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Laptops

Blade Shadow tried to slay my PC, but it wasn’t ready

For $35 a month, the beta version of this game streaming service needs to stop tripping over itself.

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Why yes, that's Steam running on a phone. Kinda.

Sean Hollister/CNET

I love my home-built desktop gaming PC, but I also long for the day I'll be able to give it the boot. 

That's why cloud gaming services such as Blade Shadow, launching today in California, have always intrigued me. They promise to make all my games and apps playable on any old laptop or even a phone, thanks to YouTube-like streaming tech. Why buy a new graphics card -- particularly with the recent cryptocurrency crunch -- when a server farm filled with graphics cards can give you the same power?

But there have always been at least two problems with cloud desktop technology: It's never worked as perfectly as you'd want, and it's never quite the price you'd want to pay. 

After spending an entire day with Blade Shadow, I can't say they've nailed it this time, either.  

Off to a good start

I'm basically the perfect customer for Blade. I live in San Jose, California, apparently less than 15 miles from the company's first server farm in the United States. I pay for fast internet (not just download speed, but ping), own a fast 5GHz Wi-Fi router, and have a wired Ethernet hookup for my primary gaming machine. 

These things are all important because with cloud gaming, latency (how quickly your computer talks to a server) is arguably more important than raw download speed. When you, say, move your mouse, you want the remote server to see that immediately so it can move your head in the game (and show you the result) before it's too late. 

Blade within a Blade: The Razer Blade Stealth laptop doesn't have a game-capable graphics chip, but the Blade Shadow service gives it a virtual Intel Xeon CPU (think Core i7) and Nvidia Quadro P5000 graphics (think GTX 1080).

Sean Hollister/CNET

For my first test, I fired up the best-case scenario: a Windows PC with a wired internet connection. And for about an hour, I couldn't believe how well Shadow worked. 

Not only could I easily throw fireballs and execute Ultra Combos in Street Fighter (one of my go-to streaming tests), but the Windows client seemed to be beautifully integrated into my PC. It was like having a computer within a computer, one where I could seamlessly move my mouse cursor between my "real" Windows 10 desktop and my virtual Windows 10 desktop without Alt-Tabbing. 

The download speeds were excellent too -- important, since Shadow requires you to install your own games. Wolfenstein II, a giant 44.8GB title, only took about half an hour, and I saw Steam download speeds peak north of 80MB a second. That's the benefit of having one server farm talk to another.

Things fall apart

But then I fired up a few other games, and things started going south. My audio stopped working, which required me to momentarily "reset" the streaming service. (That would happen many more times during my tests.) I discovered that some 2D games, such as the four-player couch favorite SpeedRunners, and 2D assets, including the splash screens and cutscenes in Rise of the Tomb Raider and Wolfenstein II, were too choppy to enjoy. 

Streaming on a Razer Phone, the only phone with a 120Hz screen -- which Shadow supports. Incidentally, Blade says it's working with Razer to integrate Shadow more deeply.

Sean Hollister/CNET

I tried Shadow on other computers and phones in my house, trying to imagine myself taking games with me anywhere, like the company suggests. The Windows client in particular started to badly misbehave. The service still thinks it's connected to my 24-inch Dell monitor, even though I haven't used that one since yesterday around lunch. 

The Windows client completely failed to launch on two occasions, and there was nothing I could do to fix it. I had to reinstall it both times. Wolfenstein II decided it would no longer play in full-screen mode, only in a window.

Sometimes my cursor randomly disappeared until I reset the stream. And sometimes, my gamepad would randomly stop being detected by Shadow, even though my physical computer saw it perfectly well. 

And let's not get started on the Windows client over Wi-Fi. Even when I sat in the same room as my 5GHz router and booted every other device off my home network, streaming would stutter often enough to be annoying.

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The standalone Blade Shadow box in its native habitat. Blade claims it can stream at 144Hz or 4K resolution, but other issues stopped me from getting that far in my testing.

Marion Leflour/Blade

When I discovered that the Windows client doesn't support microphones yet -- a must if you're playing PUBG with friends -- I decided to ditch it and plugged in the dedicated $140 (£110, roughly AU$200) Blade Shadow box instead. The Blade Shadow box is the only client so far with microphone support. It's a fancy-looking yet inexpensive set-top-box with an embedded AMD Falcon chip. 

But I quickly found that its streaming performance was worse, leaving me with a noisier, laggier picture. I even occasionally ran into full-screen graphical corruption that required a full reboot. The box is already on sale in Europe, so I'm hoping I just got a bum unit. 

The silver lining

I do have one nice thing to say about Blade Shadow: Its Android app is pretty sweet. While the Windows version weirdly struggled to work over my home Wi-Fi, I was able to play on a Razer Phone and a Pixel XL even over a good LTE cellular connection. (Mind you, Blade warns that it'll eat limited data plans for lunch.) With a late-model Xbox One gamepad as my Bluetooth controller, I could definitely see myself playing more Rise of the Tomb Raider, for example.

You can fix the small icons by manually setting the display scaling in Windows. Or you can just pinch-to-zoom a lot.

Sean Hollister/CNET

It's pretty neat having a full touch-sensitive, pinch-to-zoom Windows desktop available on a phone, too, even if you have to jump through a few hoops to get the screen resolution and scaling right. By default, you're going to be dealing with icons too small to read, let alone touch.

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Verdict: Don't pay to be a beta tester

As far as I'm concerned, I spent a day with Blade Shadow so you don't have to. Not yet, anyhow, and definitely not for the $35, £27 or around AU$45-ish a month minimum that Blade is asking for. (Those prices are for a year's worth of access. They get even higher if you aren't prepared to commit.) 

Because while those prices might make sense if a streaming service could actually replace my desktop PC, I couldn't possibly see myself relying on Shadow right now. As far as I can tell, it's not Shadow's network that's the problem -- after all, the phones seemed OK -- just some buggy software that needs some more time in the oven. I hope. 

On the plus side, I don't have to warn a whole lot of people, because the service is only available in California and western Europe for now. I'm looking forward to giving it another try this summer, when the company opens five more data centers across the United States and opens to more customers.

In the meanwhile, may I kindly suggest that companies stop shipping unfinished products?

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