Requirements and game library
In theory, Grid – Nvidia’s online game streaming service in the same vein as PlayStation Now – is a wonderfully benevolent service made exclusively for Nvidia hardware owners. It’s like the yacht club of gaming.
While Sony is grabbing subscribers’ cold, hard cash hand-over-fist, Nvidia is offering 40 PC-quality games for free until June 2015 and also has a few dozen games available for purchase through the Grid store.
I saw the service for the first time during autumn 2014 and had a lot of positive comments. Now, several months later, the service has grown in line with Nvidia’s predictions by doubling the amount of games available and the general stability of the stream.
In practice, the final product isn’t perfect – it turns out a dropped connection can really kill your gaming experience. But in the time since launch Grid has taken a step in the right direction for gamers ready to frag physical media.
Before I dig in with comparisons of how Grid performs under real-world conditions, let’s go over what Grid is, how it works and what you’ll need to try it out for yourself.
Grid, like PlayStation Now, is a cloud game-streaming service that streams PC versions of games from a remote service to your handheld device. Grid is currently available on two platforms, the Nvidia Shield Tablet and Nvidia Shield Portable, and can be found in the “Grid Games” section of the Shield Hub app. Announced at GDC 2015, Grid is also coming to the Nvidia Shield, a 4K Android TV set-top box that packs some serious plastic.
Using remote, proprietary servers, Nvidia performs the graphics-heavy processing needed to play AAA titles and then streams the results to your device. It’s constantly sending packets of information, and takes input from your controller and sends it back to the server.
As you can imagine, you’ll need a pretty fast Wi-Fi connection to make this all happen. Nvidia recommends connection speeds of at least 15Mbps for 720p, 30 frames per second (fps) gameplay, though it says you could scrape by with 5Mbps if push came to shove.
If you’re using Wi-Fi, you can only use the 720p, 30fps settings. That’s kind of a bummer.
However, hardwiring your Shield Tablet to a router will step you up to the coveted 1080p, 60 fps stream. (Though, I can’t see most sensible players even bothering with this solution.) Nvidia recommends a 50Mbps connection speed for wired play, but claims users should be able to get by with 15Mbps. Nvidia also recommends using a “game stream-ready” router, though does not require one to use the service.
Here at TechRadar HQ, we enjoy speeds of around 30Mbps down, and my home network could muster around 25Mbps down and 7Mbps up. Keep in mind that neither of these two connections were through game stream-ready routers, which is important to note for the performance section coming later in my impressions.
Lastly, before I continue, the service is limited for the time being to the US. There are plans in place to roll it out globally over the next few months, starting with the rest of North America and Western Europe and ending with Asia Pacific.
When the service launched in November 2014, there were roughly 20 games available for free. Fast-forward three months and the service has doubled to offer 40 games with even more available to purchase and stream remotely. Best of all, Nvidia has no plans of stopping. I was told to expect “a PlayStation Now-sized library of over 100 games by this time next year.”
Nvidia has clearly leveraged its relationships with publishers to get AAA games on Grid from the very beginning. Yes, the point can be made that a few too many of the games available have been around since 2010, but it’s impressive that the service is launching with many of the games we’re still waiting for on PlayStation Now.
What’s going to push the platform moving forward the most, however, are consistent updates that bring more recent and popular games to the Hub page. This is especially so for the Nvidia Shield coming in May.
Pricing and stream quality
Spend a few minutes with Grid, and you’d be hard-pressed to avoid comparing it to PlayStation Now. Both systems stream games from the cloud, take a few seconds to start up and don’t take up any space on your hard drive.
Nvidia’s service both starts up a bit faster than Sony’s Now, though, once Sony’s service gets going you can count on buttery-smooth performance for the entirety of the session.
The biggest differentiator are its platforms and its price. While PlayStation Now has an entire ecosystem at its disposal (PS4, PS3, PS Vita and PlayStation TV), Grid is only available on two machines available today, the Nvidia Shield Tablet and Nvidia Shield Portable.
Finally, while Sony’s streaming service is a bit more expensive at $19.99 per month compared to Nvidia Grid’s free-ninetynine, you don’t need to buy as expensive of hardware to use it.
Pricing is where Nvidia has a serious upper hand: 40 games are available to play at 720p and free. For now.
Now that may raise some ethical concerns. You might think, “if we’re not paying for the games, do the developers go unpaid for their hard work?” No. Absolutely not. Nvidia is paying them on your behalf for every session. How much this will cost them in the end is unclear, but you can rest easy at night knowing the developers are getting a cut.
But that’s only in the interim between now and June 30, 2015. Eventually, Nvidia told me it may adopt a tiered model for payment that would work “in a similar fashion to Netflix” according to CEO Jen-Hsun Huang.
