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

We've been hearing about OnLive's cloud-based service for more than a year now. The company claims it can offer the latest games on demand, without a need for meaty hardware requirements on the client end. Could this really be the end of high-end PCs?

Count me amongst the many who heard Steve Perlman’s announcement of OnLive in 2009 and went “No bloody way. They can’t do that.” Yet here I am, some months later, with a Founding Members invite and access to a handful of the games I’ve used to benchmark graphics cards and CPUs on Tom’s Hardware. Well I’ll be…

I’ll refrain from bloviating on the specifics of how OnLive does what it does—I’ve already read plenty of analysis one way and the other about what a cloud service could mean for gaming and why it’s a technically infeasible (one of the best, from Digital Foundry’s Richard Leadbetter, can be read here). Moreover, OnLive has been fairly low-key about the information it’ll give out. All that matters today, on Day 1 of availability, is how it performs—the experience OnLive enables. It’s time to step away from the “what ifs” and dig into the “how does it do?”

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Getting up and running after receiving the email literally took five minutes. You fill in your information, billing data, and download a 500KB client setup app, which, by default, runs in a window on your desktop. Just make sure that when you fire up the client, you’re not doing anything else to tax your Internet connection—which must be at least 5 Mb/s for a high-def stream. I have access to AT&T’s 24 Mb/s U-Verse plan, so I’m alright there, but when I tried to load the service with a file transfer running in the background, I was politely turned away from logging in. If it turns out that you share your pipeline with a college roommate, for example, that’s going to quickly become a problem. Here, we’re going from worrying about our graphics card to stressing over who’s using the network.

With all other transfers halted, I hopped on. For the folks who get in on the Founding Members plan, you can join OnLive for 12 months free, after which you pay $5 a month for the privilege of having your content delivered in this manner. From there, you can play many games in demo mode, 30 minutes at a time (without the ability to save). I need another monthly recurring bill like I need a hole in my head.

If you want to continue on, you’ll need a PlayPass, available in Full (unlimited access), 5-day, and 3-day options. Now, not all PlayPasses are offered for each game. If you want to play Batman: Arkham Asylum, you can buy a 5-day pass for $7 or a 3-day pass for $5, but there is no full pass. Assassin’s Creed II is only available as a full pass for $40. DiRT 2 is only available as a demo. The model that makes the most sense, I think, is paying a few bucks for a game you’d otherwise play and beat in a week and never touch again. Fair enough. No way I’d pay $50 for the full version of a game without a way around OnLive’s imposed Internet-optimized settings, though. Charge an extra $5 or $10 and give me the option to download the full game locally and I might be interested.

Just Cause 2 running on a desktop and Just Cause 2 on a notebook with integrated graphics. Thanks OnLive!Just Cause 2 running on a desktop and Just Cause 2 on a notebook with integrated graphics. Thanks OnLive!

Now, I wanted to get the experience of using OnLive on a powerful desktop that’d have no trouble playing any of the available games using its own hardware, and then on a notebook with no chance of touching 3D at all.