No cheaper Teslas coming Minnie Mouse wears a pantsuit Neil Young pulls music from Spotify Robot performs keyhole surgery without human aid Pfizer, Moderna testing omicron vaccine Free N95 masks

Nvidia rolls out Grid game streaming service for Shield devices (hands-on)

The Nvidia Grid cloud gaming service serves up around 20 PC-based games for free, but only to a handful of devices.

Now playing: Watch this: Nvidia adds a PC game streaming service to its Shield...

One possible future for gaming is cloud-based services that stream remote gameplay directly to TVs, consoles, and portables. Nvidia wants to take a step in that direction with its new Grid cloud gaming service, which uses server farms full of Nvidia Grid equipment to play PC games remotely and stream the experience to players online.

The service, previously used in a small beta program restricted to players near a single data center in San Jose, is being expanded across the US, starting November 18. The service should expand to other countries in the future, but Nvidia says the company needs to build local data centers for that to happen.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The catch is that the service is only compatible with two devices, both made by Nvidia. Both the Nvidia Shield Tablet and original Nvidia Shield will get access to the Grid games via an update to the Nvidia Hub Android app, timed to go live in the Google Play store alongside the Android Lollipop OS update.

Similar cloud gaming services, including some of the same games, are available from OnLive, an early player in this space that works with Windows, OS X, and Android, and PlayStation Now, the just-launched version for PlayStation 4 and the PlayStation TV micro-console. Like OnLive, Grid streams the often-superior PC versions of games, while PS Now streams PS3 console games.

Navigating the Grid

We sat down for a demo session with the Grid gaming service, testing a handful of games on Nvidia Shield tablets, played with the tablet's custom gamepad and output to an external monitor. The collection of launch games were largely recent installments in popular franchises, but not the most current ones. We saw Batman: Arkham City, Borderlands 2, The Witcher 2, Dead Island and others.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Scrolling down to the Grid section of the left-hand navigation bar within the Nvidia Hub app, the games are presented as a scrolling horizontal line of cover art. With only 20-odd games at launch, navigation is easy, but a larger library would need to be sorted into sections or genres.

Launching a game works roughly the same as it does on similar services such as OnLive for PCs or PlayStation Now for consoles. It takes 20 seconds or so, as the game launches remotely and starts streaming to your location. From there, the games play via the Shield controller, a $60 add-on to the $299 tablet (or the original $199 portable Shield unit, which includes both a built-in gamepad and a display)

Resolution is limited to 720p, which is reasonable, as the data needs to go from your local controller input to the remote cloud and then back to your local device, all over Wi-Fi. (Nvidia says you should have at least a 10 Mbps download speed). The game menus and controls are the same as you'd find on the PC versions of these games, as these are the same exact versions, just locked to a standard set of graphics and resolution settings.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The lag issue

There's a certain amount of lag built into any streaming game platform, an inescapable problem for the category, and one that has bedeviled early players such as OnLive. Back in 2011, I asked PC game legend John Carmack about the physical limitations of cloud gaming, and he said:

"If you take a lot of the console games out there, and you're playing with your wireless controller, going through your post-process TV, the games themselves often have multiple frames of latency...A lot of games have over 100ms of latency in them right now. Now it's true that adding latency is always bad, and with OnLive, you're adding a compression step and two transmit steps. But the laws of physics do not guarantee this to be a bad idea."

Gaming in the Grid

Playing Borderlands 2 and Batman: Arkham City, I'd call both experiences playable, but not as smooth and effortless as playing the same games locally on a high-end PC or console. Arkham City presented itself slightly better, as it's a game played from a third-person point of view, and and lag or slowdown is less noticeable than in a first-person game, such as Borderlands 2. Both games stuttered slightly at first, but the experience smoothed out, which Nvidia attributed to the Grid platform adjusting for the speed of our Internet connection.

As a comparison, our Grid demo was set up next to a PlayStation TV micro-console connected to an identical monitor. We played the game Dead Island on both the Nvidia Shield tablet via Grid, and on the PSTV, via the PlayStation Now streaming game service.

The game Dead Island, on Nvidia Grid (left) and PlayStation Now (right). Sarah Tew/CNET

Both versions of Dead Island were playable, but fast camera movement could cause a stutter. In this test, however, the Grid version looked noticeably better when compared side by side. But, it's important to keep in mind that the Shield/Grid combo is streaming the superior PC version of the game, which has access to better textures and graphical effects, while the PSTV is streaming the console version of the game, originally released for the now-dated PlayStation 3 console. In other words, the source material for the Grid version was better.

Grid's open beta for the cloud gaming service will open November 18 for owners of the Shield Portable and Shield Tablet. For now, the 20-odd games included will be available to play for free, and Nvidia says new games will be added on a weekly basis, and the entire Grid system will be free to play for Shield owners until June 30, 2015. After that, it will transition to a paid service, which may take the form of a Netflix-like subscription or a la carte purchases or rentals.

For now, if you own one of these two very specific pieces of hardware, it's a nice bonus. For everyone else, while Nvidia wouldn't say so, Grid does seem like it could easily scale to other Android devices or even to Windows PCs.