While there are a few problems with the service (don’t worry, I’m getting there), pricing isn’t one of them. Nvidia should have no problem finding plenty of folks willing to shell out for a collection of games so long as it a.) keeps the cost under $20 per month and b.) continues to make new games available.
The biggest strike against Nvidia Grid are its difficult-to-achieve recommended specifications. The service seems to work better than when I tested it five months ago, but over a four-hour playtest, I still hit a few bumps (and a complete disconnect) while streaming.
You don’t necessarily need the fastest connection in the world, however. Games can be streamed without hitting the minimum 5Mbps speed, but doing so greatly increases your chances of hitting skips, lag and hiccups.
What was surprising, and somewhat depressing, was that even at blistering speeds of 40 or 50Mbps down, the stream wasn’t perfect. In games like Borderlands, stuttering would happen right after I engaged an enemy or, when I was playing Race Driver Grid, right before I needed to make a sharp turn. One hiccup later and I found myself at half health or, worse, was sent spinning out of control after hitting the guardrail at 95 miles per hour.
These issues only happened because of the 150ms lag time between the cloud and my Shield. Though, Nvidia tells me that my lack of a game stream-ready router was likely the main culprit.
And it doesn’t affect all games equally, I noticed. Input-sensitive games, like Ultra Street Fighter IV and Grid 2, had more problems than Batman or Borderlands. A slight dip in frame rate means the difference between a counter-hit and a complete miss, and that severely hurt my overall impression with the system.
So, why does this affect Grid and the Shield Tablet, but not PlayStation Now? The PS Vita aside, Sony systems have an Ethernet port that allows for steady, consistent connection. Or, in the case you’re on Wi-Fi, Sony puts up a simple bandwidth gate that stops users with slow connections from getting at the service. It seems harsh, but it’s better to stop someone before they start streaming than it is to let them have a less-than-perfect experience.
It’s not all bad news, though. Nvidia keeps your instance of the game running on the server if you accidentally get disconnected. You’ll have about three or four minutes to reconnect before the system idles out. It’s sad that a system like this even needs to exist, but having a way to quickly and easily jump back into the game is far better than losing everything you’ve accomplished since the last checkpoint.
Getting everything right while using Nvidia Grid means you will be treated to 720p gameplay without ever downloading a game or paying the sticker price ever again.
What’s even more impressive is that Grid actually plays nicely with both the Shield Tablet and Shield Portable’s battery. While many Android apps completely suck the life out of the battery, I was able to game uninterrupted for about 3 hours and 30 minutes without needing to plug in.
Game streaming still feels like it’s in its infancy, but Nvidia and Sony have shown that this is one viable route for the future of the medium. It’s obviously innovative, too, especially when combined with the potential Netflix-style pricing model.
Grid feels more well-rounded than game streaming services of the past, due in part to the caliber of titles it brings to the table. As long as Nvidia remains committed to bringing more recent and popular titles to the table, there’s little reason gamers should feel hesitant about going all-in with the service. And while streaming itself can feel a bit haphazard, it is possible to get a console-like experience, if you have the right equipment.
That said, hosting a consistent stream isn’t Grid’s strong suit. It’s easy to overlook a hiccup here and there, but the constant latency issues took a serious toll on my patience.
A standard Ethernet port would’ve gone a long way to alleviate some of the headaches caused by the inconsistent Wi-Fi signal. And even though the tablet looked fairly sharp in console mode, it’s still not on par with later Xbox 360 or PS3 games.
Grid is best evaluated in two ways: what it is today, and what it could be in the future. Today, it’s the best feature to come to the Shield. Considering the tablet just got Android 5.0 Lollipop, that’s saying something. Shield owners are getting 40 free games for absolutely no cost and a handful of great games to buy, with even more content en route in the coming months.
That said, the system today isn’t perfect. As you might expect, connections over Wi-Fi – especially without the right equipment – can be finicky. And real talk: playing games on Grid simply isn’t on par with playing on your PC directly, both graphically and in terms of responsiveness. But that’s just how the service works one year into its existence.
What’s more exciting is the future of the platform.
Imagine if Grid came to every desktop or laptop running an Nvidia graphics card. It’d be more robust than OnLive or PlayStation Now and backed by a company deeply entrenched in the industry. Interestingly, when asked about that possibility, the developers haven’t ruled it out. The Shield products, they say, are a testbed for the platform.
Calling game streaming the next GPU is hyperbolic, I’ll admit. But if, in 20 years, we’re all using cloud gaming services to play Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare 7 or Assassin’s Creed: Shogun, we’ll be able to look back and point to where it all started.