A Review of the OnLive MicroConsole and Service

Bill Loguidice's picture

OnLiveOnLiveAs we've been discussing for a few months now, the OnLive service is quite intriguing, promising the ability for anyone with a quality Internet connection to play high end PC games on even modest PC's or Mac's, including netbooks. As I discussed recently in an unboxing video, the company has gone one step further and released a system of their own for $99, dubbed the OnLive MicroConsole, which is a miniature device that plugs into your TV via HDMI and allows you to play those same high end PC games from the comfort of your couch. I've had some time over the past few days to put the MicroConsole through its paces and I thought now would be as good of a time as any to provide a review of my experiences so far.

First off, it's important to remember that OnLive is a streaming service, and as such is highly dependent upon the quality of your Internet connection. While it does work over wireless, the variables inherent therein make even wireless-N connections sometimes less-than-ideal to play these games over. While it does work, graphical fidelity is reduced when there are connection issues, just like when Netflix streaming drops to lower quality when you're watching a movie or TV show. Only when network performance drops below a certain threshold (again, just like with Netflix) does the service stop working completely. In my experiments with my laptop, while I had a few drops in fidelity, for the most part it performed well over my standard wireless-N connection, though it's not something I'd necessarily recommend as a long term solution. Regardless, I was able to pretty much freely play Borderlands Game of the Year edition - which was my choice of free game for ordering a Microconsole - just as if it was installed natively on my gaming-optimized laptop.

In any case, my primary motivation for using the OnLive service is to supplement my Xbox 360, PS3, Wii and gaming PC usage through OnLive's $9.99 per month plan, which they call the PlayPack. In short, it's a way I get to experience more PC games without having to actually buy more PC games that I probably wouldn't have time to play anyway (and thus, get my money's worth out of them). The PlayPack features what is ostensibly a rotating selection of PC games that you can play on an unlimited basis as long as your subscription is active. You can also choose to buy games - many of which are not part of the PlayPack - such as I did with my free Bordlerands game. Naturally, the better games cost extra, but there are some decent - if unspectacular - titles presently in the PlayPack. You can also of course demo any non-PlayPack game for a short time or buy 3 or 5 day rentals, so there are certainly plenty of ways to get good bang-for-your-buck.

While the games are streamed to you, you still have the ability to save and resume progress and all the other things you're accustomed to as if the game were on your hard drive. The only area where it functions like a non-PC is in the inability to tweak all of the options (the games always run at the highest possible detail settings, for instance) or use mods and what-not. If a game's expansion is not on the service, you can't play it either. This may sound like a negative, but you have to remember that all of the games you're playing are guaranteed to work and be stable. You select the game from the OnLive menu and it runs. To me, that's a more than fair trade-off.

There is one important thing to keep in mind. While the games are streaming and all of the processing is offloaded from your system, this does not mean that load times are completely eliminated. The games are still running on a remote PC, albeit a "super" PC. That means that it still has loads as if it were running locally on an optimized local machine. This is not a negative in any way - a game is a game and no matter the platform there's always some loading - but it's an important point to keep in mind. With that said, load times are probably as low as they'd be on just about any system, even the absolute top of the line SSD, so the non-local nature is pretty irrelevant.

In any case, as I detailed in the unboxing video, the MicroConsole comes with the console, power supply, wireless controller, HDMI cable (a component cable is an optional extra, but you'll want a good HD TV for the best experience anyway so it's unlikely you'll need it) and USB cable. The USB cable is plugged into one of the two front USB ports and is used to initially sync the wireless cable and for later charging it (or playing while charging). There's also a separate battery pack if you want to play off of batteries instead of the rechargeable battery pack. The controller itself is slightly larger and bulkier than an Xbox 360 controller, and merges design elements from both the Xbox 360 controller and the PS3 controller. It's actually quite comfortable and usable. At present, there are no means to use any other controller than the controller it comes with, though the MicroConsole supports a mouse and keyboard since not every game works with the gamepad (more on this later). Standard Xbox 360 and similar controllers work with the PC client for non-MicroConsole users. Unfortunately, OnLive has limited hardware supplies at present, so MicroConsole owners are limited to one controller. It is unknown when supplies will improve and additional controllers will be on offer. When they are, I'll definitely be getting an additional controller for two player games. At least the current MicroConsole firmware already supports additional controllers.

