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OnLive Analyzed

OnLive Cloud-Based Gaming: Is This The End Of High-End PCs?

I’ll be honest—OnLive is a point-blank look at life in the cloud, which will almost certainly be a more prolific usage model moving forward. As much as I (we) resist it, there’s an inherent convenience to having your documents, pictures, videos, and—maybe someday—games available from anywhere and on a more diverse range of hardware platforms. I’m not there yet. For as much as friends and family rave about Google Docs, I prefer everything local, on my networked storage, and within the confines of my own infrastructure. That includes games. Let me pick my quality settings. Let me set my resolution. Let me decide when I want to play and on what platform. And don’t require that I have at least a 5 Mb/s wired connection. There’s only one place I have access to that—at home. And at home, I have the hardware I need to play at 2560x1600. I don’t foresee hitting the road and getting a hotel room with enough bandwidth to play Just Cause 2 on a netbook anytime soon, so the convenience of portability only really goes as far as the high-speed Internet connections at your disposal.

Fairly constant network load. CPU utilization was around 9% of a Core i7-960 during game play.Fairly constant network load. CPU utilization was around 9% of a Core i7-960 during game play.

But this push forward is frightening for reviewers everywhere, understandably. OnLive is telling you that your hardware doesn’t matter—they’ll take care of it. Suddenly, it ceases to be relevant that Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 480 offers superior tessellation, or that AMD’s Radeon HD 5870 was the first DirectX 11 graphics card by more than half a year. It’s also threatening to enthusiasts, who lust after the most powerful components, and don’t necessarily want to see their gaming experience distilled down into whoever has the fastest Internet connection—though saving thousands of dollars on high-end hardware takes the sting off somewhat, I have to imagine.

At the end of the day, though, OnLive does not deliver a gaming experience to rival what a power user at home with even a modest PC can already achieve. This is very much the theater-cam version of a movie, when what you really want at home is the Blu-ray. Games run at pre-determined quality settings at a maximum resolution of 1280x720. That’s a far cry from the enthusiast-class resolutions we test here at Tom’s. And even then, putting a game like Just Cause 2 at 720p running remotely next to the same resolution locally is a completely one-sided comparison.

OnLive can't match the image quality of local play.OnLive can't match the image quality of local play.

To OnLive’s credit, the gaming service works. It masks latency well enough that more casual gamers on ample connections should not be hampered by the delivery mechanism. It turns an out-of-date notebook into a capable gaming platform. The company is actually doing something I didn’t think was possible one year ago. And while the first demonstration of OnLive’s technology came under scrutiny for what was undoubtedly a controlled showcase, I’m a good 250 miles away from the company’s Santa Clara data center. This is definitely a real-world trial of the service. It’s just not something I’d pay for today. And I’d really avoid paying full price for the titles in OnLive’s library, preferring to perhaps “rent” the game for three days instead.

To anyone who suggests that you may never need another high-end PC to play the latest games, I respond: I’ll hold onto my high-end PC, thanks. OnLive doesn’t come anywhere close to displacing it.

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