An evening with OnLive's cloud gaming service

You've heard about the cloud, right? No, not the one that's spitting a pitter-patter of raindrops onto the roof of my home office. I'm talking about cloud computing, which allows users to access applications, data, and even games with little more than a low-end PC and an Internet connection. Google Docs has become the poster child for cloud computing applications, and services like Dropbox have popularized cloud-based storage. But cloud-based gaming?

Yes. Really. And with real games.

That's the premise behind OnLive, a cloud-based gaming service that promises to let PC and Mac users access a library of recent titles from anywhere with at least 3Mbps worth of Internet connectivity. The speed of one's net connection is the most important thing here because the games themselves run on OnLive's servers. On the client PC, the OnLive app is merely a portal to what I imagine is a datacenter packed tightly with rows of rackmount gaming rigs. As a result, OnLive's hardware requirements are practically nonexistent. You can use systems as anemic as 10" netbooks, although the recommended spec calls for a dual-core CPU and at least 1280x720 pixels of display resolution.

OnLive's current catalog includes recent titles like Assassin's Creed II, Borderlands, and Batman: Arkham Asylum, all of which require a reasonably competent GPU to run at playable frame rates. Ion-equipped netbooks certainly can't handle them, and neither can my CULV-powered ultraportable notebook, whose Intel integrated graphics only has enough grunt for casual games like AudioSurf and Darwinia.

Despite featuring what I suppose must be called a more formal selection of games, OnLive's pricing model seems more geared toward the casual crowd. Three- and five-day rentals are available for those who looking for a quick fix or a multi-day binge, and a user's favorites can still be purchased outright. If you just want a taste, 30-minute demo sessions are available. Like the downloadable demos you'd encounter online, these are free of charge. They're not cut-down versions of the full title, though. You get an unrestricted half-hour with the real deal.

Although initial plans called for OnLive to charge users a monthly fee for access to its service after a free first year, the user base has grown rapidly enough that there's apparently no need for the subscription. OnLive will remain free to download and demo, no credit card required. With the prospect of lighting up Skags on my notebook too tempting to resist, I took OnLive for a spin last night.

To give cloud gaming the best shot possible, I treated this like any other gaming session. Out came my Xbox 360 controller, and a Rat 7 gaming rodent replaced the tiny Bluetooth mouse that usually accompanies my notebook. OnLive's Wi-Fi support is still in beta, so I settled on a wired connection to my router, whose broadband link offers 15Mbps down and 1Mbps up, at least according to my ISP.

After a couple of minutes and no fewer than three terms-of-service dialog boxes, I was in. First impression: OnLive is a very nice place to be. The tiled interface is slick and responsive, and the selection of recent releases is as impressive as advertised. Everything loads quickly, including the games, which fire up seemingly no slower than they do on my desktop. Unlike with Steam releases or traditional demos, there's nothing to download or install. Hopping into a new game takes no longer than loading up one you've played before.

The OnLive Marketplace is pretty well designed, offering users a peek at each game's Metacritic score alongside a smattering of trailers. Users can also tap into the Arena, which provides voyeurs with a real-time window on others currently playing the game. There are Brag Clips, too—little snippets recorded by OnLive users looking to show off their mad skillz.

Not content to watch others runs rampant on Pandora, I fired up Borderlands for my first taste. Right away, I noticed latency. Exactly how much is hard to say, but there was enough that playing as a sniper probably wasn't the best idea. I'm used to precision with first-person shooters, and headshots are a lot harder to line up when there's a noticeable delay.

Latency isn't an issue if you're dumping a backup into your Dropbox or loading up a spreadsheet in Google Docs, but even a little is a detriment for serious gaming. This wasn't just a Borderlands problem, either. Latency was noticeable in every game I tried, and it was particularly annoying in Unreal Tournament 3 and DiRT 2. Splinter Cell: Conviction, Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands, Just Cause 2, and NBA 2K11 were more forgiving. All the games were easily playable once I got used to the lag, although I did encounter brief and infrequent moments of more serious stuttering. Those bursts of lag were usually accompanied by audio and video glitching and a warning icon indicating an issue with my network connection.

Despite the latency, the in-game visuals were fluid. According to Fraps, the OnLive app ran at a pretty consistent 30-40 FPS when playing games. The graphics themselves leave much to be desired, however. Although in-game detail settings don't appear to be set at their lowest levels (you can't access graphics options from the in-game menus), the OnLive feed is compressed. Heavily. The end result's image quality is about on par with a standard-definition YouTube video, which is quite a step down. For a closer look, you can browse a bunch of in-game shots in the gallery below.

Graphics aren't everything, but it's hard to get immersed in such low-fi environments. The loss of detail will be especially apparent if you have experience playing the same games locally on a console or competent PC. Of course, none of the games I played look any better when played natively on my notebook, which can't run them at all.

OnLive feels very much like cloud gaming—that is, playing games on a platform that's off in the distance and somewhat obscured by haze. For me, the combination of increased latency and reduced image quality makes gaming less enjoyable. I still had fun, probably in part because my expectations were low for what was ultimately a free session, but I wasn't left wanting to pay for more.

Those 30-minute demos aren't completely free in the strictest sense, though; they'll cost you bandwidth, and quite a lot of it. While playing Unreal Tournament 3, the Windows Task Manager reported network utilization of around 5% for my 100Mbps Ethernet connection. Assuming most of that traffic is associated with OnLive (I had nothing else running at the time), you're looking at around 38MB per minute, or more than 2GB per hour. Depending on your monthly bandwidth cap, that could be a problem.

In the end, my feelings about OnLive are mixed. I like the premise and am impressed that games are so playable on such weak client hardware. At the same time, it's very apparent that you're not getting the full experience, which I much prefer, even if it means I have to trade my notebook for a desktop. Casual gamers who don't have a desktop alternative may be satisfied with what OnLive has to offer.

I can say with certainty that I'll use OnLive again, though. The 30-minute preview sessions are a great way to sample games before making a purchasing decision, and I much prefer them to traditional demos that take longer to download and install. However, you won't catch me shelling out for multi-day passes or full OnLive releases. If I'm going to spend more than half an hour on a big-name release, I'm going to want to enjoy the real thing—at full resolution and detail, and with local latencies that don't make me feel at arm's length from the experience.

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