Getting into gaming requires a substantial investment. Prices fluctuate from year to year and generation to generation, but to buy a current Xbox One S you usually need to pay $299 and you can expect to pay another $200 for the Xbox One X. Sony’s lineup is similarly priced with the entry Playstation 4 Slim for about $300 and the PS4 Pro for about $400.
In the PC gaming world, there’s more flexibility, but with normal GPU prices you can build a usable gaming PC for about $500. With cryptocurrency mining driving up prices though, it’s easy to spend over $1500 on a powerful system.
If you have the money to invest in your own gaming system, there are benefits such as higher quality graphics and zero latency. However, if you aren’t sure what you want to buy yet, or if you just don’t have the money right now, buying a whole setup is a bit unreasonable.
Perhaps you’re still deciding, but want to game in the meantime. Maybe you’re someone who wants to travel with a lightweight laptop but still squeeze in some time with the latest Far Cry game. With no upfront cost or heavy tower PC, cloud gaming could be your answer.
What Is Cloud Gaming?
Cloud gaming, sometimes referred to as Gaming-as-a-Service, or GaaS, is a relatively new way of playing games that takes advantage of the power of servers. Traditionally, you’d run a game on your expensive console or PC. In the case of cloud gaming, though, the game actually runs on a server owned by a gaming service.
You log into a client from your own computer and input controls with your keyboard and mouse or gamepad. The server receives your jumps and attacks, renders the game, then streams a video of the gameplay back to you. It’s more like Netflix than online gaming, basically.
Even a decade ago this would seem pretty far out. Running servers that were powerful enough would’ve been unrealistically expensive. Streaming high quality video would have consumed too much bandwidth. The delay between input and receiving video would have resulted in an unusable gaming experience.
But now, with decent internet, it’s possible to game with cloud based computers without ruining your gaming experience with latency (learn more about latency and gaming in this article on the best VPN for gaming).
You may have heard the term gaming as a service before, but depending on where you heard it, it doesn’t necessarily mean what we’re talking about here. It has come to have two meanings in the gaming community: one is an emerging technology, the other is a widely unpopular business model that some video game publishers have been moving toward.
In the latter case, companies such as Ubisoft are building games with the expectation that players will continue paying money for things like DLC and loot boxes long after the initial purchase date to enjoy a game. Ultimately, this means that, as a player, you get less game for the same price you’re used to paying. You’ll then need to pay even more after release to get the full experience.
While we could publish a small text book about the ramifications of this transition, we’ll leave that subject to other publications like Kotaku and focus on what Cloudwards.net knows best: cloud based software.
So What Does the Cloud Mean for Gaming?
Gaming in the cloud rather than on expensive hardware might seem too good to be true, but there are some caveats. It’s promising, but not for everyone. The experience simply won’t be quite on par with a proper rig.
The first issue is that, although latency has been reduced to the point where cloud gaming can be usable, it’s still never going to be as low as running your own setup. Some cloud gaming services offer internet tests that will tell you exactly how much extra latency you can expect.
The second issue is that video needs to be compressed to be streamed to you. This is a key point when comparing services and is influenced by your connection speed. The faster your internet, the higher quality video services can send to you. A good service will take advantage of extra bandwidth and give you a better experience.
Another concern is the power of hardware. This varies widely between services and isn’t always comparable. Playstation Now will give you the power of a PS3 or PS4, depending on the title you’re playing. Some services advertise 4K capabilities, but most commonly the hardware will be about as powerful as a PS4 Slim, Xbox One S, or low-end gaming PC. Ultimately, you’ll get a better gaming experience on most home rigs.
The last issue is general clunkiness. Not all services are bad, but, as this is a new technology, many haven’t perfected the user experience yet. Interacting with a PC desktop from another PC desktop can come with some weird issues.
For example: you may be unable to alt-tab out of a game because it will simply move you away from the program giving you access to the streamed desktop. Some services don’t support game controllers. Most don’t support audio input for in-game chat.
Why Use Cloud Gaming?
With the compromises you need to make, it might be hard to justify using a cloud gaming service, but there are still some compelling advantages. Some services are available for under $10 per month. A $1000 gaming PC paid off over four years still ends up costing over $20 per month, and that’s before buying the games that many services include in the price.
When you also consider that you’ll probably want to upgrade your hardware over time, cloud gaming can definitely be cheaper overall. It also doesn’t require the upfront commitment: if you do want to buy a gaming PC, but don’t have the money available at the moment, cloud gaming is a reasonably affordable way to tide you over until you’ve saved enough to construct your ultimate battle station.
