The Expert’s Guide To Cloud Gaming

Date:25 January 2022 Author: Juandre Tags:,

If your internet speed is up to the task, you can skip the cost of a new gaming system or GPU, plus play the latest games with friends from anywhere.

If you’re struggling to acquire the newest gaming consoles or graphics cards, rest assured that updated hardware isn’t the only way to play the latest releases. Cloud gaming allows you to stream titles over the internet remotely from a host company’s own console or computer servers. This lets you simply load up a game, as you would a YouTube video or Netflix show, to a majority of devices without owning powerful systems yourself. As long as you have minimal latency (also known as ping) for as little interference between you and the servers you’re playing on, control inputs register in milliseconds and feel virtually lag-free.

Lightweight streams lower the bar for entry, so that even underpowered devices—from your phone to laptop to previous-generation consoles—can play new releases. If your target device reaches just 25 Megabits per second (Mbps), that meets the recommended requirements for services for fluent 1080p streams. And at 50 Mbps, you can play games like the graphic-intensive Cyberpunk 2077 at 4K with HDR enabled on some services for an experience on par with some of the most powerful systems currently available. This guide will show you how and where I use my current subscriptions to maximize my game time and experience, as well as serve up some inspiration for how you can incorporate this gear into your own setup.

 

Cloud Gaming Versus Remote Play

Cloud gaming doesn’t require you to own a gaming system or computer capable of running a title—you use a major company’s hardware. Remote play is an entirely different feature found on consoles and computers; it streams video of your system to a secondary device, but you need to own that expensive equipment in the first place. Cloud gaming eliminates the need to throw down the $500 purchase minimum for a console or computer to play games—you can open a native app or even play games from a browser instead. This means you can play next generation games usually only playable on advanced technology on nearly any device with a screen. Hosting the hardware needed for this is expensive, so cloud services often charge a subscription fee for advanced features like HDR or access to a library of games. And when buying titles directly from a service like Stadia, you may have to pay more than if you purchased from an established platform like Steam.

My History With Cloud Gaming

I’ve been using cloud gaming services since the industry pioneer OnLive launched back in 2010 to run experiences like Mafia II and Borderlands 2 on a dated laptop. While I found the potential to provide console games on an underpowered netbook revolutionary at the time, the rest of the world wasn’t ready just yet, and OnLive folded. Along with the service went my rights to the digital games—a lesson in digital game ownership that left me slightly jaded about paying to play games on someone else’s machines.

Fast forward to 2014 when Nvidia launched GeForce Grid (evolving into GeForce Now), which laid the framework for today’s cloud streaming services. My interest in the space was once again piqued. Sony followed suit with PlayStation Now a year later, which allowed PlayStation consoles (Vita, PS3, PS4), Samsung TVs, and Sony Blu-Ray players to access PlayStation’s catalogue of exclusives and third-party games. In 2019, both Google and Microsoft tossed their hats into the ring with Stadia and Xbox Cloud Gaming across computers, phones, and streaming devices.

I’ve used all four platforms in their betas and current fully realized formats, as well as played titles across numerous pieces of hardware from my iPhone 13 Pro Max to a MacBook Pro to Google’s Chromecast plugged into my TV.

Things to Consider Before Committing to Cloud Gaming

Internet Speed

Your internet speed and router’s capabilities will determine streaming performance and if you’re able to play games on the cloud in the first place. You’ll have the best experience running hardwired or on a 5-Gigahertz router band. Internet speeds across the country average 100 Mbps, which is more than enough. If your devices are getting less than 25 Mbps from your router, you’ll want to stick with traditional hardware since you’re very likely to experience lag, visual hiccups, and drop outs. But I’d recommend no less than 50 Mbps for a buffer.

Data Caps

While each service varies—especially on the streaming resolution and effects you choose to use such as HDR and ray-tracing—if your Internet Service Provider (ISP) institutes a limit on your data, then you’ll want to avoid cloud gaming. This really isn’t a concern for most fiber providers, but cable companies like Xfinity and Cox Communications are notorious for throttling speed and charging overage fees once you use up a certain amount of bandwidth, usually starting around the 1 terabyte mark.

