Around 2015, a few companies started to pop up that offer “cloud gaming,” a service promising to turn your cheap laptop into a high powered gaming rig through the power of “the cloud” (and a fast internet connection). A lot has changed in the few years, and cloud gaming is now a fully realized service, with many different options from which to choose.
What Is Cloud Gaming Anyway?
In cloud gaming, the gaming provider runs the game on its servers and then streams the display back to you. The host app on your machine sends your mouse and keyboard inputs back up to the server on which the game is running. So it doesn’t matter what specs you have on your laptop, as the server can run any game in perfect quality, so long as you have a connection good enough to play 1080p60 video.
A few years ago, the technology was in its infancy, with very high latency and major compression holding it back significantly. Now that they’ve had time to improve, and especially with the rise of high speed fiber internet, it’s a very real option for people who can’t afford to spend hundreds of dollars on a gaming PC.
Cloud gaming isn’t just another amalgam of buzzwords; it’s an increasingly popular service that’s trying to change the way we play games. Instead of paying hundreds for a console or a PC, you can now rent your games similar to watching movies on Netflix. Microsoft, EA, and even Google are working on their own services, so the market is definitely headed that way.
So Why Even Buy a PC Anymore?
The most important thing holding back cloud gaming is internet speed. You need a fast, stable internet connection to take advantage of cloud gaming. Ideally, you’ll need a consistent 50 Mbps downstream speed, and that’s if you’re not sharing that speed with others. Having two people playing games at the same time, or having someone else streaming video in the other room, eats into that speed.
You can check your internet speeds using Ookla’s Speedtext service. In addition to speed, you’re also looking for consistency here. If your internet lags, your entire connection will be cut off for a few seconds.
While checking your speed, make sure also to take a look at your ping value, which is the amount of time it takes your computer to send a packet out to a server and get a response. In practice, every 16ms of additional ping time on your connection is another frame of lag, and that’s on top of the native latency due to processing on the server end. Location to the datacenter the game is running on also contributes to latency. If you’re close, you could be looking at only one or two frames on a good connection, but if you live in a rural area far from datacenters, you could be looking at over 50ms of extra delay. You’re also going to have a much better time on ethernet than on WiFi.
However, with a good connection, most services can get your overall input delay down to just a few frames—usually less than a twelfth of a second. Granted, this is way higher than you’d get with an actual computer, and if you’re playing super-competitive multiplayer games, you might find them not quite as enjoyable.
For hardcore gamers, the price can also get out of hand quickly. Since most services, charge by the hour, a 40 hour per week gaming habit can get expensive fast. But for the average gamer, spending a couple bucks a month to play a few games on the weekend is way cheaper than buying a PC, or even a console.
For most people stuck on a laptop, cloud gaming can be an excellent middle ground between not being able to play at all and spending hundreds on a PC.
The Best in the Business: NVIDIA GeForce NOW
Nvidia has been pouring resources into the development of GeForce NOW, even going so far as offering the service entirely for free (despite hefty server costs on their end) to drive interest, and most importantly, beta testers, to the platform.
NOW is locked down to supported games only (unlike some of the other apps we’ll talk about in a bit) and that can be a bit restrictive if you want to play something not supported, or use it for anything other than gaming. But, for what it does, NOW is the best out there. It’s intuitive and takes no setup to get started. Just sign in, click the game you want to play, sign in to Steam (or other supported launchers), and you’re good to go. Granted, you can only play games you actually own on Steam, despite what the main screen would lead you to believe.
After having played on multiple cloud gaming services, I can say that NOW’s latency is definitely the lowest. This is probably due to their Nvidia GRID technology being very good at virtualization, and keeping the processing latency down on the server. NOW feels very smooth. For most people, if you sat them down in front of a game running on NOW, they wouldn’t notice anything. There’s definitely lag if you’re looking for it, but if you don’t mind too much, it won’t hamper your experience.
This will vary from person to person, of course, and it also depends heavily on your location. I live next to a few big data centers, and have very good ping, which helps my connection quite a bit. You may not find yourself as lucky, or you may have better luck on another service. Overall though, NOW takes the cake for the best service out there right now.
