Cloud gaming is real. In fact, it has been real for over a decade. OnLive, now defunct, launched in June of 2010. Yep. You’re that old.
Gamers were skeptical of the idea, which is why OnLive didn’t make it. But last year’s launch of Google Stadia put a spotlight on it, and multiple tech giants are either working, or rumored to be working, on cloud gaming services. Google and Nvidia are in the fray, Microsoft has a service in beta, and Amazon is said to have an entry in the works.
But is cloud gaming any good? Or is this just a fad that will pass, leaving Stadia and others to join OnLive’s fate?
To find out, I used three services for my month in the cloud: Google’s Stadia, Nvidia’s GeForce Now, and Shadow. All three companies provided at least one month of service for my deep dive. Most of my testing was at home, where I’m lucky enough to have a gigabit connection without any data caps, but I also tested at the Digital Trends office, and on various Wi-Fi networks. Here’s what happened.
Cloud gaming is supposed to be easy. It’s not.
My month of cloud gaming started with a new game of Age of Wonders: Planetfall on Nvidia’s GeForce Now. The experience left me cold.
I started my session at the Digital Trends office. While our network has a beefy commercial-grade connection from Comcast, it’s also a network saturated by hundreds of devices. Demand for bandwidth is high. GeForce Now, fighting for a clear connection, struggled and sputtered. The game was only playable because it’s a turn-based strategy title.
Image quality was a disappointment. I booted the game on a 4K monitor, but the service only supports 1080p, and my actual stream quality was 720p. It wasn’t a great start, and my attempts to improve the situation hardly helped. I switched to a 1080p monitor and tried a different PC, but image quality still faltered, and connection stability was poor.
I ran into problems at home, too. I have gigabit Ethernet, yet only one of two home computers delivered a good experience over GeForce Now when connected over Ethernet. Shadow was more reliable on both, but still had problems on the second. Wi-Fi? It essentially didn’t work on either my laptop or my home theater PC, unless my laptop was in the same room as my router.
Discouraged, but not defeated, I took steps to improve my connection at home. I bought a newer router, the affordable TP-Link Archer A7. I configured QoS to prefer the devices used for cloud gaming. I even moved my HTPC to a location with a stronger Wi-Fi connection.
It was never perfect, but it was reliable enough to be fun.
My efforts were successful. These steps greatly improved cloud gaming at home. It wasn’t perfect, but it was reliable enough to be fun.
Still, my issues underscore the real-world problems a cloud gaming service can face. Cloud gaming is marketed as a simpler alternative to home consoles or PC gaming. I don’t think that claim holds up.
Most people won’t have an Internet connection and network hardware tailored to handle cloud gaming, which typically demands a perfectly stable connection speed of 30 to 60Mbps for a solid experience. Even if you have that, the slightest bottleneck or network instability can send the experience into a tailspin. Troubleshooting the problems take time, and I’m certain most people won’t know where to begin.
Gorgeous graphics on basic hardware
Cloud gaming isn’t as simple the companies providing it often claim, but it does deliver on a different promise. You can enjoy the world’s most demanding games on the world’s least capable hardware.
Bandwidth aside, cloud gaming is barely more demanding than streaming a high-quality YouTube video or Netflix stream. Not every machine can do it, but most can, and modern PCs use only a slim fraction of their maximum performance.
This remains true no matter what you play, or the settings you play at. The cloud handles all game computation and rendering. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey at 4K at maximum detail is no more demanding than Stellaris at 1080p and minimum settings.
I gamed on a variety of machines, but most of my gaming was on a personal laptop with a Ryzen 7 processor and Vega 11 graphics. It normally can’t handle the games I want to play, Age of Empires: Definitive Edition aside. Cloud gaming fixed that. Suddenly, my $600 laptop could play anything I wanted, at maximum detail and 4K resolution.
Not every service is equally stunning, or equally suited for every gamer. Nvidia’s GeForce Now is the only service that supports RTX ray tracing, but it served the worst image quality in my testing. There’s a simple reason for that: GeForce Now tops out at 1080p, but I often play on a 1440p monitor.
Shadow made the dream real. It delivered sharp, consistent image quality at 1440p resolution.
