Use Case 1: Desktop
Not surprisingly, OnLive shows poorly on a Core i7-960-based desktop with a pair of GeForce GTX 480s installed. There’s simply no reason to pay for a service like this if you already have the hardware to back up better quality settings. Nevertheless, a large percentage of the Tom’s Hardware audience has capable components at its disposal, so it’s absolutely worth noting that the enthusiasts already running 1280x720 or higher probably aren’t going to like what they see, quality-wise, from OnLive.
If you want a better comparison, check out the two videos below in 720p—one captured via OnLive and the other captured locally—of Just Cause 2. Try to look past the choppy frame rates. They don’t accurately convey the performance of playing on both systems. Even on machines with SSDs, FRAPS doesn’t seem to like capturing at a 60 FPS target while gaming. Take my word for it, the OnLive version ran at a constant 20 FPS or so, while the local version ran at 120 FPS. While 20 frames per second sounds low, it turned out to be playable. With that said, real-world gameplay did get choppy on occasion.
But I think we can all agree that this isn’t the market for which OnLive is gunning. They want the guys on notebooks with Intel integrated graphics, or the guys using Macs without much choice when it comes to game access. So let’s move on to the more ideal test case.
Use Case 2: Notebook
I have an older Core 2 Duo T9300-based laptop with 4GB of RAM and Intel’s GMA X3100 graphics engine. It’s wholly incapable of playing Just Cause, Batman, F.E.A.R., or any other of the games OnLive is hosting. It'll handle WoW, so long as you turn every setting down to its lowest option. But the system does satisfy OnLive’s minimum hardware requirements for running its client.
This is where the service is totally in its element. In DiRT 2, Just Cause 2, and Batman—the three games I spent some time in—frame rates were ample to play smoothly, though nowhere near an even 60 FPS. With my 1280x800 screen running much closer to OnLive’s native 1280x720, quality appeared much better than the professional Dell 1920x1200 displays on my workstation. Latency, though perceptible, still didn’t prevent me from doing well in single-player campaigns.
Truly, this is where OnLive really shines. I have to wonder, though, how many folks with four-year old notebooks and no better desktop system at their disposal pay for 5+ Mb/s Internet connections? As it stands today, I’m certainly not worried about cloud-based gaming impinging upon what enthusiasts expect from a desktop gaming experience. Note also that you need a wired connection. There goes the novel idea of fragging out at Starbucks.
And there’s another factor to take into account here. Just because OnLive relieves you of the hardware burden doesn’t mean that load is magically alleviated altogether. Server-side requirements for each physical connection are substantial, and the service is still in its infancy. Performance is respectable right now, but we’ll have to see how OnLive handles scaling as an increasing number of curious gamers take a peek under the kimono.