For all sorts of products we've irremediably blurred the lines between renting vs. owning, local vs. cloud -- but are we ready to do the same for the PC? Blade thinks so, and over the past few years has been slowly rolling out its Shadow desktop-as-a-service subscription. It has about 5,000 subscribers in France, and at CES 2018 it announced it will be available in California starting Feb. 15 (with preorders starting Thursday), rolling out across the whole US in the summer of 2018.
How does it work? Blade buys a high-end Windows 10 PC which resides... somewhere not with you, and then rents it to you for a monthly fee. You access it via an app on any device with a screen attached -- computer, phone, tablet and so on -- that's running Android, iOS, Linux, MacOS, Windows 10 and more. All the processing takes place remotely, streaming back and forth over Wi-Fi to whatever device you have with a display attached. (It's a single virtual machine shared by all devices running the app.)
In theory, it should feel like you have a full computer stashed under your desk which can run on a phone, tablet or smart TV (with an external box if you need to connect a controller). Blade keeps the system up to date, so you never really need to think about it again except when the bill comes.
That bill runs about $420 per year ($35 per month with a one-year commitment), $120 for three months (at $40 per month) or $50 for a single month. You can also buy ($140 per month) or rent ($10 per month) an optional Box for when you need to connect external devices like a keyboard or game controller, removable storage and so on.
Good enough for gaming?
Blade is focusing on gamers for a variety of reasons. It's the one consumer bright spot in desktop sales, in part because a segment of gamers spend a lot of money to keep their systems current and running at the fastest possible speeds, so monthly payments for this shouldn't faze them. Plus, esports require a fair bit of power in the most compact footprint possible -- like the Shadow's Box. And gamers are the Broadway of computing: If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.
The company says it's powerful enough to play games at up to 144fps (HD) or 60fps (4K), stream 4K video and perform other traditionally CPU- or GPU-intensive tasks. Each system incorporates a "high-end" Nvidia GPU, four cores/eight threads on an Intel Xeon server CPU, 12GB RAM and 256GB SSD. Blade says its CPU performance matches that of an Intel Core i7.
The company claims to have solved many of the issues which have prevented this type of solution from succeeding in the past. The network infrastructure is in place to handle the necessary bandwidth; Blade says it can run great on 15 megabits per second (which most people finally seem to exceed in the US) with zero latency thanks to the company's encoding, decoding and network protocol technologies, and it's partnered with Intel, Nvidia, AMD and Equinix, a global data center with decentralized storage.
There are a lot of attractions for this type of desktop-as-a-service model. The ability to seamlessly hand off work across devices alone -- not in the kludgy way Microsoft and Apple are doing it now -- makes it desirable. Being able to essentially access your complete computer rather than just files when you travel is seductive as well. And $50 to be able to comfortably use several Adobe Creative Cloud applications on a lame-powered but ultralight laptop for the duration of a single trip? Yes, please.
I like the idea, but my internal jury's still out on the execution. I really need to live with it to sort it all out.