Platform Accessibility

Cloud gaming allows you to buy a copy of a game and play it across devices from anywhere with a solid Wi-Fi connection. You can start a game on your phone, switch over to a tablet, and pick it back up on a laptop or even on your TV through an app or streaming device. Controller options are expanded so you don’t have to stay locked to one type of control scheme and has led to a lot of innovative solutions like the excellent Backbone mobile controller and Wi-Fi controllers. Not all cloud gaming options are the same; while some services like Google Stadia offer plenty of variety from controls to platforms, PlayStation Now limits the experience to Windows PCs and Sony hardware exclusively. Have an idea of what games you want to play and where you want to play them to find the platform best suited for your needs.

cloud gaming setup 2022

How I Tested

I have plenty of qualitative impressions from my years of cloud gaming and regular use, but before recommending that you use the same services in your setup, I wanted to gather some hard data. Over the course of one week I streamed a variety of titles across an iPhone 13 Pro Max, MSI GF65 Gaming Laptop, MacBook Pro, Google TV, PlayStation 4 Pro, PlayStation 5, and the VCR-looking launch Xbox One. I used Speedtest.net in addition to speed tests built into hardware to ensure that each device received above the recommended speeds for a fair comparison while also moving systems to the same testing space when feasible, as I had to keep the Google TV downstairs on a 4K TV to confirm the resolution and performance. My router provided speeds of 500 Mbps, and the speed the devices themselves received ranged between 275 and 380 Mbps, well above the average 25 Mbps recommendation.

Google Stadia is an engineering feat with performance and accessibility that makes it the best option for most people. It objectively runs the smoothest with minimal distortion in picture quality, works with the most controllers, and offers the highest resolutions with added benefits like HDR for improved colors on the paid Pro tier. While its dashboard interface can use some work, Stadia is a true console alternative—not supplement—that has changed the way I play, serving as my preferred platform for longer games like Assassin’s Creed Valhalla and Far Cry 6 so that I can make a dent in story progress from anywhere.

To get started with Stadia, you will need a Google Account. Once you sign up you can access Stadia from a Chrome browser on any computer including Macs and Chromebooks. The Stadia platform can run on your iPhone and Android from here. As for TVs, you can crack open the Stadia app on Android-based systems or preferably use a Chromecast with Google TV for an improved experience. To play the games, you will need a mouse and a keyboard or a controller. Every game on mobile devices like phones or tablets works using touch controls. Stadia’s easy accessibility and versatile amount of input options from Bluetooth to USB means you likely won’t need to buy another controller or streaming device to get started. In fact, this aspect is what initially drew me to the service. I downloaded the app to my Google TV and played games using a spare Xbox One controller. And if you’re new to gaming entirely, the Premiere Edition above provides you with a Chromecast Ultra and Google’s own Wi-Fi controller, which offers the fastest response times. Since it connects to Google’s server instead of Bluetooth, there’s virtually no latency—translating to a speedy command input with every press.

Stadia is only one of two services to provide streams at up to a 4K resolution with HDR (the other being GeForce Now, below). This vibrance and clarity looked fantastic on my 4K gaming TV while using Google Chromecast, especially when exploring the tropical island of Yara in Far Cry 6. Rays of light and vibrant fauna popped, mimicking the physical copy of the game I own for Xbox Series X, with no noticeable lag for console-like play. Google recommends at least 35 Mbps if you’re playing at 4K, warning that this can eat up on average 12 GB of data per hour. But performance can differ across devices. As I switched over to a Mac, the game retained its buttery smooth performance over Wi-Fi, but I could see a noticeable drop in the vibrance. And on iPhone, there was a tinge of stutter as I drove through more populated villages or bases at full speeds, which isn’t unexpected. The ease of handing off games and picking them up across all of your devices with an excellent quality across the board shows how effective cloud gaming is once fully realized. Plus every single game works on mobile because there’s an option for a digital touchpad. Not all games are optimized for touch and mobile controls on other services, which gives Stadia an advantage.

stadia ui jan 2022
The Stadia UI is a bit too basic.

You can think of Stadia as the Steam of cloud gaming in that it’s a free platform where you can buy games, interact with friends, and earn achievements. The paid Pro tier gives you access to a library of 20 or so AAA and indie games in addition to performance benefits like 4K resolution and HDR support. Where the service falls short is its plain interface and TV app lag on less powerful models. The party and friends system is incredibly basic, and finding achievements can be a bit confusing. And as for TV apps, I noticed that Google TVs can struggle with a wired or Bluetooth controller with noticeable lag, unlike when using the Stadia app on Google’s dedicated streaming stick.

But for a majority of the time, Google’s Stadia is an excellent option for playing games anywhere, especially fast-paced multiplayer titles where other services just aren’t as twitch-oriented. Stadia is the best starting point as well, since it’s free and you can get a trial of the Pro service to see how those games perform before spending money on the store. Sure, the smart TV app performance can be hit or miss, but GeForce Now aside, Xbox and PlayStation don’t offer their apps on smart TV storefronts. Google delivers on the promise of ease of use and performance and sets a high bar for cloud gaming as a whole. While Google is notorious for killing off software endeavors, I’m comfortable enough to buy my games from Stadia, as there is no service currently that outperforms it.

