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Hands-on: OnLive Brings PC Gaming to Tablets

Last week, the cloud gaming service OnLive announced their platform would be accessible on mobile devices like smartphones and tablets. The OnLive client is a downloadable application that enables gameplay on computers without high-end graphics cards and speedy processors, instead hosting the games on a server that's accessible through the cloud via an Internet connection. To see how this experience held up on a mobile device, we got our hands on the client for Android.

Moving from a PC or Mac onto a mobile device is done very simply: just download OnLive's free app from the market and install. Current users quickly sign into their existing accounts, and first-timers can create new accounts through the app. Either way, all your saved games are accessible on any of the mediums through which you play - good news for the 'active gamer' (such a thing?) that will be moving from platform to platform.

We tried the app out on the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, a 10-inch Android tablet with a 1-GHz processor and 1280 x 800 display. Though the specs are fairly inconsequential in this case, as the 25 modern titles offered by OnLive for mobile play obviously wouldn't normally function on phones or tablets with such low computing thresholds. Since OnLive requires an internet connection - the company's website says 2Mbps at minimum, 5Mbps preferred - we played in a few different locations.

Internet speed is all that matters with OnLive, as we pointed out in our original review. Tablet and phone processors, displays and memory have virtually no bearing on the app's ability to run the games. So if you're trying to steal wireless from your neighbor or cruising down the highway grabbing your bus's free on-board Wi-Fi, don't expect a quality experience.

In our office we tried our lab testing connection that consistently hovered around upload speeds of 1.5-2Mbps, and expectedly, games were basically unplayable. Lots of artifacts from compression by the OnLive client made the screen extremely blocky and our app crashed several times, even though browsing the web worked smoothly. Switching to our main office connection vastly improved the experience. At around 10Mbps upload speeds, the client ran much better.

We started off with Lego Batman (see choke-slam image above), which comes free with the app, and moved to Dirt 3, where intricate environments and the details on our muddied ride were clearly visible, with occasionally some more blurriness than we originally saw on the computer. OnLive worked equally as well on Verizon's 4G LTE network, as we casually volleyed on Virtua Tennis 2009 during a lunch break in Wendy's. While all three of these games are compatible using only the slate's touchscreen, many of the top-notch games offered for mobile, like Batman: Arkham City and LA Noire, require OnLive's $50 bluetooth controller.

In lieu of a controller, games employing touch screen controls have start, menu and OnLive buttons hovering at the bottom of the screen, an onscreen joystick on the left, and the remainder of buttons on the right of the screen. While the buttons are transparent, they're nevertheless very visible, and because there are descriptions of the game controls next to the buttons, they can sometimes obscure what's going on in your game. Subtitles were particularly hard to read, and objects on the right of your screen can be tough to discern; an accessible menu showing the controls upon demand could easily remedy this problem though.

While the virtual joystick takes some getting used to, it's not all that bad. Because there's no physical dimension to it, it's hard to keep your thumb in place, and you'll find your hand wandering across the screen until you become accustomed to resting it in once place. We had to look carefully to catch all the environmental details in packed worlds like the one in Lego Batman, but for more visually straightforward games like Tennis and Dirt, the tablet screen was plenty.

Playing the most consuming, cutting-edge games offered on consoles while you're sitting in a Starbucks using a tablet is really something else. No longer do you have to wait impatiently at your bus stop with visions of Batarangs dancing in your head. Gone are the days where you twiddle your thumbs in line at the DMV; move that digit to your slate and fill your mundane hours with pwning instead. OnLive's ability to break ground in cloud-based gaming will likely propel the field into fun new directions. And though there's certainly some technical glitches and an occasional awkward interface, look past it. After all, you're playing Arkham City. On your tablet.