Shadow Cloud Gaming Review
Currently, Shadow is the only fully realized cloud gaming service out there, making it our top pick by default. It offers good speeds and a pleasant experience, though it's not without its faults. Check out our full Shadow review for all the details.
Shadow is one of the most recognizable cloud gaming services around, and with its claim of “high-performance gaming, accessible to everyone,” it’s easy to see why.
It offers top-of-the-line PC hardware at a fraction of the cost, and has a massive game library, to boot. In this Shadow review, we’re going to see if it has the chops to make it on our best cloud gaming services list.
Thankfully, it not only has the chops to make it on the list, but to make it to the top. Shadow is currently the definitive cloud gaming experience. Although the technology itself still has a few years until it’s fully realized, Shadow provides a rare glimpse into the future. It’s fluid through and through, which is tough to find in the current cloud gaming market.
That said, it comes with a price to match. It’s an expensive service, one that’s made even more expensive considering you’ll need to bring your own games. Even so, it showcases performance that other platforms can’t contend with, which is worth the price of admission alone.
- Excellent performance
- Full Windows 10 desktop
- Virtually every PC game supported
- Apps on Android & iOS
- Easy to use
- Limited availability
- No on-screen controls in mobile apps
Shadow’s most attractive feature is how it’s configured. Most cloud gaming services offer a session on an established computer for playing games. In most cases, it’s a server outfitted with multiple high-end graphics cards and processors with all the supported games preloaded on a bay of hard drives.
There are a few issues with that approach. First, you’re not getting any dedicated resources. Similar to shared web hosting — you can learn more about that in our hosting types overview — cloud gaming services provide a lot of resources to multiple users and expect those users to share them.
How Does Shadow Cloud Gaming Work?
If someone is hogging too much or it’s simply a high-traffic hour, you’ll have a subpar experience. With Shadow, that isn’t an issue. When buying a plan, you’re actually purchasing a dedicated gaming computer — fit with a GTX 1080 graphics card, 12GB of DDR4 RAM, 256GB of dedicated storage and 1 Gbps download speed — that you can access remotely.
It’s a full Windows 10 installation, meaning you can do anything you normally could on a Windows 10 computer. You can download your favorite browser, mess around with your desktop wallpaper, adjust the resolution up to 4K and more. It’s not a cloud gaming platform, it’s a cloud computing platform.
Furthermore, you can access that Windows 10 installation across multiple devices. You can only have one device connected at a time, but you can have as many Shadow application installations as you want. It’s available for Windows, macOS, Ubuntu, Android and iOS, meaning you can boot into your cloud gaming computer virtually anywhere.
Unfortunately, at the time of writing, Windows is the only OS you can install on your remote machine. Shadow plans to add Linux support in the future, according to its FAQ, but for now, that’s it. However, you can configure the Windows 10 installation to your liking.
Shadow Cloud Gaming Features Overview
Shadow supports any game that can run on a Windows 10 PC. As mentioned above, you aren’t actually subscribing to a cloud gaming service with Shadow. Rather, you’re subscribing to a high-end computer that you have remote access to. Because of that, you can install and play any game you want, so long as you have a way to download that game without a disk.
That’s a nice change of pace compared to services, like Blacknut, that offer a limited library of games (read our Blacknut review). Even services that have a large library, such as Vortex, don’t stand a chance compared to Shadow (read our Vortex review). Because of its approach to cloud gaming, you don’t have to worry about DRM platforms.
You can install any application on your Shadow computer as long as it would normally run on Windows 10. Outside of torrenting, Shadow gives you a full 1 Gbps internet connection to download until your heart’s content. For gaming, that’s huge, especially if you’re a fan of DRM-free services like GOG.
One of the main issues with cloud gaming is how it integrates with platforms like Steam and Origin. Although those services provide the majority of PC games, many older titles — take SWAT 4, for instance — require some amount of additional emulation to run on a modern OS like Windows 10.