Shadow made the dream real. It delivered sharp, consistent image quality at 1440p resolution and 60 frames per second, perfect for my primary gaming monitor. Visual quality was hardly distinguishable from games played locally on a gaming desktop. Macroblock artifacts and color banding were rarely an issue, and fine details, such as small user interface icons and tiny fonts, looked crystal clear.
The only caveat is the one I’ve already stated, but it bears repeating. Bandwidth. You’re going to need it. I set Shadow to use 60Mbps per second for maximum fidelity, and it used every byte. If you don’t have the bandwidth, quality will suffer.
Mobile could be the killer feature
I love my Nintendo Switch. There’s comfort in knowing I can play a game anywhere I’d like. It sincerely makes me less anxious. I don’t have to worry about if I can play the game, where I want. I can take my games anywhere.
Cloud gaming offers the same promise.
GeForce Now, Shadow, and Stadia all have mobile apps. Microsoft’s Project xCloud, currently in beta, also has a mobile app. While the details differ by platform, the basics remain the same. All these services let you play games released for PC on a smartphone or tablet.
You’d think smartphone play would be lackluster but — over Wi-FI, at least — that wasn’t my experience. In fact, playing on a smartphone was often smoother and more visually stunning than on a laptop.
It has everything to do with a phone’s small screen. Most phones have a screen between 5 and 6 inches. At that size, 720p resolution looks sharp. Lower resolution means a much lower bandwidth required. Shadow’s mobile app served up a solid experience even with bandwidth capped at 10Mbps. Stadia and GeForce Now don’t offer the same degree of control, but my testing found they averaged 16Mbps on a Google Pixel 3a connected to my home Wi-Fi network.
Despite that, image quality was excellent. Small details or artifacts that might appear on a 24-inch monitor become invisible on a 6-inch screen. Games like Destiny 2 and Assassin’s Creed Odyssey are gorgeous on any smartphone with a high-quality IPS or OLED display. As a bonus, cloud gaming doesn’t drain your phone’s battery life like playing a game locally. You’re just watching a stream.
Controller compatibility isn’t an issue. Both Android phones and iPhones support a variety of Bluetooth controllers, including the Xbox One controller and DualShock 4. In a act of true heresy, I used Stadia’s controller for all mobile cloud gaming. Yes, that includes GeForce Now and Shadow.
Games without native gamepad support can be touch-and-go. Your luck depends on the app you’re using and the interface of the game you’re playing. Shadow, for example, offers mouse emulation through the touchscreen, which can work in certain situations. But most games that lack gamepad support won’t be enjoyable.
Playing over a mobile data connection is out of the question, at least on 4G networks (5G isn’t available where I live). Bandwidth doesn’t seem to be the issue, as 4G networks can certainly deliver 10 to 20Mbps. The issue is reliability. Mobile data, in my experience, isn’t reliable enough to provide a playable experience.
That sounds like a bummer, but for me, it doesn’t matter. I rarely game while traveling, though I do game once I reach my destination. Still, if you’re a traveler looking to game on planes and buses, just buy a Switch. Cloud gaming isn’t going to work for you.
So, yes, cloud gaming really does let you play any game you want, almost anywhere you want. And it’s awesome. For me, the killer app is Final Fantasy XIV, an MMO that I’ve long lusted over for Switch. It’s not there … but I can now play on a smartphone, with a controller, at better graphics settings than the Switch could ever manage. I call that a win.
Latency is the enemy
Latency is a dirty word in the world of cloud gaming.
Search Nvidia’s GeForce Now website for the word. Search Google’s Stadia site. You’ll find few mentions of latency and no promises. Everyone in cloud gaming says they offer a low latency experience, but no one wants to promise how low the latency will be.
This isn’t just companies being companies. Cloud gaming services can’t make promises about latency because they don’t own the hardware and services used to pipe cloud gaming to your home. The last mile (and, in some cases, the last several hundred miles) will be outside of any cloud gaming service’s control unless the company is also your internet service provider. Which could happen, someday. But we’re not there yet.
Latency was consistent across the services I used. Nvidia’s GeForce Now and Shadow provide a way to see latency, and both landed between 23 and 33 milliseconds.
Does the silence on latency mean it’s a problem services want to hide? I don’t think that’s fair. I also can’t deny it’s a problem.