Here’s the downside: It’s free. No really, it’s free because it’s in closed beta (at the time of writing this, at least). That means you might have to wait months to be accepted into the beta program, and you might not be accepted at all. There are people selling accounts on the NOW subreddit for around $20, but that carries a high risk of being scammed, and we don’t recommend it. Nvidia will be releasing the service on a paid model in the future, but at what time is still a mystery.
Do It Yourself: Parsec
Parsec is a wonderful little app, and its applications of it go way beyond just cloud gaming. It’s really just a very fast streaming client—similar to VNC, but without any of the delay and lag.
It’s the same kind of streaming client NOW uses, but you have to rent the server yourself. This isn’t hard though, as they’re partnered with AWS and Paperspace to offer in-app purchases of servers. You only pay for the hours you play, and those prices range from $0.50 to $0.80 an hour (depending on the host) plus storage costs. Generally, you might spend somewhere in the range of $40 a month if you game regularly.
You’ll have to set up and install games yourself, but that isn’t a huge deterrent. It’s actually a good thing, as it supports mods and games that aren’t on NOW. For those interested in streaming on Twitch or making YouTube videos, you can also run OBS in the background to capture high quality footage or stream your game, with none of the compression from running it down the pipe to you.
Parsec’s quality and experience really comes down to the provider. I haven’t tested Paperspace, the cheaper option, but running on AWS gives me maybe a frame or two more lag than on NOW. The quality is a little lower as well, with heavier compression, though it does have settings to adjust. Granted, this could be down to data center locations, but I’d trust Nvidia’s network to be a little more reliable.
The really interesting part about Parsec isn’t the games though—it’s the software. Since you’re not locked to running only games like you are with NOW, you could install anything and run it with the performance of a high end machine. Want to render out a long video that your Macbook can’t handle? Render it on Parsec. Need a workstation for high load tasks? Parsec’s got you covered. For those stuck on a machine unable to handle certain tasks, this can feel like buying a whole new computer at the very reasonable price of less than $50 a month.
Parsec also can run on your own computer to let you stream anything from your desktop to your laptop from miles away, which is a really cool feature. It also has a weird feature of adding online multiplayer support to games that don’t have online multiplayer. This is because your friend can run the app on their computer, add you as a friend, and then let you connect in as Player 2. They stream all the gameplay back to you, while playing it on their own computer.
Honorable Mentions: LiquidSky, Shadow, Vortex, Playstation Now
There are quite a few services out there, many with similar models and price points. If NOW and Parsec aren’t working for you, maybe give these a shot:
- LiquidSky: Similar to Parsec, but a little more streamlined at the cost of being clunkier and more expensive. I found that I had a lot more compression artifacts than on NOW or Parsec with this, but the latency and quality otherwise was good. They charge by the hour, but function similar to a prepaid phone plan, making you buy more hours in “packs” of 25 or so. Luckily the hours carry over from month to month.
- Shadow: Cloud gaming at a fixed price. Shadow functions as a subscription service, with a price of $35 a month no matter how much time you spend playing. For those of you that play way more than you should, this service may be for you. It’s also similar to Parsec in that it’s essentially a computer in the cloud, so you can run any app you want in it.
- Vortex gets a mention for being something different: an in-browser cloud gaming client. They do have native apps, but the browse client is something unique. They’re also a subscription service, but function like NOW does, only allowing games they support.
- Playstation Now, not to be confused with the similarly named Nvidia service, is a game streaming service featuring Playstation games, including Playstation exclusives. It allows you to play on PC as well, meaning you can play PS4 games on your laptop. Microsoft is working on a similar service for Xbox games, but Playstation Now is out now.
Is Cloud Gaming Really the Future?
With the way the industry is headed, it seems like it is. Everything appears to be moving towards subscription based business models, which cloud gaming mixes quite well with. The ability to pack a lot of power into a small amount of space is what the computer industry has been trying to do for decades, and now we can have near unlimited power on any machine capable of playing video. Even in the last few years, all these services have improved a lot, so who knows what cloud gaming, or gaming in general, will look like in five years time. Will we see consoles replaced by mobile phones? Or will latency and connection issues hamper the industry? Either way, if the games are good, we’ll keep playing.