A Review of the OnLive MicroConsole and Service

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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!

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Bill Loguidice
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The doggone system is now
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Catatonic
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Check out Jason Scott's

Check out Jason Scott's opinion of Netflix — he created the BBS Documentary and GET LAMP, tried to get them on Netflix, they won't work with independents and would pay him practically nothing anyway. These subscription services are cheap because the content creators get screwed over. http://ascii.textfiles.com/archives/2786

Bill Loguidice
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Different sides
Catatonic wrote:

Check out Jason Scott's opinion of Netflix — he created the BBS Documentary and GET LAMP, tried to get them on Netflix, they won't work with independents and would pay him practically nothing anyway. These subscription services are cheap because the content creators get screwed over. http://ascii.textfiles.com/archives/2786

Many of us here are fans of Jason's (in fact, I was one of the original "investors" in his Get Lamp documentary), but he's coming at it from a very specific angle. No one service is perfect for everyone or everything. For what it is, Netflix is a very valuable consumer service. It's not necessarily important that they don't play well with extreme independents. After all, Jason is a one man shop and it would quickly pollute Netflix if any old amateur could post content. Of course Jason is anything but an amateur, but there does need to be a certain amount of gatekeeping.

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clok1966
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who knows
Catatonic wrote:

Check out Jason Scott's opinion of Netflix — he created the BBS Documentary and GET LAMP, tried to get them on Netflix, they won't work with independents and would pay him practically nothing anyway. These subscription services are cheap because the content creators get screwed over. http://ascii.textfiles.com/archives/2786

I read a whole bunch on his site this morning. Seems like a very smart guy and I enjoyed his stuff. But... complaining about how the system works inst going to help him. We all do it (heck I just did in the Wiki Leaks thread), but even I know its just for fun, I dont expect anything to change. His view on netflix is far to self centered. He created something and believes it should have its fair chance just like everything else. I agree, but he feels he shouldnt have to play by the rules EVERYBODY else did. Netflix doesnt work with independents directly... SIMPLE, explained well, and goes for all independents. He wasnt singled out, its just how it works, they didnt say his product was bad or anything. They also told him how to get it on Netflix, but it wasnt the option he wanted, once again, that doesnt make Netflix bad, its just an option he didnt like. EVERY other film like his on Netflix is there through a distributor.
He has insight on why he charges $40 and its not to much. But when a distributor charges XX it is? How is one right and the other not? VALUE has never been based on actual costs so to speak, its based on what people will pay.

While in the end I know where he is coming from, the distributors get to much IMHO .. but thats the way it works. And it woudl be awsome if netflix had some way of distributing Indy movies themselves. But Im sure adding a legal dept, screeners, people to man such a venture is just in the "plan" right now. In the long run it may or may not be a great thing for them, but since they are currently not doing it, its not.

Sorry the whole netflix rant just comes off bad to me. He created something he is proud of, I totally understand that! But Netflix doesnt care, the distro's dont care, and he comes off as mad about it.

back when I was in Highschool I used to read tons of Fanzines. I submitted art at least 60 times before a peice was used, after it was used I got some exposure and had art used that actually paid me. Got me into Comics (drawing and story) and I self published one with success. But unforntalty it was just like the video game crash. Indy comics where HUGE in the Late 80's early 90's (TMNT was published in about 85ish and it was one of the BIG starts of it) but it all crashed too, a glut.. and my comic died along with hundreds of good ones. I was mad, there was so much crap along with good stuff, and I felt mine was good and should live on.. nowdays I think it was pretty average, but still proud of it. But it sure didnt deserve anything more than the other 100 that died when it did.

I look at it Like Walmart, cheap stuff, hard to resist. I do my best to not shop at Walmart. OPINION!!! they do not hire full time people so they can skimp on benafits, they force suppliers to give them prices or they will carry other items. They can change the success of a product if they do or dont carry it. They give better treatment (end isle locations) for products that are sold to them cheaper. In the long run they are hurting people far more than helping them. They sell it cheap, but its costing us way more in the long run with people with no health care, small time stores are gone, small time towns no longer have hometown shops, etc.. But you cant argue with success, they have the correct (if evil) business model, its working. And like it or not, things change, we adapt or we dont.
Netflix has the same "clout" right now with movies, and its working for them.

