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

Catatonic
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Joined: 05/20/2006
For some idea how broad the

For some idea how broad the patent is, it also covers the idea of installing satellite dishes all around a city, which receive movies, tv shows, and video games, and re-broadcast (repeat) them to the neighbourhood with solar powered wi-fi base stations. Your car would have a built in DVR that is always recording these signals so you can watch later.

Yeah all this stuff in one patent.

Bill Loguidice
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Joined: 12/31/1969
OnLive hitting mobile platforms

Finally, OnLive is starting to hit mobile platforms, allowing high end PC games to be played directly on a compatible cell phone or tablet: http://blog.onlive.com/2011/12/07/onlive-goes-mobile-a-new-era-in-gaming/

This finally proves the true potential of the service, which is streaming high end games to almost anything, which to this point has been limited to PCs and their thin client. It's also good that they're making their standard controller compatible to for when you don't want to use the touchscreen controls. It's actually a pretty good controller, reminiscent of the Xbox 360 controller.

Since there's no hope for a TouchPad version (neither webOS or AndroidOS), I'm hoping the iPad 2 version hits soon... Right now only an Android tablet version is out, but the iPad version is pending...

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clok1966
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Joined: 01/21/2009
My understanding is APPLE

My understanding is APPLE doesnt want to allow games to be streamed as the APP is a one time payment with multi games.. as in, APPLE wasnt a peice of each game, that is what is holding it up, they say the app is done and ready.

Do you still use it any Bill? With it being esentailly free I keep thinking I should grab it, but never do as I already have to many gaming platforms I dont use (but free so to speak i guess other then taking up some small space why not?).

Bill Loguidice
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Joined: 12/31/1969
OnLive
clok1966 wrote:

My understanding is APPLE doesnt want to allow games to be streamed as the APP is a one time payment with multi games.. as in, APPLE wasnt a peice of each game, that is what is holding it up, they say the app is done and ready.

Do you still use it any Bill? With it being esentailly free I keep thinking I should grab it, but never do as I already have to many gaming platforms I dont use (but free so to speak i guess other then taking up some small space why not?).

I don't use it as much as I should (which is the story of everything I have). I have two Microconsoles, but only one hooked up (I also have it installed on three of our PCs). Until I put an HDTV in the basement, it will probably remain with the single Microconsole hooked up. The only reason why I got the second one is because I pre-ordered Duke Nuk'em and it was free. I wanted it for the controller so I could have a second one, since it's cheaper getting a free console than paying for another controller. Of course I should have just used my Xbox 360 controller, but that's before I figured out how to use it on there. I suspect if/when the iPad version gets released (they seem optimistic enough, so we'll see), I'll use the service more. Like a sucker I also pay monthly for the PlayPack. I should have known better than to bother given my time crunch to bother until I was really ready to use it...

As for the iPad version, as long as they disable in-app purchases, I hope they can still get it approved. That's how things like the Kindle app work.

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clok1966
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Joined: 01/21/2009
I'm sure they will find a

I'm sure they will find a way, it will be interesting to see how it works. I 100% understand the time thing.. I guess that was more my question. You seemed impressed enouhg with it as a service. I have the same issues, but for much sillier reasons.. you have a family and that is a HUGE time sink (in a good way).. I have pretty much umlimited free time after work.. but to many vices.. movies, games, friends, hobbies, etc ( which im sure you have too, which cuts your time into much more defined uses). As I dont game on the go much its one of the first products I didnt buy to buy.. LOGIC!.. and yet i still kinda want one as a tech lover. I have consoles and PC in my living room and Bedroom (sadly, geeky me has Ps3/360/Wii/PC in both spots.. dups of those consoles I never play is a bit silly). I just dont see me ever using it as it has no excusive games. The play instead of own does have some draw as BAD games I will never play are one of my regrets. I have shelves of games that will never be played so trying them is a great idea. I am on the beta team doing testing the new VERIZON streaming stuff (games/movies) it looks like they want to take on cable companies and gamefly/Netflix. Slick so far.. but (NDA) some issues i am not sure can be overcome with the net.. and one location (when hooked to a tv)..

so many good games to play, so much cool tech to play with, its a great time to be alive!

Bill Loguidice
Bill Loguidice's picture
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Joined: 12/31/1969
Each new day is the best day to be a gamer
clok1966 wrote:

so many good games to play, so much cool tech to play with, its a great time to be alive!

It really is the best time to be a gamer, bar none. With relatively convenient access to play almost everything from 50 years ago through to the present day - plus the stunning number of platforms, form factors and information available - I can't see how anyone can dispute that.

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Rowdy Rob
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Joined: 09/04/2006
Socially it's better too!
Bill Loguidice wrote:

It really is the best time to be a gamer, bar none. With relatively convenient access to play almost everything from 50 years ago through to the present day - plus the stunning number of platforms, form factors and information available - I can't see how anyone can dispute that.

It also seems more socially acceptable to be a gamer today, rather than when we were younger (but past our teens). People of all ages are playing them now, and the male/female ratio of gamers seems to have evened out quite a bit. Even my non-tech-head senior citizen neighbors play their XBox 360!

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