Since I didn't have an Ethernet jack by my television, I had one of two choices. Get one of the recommended powerline networking solutions or get a wireless bridge. I didn't think a wireless bridge would give me the performance I was after, so I went with the Western Digital Livewire, which has the bonus of four ports, so I could also plug in my Xbox 360 and PS3 and get those off of wireless as well. While the theoretical speed limit of the Livewire is only 200 megabits per second, the key is that it's a stable, consistent connection and more than fast enough for HD streaming. The MicroConsole had zero issues with it and I imagine it works as well as a true Ethernet connection (at least I can't imagine performance being any better).

On a side note, I have all of my systems on an automatic HDMI switch and the MicroConsole only goes to a sleep state and my switch still thinks it's on, so I need to pull my HDMI cable from the back of the MicroConsole in order to have my TV go back to the cable box. Not a major deal and probably not too many scenarios where that would be an issue, but it's something to keep in mind. The MicroConsole can be powered off and on from the controller, which also has media controls. Right now, you can record "Brag Clips", which are like shareable highlights of your in-game prowess. I haven't tried that yet. You can also watch others play, which is supposed to be quite popular, but something I have also not tried yet. That's essentially what the iOS app allows at this point, as well--spectating, not playing, though the potential is there for OnLive to be playable on just about any device.

I moved between several of the current PlayPack games, including Lego Batman (which screams for a second controller for co-op!), Tomb Raider Underworld, and Wheelman. All started quickly and worked flawlessly. Unfortunately when I tried to play World of Goo it said it required a mouse and keyboard. So obviously not everything is optimized for the MicroConsole (of course I could have plugged in a mouse and keyboard, but then I'd just play it on my computer if I wanted to do that). There are presently 18 games to choose from in the PlayPack and the $9.99 per month fee doesn't kick in until January 15th, so now is as good of a time as any to try the service for free and see what you think.

On the downside, my MicroConsole controller lost sync every once in a while for a second or two before sync'ing back up. I'm not sure if it's picking up interference from somewhere or it's just a current firmware anomaly. I thought it might be that the controller wasn't fully charged, so I charged it again, but I still had a drop or two. Later on in the evening I noticed no further issues, but it's something I'll be keeping an eye on.

I think it's pretty clear what I think about OnLive. It does everything it claims and works really well under a variety of scenarios. As the catalog continues to expand and more streaming features are added - for instance, there's no reason they can't support something like Hulu - I see no reason why this won't become a must-have service. It's important to think of this service not as a replacement for traditional high end PC gaming - it's not - but as an adjunct to that or for those console owners who want to play some PC titles but don't want to bother investing in a computer that has a very real chance of becoming obsolete for high end gaming in short order.

I wish there was an affiliate program for this thing, because I'd have no problem shilling for the company. I look forward to being a part of this service's evolution. I'd love to hear your own thought/experiences, so take it to the comments!

Comments

Les Bird
Offline
Joined: 12/19/2009
Borderlands Game Of The Year and Onlive comments

Bill, if the copy of Borderlands GOTY has DLC4 Claptraps Revenge, be sure to view the credits for it. You should see my name there. I was part of the team that made DLC4 while working at Dakrside Game Studios.

I was part of the Onlive beta for their PC browser plugin. On a DSL connection (512 up, 6mb down) the experience was less than optimal. I would get network error messages constantly and be disconnected regularly. That is, when I could connect. When you launch the service it will test your connection speed each time. If your speed isn't up to par you can't even connect. I think it's a great idea but the fact that you still have to purchase the games at full price, but don't get a physical copy, it doesn't seem like it'll catch on with the mainstream audience and certainly not with hardcore gamers. What happens if they go out of business? Which is highly likely due to the fact that the servers are expensive to operate. If that happens you lose all of your game purchases and game saves. Honestly, as much as I like the idea, I just don't see this service making it for long. Right now they have a sponsor (AT&T?) to offset the costs but when that sponsorship is up they are on their own.