That requires a lot of coding and, in most cases, doesn’t work. Platforms like GOG have done the hard work for you, though, and offer classic PC titles with all the emulation you need. Because Shadow allows you to download anything, you can play these games without any issue.
You’re limited to 256GB, though. It’s not the end of the world — 256GB can hold a few games — but it would’ve been nice to have more storage. Thankfully, the download rate is very fast, so uninstalling and reinstalling games is a breeze.
There’s no way around it: Shadow is one of the most expensive cloud gaming platforms available. At $25 a month for the yearly plan and $35 for the monthly one, it’s hard on your pocketbook. However, you’re not just buying a limited range of PC games; you’re buying an entire PC.
That changes a lot and makes the price a lot more reasonable in the process. Because Shadow offers you so much flexibility in how you configure your computer and what you install on it, the price doesn’t seem unreasonable. Although the rate would be far too high for a library of 1,000 games or so, Shadow offers much more.
The extra cost could be worth it depending on your use case. It’s important to remember that, with Shadow, you’re buying the computer, not the games that run on it. If you’re starting from scratch and don’t have a Steam library or the like, you’re going to need to shell out additional money to buy your favorite games.
That’s not great, compared to a service like PlayStation Now, which offers more than 800 games from PlayStation’s long history for less than $10 per month (if you purchase the annual plan). As you can see in our PlayStation Now review, it doesn’t perform as well as Shadow, but it offers a great value.
There isn’t a free trial or money-back guarantee. Rather, Shadow offers a $9.95 introductory rate for the first 10 days. You’ll spend the $10 when you sign up and you’ll start your normal subscription after 10 days.
We’re not fans of the introductory period. Although it may seem like you’re getting a deal starting out, you’re essentially purchasing a third of a month’s worth of service, meaning you’ll be charged again soon after signing up.
Furthermore, if you’re going for the annual commitment, you’re actually spending more on the first 10 days. There isn’t a way to bypass this introductory period, either, which is a shame.
Signing up for Shadow isn’t too difficult. After choosing between the monthly or yearly plan and selecting the state you live in, you’ll be asked to create an account, verify your email using a one-time passcode and enter your service address. After that, you’ll be able to select between using a pre-configured Windows 10 PC or a custom installation.
Shadow only runs with Windows 10, though it has apps for macOS, Android, iOS, Windows and Linux. However, if you want to change how Windows 10 installs, Shadow gives you that option. We used the preconfigured service for our testing.
After that, you’ll be prompted to install the app, but you aren’t ready to use Shadow yet. Because Shadow is essentially offering you a dedicated gaming PC with a full Windows 10 installation, it takes some time to get set up. Thankfully, that’s clarified in an email after you purchase your subscription.
It takes a while, though. After confirming payment, it was a half hour before we could start using the computer. Honestly, this process is more representative of what it’s like to use an actual gaming PC, so it’s hard to fault Shadow. However, after waiting to install, plus downloading games, it was multiple hours before we started playing.
On the local app, you’ll be asked to log in. Then, Shadow will give you some recommended optimization, including pausing all downloads and file sharing, closing any streaming apps and choosing the 5 GHz band on your router.
Shadow will then test your bandwidth and, finally, you can boot up your PC by clicking the “start now” button. The computer boots inside a resizable window and, much to our surprise, took little to no time to start. When you first load it up, Shadow will display the hot key for accessing the quick menu, which you can use to adjust various settings of the system.
By default, you have the Shadow control panel, a link to support and Microsoft Edge on your desktop. Because it’s a full computer, we quickly replaced the default browser with Google Chrome (read our Microsoft Edge review and Google Chrome review to learn why).
Everything went fluidly while getting the PC configured. Mouse input was seamless, and we were able to transition the cursor between Shadow and our local session without any issue.
The best part about the remote machine, though, was that we could use Windows shortcuts. This makes sense, given that it’s a full installation, but it was surprising nonetheless.
Shadow takes a while to get set up, but you don’t have to be hands-on during that time. Outside of the 30-minute or so wait, the process is seamless, and after Shadow sends you the email saying your machine is ready, it truly is. It felt like using any other Windows 10 computer, which is great.