Xbox’s Game Pass Ultimate cloud gaming service combines Xbox Live Gold for internet and party chat access on its consoles with access to 400 games into one subscription. It’s the best value in cloud gaming because you not only gain access to a constantly evolving game library but impressive 1080p performance across devices without even needing to own an Xbox console. On PC, you can download and install games or stream them over the cloud. And with progress saved on the fly, you can pick up and go from where you left off on a tablet, phone, computer, or Xbox gaming system. With Game Pass, you can play Xbox’s exclusives on day of their release for no extra charge, so four months of the service basically equals the purchase price of one of these titles.

Even if you don’t already like Microsoft’s franchises like Halo or Forza, the catalogue is filled to the brim with a mix of AAA and indie third-party titles that range from Grand Theft Auto to Stardew Valley. It’s best to think of this as the Netflix of cloud gaming streaming services, since it’s arguably the most popular service with its massive library and companion app where you can save titles for later and explore categories. You can sign up from here or directly from the Game Pass tab on the main menu of your Xbox (even the launch model of the Xbox One).

Cloud streaming works best on PC and console, where a stable connection ensures no drops and a rare texture pixelation most often in the environment. During testing, some friends had urged me to join them in a few rounds of PUBG from my Xbox. Within seconds, and without installing the game, I simply hopped in via an invite. The experience was incredibly smooth, as if it was coming directly from my console’s drive. But unlike with Stadia, you can’t reach 4K HDR streams for the visual flair the new generation of hardware brings. Microsoft upgraded its host consoles to the powerful Xbox Series X—opening up the opportunity to play next-generation games on previous-gen gaming consoles. This works remarkably well as I streamed an Xbox Series X-exclusive title, The Medium, on my aging (read: nine-year-old) Xbox One. While I noticed some slight artifacts and compression in textures and visuals as I moved around a deteriorating hotel lobby, cutscenes were spot on, with reflection effects and the experience coming close to the game running off of my Xbox Series X. While the newer hardware rendered facial and environmental details far better, you can see below that, while slightly brighter and blurrier, the base Xbox One handled it like a pro. This effectively expanded the lifespan of the previous console generation as I’ve moved my Xbox One to my bedroom instead of selling it.

Now, mobile streaming is nowhere near as smooth as it is on Stadia or even GeForce Now. I often saw the network signal flash on average five times per hour and noticed pixelation as resolution shifted around. This is especially prevalent in more demanding games. While playing Halo Infinite’s multiplayer, the game looked great as I moved around each map, but once a firefight ensued, the lag was not only noticeable but could sabotage my aim—snapping back to a usable state for a solid amount of time then once again dropping the ball when action picks up. But in Halo’s single-player campaign mode, the aim and shooting felt great. You won’t want to play twitch-shooters or competitive games on the cloud with this service, but solo campaigns or less intense titles get the green light.

Perhaps the area the service struggles most in is in the amount of games it has to offer—at the moment just 100 for Cloud play. Held back by this amount, especially in light of the 400 titles Xbox Cloud Gaming has for download, the system still has a lot of potential. Once all games in the Game Pass library become playable over the cloud and Microsoft is able to utilize the full power of the Xbox Series X on its servers, streams may hit 4K at 60 frames per second. Not only would these advancements make this the strongest option available, it would open the door for a potential Xbox streaming stick that can replace consoles entirely.


GeForce Now takes a different approach with its cloud gaming offering by tapping into your existing library purchased from digital storefronts like Steam and Epic. If you’re a PC Gamer, this serves as a means of accessing your content easily across devices, and there’s even a free tier to do so. GeForce Now maxes out at a 2K resolution (except on the Shield TV hardware, where it can run 4K HDR), works with a limited amount of games, and requires you to wait for a rig to open. But it affords access to years of your previous game purchases instead of requiring you to switch interfaces, while letting you grab games at a steep discount during sales.

There’s a lot GeForce gets right—the games I care about are accessible across devices, I don’t have to lose them if I choose not to resubscribe or the service pulls the plug, and I can access the service without paying a dime. To start your membership, you just need to head over to Nvidia’s signup page, select from one of the tiers, and join. As expected, the free tier is janky. I experienced things like blurry textures and distorted text on in-game signsbut it is absolutely serviceable. In fact, it felt like I was playing games directly from my gaming rig while using a wireless Bluetooth keyboard and mouseon a MacBook Pro, which speaks highly to the minimal latency and performance of the service. The limited one-hour time frame on the free tier is sure to get tiresome when you get booted off the service in the middle of a showdown though.

