Cloud gaming is the hot, new emerging tech, with companies like Nvidia, Microsoft and Google throwing their hats into the ring. Despite endless resources going toward these new services, the cloud gaming platforms that have been around for years are still showing the big dogs who’s boss.
That’s why we decided to throw a newcomer and someone from the old guard into a match. In this Shadow vs GeForce Now comparison, we’re pitting mastery against money to see which reigns supreme. Over a series of rounds, we’ll compare the two point for point, covering game support, ease of use, performance, coverage and more.
If you want to learn more about either service, be sure to read our Shadow review and Nvidia GeForce Now review. Also, be sure to read our best cloud gaming guide to get an idea of what we look for when judging a service.
Setting Up a Fight: Shadow vs GeForce Now
We’re throwing Shadow and GeForce Now into the ring to see which comes out on top over a series of seven rounds. Each round is worth a point, and we’ll be dishing out points to our competitors as we go. At the end, we’ll tally the scores to see which of these cloud gaming services is better.
However, as we say in all of our comparisons, it’s a good idea to read each section rather than just skimming for the winners. There are some rounds that have a heavy focus on personal preference, and with two polarizing services as our competitors, that changes things.
For example, Shadow and GeForce Now have much different approaches to pricing, so the winner in that round may be different for you depending on your budget.
Compared to other cloud gaming services, Nvidia GeForce Now and Shadow are at the top of the pack, so it’s hard to go wrong with either. That said, based on our testing, one certainly has the edge.
Perhaps the largest difference between Shadow and GeForce Now is the game library. Starting with GeForce Now, it only supports games from publishers that have chosen to integrate with the service.
Although that’s true for most cloud gaming services, multiple publishers have pulled their games from the service in recent months, leaving the future of GeForce Now’s game library uncertain.
Even with publishers like Bethesda pulling their titles from the virtual shelves, though, GeForce Now supports a lot of games. Competitive titles such as Fortnite and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive are available, as well as multiple smaller games, including Celeste, Salt and Sanctuary and Torchlight II.
Unlike PlayStation Now, though, you’ll need to own a license to those games (read our PlayStation Now review and our GeForce Now vs PlayStation Now piece). GeForce Now supports a handful of DRM platforms, including the Epic Games Launcher, Uplay and, of course, Steam.
However, only certain titles have support across DRM platforms. If you own a game on a platform that GeForce Now doesn’t support, even if it normally supports that game, you’re out of luck.
Shadow is much more forgiving. Instead of just supporting certain games, Shadow gives you a full Windows installation in the cloud. That means any game that could normally run on a PC can run on Shadow. Like GeForce Now, you’ll need a digital license to play any particular game, but that’s true with most cloud gaming services.
Outside of supporting literally every game on PC, Shadow’s approach has a lot of benefits when it comes to DRM platforms. If you own, say, The Witcher 3 on GOG and not on Steam, that’s not a problem with Shadow. With GeForce Now, however, it is, as The Witcher 3 is only supported on Steam.
Likewise, you can play DRM-free games on Shadow, something that all other cloud gaming platforms miss. The subtle difference in approach between Shadow and GeForce Now changes everything when it comes to game support. With GeForce Now’s uncertain future and Shadow’s endless title support, the winner is clear this round.
Shadow recently introduced new pricing, and Nvidia GeForce Now just left a free, closed beta, so there’s a lot to talk about this round.
Starting with the simpler of the two, GeForce Now has two subscription tiers at the time of writing. There’s a free version that includes limited session lengths and standard access to games, as well as a paid version that includes a handful of extras.
For $5 per month, you get priority access to games — meaning you don’t need to queue — session lengths of up to six hours, real-time ray tracing and a free 90-day introductory period. The free version, on the other hand, offers only one-hour play sessions and standard access, so you may need to wait to play certain games, depending on demand.
There’s a big caveat with Nvidia GeForce Now’s pricing, though: it’s going to change. The $5-per-month Founders plan is only applicable for 12 months. After that period, subscribers will have to pay whatever Nvidia decides to charge at that time, which will likely be higher than the current price.
The pricing makes GeForce Now feel less like a fully released product and more like a paid beta. Although many of the kinks have been worked out — we’ll talk more about those later — the time-bound pricing suggests that Nvidia is rushing GeForce Now to market and will figure out the economics later. It’s likely a response to Google Stadia (read our Google Stadia review and our Google Stadia vs GeForce Now comparison).
