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
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.
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.
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.
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 signs, but 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.
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.