Jason Scott (not verified)
Hey Ho, Jason Scott

Hey there, it's Jason Scott.

I just wanted to make clear I'm not sitting over here crying I'm not on Netflix. The purpose of the article was that a lot of people (a LOT) think that Netflix is some sort of royalty-based system like iTunes, when it simply isn't, although it DOES share iTunes disinterest in independent, non-publisher-affiliated filmmakers. I wanted to set them straight.

I have no interest in being on Netflix and couldn't care less what the rules are in terms of my own works.

clok1966
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thanks for reply
Jason Scott wrote:

Hey there, it's Jason Scott.

I just wanted to make clear I'm not sitting over here crying I'm not on Netflix. The purpose of the article was that a lot of people (a LOT) think that Netflix is some sort of royalty-based system like iTunes, when it simply isn't, although it DOES share iTunes disinterest in independent, non-publisher-affiliated filmmakers. I wanted to set them straight.

I have no interest in being on Netflix and couldn't care less what the rules are in terms of my own works.

NO worries, I think I came off much worse thna you after I reread my post.. As I say it "read like" you where unhappy/disgruntled. But i did say I know where you are comming from (in my extreamly long winded opinionated way)... I do apoligize that my words sometimes dont come out quite the way I plan. NO disrepect ment, just differnt opinions.. :)

just wanted to say that.. while I stand by my comments, and such, I would hate to think i thought you wher crying over sour milk, i didnt.

Catatonic
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Joined: 05/20/2006
I looked up OnLive's patent

I looked up OnLive's patent (7,849,491) It looks like the idea is to have server PC's containing multiple plug-in cards, each card having its own CPU, RAM and GPU. There is also a big RAID array with all the games on it.

Bill Loguidice
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That's called research, my friend...
Catatonic wrote:

I looked up OnLive's patent (7,849,491) It looks like the idea is to have server PC's containing multiple plug-in cards, each card having its own CPU, RAM and GPU. There is also a big RAID array with all the games on it.

Great find! Were you able to interpret how it handles the streaming, specifically how many concurrent users one card might be able to serve?

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Bill Loguidice
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OnLive Built Into Vizio TVs,

OnLive Built Into Vizio TVs, Blu-ray Players, Mobiles: http://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/32249/Interview_OnLive_Built_Into_Viz...

Here's an interesting quote from the article:

Perlman also said that thanks to the open nature of the Android platform, manufacturers are creating more traditional game controllers for Android tablets. Some resemble a gamepad cut in half, where one half snaps on either side of the table screen, Perlman said. Certain Android tablets will also potentially work with Onlive's official controller, if the mobile device supports the appropriate RF interface.

OnLive is working on versions of playable OnLive for Apple's mobile devices, but their release is ultimately "up to Apple."

"Snappier" Gameplay

Perlman wouldn't comment on sales of the currently-available MicroConsole, but insisted sales were "extremely good" and beyond internal projections. More games will be arriving in the first quarter, day and date alongside digital distribution releases and retail, he said.

Currently the company uses three datacenters, and he's found that's "more than enough" for now. "We have a big release [for the service] in beta now that's coming early this year [that will bring] another big drop in latency. So it'll get snappier and snappier."

"We have some guys playing first-person shooters in the beta that can't tell the difference between local [play] and remote on OnLive," Perlman said. "We actually do these blind tests where we don't tell them what connection it is. We're getting there, you know. It's still in the early days of cloud gaming."

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Catatonic
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OnLive patent
Bill Loguidice wrote:

Great find! Were you able to interpret how it handles the streaming, specifically how many concurrent users one card might be able to serve?

No, the patent is worded broadly so it doesn't give any specific implementation. Though it does say how much latency there should be - lower for "twitch action" games and higher for slower games.

The patent was filed 8 years ago! (But only just approved)

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