Hands-on with OnLive for Android: it works!

Wednesday night, streaming game service OnLive announced that it was finally launching a game client for tablets and smartphones. (They've had a viewer for some time; you could watch other people playing but couldn't play yourself.) A few hours later the OnLive client for Android hit the market. There's a client coming for iOS devices and the Kindle Fire too.

It's always interesting to be looking at your newsfeed when an embargo expires; many tech blogs posted about OnLive for moble at 9 pm ET Wednesday night. A lot of the coverage claimed that the experience was pretty laggy, but I wanted to see for myself, so I snagged the Android client on my Acer A500 tablet. And in fact the experience was pretty rough during launch night (and presumably during the time the press got to demo the service). I decided I'd give them some time to work the kinks out of the launch.

I'm glad I did, because when I went back to test the service again on Thursday night, it was working very nicely. I spent an hour or so playing Darksiders and Just Cause 2 on my Android tablet. I didn't find the gameplay to be laggy, though the experience still isn't perfect. Here's why:

Darksiders is one of the games that OnLive has added touch controls to. They work just as well as any touch controls on tablet games. In other words, they're OK for casual play, but virtual joysticks are never going to feel as good as real joysticks. Plus, wow, there are a lot of controls to Darksiders when you see them all laid out on a tablet screen!

Pardon the quality of this shot (it was taken with an iPhone with me just holding the tablet) but hopefully it'll get my point across:

That's a lot of virtual buttons!

In order to solve this problem OnLive plans to start selling a Bluetooth controller that will pair up with any of the tablet/smartphone devices they support. The downside is that it's expensive ($50) for the casual gamer, and OnLive seems to be a service targeted at casual gamers.

The other problem, of course, is how you manage this set up. You really need a stand for your phone/tablet so your hands are free to hold the controller. Which leads me back to my testing session.

Just Cause 2 has not been modified by OnLive to support touch controls. However the Acer A500 has a full size USB port, and Honeycomb supports game pads, though not all (or even many) Android apps do. It turns out OnLive does!

I plugged in an Xbox 360 Wired Controller and started OnLive and then Just Cause 2 and a few seconds later I was grappling around the environment, shooting bad guys and blowing stuff up. It worked splendidly. It was the same experience I'd have playing through OnLive using their Micro Console or a laptop. The only snafu was what I just mentioned: finding a place to prop up the tablet so I could hold the controller.

Now a lot of gamers turn their nose up at OnLive, and I can understand why. If you have an Xbox 360, a PS3 or a gaming PC, you don't really need OnLive. But there's an audience out there. I have a friend at work who played video games when he was younger, but now he's married and has a kid and he's left gaming behind. He doesn't have a console and isn't enough into games to want to go out and buy one and hook it up to his TV. He's a Mac guy so doesn't really game on his computer either. But he does play games on his iPad; everyone seems comfortable playing games on tablets and smartphones, even people who sneer at 'Gamers.'

When my friend heard about OnLive coming to tablets, he was pretty excited. Here was a way for him to play a 'real' game every now and then without all the investment. He's never going to be like me; sitting down in front of a game almost every night. But when the mood hits him, OnLive on his iPad gives him a way to scratch that itch.

Now the funny thing about my friend is that he could've played via OnLive on his Mac well before now, but even though I've tried to convince him to check it out, he never has. His Mac isn't a place he plays games. His iPad is. Odd, no? I suppose people are creatures of habit.

You can try OnLive for free. If you like it, there's a few ways to get more. You can sign up for a $10/month "Playpack" that gives you unlimited access to a specific library of games (tending towards older or indie titles) or you can buy a "PlayPass" for a specific game. You can buy a permanent PlayPass for about the same price you'd spend buying the game at Amazon, or rent a game by buying a 3 or 5-day PlayPass for a few bucks. Many of the games have 30 minute demos that you can try without spending a dime.

I was testing the service via WiFi, but OnLive says it'll work over 4G/LTE connections too. My Motorola Droid isn't supported, even on WiFi. Best thing to do is download the app and try a few demos before you spend any money. That way you'll know how the service is going to work for you with your specific Internet connection (OnLive is, naturally, very dependent on having a solid connection).

Let me know if you try it!

Read more of Peter Smith's TechnoFile blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Peter on Twitter at @pasmith. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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