OnLive game streaming hands-on: a real surprise

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I’ve made no secret of my skepticism for OnLive, the streaming gaming service that launched last Thursday. In fact as recently as Friday I expressed my doubt about the service. Then Friday evening my account was activated and I got to try the service first hand, from the comfort of my Comcast-serviced home.

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And now I’m a believer. The service works pretty much as advertised, or at least has done so for me. How well it performs for you will depend on your internet speed and your distance from the nearest OnLive data center. The most up-to-date info on data centers comes from January, when there was one in Washington DC, one in Dallas and one in the Bay area. I'm outside of Boston. I've contacted OnLive to see if they have an updated list of data center locations but haven't heard back from them yet.

There are two broad considerations when it comes to OnLive’s long-term success. The tech stuff (how well it works) and the business model. Let’s start with tech.

When you start playing an OnLive game, somewhere in the bowels of a data center a server fires up the game for you and starts streaming it. It takes a minute or so before you start getting data. There’s no installing (or uninstalling) and no worrying about DirectX, graphics driver updates or other tweaks. It just works.

On the down side, you’re getting a game running at 1280x720 with no chance to change that. You can run the client full-screen or Windowed, and OnLive with upscale the image to fit your resolution/window size. If you’ve got a gaming rig capable of running games at high-resolution this might be a problem for you; the games aren’t going to look as sharp as you’re used to. On the other hand, if you have a dedicated gaming rig you’re probably not really the target audience anyway.

I put OnLive to the test on three systems: my gaming PC, an aging Mac Book Pro (2.16 Ghz Core Duo w/2 gigs of RAM) and an Atom-based netbook running Windows 7 w/1 gig of RAM. The service performed flawlessly on the gaming rig and Mac, but wouldn’t run on the netbook due to it being underpowered. (If it had run on the netbook I would’ve been very surprised; it's a severely underpowered machine.) The official requirements are 32-bit Windows XP, 32- 64-bit Vista/Windows 7, or Mac OS 10.6+ for an OS; a dual core processor; a monitor that supports a resolution of least 1280x720; and a wired 5 Mbps connection (that wired requirement is going to be a hindrance for a lot of laptop users).

Once you start playing a game, you’ll quickly forget that you’re streaming it. It runs pretty much the way you’d expect a game to run. If you’re nit-picking then you’ll be able to find issues: sometimes high-res textures take a few seconds to fill and every once in a while control will ‘stick’ for a few milliseconds. These are problems to point at when testing the service, but when you’re just playing a game for fun they won’t be an issue. For the average consumer who doesn’t have a high-end PC to game on, OnLive works well. It’s pretty cool.

One thing to consider is how much of your monthly bandwidth cap you’re going through, if you have one of those (and you probably do, even if your ISP doesn’t advertise it). I haven’t found a good way to measure this. I will say that other gamers in my house didn’t notice any kind of lag or sluggishness in their own games, so OnLive wasn’t saturating our bandwidth while I was playing.

Each of these panels is a live stream of someone playing a game. You can zoom in to watch them full screen if you like
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