Perhaps you have a gaming PC and you just want to know if the hype surrounding PlayStation exclusives like Uncharted, Shadow of the Colossus, The Last of Us and Until Dawn is deserved. PlayStation Now gives you the opportunity to play these titles without investing in your own PS3 and PS4 to do so.
Another advantage is that cloud gaming can travel with you. A good gaming laptop that compares with a desktop will cost substantially more and likely have some compromises, too. If you travel frequently and would prefer to stick to your laptop, cloud gaming services offer gaming power that’s as light as your ultrabook.
Some cloud gaming services even include compatible games as part of the subscription. This gives you a chance to choose from a vast library without buying any titles yourself.
Cloud gaming also shows promise for the future. As streaming increases in quality and latency comes down further with wider access to fiber internet, more people might find gaming PCs to be bulky and antiquated compared to cloud alternatives. In the meantime, the best Rainbow Six experience is still on a reliable gaming tower.
The Best Cloud Gaming Services Available Now
If you’re ready to read the benefits of cloud powered gaming, read our list of the best options around right now so you can try it yourself.
Playstation Now is a great value. For those with no current gaming setup, it can be your full time machine. However, even those who already game on a powerful PC stand to benefit from the service.
For a subscription of $19.99 per month, or $44.99 per three months, you can play Playstation 3 and Playstation 4 games on your PC. The package includes all 600+ playable games, so the only thing not included in the price is the Playstation 4 controller you’ll need to use the service.
PS Now doesn’t offer the most impressive streaming experience, but it is still usable. As usually is the case with consoles, game performance is consistent, although not quite up to par with a good gaming PC.
The stream does have noticeable compression, making more complex scenes, especially those with foliage, look rather ugly. Games with simpler graphics come across well, though. Latency also makes gameplay during fast-paced games like first person shooters less than ideal.
Third-person games are still very playable and if you’ve been playing on PC while wishing you could have a go with Playstation exclusives, PS Now gives you that opportunity for a reasonable price.
If you want to try it yourself, PS Now offers a seven-day free trial so you can see if it’s worth it to you. If you decide it would be worth it to buy the real deal after all, you can still bring your game saves over with Playstation Plus.
If you don’t want access to Playstation exclusives and are simply looking for a cloud gaming PC, Liquid Sky offers a solid solution. The two tiers have hourly limits which may deter some users, but the 25 hour option, with seven days of storage persistence, for $10 seems perfect for the user who just wants to game while traveling with a laptop. The monthly subscription starts at $19.99 per month and comes with 80 hours of game time.
Liquid Sky doesn’t come with a game library, but will run any PC game you own. When you launch the client, you can choose between two power levels. The more powerful option will use up your allotted time twice as fast, but with the lower tier offering only 2GB of VRAM, it’s almost necessary for any game worth running in the cloud rather than locally.
Liquid Sky takes an open playground approach to the cloud PC. You can install programs as you wish and the interface has an option to paste the admin password so you can access admin-only settings.
Liquid Sky’s streaming delivers a solid gaming experience. Latency is fairly low and video compression isn’t distracting except for in very busy scenes. The system performance was also usable; AAA titles will run at medium to high settings at 60 frames per second. For players who prefer a gamepad to keyboard and mouse, Liquid Sky worked immediately with my PS4 controller and offers a setup menu for controller configuration.
Overall, if you’re looking for a cloud gaming service that allows you maximum control over the PC, as if you had your own, Liquid Sky delivers with a reasonably priced service with solid performance.
Vortex offers a service for PC gaming that sits somewhere between Playstation Now and Liquid Sky. Rather than giving you direct control over the PC, the Vortex client gives you a list of compatible games that you can play.
The game library is also middle of the road. Rather than providing the full library or requiring you to bring your own games, Vortex’s library of over 100 compatible games is partially paid for and partially bring-your-own-license.
For someone who is just looking to get into gaming for the first time, or for someone who just wants to see what cloud gaming can offer, Vortex is a solid, flexible service that doesn’t require you to be super familiar with running a gaming PC to get on board.
The streaming isn’t very impressive, but it is usable. The PCs that Vortex offer use 3GB GTX 1060s. These aren’t extraordinarily powerful, but are still a huge step up from most laptops. With Vortex’s subscription price of $9.99 per month, it’s still a solid value compared to building your own computer with equivalent specs.
