Most mainstream laptops, including budget, business and ultraportable models, are great for putting together presentations, watching videos and all manner of multitasking. But they lack discrete graphics cards, which relegates the systems to playing older games or casual titles. So, if you want to unleash a Super Saiyan ass-kicking in Dragonball Fighterz, you''ll have to buy something. You can purchase a gaming laptop, desktop or an external GPU (provided it plays nice with your laptop), but all of those cost a pretty penny.
However, there's another option and it lives in the cloud. Yep, I'm talking about cloud-gaming services. For the uninitiated, cloud-gaming services allow gamers to play games on their normally underpowered systems by downloading and rendering the title to a remote server and streaming it onto the consumer's device. And since everything is done in the cloud supported by powerful GPUs, game downloads and installs are much shorter than using a physical device, which means you can play that much faster.
The idea has been introduced to the mainstream market in fits and starts, but a new crop of upcoming subscription-based services (all are in beta), such as Nvidia GeForce Now, LiquidSky and the Blade Shadow PC, hope to prove once and for all that you don't need a high-end rig to play demanding games. We pitted these services head-to- head to see which one reigns supreme.
The most attractive feature about a cloud-gaming service is its versatility, allowing owners of low-performance Macs and PCs to get in on the fun. However, Shadow PC and LiquidSky extend the love even further, lending their accessibility to smartphones and tablets. GeForce Now supports only PC and Mac, but that might change as the service moves closer to launch.
LiquidSky also has a glaring hole in lineup as it currently does not support any Mac products. The company is looking to remedy that as evidenced by the large Apple icon with the Coming Soon tab beneath it on the company's site. Shadow PC also has an asterisk for its current lack of iOS support.
Winner: Blade Shadow PC. Shadow PC has the most comprehensive device coverage to date.
The idea of gaming on any old laptop, tablet or smartphone is definitely appealing. But before you whip out that Chromebook, each service has some minimum requirements to consider. Regarding GeForce Now, you need at least Mac OS X 10.10 (Yosemite) with a 25 Mbps internet download speed with a 5GHz wireless router or a hardwired Ethernet connection. PC support requires a system with at least Windows 7, an Intel Core i3 processor, 4GB of RAM and a Nvidia GeForce 600. An AMD Radeon HD 3000 or an Intel HD Graphics 2000 GPU would work as well.
LiquidSky's requirements are a bit more discerning –– you'll need a PC with at least Windows 8, 2GB of RAM, 250MB of storage and Intel HD 4000 Graphics. Although LiquidSky will support Android devices with 5.2 (Lollipop) installed, the company recommends at least 6.0 (Marshmallow). The company is also working to bring Mac owners into the mix. When the functionality launches, you'll need a system with at least OS X 10.9 Mavericks+, 4GB of RAM and 250MB of storage.
Similar to Nvidia, Shadow PC requires PCs to have at least Windows 7. But Shadow advises that your system have more current components, including a CPU no older than 2011. And while they recommend using an Nvidia GPU, you can also get away with an AMD GPU, provided it's no older than 2012. LiquidSky can support Android systems running Lollipop at minimum.
Winner: Nvidia GeForce Now. Although it lacks Android compatibility, GeForce Now has the most forgiving minimum requirements of the three.
The beta version of LiquidSky currently has two tiers of service. You can pay a $9.99 one-time charge, which covers up to 25 hours of playtime with 200GB of storage that the company will maintain for a week. That will also buy you access to the LiquidSky community and priority tech support via email.
A monthly LiquidSky subscription begins at $19.99 and starts at 80 hours of play time, 500GB of permanent storage, community access, email and priority support. You also have the ability to change which data center you're assigned to. That's an important feature because the closer you are to your center, the less latency you'll experience. Each plan will grant access to a virtual system with up to 12 vCPU cores, 32GB of RAM and 8GB of GPU VRAM.
LiquidSky also offers SkyCredits, the company's own currency that is used for time spent using your SkyComputer, which is essential to your remote desktop. One SkyCredit is the equivalent of $0.004, or $0.24/hour of game play . That means that $19.99 will net you 5,000 SkyCredits which translates into 83.3 hours of access.
Despite being in beta, Shadow PC has three subscription levels. They consist of a monthly $49.95 tier, a three-month membership for $39.95 a month, and a yearly fee of $419.40, which breaks down to $34.95 a month. Those subscription fees allow you to access a virtual machine with the power of a Windows 10 PC with an Intel Core i7 Xeon processor with 12GB of RAM, 256GB of storage and an Nvidia GTX 1080 GPU. And if you need another physical system in your home, you can purchase the company's set-top box for $139.95, or rent the device for $9.95 a month.
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Recognizing that it's a beta project, Nvidia isn't charging you to test GeForce Now, so you can go to their site and sign up for the app for free . However, due to popular demand, you might end up on the waiting list for awhile.
Winner: Nvidia GeForce Now. Nvidia isn't charging people to beta-test its app.
Each service is available in some capacity even though they are all in beta. However, some allow more access than others. GeForce Now is available in North America and Europe, but Nvidia's constantly adding new locations and servers. LiquidSky claims a global audience with data centers located in Europe, China and the U.S. Shadow has been running in France since 2016 and the United Kingdom since January and has just come stateside, rolling out a launch in California.
Winner: LiquidSky. Boasting global coverage, LiquidSky has the best availability.
OK, so now you can game on your ultraportable, but what games can you actually play? Nvidia's GeForce Now has 150 games, including Tekken 7, H1Z1 and Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus. While GeForce now does over a number of free-to-play titles, you'll have to own the majority of the featured titles before you can play them on the service via either Steam or UPlay. Because GeForce Now provides unlimited storage, you can install as many games as you want. However, you can only each game for only 4 hours at a time to ensure equal server access to everyone using the service.
