Cloud gaming is on the rise. Gone are the days when lofty promises of streaming the best games to your Mac, low-end laptop or Android phone would be unravelled by bad Internet connections. Just connect your computer to your router via an Ethernet cable (or 5GHz WiFi if you have to), sign up to a service like GeForce Now, Shadow or Google Stadia, and you’re away.
Cloud-gaming platforms let you play high-end games on pretty much any PC because they stream the game from servers equipped with the latest gaming hardware. You’re essentially playing a very high-quality video of the game.
But with Nvidia’s GeForce Now, Google Stadia and the French cloud gaming platform Shadow offering their own variants on cloud gaming at different prices, which one should you go for? It’s time to find out.
Rating: (3.5 / 5)
Price: Free – $5/month
Making most of the headlines recently is Nvidia’s cloud-gaming platform, GeForce Now. It’s only recently come out of beta, with a very reasonably-priced two-tier pricing system.
GeForce Now lets you play many of the games you already own across popular PC gaming platforms like Steam, Epic Store and EA Origin. While it supports a substantial number of games, you can’t just play anything, and in recent months publishers have been pulling their entire game libraries from the service. Activision-Blizzard, Bethesda, 2K and Rockstar Games are just some examples, meaning big-name games like Call of Duty, The Elder Scrolls series, GTA and Civilization are no longer supported.
New games are coming to the service too, but the volatility around whether games will stick around on GeForce Now makes it a little daunting to commit to buying games.
The free tier of GeForce Now is the only way you can do cloud gaming for free (though Stadia is temporarily running a two-month free trial of its Stadia Pro package). The hardware is weaker than the $5/month tier (which gives you an RTX-enabled RTX 2080 GPU), and you’re limited to one-hour sessions and 1080p resolution. But even the free tier packs a GTX 1080 capable of running any game, and you can just sign out and back in when you hit an hour to keep playing.
GeForce Now works nicely and smoothly on a good connection, running games directly from its UI without needing to install them on a cloud PC. It’s pretty speedy, and it’s nice having your available games presented in their own dedicated UI. (You can create desktop shortcuts directly to the games too!)
It’s a good deal, but it’s probably worth waiting a few months for things to settle down between Nvidia and publishers and we get a better idea of which games are actually going to stick around on the service.
Rating: (4 / 5)
Price: $12 – $50/month
Without the brand recognition of its rivals, Shadow is the least-known service on this list. It is also the most expensive, but for its lowest-tier $12 monthly price, you get access to a complete and powerful virtual PC running Windows 10.
That means there are no restrictions on the games you can play because you can install whatever software, game launcher or game you want on it. Buy a PC game, and it should run on Shadow. You don’t need to worry about your games becoming unplayable overnight as they do with GeForce Now either.
The reasons for that are legally grey at this point, but it’s something along the lines of the fact that while GeForce Now quite directly presents you with a library saying “Look at all these games you can play,” making it act as sort of a distributor, Shadow merely offers you a virtual machine that happens to be a great gaming rig. Clever, eh?
And because you have access to your own virtual Windows 10 PC, that means you’re free to mod your games, download console emulators, whatever you please! These are things you just can’t do on rival offerings.
The catch is that Shadow is more expensive than its rivals, with packages ranging from $15 to $50 a month. The good news is that the $15 package ($12 if you commit to a year) gives you a cloud PC with a GTX 1080 graphics card, which will easily run any game you want.
The 256GB SSD on the cheapest tier isn’t a huge capacity in this day and age, and the fact that you have to manage your hard drive space makes Shadow a little bit more fiddly than Stadia and GeForce Now. The next tier up is $30, and while that gives you an RTX 2080, it’s a pretty steep price given that you get the same GPU on GeForce Now for $5 a month (albeit with much less flexibility with what you can play).
Overall, though, Shadow is easy to recommend because your games collection isn’t at the mercy of licensing agreements (or non-agreements, as the case may be) and games being pulled at the whims of the platform or the game’s publisher. It’s by far the most open and complete cloud-gaming option available.
Rating: (3 / 5)
Price: Free – $10/month
The Google Stadia service is a strange one, and it’s perhaps unsurprising that it’s the most “locked in” cloud-gaming platform out of the options on this list. To its credit, Stadia has just launched its free tier, which lets you play games at up to 1080p resolutions, but you’ll need to first buy those games through the Stadia Store. Given that there’s not really any competition for dedicated cloud-gaming stores, expect to pay premium prices for your games.
But maybe that’s not a problem for people who want to play games like Red Dead Redemption 2, Destiny 2 and Assassin’s Creed Odyssey at impressive quality on their phone, browser or even TV via Chromecast. It’s all very instant and satisfying, not requiring you to download games in the cloud like in Shadow, or sign into the relevant gaming platform a la GeForce Now.
The streaming quality is undeniably very good – arguably the best on this list – even at middling Internet speeds. It’s stable, too, where Shadow and GeForce Now can have some lapses in performance. Clearly, that powerful Google infrastructure pays off here.
At the time of writing, you can also get a two-month free trial of Stadia Pro (usually $10 a month), which unlocks 4k resolutions, HDR and a small library of free games. And here’s the problem: it really is a small library. While games like Destiny 2: The Collection and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds are good offerings, they’re the best of a pretty underwhelming bunch (11 games in total at the time of writing). And again, games are subject to drop out of rotation at any point.
The streaming quality of Stadia is very good – no question – but it’s overall the most restrictive of the three on this list. You can’t shop around for the best game deals, your games won’t ever carry over to Steam or other platforms should you eventually get the hardware to play them on or if you want to play your games on another cloud gaming provider.
Yes, Stadia opens you up to cloud gaming, but in return, it pulls you hard into its ecosystem where the other two let you keep your freedom. For me at least, that works against it in a big way.
It’s not the biggest name out there, but for those who want to fully emulate the PC experience in the cloud – mods, games old and new, no restrictions – the cheapest Shadow package is your safest bet. If the $15 price tag is a bit daunting, then GeForce Now will prove easiest on your purse-strings, and its free tier is a nice way to see how well cloud gaming works in your home. Despite its impressive streaming performance, Stadia is a tough sell right now.