As we’ve said, Shadow feels just like a normal computer. After getting your confirmation email, you’re up and running within a matter of seconds, with no noticeable input lag. We were quickly browsing the web and multitasking on Windows 10 without a second thought. Shadow feels like a local session.
For the most part, at least. There were a few minor hiccups — for example, scrolling lags behind just a bit — but those issues are easy to overlook. Keystrokes register immediately, and your mouse cursor has the same responsiveness it would on a local session. For gaming, that makes a huge difference.
The largest issue with cloud gaming is that it needs a lot of bandwidth with very little ping. By giving you a full Windows 10 desktop, you’re able to download the files you need to use the remote computer and have access to the entire session. The fact that you have isolated resources helps a lot, too.
In practice, Shadow’s system pays off. We tested four games: Cuphead, DOOM 2016, the Resident Evil 2 remake and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. Starting with Cuphead, we were shocked at how fluid the platforming felt. Even more so than other games, it didn’t feel like we were playing on a virtual machine, even with a game as precise as Cuphead.
DOOM 2016 went off without a hitch and, using the in-game performance monitoring, we were able to verify that the game was running at 60fps in 4K and 120fps in 1080p. There was the slightest amount of input lag, but not enough to break the experience. The same is true for the Resident Evil 2 remake.
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive had some issues. The gameplay itself was fine — we tested a few rounds with bots — but the occasional hiccup in streaming would prove to be too much in a competitive setting. That said, if you’re in the market to play CS:GO casually, Shadow works just fine.
According to speedtest.net, we had a ping of 9 milliseconds, a download rate of 62.07 Mbps and an upload rate of 11.39 Mbps, which is far above Shadow’s recommend 15 Mbps.
We also tested the same games on Android, and they worked just as well as they did on the desktop. However, there aren’t any on-screen controls in the Android app. You can use touch for the mouse cursor and pull up your Android keyboard, but that’s it. If you’re into gaming on the go with Shadow, you’ll need to purchase a controller.
It’s really difficult to justify other cloud gaming services when Shadow is on the table. There isn’t a one-to-one transfer between it and a local gaming PC — battle-hardened PC veterans will tell a noticable difference — but it’s damn close. The price is high, but considering the performance, it’s well worth it.
Shadow only has six data centers, but those centers cover a lot of ground. In the U.S., there are four locations: Dallas, Chicago, New York and Santa Clara. With those centers, Shadow is able to offer service to 38 of the continental states, skipping past Washington, Idaho, Montana, Utah, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, Alabama, Georgia and Florida.
In Europe, there are two data centers: Paris and Amsterdam. The Paris data center covers France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland and the UK, but the Amsterdam server only covers Germany.
Because the server is located in the Netherlands, we assumed the Amsterdam server would cover there, too. However, according to Shadow’s international website, it claims service is unavailable there.
The six data centers available are doing a lot of work. Thankfully, centers are smartly placed throughout the U.S. to provide a lot of coverage, with a few European countries getting a taste, as well. However, there’s no denying the potential limitations of trying to accommodate so many users with so few data centers.
That said, Shadow doesn’t make its service available to everyone, which, although disappointing, is probably a smart move. By limiting the availability, Shadow ensures its data centers aren’t stretched too thin, as they’re already covering a lot of ground. Still, Project xCloud destroys Shadow’s coverage, as you can read in our Shadow vs Project xCloud comparison.
Cloud gaming still has a few years until it’s everything that it’s currently promised to be. However, Shadow gets a lot closer to its promises than the competition (read our Shadow vs GeForce Now piece). Although the occasional stuttering may be too much for competitive gaming, all other genres work flawlessly. Shadow is the quintessential cloud gaming experience.
Shadows performs leaps and bounds above the competition. That said, it does so at a higher price point.
Do you plan on trying out Shadow? Let us know about your experience in the comments below. As always, thanks for reading.