LiquidSky also requires that you own your games. However, unlike GeForce Now, LiquidSky supports almost any title compatible with Windows, except games exclusive to Windows. And while LiquidSky does not have any time constraints per se, you are charged $1 per minute for access to the SkyComputer, which can be an expensive proposition over time.
Winner: Blade Shadow PC. Shadow PC offers the largest catalog of titles, provided you own them.
Playing your favorite games via the cloud has the potential to be great, but only if it looks good and plays well. GeForce Now streams games at 1920 x 1080 at 60 frames per second (fps). The service also offers an Ultra Streaming mode that doubles the frame rate to 120 fps or higher, cutting down on any latency. LiquidSky also serves up games in full HD at 60 fps. Blade claims that Shadow PC is the first cloud gaming service to stream 4K (3840 x 2560) content at 30 fps, but if you don't have a 4K monitor, you can turn down the graphics settings to 1080p and get 144 Hz, or 72 fps.
Winner: Blade Shadow PC. Shadow PC is currently the only cloud-gaming service that offers 4K resolution.
Peripherals are almost as important as the game itself. It's the gear that helps you stay in contact with your teammates, livestream the action, or just get your head in the game. So it's important for any cloud gaming service you're considering to support the basic gear.
GeForce Now is compatible with a number of gaming mice and and USB keyboards for PC and Mac. However, fans of Apple's Magic Mouse will want to get a dedicated gaming mouse due to the peripheral's lack of left and right buttons. As far as controllers, you can use either a PlayStation 4 or an Xbox One controller whether or not it is wired or Bluetooth. You can also use an Xbox 360 controller. GeForce Now is also headset/headphone- and microphone-friendly. The company has yet to test webcams and external hard drives, so there's no word on their compatibility.
LiquidSky supports a myriad of peripherals, including controllers, USB microphones, webcams, headsets/headphones, external hard drives and any other USB 2.0-powered devices. If you're using the Windows client on the Shadow, you're limited to the Xbox controllers. However, Blade is working on an updated version of Shadow that will support USB over IP so you can use any USB-equipped peripheral that you'd have on a regular system.
Mac owners can use either an Xbox or a PS4 controller; just make sure they're installed and recognized by your laptop first. Android and iOS users can use any controller that is compatible with their respective operating systems. Blade also reports the service can support Microsoft's Mixed Reality headsets like the HP Windows Mixed Reality Headset V1000-100 and the Acer Windows Mixed Reality AH101 headset.
Winner: LiquidSky. From controllers to webcams, LiquidSky supports a vast catalog of peripherals.
As loath as I am to admit it, life isn't all about fun and games. So in those moments when you have to do actual work, it's nice to know that if you need to, you can do some actual work on these cloud gaming systems -- with the exception of GeForce Now. Yes, GeForce Now is serious about its gaming. So serious in fact, that you run the risk of your account being terminated if you try to use a workaround to install non-gaming programs.
That leaves Shadow and LiquidSky. The former allows you to install any program that you would on a traditional PC. That means you can have a full Windows interface on your phone, tablet or Mac. And while that's great in itself, Shadow also keeps your virtual system up to date, installing the latest drivers and updates behind the scenes. In terms of running CAD and other workstation-friendly work, Shadow PC provides users with a Nvidia Quadro P5000 GPU.
LiquidSky also allows you to run any applications you want. The company has reported users running CAD and other CPU and GPU-intensive applications for video editing and game development. LiquidSky is also in talks with large companies looking to use their service to stream interactive apps and content.
Winner: Blade Shadow PC. From video editing to game development, Shadow PC has the most comprehensive use case outside of gaming. The company also keeps its virtual systems up to date behind the scenes.
From the looks of things, cloud-gaming services have a chance to stick around this time. Even though they're currently in beta, LiquidSky, Nvidia GeForce Now and Blade Shadow PC are laying the groundwork to become the "Netflix of games" that everyone seems to be waiting for.
|Row 0 - Cell 0||BladeShadow PC||NvidiaGeForce Now||Liquid Sky|
|Supported Devices||Row 1 - Cell 2||Row 1 - Cell 3|
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|Catalog||Row 5 - Cell 2||Row 5 - Cell 3|
|Resolution||Row 6 - Cell 2||Row 6 - Cell 3|
|Peripherals||Row 7 - Cell 1||Row 7 - Cell 2|
|Additional Uses||Row 8 - Cell 1||Row 8 - Cell 2||Row 8 - Cell 3|
Focused solely on gaming, GeForce Now is carefully curating its game library so gamers can get the best possible experience for both Mac and PC users. LiquidSky offers powerful performance and compatibility with a solid number of operating systems and peripherals, and with affordable subscription tiers. Shadow PC is more expensive than the competition, but it is the only service to offer 4K resolution and is compatible with more available systems. The company also sells a physical set-top box if you're not ready to go completely virtual.
Ultimately, if you're looking for a jack-of-all-trades service, LiquidSky is your best bet, while Shadow PC is great for gamers looking for the highest resolution and some virtual reality functionality. If you just want to game, GeForce Now is the way to go.
Credit: Shadow PC, LiquidSky, Nvidia
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Sherri L. Smith has been cranking out product reviews for Laptopmag.com since 2011. In that time, she's reviewed more than her share of laptops, tablets, smartphones and everything in between. The resident gamer and audio junkie, Sherri was previously a managing editor for Black Web 2.0 and contributed to BET.Com and Popgadget.