Latency was consistent across the services I used. Nvidia’s GeForce Now and Shadow provide a way to see latency, and both landed between 23 and 33 milliseconds. Latency didn’t vary much during a session – over Ethernet, it hardly wavered – but it could vary between days. As far as I know, Stadia doesn’t provide a way to view the service’s latency.
Each frame rendered by a game running at a perfectly smooth 60 frames per second stays on screen for 16.667 milliseconds. If a game is at a smooth 30 FPS, each frame is on screen for 33.333 milliseconds. In other words, the latency I saw on GeForce Now and Shadow was about the same as waiting for one added frame in a game hitting 30 FPS, or almost two frames in a game hitting 60 FPS.
Is that noticeable? Yes. Compared back-to-back with a system playing a game locally, latency made games feel more sluggish and less precise. It was most noticeable in games where quick reactions can make a difference. Parrying blows in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey could be frustrating, marred by the annoying sense that I should’ve got that one!
Other games, like Final Fantasy 14 and Civilization VI, had no issues. I think you can guess why. Games like these don’t demand precision timing. The less a game relies on split-second reactions, the less latency is a problem.
Odyssey and Destiny 2 were playable. Still, I couldn’t shake my irritation. Did I botch my parry because I was too slow? Or did I mess up because latency placed my sword 30 milliseconds behind where it should’ve been? I bet you can guess what I blamed at the moment.
Stadia is way, way behind
If it seems I’ve mentioned GeForce Now and Shadow more than Stadia so far, there’s a reason for that. Stadia isn’t good, and I didn’t want to use it.
Google’s Stadia launched in November 2019. It immediately crashed and burned. My review of Google Stadia ripped the service for its poor game selection, confusing UI, and so-so latency.
Little has changed after three months. Its game library remains extremely slim, the interface still varies between devices, and the free tier remains MIA with no release date. I didn’t play on the service much because, well, there’s no reason. Its competitors have it beat.
Cloud gaming is affordable
Cloud gaming services want you to think they’re an alternative to buying a gaming rig. A month in, I must admit — it’s a compelling argument.
My inexpensive laptop, which cost $600, delivered graphics in league with a gaming desktop that cost just over $1,500 to build. The $900 gap between my laptop and desktop could pay for almost six years of Shadow’s $13 monthly fee (with yearly commitment).
There’s no reason an even more affordable laptop wouldn’t work. You could pick up a $350 Acer Aspire 5 from Amazon, install a cloud gaming service, and immediately play a demanding game like Assassin’s Creed Odyssey at 1080p and maximum detail.
GeForce Now and Google Stadia are even more affordable, at $5 and $10 per month. GeForce Now even offers a free tier (with access limitations), something Stadia promises to roll out in 2020. I can see these services entirely replacing a local gaming PC or console for occasional gamers.
Should you try cloud gaming?
For me, Shadow is the king of cloud gaming. It’s the service I leaned towards during my month of use, and the service I’m most likely to use in the future. Though it’s the most expensive at $13 per month (with yearly commitment), I was impressed by its image quality and latency. Plus, I can play any PC game I want. The Shadow service is a fully-fledged virtual PC, so there are no restrictions.
Shadow is the king of cloud gaming.
Nvidia’s GeForce Now is solid, too. It can’t play every game, and its launch was soured by the high-profile removal of all Activision-Blizzard games, and most Bethesda games. It still offers hundreds of titles, though, including eight of the 10 most-played games on Steam. It’s also the only service that currently has a free tier, so there’s no harm in checking it out. Personally, I’ll use it whenever I want to try an RTX ray tracing game, like the upcoming Cyberpunk 2077.
Stadia? It’s dead last. It doesn’t offer enough games and forces players to commit to its platform. I haven’t used Microsoft’s Project xCloud yet (which is still in beta), and I’ve hardly used PlayStation Now, so I don’t want to deliver a verdict on them yet.
Cloud gaming still has quirks, and your mileage will vary depending on bandwidth. If you have a fast connection and good Wi-Fi, go for it — or at least give GeForce Now’s free tier a try. I think you’ll be impressed.
- Nvidia GeForce Now review (in-depth): Great cloud gaming on a budget
- Google Stadia vs. Nvidia GeForce Now: The winner is clear
- Google Stadia review: The revolution isn’t now
- Google Stadia vs. Shadow: Can the underdog beat a tech giant?
- The best game-streaming services for 2020