If you happen to live anywhere that isn’t a major city with top-notch internet infrastructure, then you probably roll your eyes as hard as I do whenever a big company talks about cloud gaming. It’s fair to say that the response to cloud gaming from most Australians tends to be ‘Aussie internet isn’t ready for that yet’.
Nvidia’s GeForce NOW cloud gaming service has been available publicly for a few years now, and our own former editor Alex Walker was deeply skeptical of how it would work in Australia when it was first announced in 2017.
When the folks at Google offered me the chance to road-test one of its recently released gaming Chromebooks with a GeForce NOW trial, it was with a sense of cynicism and morbid curiosity that I said yes.
The device I was loaned for this test was the Lenovo IdeaPad Gaming 16’ 2.5K Chromebook, which retails in Australia at $1599. It packs only a humble i5 processor, 8 GB of RAM, and Intel Iris Xe integrated graphics. Being a Chromebook, first and foremost, it is much lighter than most true gaming laptops at just 1.8kg and sports an enormously superior battery life of up to 11 hours. The power brick is by far the smallest I’ve ever found on a lappy intended for gaming.
My home internet pulls an average speed of 73 Mbps download and 33 Mbps upload, which is solidly above the national average of 52.98 and 17.81, respectively. I also share this connection with two housemates who stream TV and music a lot, as I do myself. As I’m currently in a long-distance relationship, I tend to have a video call open and running through most of any given day too. Our home network runs on a several-year-old mesh system with three satellites placed at the absolute maximum possible distance from each other, all displaying a constant ‘red’ level signal. It’s not an ideal situation, thus I figured it would present a stout challenge to any cloud gaming service.
To be honest, I was so convinced that this whole experiment would be such a mess that several days passed before I even got around to setting the device up. I am now kicking myself for being so cynical about it because, holy crap, it actually works pretty darn well.
As a first step, I connected my Steam account to the GeForce NOW client. My initial tests on the Lenovo IdeaPad 2.5K were conducted with the recently released retro FPS Warhammer 40,000: Boltgun. I had a Google Meet video call running on a separate device at the time, I was casting Mad Men to my TV, and at least one of my housemates was streaming something in their bedroom too. I launched straight into a Boltgun sequence that I knew throws an absolutely gob-smacking amount of enemies at you at once and requires deft, nimble dodging and platforming to navigate through. To my utter shock, the whole thing ran with barely a hiccup.
I next wondered how a persistently online game would fare and gave Forza Horizon 5 a look using the browser-based Xbox Cloud Gaming beta. Horizon ran with a noticeable visual downgrade, but I was astounded by how smooth & responsive driving was, and my connection still had a video call and a TV stream running alongside it too, neither of which dipped.
Okay, I thought, let’s really mess with this thing.
I switched the Lenovo IdeaPad 2.5K’s connection from my home wifi to a tether from my Amaysim 4G phone hotspot. After all, this is a device built to live on the go, and I have to assume this is how most potential owners would be using these cloud services anyway. I then hopped back to GeForce NOW and into an online game of Fortnite.
Here’s where things started to come unglued. The game was, in the broadest sense, playable, but the experience was not overly enjoyable. I’m not really a Fortnite player, so my experience was limited to the kiddie pool rankings on servers with more bots than humans. The visual fidelity of the stream took a significant hit, and there were many moments where my character would stumble around like a drunkard on roller skates. But the fact that it operated to even a passable level under these conditions impressed me. Clearly, it will be woefully inadequate for any degree of competitive play, but for casually mucking around with your mates while you’re on the road, it’ll surely be sufficient.
I tested a variety of other games on both services too. On my mobile hotspot, the entirely video-based Immortality ran beautifully, and the always online vampire-hunting loot shooter Redfall stuttered some but showed no dramatic problems outside of those which the game itself carries. Even Garfield Kart: Furious Racing was perfectly fluid, although sadly, I was unable to find any multiplayer servers to connect to.
Things to consider
There are, of course, significant caveats to this whole thing. If internet or mobile reception in your area is especially poor, then you’ll surely have a worse time than I, and while I didn’t keep a particularly close eye on it as I happen to have a truly stupid amount of banked mobile data, any kind of heavy streaming such as this will obviously take a significant toll on your plans’ monthly allowances.
Neither GeForce NOW nor Xbox Cloud Gaming is free either.
Xbox’s service requires a Game Pass Ultimate subscription which carries a price tag of $15.95AUD a month.
Nvidia’s offering has a trio of subscription tiers coming in at $3.99AUD, $10.99AUD, and $21.99AUD a month, respectively, each of which brings fewer restrictions for usage. Nvidia’s service can access your Steam, Ubisoft, and Epic libraries but only has agreements in place for a limited pool of games that it can access from each. It also seemed unable to detect any games in my Steam library that I hadn’t recently played despite numerous re-syncs. Even more irritatingly, GeForce NOW makes you join a queue each time you hit play on any given game and places a limit on the length of your streaming session before it boots you off, with higher-cost subscription tiers granting higher queue priority and increasing the length of which you can play. Nvidia does offer an 8-hour free trial, for what it’s worth, but it comes with even harsher restrictions in these areas.
And then there are the handhelds. The Lenovo IdeaPad Gaming 16’ 2.5K faces competition from the rise of PC gaming handhelds such as the Steam Deck & ROG Ally. But then I view what Google is doing here more as a solution for students and those who want to travel with a lightweight work laptop, with some gaming in on the side. I wouldn’t strictly consider this a gaming device in the purest sense.
Even with these barriers in mind, I must say that my experience with Chromebook Gaming as a thing has been remarkably positive so far. If more publishers agree to sign on to GeForce NOW and the number of games available expands – a massive if given their track record so far – and if Google and its hardware partners can bring a wider price range of hardware to market, I can absolutely see this whole endeavour servicing a niche rather well. Time will tell, of course, if Google maintains its focus and really pushes the product forward. I mean, the corpse of Stadia isn’t all that cold yet.
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