Shadow’s New Pricing
Shadow recently overhauled its pricing structure, offering much more variety depending on your budget. Although it is much more expensive than GeForce Now, Shadow offers a full Windows 10 desktop. Furthermore, the pricing is static for the time being. You won’t need to worry about your subscription price jumping after a year.
There are three plans, but only one is available at the time of writing. The Boost plan costs between $15 and $12 per month, depending on if you buy a year upfront or pay for it monthly.
At that price, you’re getting the equivalent of a GTX 1080, with support for full HD gaming at 60 frames per second. Boost subscribers also get 256GB of storage out of the gate, with the option to upgrade.
The Ultra and Infinite plans aren’t available just yet — Shadow has a waiting list going — but they improve upon Boost in a number of ways. Both plans are rated for 4K gaming with real-time ray tracing, and they come with a storage upgrade, to boot. These plans are slated to launch in May, so if you sign up for the waiting list, you can get access to them right away.
This round is tricky. Shadow is undoubtedly more expensive, but that’s only because Nvidia hasn’t fully released its pricing for GeForce Now yet. If you’re paying, Shadow is the safer bet. That said, GeForce Now has a free plan and Shadow doesn’t. That’s enough to put GeForce Now on the board this round.
When it comes to cloud gaming, features are a dime a dozen, with companies putting out marketing bullet points for technology that’s just getting its feet off the ground. Still, our two competitors have some unique offerings that set them apart from the rest of the market.
Even with the marketing hoopla, Shadow has the most relevant feature out of any cloud gaming service: a full Windows 10 desktop. When buying into Shadow, you’re not just purchasing the ability to play games in the cloud. Rather, you’re buying access to a higher-powered, personalized remote desktop.
Anything that you could do on a normal PC, you can do with Shadow (outside of torrenting; that’s a no-no). Your remote computer comes with the hardware any gaming computer would, too. With the high-end plans, Shadow supports real-time ray tracing with a Titan RTX equivalent, 32GB of RAM and gigabit networking.
Nvidia GeForce Now is restricted to game streaming, but that comes with a few benefits. Namely, games are automatically installed and patched from the get-go, so you can hop in right away. There isn’t storage space to worry about, either. One of the drawbacks with Shadow is that games take up storage space on your remote PC.
Like Shadow, GeForce Now also supports real-time ray tracing, which isn’t surprising considering Nvidia, well, makes the GPUs that can pump that tech. The most interesting feature of GeForce Now is how it integrates with other Nvidia services. Nvidia Highlights, for example, allows you to easily capture and share your gameplay footage.
Although that’s a nice feature to have, there’s really no contest this round. Shadow offers everything GeForce Now does and more, with support for nearly all Windows applications outside of games.
With cloud gaming in its current state, everything comes down to performance. Thankfully, GeForce Now and Shadow are among the best, leaving options like Vortex and Blacknut in the dust (read our Vortex review and Blacknut review). Still, Shadow has the edge when it comes to graphical fidelity.
Keeping everything fair, we tested Doom, Cuphead and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive across both services. GeForce Now easily kept up with each of the titles, even with the fast-paced action of Doom. CS:GO presented a few hiccups, making it unsuitable for competitive gaming. For some casual matches, though, the performance is fine.
The biggest issue we encountered was input lag in menus. Although we rarely noticed any trailing in-game, our cursor lagged just a little bit in menus. It’s a small issue, but enough to signify that you’re playing a game in the cloud, not locally.
We were also disappointed to see games running in full HD rather than 4K. Nvidia GeForce Now’s beta supported different resolutions quite impressively.
Shadow, on the other hand, was indecipherable from a local gaming experience. In Doom, we were easily able to hit 120fps at 1080p and 60fps at 4K. CS:GO and Cuphead performed excellently, too. Although there was the occasional error in streaming, it wasn’t enough to break the experience.
It felt truly one-to-one from a local gaming experience, fit with all the graphical options a PC player could want. Right now, Shadow is the definitive cloud gaming platform, with options like Google Stadia and GeForce Now looking more than a few years out of date (read our Google Stadia vs Shadow comparison).