Bill Loguidice
Bill Loguidice's picture
Offline
Joined: 12/31/1969
Those are indeed important

Those are indeed important considerations, Les. With that said, this lack of true ownership will probably become more and more a reality of our world going forward. While I find it highly unlikely I'll actually purchase games (as I said, Borderlands: GOTY was free), in turn I don't mind paying $9.99 for the PlayPack selection, particularly if it continues to expand. If the company does indeed go out of business, I'm OK with that because I'll have gotten my monthly $10 value out of it. I view this the same way I view Netflix--no need to hassle with (or worry about) ownership when "renting" is so convenient.

It's almost like we have to re-think the way we own things. Honestly, I'm an insane collector, but how much of the stuff I collect do I actually have time to use? Not much. It's nice that it will be there when I want it, but is it really practical? No.

n/a
Matt Barton
Matt Barton's picture
Offline
Joined: 01/16/2006
Ownership
Bill Loguidice wrote:

It's almost like we have to re-think the way we own things. Honestly, I'm an insane collector, but how much of the stuff I collect do I actually have time to use? Not much. It's nice that it will be there when I want it, but is it really practical? No.

Man, that is so true. I have pretty much come to rely purely on Netflix, and I'm sure as the service gets bigger it will eventually have every movie and show available streaming. It's just a matter of time. It pisses me off that they have Spotify in Europe but not here--apparently, our legal structure is just too formidable for a service like that (Spotify streams every song available for free, whereas Pandora only has a limited selection). Our problem here is that the copyright holders want to create their own streaming services that are exclusive to their content; they don't want to share. They are so short-sighted with this. Americans don't give a shit about who owns it, they just want to watch it all from one convenient site.

But anyway, as exciting as something like OnLive might seem, I have to agree that he doesn't seem like something that's here to stay. Maybe it's a good concept that somebody like Netflix will buy out and run with once the kinks are worked out. Where it strikes me as most useful would be the next gen of MMOs, since they are so focused on server-side stuff anyway, it doesn't seem like a huge leap to expand to this stuff. Want to play World of Warcraft 2 but don't have an awesome computer? No problem! Just pay an extra $5 per month and get it all streamed to you on this box. Makes perfect sense to me.

n/a
Bill Loguidice
Bill Loguidice's picture
Offline
Joined: 12/31/1969
It's important to think of

It's important to think of the possibilities for OnLive above all else, particularly for fans of PC-specific games. There's no reason that this same technology - just like Netflix's technology already is - can't be ported to every platform known to man, be it Xbox 360, PS3, Wii, iPad, etc. Again, it's not so much for playing PC games as usual, it's for playing your favorite games on your clunky netbook. The platform is irrelevant. In fact, there's no reason why this can't extend to ANY platform. I'm sure the technology is NOT tied strictly to PC games. What if you wanted to try out the latest PS3 game, but don't have a PS3? No problem, just go to OnLive on your PC. The possibilities really are limitless, even if the initial roll-out is fairly modest. The key is that the technology is in place and it could potentially be the first and only universal "console" (though the likelihood of one of the big three - Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo sub-licensing their platforms is basically nil; something like Sega with the Dreamcast and all their older systems is probably more realistic), no console necessarily required.

n/a
clok1966
Offline
Joined: 01/21/2009
I hate to agree, but I think

I hate to agree, but I think ONLIVE is doomed to fail. But as most new tech, it will probely rise up even better than before in a year or two. I look at tech that is a hit and ther eis almost always a predocessor that did it right, just to soon. Dreamcast had the first REAL attempt at console connected gaming. When you look at the dreamcast is is really sad, it simply should not have failed, it did almost everything right, except try to dethrone the current king. IPAD, if i can find it I will link you to an old vido of Bill gates and Steve Job talking about the future. Bill says its going to be notebook paper size PC's with touch screens that are wifi connected to hotspots all over. Steve says something like Maybe but I dont think so...

Motion controls, the NES actually had some very CRUDE versions of Kinect type (worked horribly) and even the gensis had some, more light senosrs thean anything..The first true motion control stuff was a aftermarket gamepad for the SONY PSone, it had tilt and motion sensors in it. this was all years ago. Heck digital downloads are not even new, there where cable companies that had ATRI and Mattel intelvision games streamed (not really the correct terms). I know I had a cart that plugged into my 2600 that was basicly a modem to play games.

I really think ONLIVE is an idea that will come into its own, just not yet. Yet anothe idea ahead of its time.

