaming laptop as it gets.

Nom nom the bandwidth

When the conditions aren’t optimal, well…things can go south rather quickly. GeForce Now tries very, very, very hard to make everything alright. It tries so hard that you can end up with a stream that temporarily looks like a 240p YouTube video. Eventually it will give out, flagging an error message after freezing for several moments. There is a silver lining, however. If you reconnect immediately, you can usually jump right back into your active session, bypassing the annoyance of lost progress due to a connection glitch.

To play a game on GeForce Now, you must already own it on a supported digital storefront

I experienced several drops when I tried playing over Wi-Fi in the Digital Trends office, which is a more congested and slower network than that I used for most our testing. In the office, obtaining anything near the recommended bandwidth of 50Mbps per second is impossible over Wi-Fi, and the percentage of frames lost can exceed five percent. That, I found, was the real problem. Games would stream well for 10 or 15 minutes, but then drop out as some shift in the network degraded reliability.

Obviously, the Digital Trends office isn’t set up with high-bandwidth streaming in mind. But at home, I’m connected over a broad pipe that, on Ethernet, can easily exceed Nvidia’s requirements. In both cases, I suspect it’s a better network than many people have at home. The average connection speed in America is about 19 Mbps. That’s not enough to drive GeForce Now, so a lot of people won’t be able to use it at all.

geforce now hands on preview screens 4

There’s another bandwidth issue to consider: data caps. An increasing number of people have a data cap imposed by their ISP, and the fall of net neutrality won’t help that. I was interested to see how much data GeForce Now used, so I used network monitoring software to gauge bandwidth used over several five-minute chunks of PUBG. Our initial test was performed at 1080p resolution on the Asus Zenbook UX330UA.

Averaged out, GeForce Now consumed a convenient number: 100 megabytes per minute. To be more precise, I found it used an average of 487MB every five minutes when connected over Wi-Fi, and 520MB every five minutes when connected over Ethernet. That means you’d eat 6 gigabytes of bandwidth every hour.

It’s a lot, but I don’t think it’s enough to be a serious concern. You’d have to play 166 hours to eat through the typical 1TB data cap in a month. The time you spend using GeForce now is also time you’re not using the internet for other high-bandwidth tasks, like Netflix. I can only see it becoming a problem if you have multiple people using GeForce Now in the same house.

GeForce Now is the future. We’re not ready for it.

Nvidia’s GeForce Now beta impressed me. Digital Trends staffers who’re less familiar with PC gaming found it even more impressive; most didn’t own a gaming PC, so GeForce Now opens a whole new world of entertainment. I used it at home, on a laptop, to play games without being tied down to my desk. The humble Asus Zenbook UX330UA suddenly became a viable gaming rig, capable of 1080p gaming with every detail turned up. If you have a fat internet connection, sign up for the GeForce Now beta immediately. It’s absolutely worth your time — especially while it’s free.

This might be the future of gaming. It’s also only that – the future. Though I enjoyed it, I had the luxury of connecting over an internet connection most people in America can’t purchase even if they want, and the ghost of net neutrality also looms large over GeForce Now. We’re a long way from an average connection speed that meets even the service’s minimum bandwidth requirement, and data caps seem more, not less, likely to be a problem in the future.

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It’s a shame. GeForce Now, even in beta, could entirely change how people use computers. Finally, the long-held dream of thin “client” PCs, with barely any internal hardware, seem possible. Yet the internet itself has become a roadblock. We need fast, reliable, uncapped connections for a service like this to work for more than a lucky few. It’s hard to say when, or if, that’ll become reality.

But hey. At least you can play PUBG on a crappy laptop while you wait.

GeForce Now is in free, closed beta for PC and Mac. The release date and price haven’t been announced.

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