But the minute I paid the $10 monthly fee to upgrade my account to Priority status, I was greeted with the immense step up in visuals, which enabled 1080p and 60 FPS in addition to ray-tracing. Plus, it extended sessions to six hours of uninterrupted gameplay. On the free tier, I found I was often in the 90th percentile of a queue with wait times hovering a bit more than 5 minutes on average—with the longest being 7 minutes and shortest being 3—while I waited for a rig to open up. With a paid membership, you can slide right into games in under 30 seconds, which is on par with the other services. Recently the company added a $17 per month tier that uses a 3,080-Ti rig which can hit 1440p (2K) at a blistering 120 frames per second with ray-tracing. And on a NVIDIA Shield TV streaming device you can hit 4K60 with HDR enhancements. Those higher resolutions and frame rates are a huge deal for visual fidelity but I haven’t gotten a chance to go hands on with this mode just yet.

 

Running first-person shooters on a MacBook Pro is nearly indistinguishable from my gaming laptop equipped with a 1,660-Ti GPU, save for the faster frame rates on the MSI’s 144-hertz screen versus the capped 60-hertz rate on the GeForce Now service. Plus it’s quite magical the first time you bring your PC gaming library to your phone. During testing, I traveled to my parents’ house and made my way through Black Mesa on their aging router as if I was running it locally, lag-free and capturing sparks and smooth motion effects. Mobile devices and computers work great, but I have yet to try it on an Nvidia Shield, which allows for 4K HDR like Google’s Stadia.

My biggest qualm with the service stems from the fact that you have to manually sync your library to discover new purchases, as well as an obtuse sign-in process that requires multiple authentications. On mobile, a ton of games don’t really work just yet, with just a tenth of my library accessible. Beyond being a bit more work to get going GeForce Now is a promising service that’s mechanically sound. It feels finished and is the best path forward for those who already game on PC. While this also opens the door for non-PC players to make a Steam account and buy compatible games to access without a powerful computer, Stadia will likely win over those new to cloud gaming or console players. Computer gamers looking to play their games on the cloud at a higher fidelity should trend towards this.

 

Sony’s PlayStation Now cloud gaming service rose from the ashes of Gaikai—OnLive’s competitor and a cloud gaming veteran with over a decade of experience. This is important to keep in mind because the service feels like the oldest of all the streaming solutions. A PlayStation Now subscription provides access a trove of over 700 games from PS2, PS3, and PS4 titles. The selection is robust but not as impressive as Microsoft’s offering since it’s not accessible on Mac, smartphones, and tablets. That could be the reason for the recent rumors which indicate the service may be revamped to also include PlayStation’s Plus subscription and improved accessibility to take on Game Pass.

PlayStation Now shines with its ability to download or stream Sony exclusives like the most recent God of War or The Last of Us Part 2. Its menu makes it easy to cycle between top-played titles and a surprisingly accurate discovery queue, which makes for a competent and snappy interface—despite having an older foundation. Performance is capped to 1080p, but the input lag is a bit more noticeable than the other services. I especially felt this in shooters and titles that require twitchy reactions.

mafia ps5 pixelation
The level of pixelation you can occasionally experience even with a solid connection.

While the speed of motion is impressive, notably in the camera fly-over and crane shots in Mafia: Definitive Edition’s opening introduction sequence as it zooms and flies around the city, it didn’t take long for pixelation to crop up in action scenes. As I fled a rival gang, flashes of gunfire and city lights strained the stream even with the strongest connection of any device at 368 Mbps on a PlayStation 5. Shift over to the Windows client and it’s the same story. Movement is fluid and cinematics look great, but push any game with too much action and the service can stutter, whether it’s a release like last year’s Mafia or even an older PS3 title like Motorstorm. I don’t mind the occasional visual streaming hiccup since it means I can jump straight into a huge title like The Last of Us without downloading it. But if you’re a stickler for visuals you will absolutely want to take up the service on its ability to download the games directly to your PlayStation console instead.

And while I wish I could tell you about a mobile experience or playing on a Mac, there’s no support for any system outside of PlayStation consoles and a Windows PC app. I applaud the selection and the performance is decent, but the biggest pitfall is that the service is extremely limited on access. PlayStation Now used to be accessible on a wide variety of devices like the PlayStation Vita, PlayStation 3, PlayStation TV, and even some Samsung TVs. I know this because I’ve used it on and off since its launch over the years. These days it’s limited to just Windows PCs and PlayStation hardware, which is disappointing, especially when you see the pick-up-and-play ease of access for the other services. With that said, if you already own a PlayStation console, the service is a strong value as a supplementary library. You can download plenty of highly rated games to your PlayStation 4 or 5. Some critically acclaimed titles I’ve downloaded include The Witcher 3, The Last of Us Part II, and Hollow Knight. Selection isn’t lacking. But streaming is simply acceptable and isn’t available on as many devices, making Playstation Now a tough sell if you aren’t already in Sony’s console ecosystem or own a Windows PC.

Latest Issue :

May-June 2022