Matt Barton
Matt Barton's picture
Offline
Joined: 01/16/2006
Good discussion, Bill &

Good discussion, Bill & Clok.

I remember reading somewhere (here, maybe??) that the console makers were determined to further segment and stratify the market. Even Microsoft would much rather you buy an Xbox 360 than play Halo on your Windows PC. Microsoft, Apple, Nintendo, and Sony all want to make their platforms exclusive and incompatible as much as possible, only bridging the gaps when it's just not financially desirable to keep them closed (i.e., Microsoft Office on Apple). Nintendo would never make a Mario game for Xbox, for instance.

Game developers and publishers have little interest in making their products exclusive to one platform or another, unless of course it offers unique features or they get a really good exclusivity deal. So, it might make sense for them to take OnLive-type projects seriously, since it could opens up a big audience for little work on their part. It could also open OnLive-only deals, where the company lacks the resources to properly distribute its stuff in other ways (such as the direct-to-Netflix movies we're starting to see).

n/a
Bill Loguidice
Bill Loguidice's picture
Offline
Joined: 12/31/1969
OnLive
Matt Barton wrote:

Game developers and publishers have little interest in making their products exclusive to one platform or another, unless of course it offers unique features or they get a really good exclusivity deal. So, it might make sense for them to take OnLive-type projects seriously, since it could opens up a big audience for little work on their part. It could also open OnLive-only deals, where the company lacks the resources to properly distribute its stuff in other ways (such as the direct-to-Netflix movies we're starting to see).

I'm not sure OnLive would be a viable single source distributor for ANYONE. The PC has a large number of DRM-based digital distribution services, such as Steam or GamersGate. OnLive would just be another distribution point like those. The more of those platforms any developer/publisher gets on, the better. It's not like doing an exclusive on a console where you're guaranteed to target x tens of millions of owners of that platform--there's just no way to guarantee that EVERYONE will have access to say, Steam or Games for Windows.

I think we need to think of OnLive in two ways, really, one as a unique platform, but one that can't practically have exclusives--it just needs to function on pure volume, and two, as a way to play PC games in the most effortless way possible. I think the latter is the biggest factor against PC gaming and the biggest factor in favor of consoles. You buy a console game, any game, and it will just work no matter at what point in that console's life you bought it. The same couldn't be said on the PC, which requires at least minimum upgrades and can even majorly break things when say you upgrade from Windows XP to Windows Vista or 7. Something like OnLive now takes that "breaks" thing out of the equation. This should actually empower PC gamers to upgrade on their own schedule, not because they can't play a game or two. That to me is a dramatic game changer.

With all that said, I've NEVER said this will be a success and I've ALWAYS maintained this is a service in search of an audience that simply may not be there. I do think outside of securing more content, particularly for their $9.99 per month, they've done almost everything else right. Frankly for a company not even officially out of beta (January 15th will be the date you have to actually pay), that's extremely impressive.

n/a
Matt Barton
Matt Barton's picture
Offline
Joined: 01/16/2006
I'm trying to imagine what

I'm trying to imagine what their server setup must be. Obviously a high-end PC game is built to pretty much harness the majority of the PC's power to play that single game. Trying to not only play that game but also stream and compress the video in real time--that must be some serious hardware. I can't quite fathom it. Seems like you'd basically need a warehouse full of supercomputers to do it. I assume their audience is quite tiny at this point, but imagine if it had as many users as Netflix.

n/a
Bill Loguidice
Bill Loguidice's picture
Offline
Joined: 12/31/1969
It's black magic I tell you!
Matt Barton wrote:

I'm trying to imagine what their server setup must be. Obviously a high-end PC game is built to pretty much harness the majority of the PC's power to play that single game. Trying to not only play that game but also stream and compress the video in real time--that must be some serious hardware. I can't quite fathom it. Seems like you'd basically need a warehouse full of supercomputers to do it. I assume their audience is quite tiny at this point, but imagine if it had as many users as Netflix.

