First impressions: Onlive

February 18, 2011, Author: Sarbjit Bakhshi

After cloud based apps, cloud based operating systems, how about a cloud based gaming system? A step too far? Read more and find out…

If you haven’t already heard, Onlive is a cloud-based games system that allows you to play high-end games at 720p resolution on the weakest of PCs with a decent internet connection. This service runs on Windows XP, Vista and & PCs and Macs with OS X 10.5.8 or later.

I tried out the system recently on my 10 Mb virgin business cable connection; little contention, no throttling, packet sniffing or download limits. Be warned, if you don’t have this set-up, your results will vary. OnLive generally recommends 5 Mb or faster, but the minimum sits at 3 Mb; a minimum that is above what most people have.

It’s not a new system, I saw it at GDC 2009 and should have come out in the winter of 2009. It missed that deadline, but now it is up and running, available as both a pure web-based service and as a tiny set-top box for those without a PC at all.

Once you log on, you get a Cooliris type display that allows you to pick a game to demo or pay for. I didn’t buy any games and instead chose a FPS on a time limited preview to test out the system. FPS relies on low lag rates and fast reactive controls to be any fun, and I thought this would be best in trying out the system. There is barely any load time as when you click the screenshot of the game you want to play, it enlarges and after about 5 seconds the game is playable.

It works!
With all the heavy crunching done on Onlive’s servers in the US, the system demands on my laptop were only as much as playing an equivalent sizes video. Lag was not noticeable and the reactions to my key presses were as fast as if it was running on the machine in front of me. I was very impressed by the system and didn’t notice any drawbacks on the hardware/software at all, although there are some things to take into account.

The drawbacks
Payment has to be mentioned here. You can buy access to the game of your choice in a variety of flavours; a 3 day, 5 day or full play pass, which I think means you get to play the game for as long as the service exists. However, none of these options are particularly cheap though. Hawx 2, which is available for peanuts second-hand is $49.99. Patrician. an old strategy game, is $29.99 and even World of Goo is $9.99.

In its defence you can’t compare the shop based price for the Online service, because the shop based price is not inclusive of the high-end hardware you will need to run the top end titles. Considering the service will allow a pretty basic netbook to play Metro 2033, you are seeing a saving of around £600 on the cost of a proper PC to play it.

Also, the service is new, and as such, isn’t generating much traffic. In three years time when we have all downgraded our computers to Atom based, thin PCs and are joining the service at 6pm to get our gaming fix, will there be a network strong enough to support all the data? We are already seeing ISPs throttle and traffic shape our broadband when we use services they consider to be too much of a drain. For example, using torrent software means that your speedy connection gets downgraded to a barely broadband service. Any kind of similar shaping for Online will mean the end of this service, or the need for a premium ‘un-shaped’ service from your ISP (believe me, they are coming).

Not being able to play high-end games has been a reason for me to stay away from getting a tiny atom based PC, but if Onlive can work out a way to bring the prices down and sort out the broadband service, my next PC might be one I could put in my pocket.