The idea behind OnLive is to stream videogames from a remote server to your computer, and then play the game in a light client application. Instead of the game being installed on your local machine, it is crunched remotely on a server, and streamed in to your Mac or PC. Your input is sent to the server, it plays the game, and you play it on your local machine.
This opens up a whole new world of gaming possibilities: suddenly you don’t need to own a computer with the latest high-end graphic card, CPU, or packed with memory to run even the most high-end games.
In fact, the system specs for OnLive are simply a 2Mbps connection (although 5Mbps is recommended), Mac OS X 10.5.8, Windows 7 or Vista, and a screen resolution of 1024x768. It can run on just about any machine, even a MacBook Air.
Keen gamers will understandably have some questions: how good the experience will be? How fast will the response time be, and will there be any lag between the input of the controls and the response of the video?
These are all valid points but one thing we’re happy to report is that the service (for the most part) is responsive and the games are perfectly playable. Although there are instances when the display starts break up; sometimes the quality of the video decreases (and it’s fairly low resolution to begin with); by and large we found it perfectly possible to play the latest games on everything from a MacBook Air to a two-year old PC.
Much of that depends on your connection though. We tested out OnLive in the office, in a hotel room, at home, and in various other locations and the results were somewhat mixed.
We were surprised to find that in the Macworld office and hotel (both sporting fairly standard connections) that performance was top-notch. Reaction times to the games was exemplary at most times (if anything it was the display that became sporadic, not the controls). More importantly it’ll sometimes display a “Network quality too low” error on the screen and you’re left twiddling your thumbs.
Ironically the worst performing environment was in a home setting using a 50Mbps Virgin broadband service. This reported several lost connections and failed to work roughly half of the time. This is because raw download speed isn’t the most important factor when using online gaming services (or video) and ping, jitter, and packet loss are all more important for online gaming.
So it’s probably best to test your service using Pingtest to see what kind of grade your connection has. Although it’s free to download the client and there are plenty of trial games available for you to test out OnLive on your internet connection.
Aside from the odd connection glitch the attention to detail in the service is impressive. There is a good (if somewhat small) collection of new release with some big-ticket items like Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Batman: Arkham City; and lots of lower key titles like Borderlands, Braid, and BioShock.
Pricing is on par with purchasing a game on Steam or picking up a physical copy (Deux Ex and Arkham City are both £34.99), and you can purchase a 3-day or 5-day pass for some games for £3.99 or £5.99 respectively.
For Mac owners, the real advantage is (connection permitting) the ability to play some high-profile gaming titles a long time before they are converted to Mac. PC gamers with decent machines have less incentive to stream online rather than buy outright, but the service is still of interest.
Technically OnLive is a remarkable achievement. The video feed is split into 16 parts, each being compressed using the H.264 codec, the audio is split up; and the video and audio is reassembled into the display while your controls are sent in the other direction.
When you actually use the service you realise just how clever it is. Games are slightly converted to work remotely, and all game saves are made instantly to your online account (this is great for mobile gamers who can play at home and carry on with a laptop from the same save point).
There’s no installation process, and games can be played the instant you purchase them. One nice touch is that you can watch in on other gamers playing before making a purchase to get a real feel for what the game is like.
But there is a price to be paid. Unlike installing on a desktop we found consistency of service to be an issue. Sometimes it performs better than other times, and we’d still be tempted to pick up a physical copy or full digital download if our computer was capable of playing it.
Having said that, we do have a lot of faith in OnLive’s future as an idea. It has a number of tricks up its sleeve. Aside from the desktop versions an OnLive Game System enables you to play the latest games on a television with an Xbox-style controller. And at just £69 it’s a lot cheaper than buying an Xbox or PS3.
Then there’s the promise of tablet and iPad versions in development. The iPad version is in for approval with Apple (we’re taking bets on whether it’s approved or not). If so, the thought of playing full-scale PC games on an iPad is beyond intriguing.
And it’s scalable. As games get better, and internet service improves OnLive will always be able to run the latest games at the highest level of quality. And when it comes to forking out for a new graphics card, more memory, or a whole new system to play the latest game; the idea of just streaming it here and now for the same price will become increasingly appealing.
Pros: Play PC games on a Mac, no installation, saves space on hard drive, pick up and continue games on multiple computers,
Cons: Service can be spotty at times
It’s certainly worth testing out OnLive and we found it a great way to play the latest hits like Deus Ex and Batman: Arkham City. When it works, it takes your breath away. The service is a bit hit-and-miss at times though.