Though I have no way of knowing how it is behind the scenes, they have some serious intellectual property that they're sitting on, probably even far in excess of what Netflix is capable of. Somehow they can run a PC game at its highest settings at 1280x720p and stream it to you with seemingly no lag over a regular home Internet connection, while at the same time allowing others to view your play session as it's happening from OnLive running on their side, while also allowing you to record parts of your play session for a brag clip for later viewing. So they have some serious multi-tasking capabilities going on with no performance degradation that have hither-to been untapped in the consumer space. Perhaps they've found a way to distribute EVERYTHING via distributed computing (essentially givings lots of different computers lots of little tasks to handle, sort of like a higher function "Folding @home") and it's just a "simple" matter of throwing more nodes and servers at the problem of mass adoption if/when it happens...

n/a
desiv
Offline
Joined: 01/02/2011
It's all magic...
Bill Loguidice wrote:
Matt Barton wrote:

I'm trying to imagine what their server setup must be.

So they have some serious multi-tasking capabilities going on with no performance degradation that have hither-to been untapped in the consumer space. Perhaps they've found a way to distribute EVERYTHING via distributed computing (essentially givings lots of different computers lots of little tasks to handle, sort of like a higher function "Folding @home") and it's just a "simple" matter of throwing more nodes and servers at the problem of mass adoption if/when it happens...

Could be several ways to do this...
The first would be a simple PC farm. The only thing you'd need that was really different would be a video driver that streamed it's video rather than displayed it. Those inputs would go into a video compression/distribution server (also handling input/output redirection.
The major problem with that method would be scale. It would work well into the hundreds of nodes and be cost effective to that point, but it becomes a real problem after that stage..
(Think of this like the old multiline BBSes, many of which were just huge PC farms rather than one huge multiport box. It was just cheaper, so some of those setups used lots of PC; there's some scary pics of rooms/garages with 50+ PCs for some of them out there)

I think the scale of what they are doing wouldn't work well there..

More likely would be a similar setup using VMs. Many VMs can already handle 3D processing. XEN, VirtualBox, VMWare... Combine that with some custom video drivers to increase efficiency.. Now, when you're playing your game, while you're just idling walking down a game street not using as much GPU, the other VM where the guy is shooting at hundreds of modeled Ogres is using more of the shared virtualized GPU. If the whole GPU approaches a certain use point, another host can be brought into the cluster and the load spread out inreal time. We do this without GPUs (CPU/RAM spreading) on our clusters, and they've had virtualized GPUs for several years now. True, there is some loss in performance due to the VM hypervisor, but the ability to fairly easily scale usually outweighs this.

Currently, that's the most likely approach using today's technology considering the cost and scalability desired. (unless they can do...)

Now, another approach would be API level virtualization, akin to WINE on Linux....
Using this model, you could much more easily spread the load using existing clustering technology and not worry about the overhead of the VM hypervisor.. You can get the most full use of all the available hardware resources on the largest possible boxes you can buy...
The issue here is that, at least so far, API 3D emulation hasn't been totally effective. You usually have to really work on each game to make sure your 3D API is working with your host. If you've seen WINE and 3D games in action, some work great, where others mostly work.... So, this would require the most work on the point of ONLIVE, as they'd have to validate all of the functions of each game they are running, however it would be the most efficient method of distributing the load.

It also had a licensing benefit. The other models, for the most part, require a Windows license for each concurrent game, as it's running in its own environment. But, with the WINE methodology (and I'm not saying they are use WINE, just a similar technology), there's no reason you couldn't run many games on the same instance, just redirecting the video/inputs for each.
Think Cirtix/Terminal Services for this model..
In fact, it's even possible in this model that they could have a development driver target. In pairing with the developers of the game, they could actually compile an ONLIVE version of the game they passes the "ONLIVE" compatibility test and is compiled specifically for their environment. It probably wouldn't be very difficult to do this from a technology standpoint (Think of the (few unfortunately) games that use OPENGL and are easily ported to Linux.)
But I'm not sure the game developer's would be willing to do this, at least at the stage in the company's progress...

It's the best model to shoot for, but it's the most problematic in terms of compatibility...

It would be interesting to find out how they are doing it....

Now, of they can license their model into TV chipsets.. Imagine buying a new TV that doesn't need a PC for Netflix, Facebook, Google apps and ONLIVE.. Some of that has already been done.. You won't see it on SONY TVs for a while :-), but a deal with Vizio and others would be possible..

desiv

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.