Compression and latency are noticeable, but most games will still be playable. While Vortex is compatible with some fast paced games like Doom and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, it’s better suited for games like Civilization VI or Euro Truck Simulator 2 that are less dependent on split-second timing.
One of the nicest things about Vortex is that ability to just sign up and go. There’s a console-like appeal in not setting up a PC to run a specific way. The games are ready for you in the client. While the streaming quality could use some work, this budget offering still has a place.
Honorable Mention: GeForce Now
Of all the cloud gaming services that are playable now, GeForce Now is without a doubt the most impressive. It provides a versatile gaming PC experience with ample graphics horsepower, low latency and high video quality.
Unfortunately, GeForce Now is in closed beta at the time of writing. You can sign up for the waitlist, but there’s no guarantee of getting in. Nvidia also hasn’t announced pricing. As good as the experience is, nothing can be known of the value until Nvidia announces how much it will cost.
There’s still a lot to look forward to when GeForce Now comes out of beta though. No other service gives me as much hope for the future of cloud gaming. Though it doesn’t come with a game library like some other services, it delivers in pretty much every other way.
From your Mac or PC, you can use GeForce Now to access one of Nvidia’s servers equipped with a Tesla P40. While it’s hard to get any meaning out of just the GPU spec as there isn’t a lot of information about how it’s being used, the configuration works quite well. It ran Rise of the Tomb Raider with Very High settings and Pure Hair on Very High and still managed to average 79.35 frames per second. For those unfamiliar with the game, this is fairly impressive.
If you own a monitor capable of a refresh rate higher than 60Hz, you can even take advantage of those extra frames. While the number of users who own such a monitor but not their own gaming PC is probably very small, the inclusion of this capability shows that Nvidia is serious about not cutting corners on the streaming side of things.
The streaming quality is impressive beyond just frame rate. You can stream at standard quality or with Ultra Streaming mode. Ultra will require a better internet connection, but will enable a higher refresh rate and lower latency.
With Ultra enabled, the video quality is noteworthy. It certainly isn’t quite as good as using a native PC as streaming uncompressed video just isn’t realistic right now, but the picture was still sharp with minimal compression artifacts.
The latency was also low enough to make the experience truly satisfying. Again, as impressive as this is, it’s still noticeably slower than an actual gaming PC, but it was responsive enough for even first person shooters like Overwatch assuming you don’t do competitive play.
Even with powerful servers and strong streaming, a cloud gaming service still needs a way for you to use it. Where Playstation Now went for a closed, unique system and Liquid Sky delivers with full access to a cloud PC, GeForce Now lands somewhere in between.
It runs as a PC, but doesn’t give you full access to the system. Instead, GeForce Now has a launch menu that lists all compatible games. While this limits your ability to customize the PC, it does mean that there’s no clunkiness of using a desktop on a desktop. Overall it’s a worthy trade off.
That said, if a game you want to play isn’t specifically supported by GeForce Now, there’s no native way to launch it. However, unlike with Vortex, if you bought it through Steam it’s easy enough to work around. You can simply launch a game you don’t own, then navigate to the game you want to play through the Steam interface and launch it there.
The most notable thing about the client is that everything works. My PS4 controller worked, as some but not all other services had managed, but more impressively, GeForce Now was the only service where audio input worked. This means that in-game chat was fully functional.
Between the performance, streaming quality and client, GeForce Now feels like the most polished experience so far. If you can get into the free beta, it’s definitely worth your time. Otherwise, keep your eyes out for the full release and pricing.
Honorable Mention: Shadow
Lastly, Shadow really needs to be mentioned. It isn’t widely available yet, so we haven’t had first hand experience, but it makes some bold promises that will keep it on the radar until it’s available outside of the initial launch areas.
With the equivalent of GTX 1080s for GPUs and claims of 4k streaming as well as gigabit internet for the cloud PC, Shadow might just be able to deliver the highest quality streaming experience.
With prices ranging from $34.95 to $49.95 per month depending on commitment, it’s definitely a premium option. Even with the high pricing, if it lives up to the claims, it could very well be worth it.
After trying out several cloud gaming services, I think it’s clear that they have potential. Even if they aren’t as pleasant to use as a proper gaming rig, as faster internet becomes more readily available and these platforms are improved, the experience could eventually rival an at home gaming tower, but with much more flexibility.
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Will you be moving to cloud gaming, or are you committed to an at home machine? Let us know in the comments below. Thanks for reading.