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Hands-on: OnLive comes to iPad and other tablets

Streaming game service OnLive is coming to iPad, Android tablets, and even the Kindle Fire, thanks in part to a new universal wireless controller.

Now playing: Watch this: OnLive comes to iOS, Android

Streaming game service OnLive is coming to iPad, iPhone, Android tablets, and even the Kindle Fire, thanks in part to a new universal wireless controller.

Previously, the service was available on PCs(Windows and OS X), as well as TVs, via a standalone interface called the MicroConsole(there was also an iPad app that allowed you to watch games being played on the service, but not play them yourself). The new wireless controller, an updated version of the previous PC/MicroConsole OnLive wireless controller, uses Bluetooth to connect to iOS and Android devices, working hand-in-hand with a dedicated OnLive app for each platform.

If you're not familiar with the OnLive streaming game service, it's essentially cloud-based PC gaming. The original PC client allows nearly any laptop or desktop to play high-end PC games by offloading the CPU- and GPU-intensive tasks of actually running the game software to a remote render farm, then beaming the gameplay back to you as a streaming video.

The game library mixes a handful of new, hit games with some older, casual, and indie games, and most of the 200-odd titles will be playable on Android tablets, the iPad, and even smartphones. Some of these devices, such as the Kindle Fire, can play only a smaller subset of games via onscreen controls, as they currently lack any way to connect the wireless controller (and the Nook Tablet is not supported yet). OnLive will also work over AT&T and Verizon 4G LTE networks, on devices such as the Samsung Galaxy Tab, Motorola Xoom, and HTC Jetstream.

Sarah Tew/CNET

We've been testing a beta version of the new OnLive software on an iPad for a couple of days, paired with one of the new wireless controllers. We've previously used OnLive extensively on PCs, both with a hard-wired Ethernet connection (as originally required when the service launched) and over Wi-Fi.

As most tablets and smartphones lack Ethernet connections, this version of OnLive is even more dependent on a strong Wi-Fi signal. We tried three different Wi-Fi networks in our office with mixed results--we would sometimes see games get stuck in a mess of compression artifacts and pixelation, or else we'd get booted altogether. But trying it on a home Wi-Fi connection (using Time Warner Cable and an 802.11n router), the experience was fantastic, and looked every bit as clear and sharp as native iOS games, but with PC-game-like levels of detail previously impossible on an iPad.

Sarah Tew/CNET

What you can end up with is an experience that's a bit like Two-Face, one of the villains we faced in Batman: Arkham City(which is one of the newer games available on the service). When it works, thanks to a strong Wi-Fi signal, OnLive on tablets is very impressive. When it doesn't, because you're on a spotty connection, it's frustrating. The problem is that OnLive is at the mercy of a variable--Wi-Fi connection quality--that is largely out of both its hands and yours. The very concept of OnLive on an iPad presupposes travel gaming, but as you're at the mercy of your Wi-Fi connection, you should load up some App Store games as a backup.

The new wireless controller itself works across OnLive services on the Mac, PC, tablets, smartphones, and even TVs plugged into the Micro Console, using what the company calls "adaptive wireless technology" to connect via Bluetooth, a USB dongle, or RF, as needed. Like the previous non-tablet-compatible version of the controller, it's as sturdy as you'd expect a dual-analog game pad to be; it looks like a third-party Xbox 360 controller.

Having tested the new service on an iPad, it feels like a natural extension of the existing iOS game ecosystem. Sure, Apple's App Store already has thousands of games, many of which are good enough to steal hours of your playtime, but none of them approaches LA Noire, Assassin's Creed: Revelations, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, or Arkham City, all of which are on OnLive's service.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Note, however, that because of Apple's App Store rules, you can't make any in-app game purchases on the iPad. New games have to be purchased via the OnLive PC/Mac app, but all data, including game saves, is cloud-based, so you can buy a game on one device, and play it on another (or start it on one device and continue where you left off on another).

The wireless controller feels like it could be a gaming Holy Grail for the iPad, especially if it eventually works for games besides those on OnLive (it currently doesn't, which is a shame). Someday, someone will make an excellent wireless iPad controller, and games like FIFA 12 and the App Store's endless assortment of shooters will be compatible. However, for those already invested in cloud gaming, having OnLive support on all these new devices is very welcome. OnLive can be finicky, but when it does work, it's a sight to behold.

The company says the OnLive app should roll out to the Apple App Store and Android Market as soon as it gets approved, and that the new wireless controller will be available to order soon.