One of the selling points of cloud gaming is the ability to play games on any device you want. Thankfully, Shadow and GeForce Now know that and provide excellent platform support. Starting with the latter, you can install GeForce Now on Windows, macOS, Nvidia Shield, Android devices with 2GB of memory or more and Android 5.0 or later.
Even with those platforms, GeForce Now is missing a few OSes, most notably Linux and iOS. Shadow supports those platforms and even more. There are currently clients for Windows, macOS, Android, Android TV, iOS and Linux. There will also be apps coming to LG smart TVs in the future.
Shadow has a longer list of supported platforms, but its eventual integration with smart TVs makes the difference for us. The ability to launch an app on your smart TV and start playing PC games with no additional hardware is what cloud gaming is all about. At the time of writing, Shadow is the only company looking to make that dream a reality.
Ease of Use
While in beta, GeForce Now had a few issues, namely when it came to organizing your games. Since release, Nvidia has outfitted the service with a brand new UI, and although many of our original issues were solved, there are a handful of news ones. GeForce Now doesn’t make it easy to add new games to your library.
The process works like this: you search for a game you want to add to your library, click a “plus” button and it’s added to the section on the main screen. It’s a simple process, but to a fault. There isn’t a dedicated library or supported game screen, meaning you can’t filter games in your library or discover new ones. Everything is handled through the search bar.
It seems small, but in practice, the lack of a dedicated library page makes GeForce Now’s UI feel half-baked. Your library is shown on a slider, five games at time. Although that’s fine for 15 or 20 games, the problem becomes apparent if you have a library of, say, 100 or more. Tabbing through your games five at a time is just annoying.
Shadow is much easier to use because it’s just Windows. The signup process is painless, with Shadow simply asking where you’re located and how you want Windows installed. Otherwise, all you’ll need to do is verify your email and install the Shadow app.
You can’t start playing games right away, though. Shadow takes some time to install Windows and get everything configured before you’re ready to jump in. The process isn’t too long — we received access after less than an hour — but it’s not as instantaneous as GeForce Now. Furthermore, you’ll need to install the games you want to play once your machine is ready.
Still, the wait is worth it. Shadow comes loaded with Microsoft Edge and the Shadow Control Panel, the latter of which gives you some hotkeys to boot out of the system. Because it’s a full Windows installation, we were easily able to install Google Chrome and get Steam up and running (read our Google Chrome review).
After that, Shadow is just like using Windows. Although it takes a little while to get everything set up, it’s not too bad, all things considered. Compared to GeForce Now, Shadow offers a much more streamlined experience, even without a dedicated application.
As we’ve seen in other areas, Shadow and GeForce Now take far different approaches to coverage. Starting with Shadow, the service is available only in the continental U.S., and even then, some states are supported more than others: 38 of the continental 48 are considered “live,” meaning they fully support Shadow.
The other 10 are “exploration mode” states. Although Shadow is technically supported in these states, a variety of factors could interfere with the experience, including a lack of infrastructure or tough terrain. If you’re in Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, Alabama, Georgia or Florida, you might have some issues with Shadow.
GeForce Now covers much larger areas with its servers. It’s available in the U.S. and Europe, without any specific restrictions on areas within those locations. Although impressive, Nvidia’s decision to paint with wide brush strokes can mean inconsistent performance, depending on where you’re located.
In our performance testing, Shadow performed much more consistently than GeForce Now, despite our testing location being officially supported by both. Although Shadow’s coverage looks less impressive on paper, it works better in practice. By leaving the coverage centralized to certain locations, Shadow is able to deliver a much better experience in the areas it supports.
Neither is on the level of Project Cloud (read our Shadow vs Project xCloud comparison), with its ability to call upon the Microsoft Azure network for expandability (read our Project xCloud review). Still, we have to give the win to Shadow. GeForce Now has a wider spread, but that rapid expansion doesn’t translate in practice.
Out of seven rounds in this Shadow vs Nvidia GeForce Now matchup, Shadow is on top with six wins to GeForce Now’s one, which is interesting, considering the two are neck and neck in our cloud gaming reviews. If anything, it goes to show just how young cloud gaming is as an emerging technology and, furthermore, how far ahead Shadow is from the competition.
Do you agree that Shadow is the better option, or are you set with GeForce Now? Let us know in the comments below and, as always, thanks for reading.