OnLive is an on-demand service that streams games to your computer, TV or tablet. Requiring no discs, no hard-drive space, no downloads and no high-end components, it has the potential to kill traditional consoles, and shake up the gaming world in a massive way. But it can only do that if it's not rubbish. Read on as we put OnLive through its paces, to determine whether it's worthy of your time.
Registering for the OnLive service is free. You can then either buy games individually or pay a £6.99 monthly subscription to access a defined library of over 100 titles. If you want to use OnLive on your TV, you'll need to buy the OnLive Game System box, which costs £70 and comes with a wireless controller.
Editor's note: OnLive ran into financial trouble in August 2012 --
Here's how OnLive works. Rather than normal gaming, which draws upon components inside your console or computer to chuck polygons around, OnLive outsources all of that hard work to the company's own far-away, high-end computers. When you perform an in-game action (ducking behind a barrel or shooting someone in the face, for instance), that action is transmitted over the Internet to OnLive's servers, where the action is processed, and fed back to your screen.
You can think about it as playing a game remotely. You're using the Internet to take control of a game that's actually running miles and miles away. Because all the computational grunt work is taking place elsewhere, OnLive will run on pretty much anything with a screen and an Internet connection, including PCs, Macs, TVs, the iPad and Android tablets.
Gameplay and lag
So how does OnLive actually perform when it comes to playing games? The answer is that it performs well for the most part, but there are still some niggles that will put more discerning gamers off.
The issue on everyone's lips is latency, also known as lag. How will having to constantly send information over a Web connection, and then have it sent back, affect the split-second reaction times that many games demand? How severe is the delay between pressing a button and seeing the reaction on your screen?
There is lag in OnLive and it's noticeable, although we've found that the degree and severity of the delay varies. We tested a variety of games over what we'd consider to be a fairly normal home broadband speed of 6.5Mbps, and also over our much faster office connection, with no obvious improvement. There doesn't seem to be any consistency to the types of games that are affected, and we couldn't pinpoint any particular in-game events that triggered the lag.
Sometimes the delay is so minor you'll forget it's there, and sometimes it makes for stuttery visuals and stop-start audio. We found that, most of the time, OnLive gameplay was sufficiently smooth to be enjoyable, but it's not as slick and responsive as that offered by a traditional console or PC.
If you lose your Web connection during a game, you've got 5 minutes to get your computer back online and continue the game, so all's not lost if the cat trips over your router.
OnLive Game System
We tested OnLive across every platform we could, and found that performance was just about the same on each. Ourperformed just as ably as our PC. We also tested the tiny OnLive Game System 'console' that plugs into your TV so that you can play games on the big screen.
The Game System is an angular black box that's easily small enough to slide under your telly. It's about the same size as a small external hard drive, making it very portable. We reckon you could slip it into your carry-on luggage and plug it into a hotel TV, livening up a dull business trip or rain-blighted family holiday.
The Game System plugs into your TV via HDMI (there's a cable in the box), and then you also need to plug in an Ethernet cable. Annoyingly, there's no Wi-Fi connectivity, so, if you don't have your router plugged in near your telly, expect to trail cables all over the carpet. There are two USB ports on the front of the Game System that will support most USB keyboards and mice, if you'd rather play that way.
The Game System comes with an Xbox 360-style wireless controller. It doesn't feel as sturdy or as comfortable as Microsoft's controller, but it does the job, and we like the row of OnLive buttons that sit along the bottom, making it easy to record Brag Clips (more on those later).
If your TV is larger than your computer display, you'll be more likely to notice the graphical glitches that occasionally result from playing games over a Web connection. If an occasional bit of distortion is going to get on your nerves, you'd probably be better off playing on a computer.
Indeed, OnLive's visual and audio performance is good, but there's a drop in quality compared to the eye-searingly gorgeous Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 consoles. It's not that the graphical effects themselves are scaled-down, but rather that some resolution is dropped in the streaming process. The graphics aren't as crisp, and we spotted distortions from time to time. It's much like streaming movies as opposed to playing a Blu-ray disc -- for the best result, you'll need to buy the physical media.