It's been over two years since OnLive CEO Steve Perlman showed off a cloud-accelerated web browser on stage, demonstrating how an iPad could load a full website in the blink of an eye... by actually loading it in OnLive's server room miles away. Today, the company's finally making that same ability available to users for $5 a month, and it's pretty amazing.
Remember how OnLive's free Cloud Desktop service let you use a virtual copy of Windows 7 on your iPad? Well, it didn't have a web browser, but if you pay $5 a month for the just-announced Cloud Desktop Plus tier, OnLive throws in a copy of Internet Explorer 9 with all the trimmings as well as priority access to the service. So far, that might sound pretty mundane, until you realize that unlike your home internet connection, OnLive loads pages at nearly a gigabit per second.
We pulled up Speedtest.net in our virtual copy of Windows 7 over our virtual gigabit connection (still with us?) and measured speeds of over 600 megabits per second down and 200 megabits per second up, enough raw muscle to make page loads instantaneous and stream 4K video from YouTube. That's far more pixels than today's iPad can even display at once. After we attached a Bluetooth keyboard and started watching Hulu shows and playing Flash games, the iPad seemed to melt away, as we forgot the limitations of mobile browsers like the one Apple provides by default. Speed also depends on the servers hosting web content, though: we weren't able to transfer a Dropbox file at more than 1.1MB / sec, nor a large video file from our own hosting service at more than around 50MB / sec.
Now, this is Windows 7 we're talking about, so Cloud Desktop is still nowhere near an optimal experience on the iPad's capacitive touchscreen — even with a stylus, we missed button presses, gestures, right-click and drag-n-drop all the time. Windows 8 might solve these issues, but we almost wonder if OnLive would be better off with a dedicated browser app for mobile platforms. Since it's OnLive we're talking about, there are also visible compression artifacts sometimes when you scroll, and you'll still need a decent, stable internet connection to begin with in order to use the service without stuttering and connection drops.
That said, you won't necessarily be bumping up against your bandwidth cap if you try it over LTE: Steve Perlman told us that the Cloud Desktop actually uses even less data than a mobile browser typically does today. For one thing, since you're keeping all the files and web resources in the cloud, you'll never need to spend your bandwidth downloading or uploading data to your device beyond the overhead of OnLive itself. Far more impressively, though, OnLive's cloud desktop never uses up your bandwidth when there's nothing moving on screen, OnLive's CEO told us.
Since what you're actually seeing on your iPad is a series of compressed streaming video frames, Cloud Desktop only updates the iPad when it needs to — "That's zero kilobytes per second," Perlman us, when we held still on a static page — and even if you've only got a fraction of a video on screen, Perlman told us the service was smart enough, most of the time, to only redraw those pixels. "Essentially, we've given you a firehose, but you're just sipping from it," Perlman says. The possibilities, of course, go way beyond the websites and apps of today. Imagine what developers could build if they knew the user had access to a virtual gigabit connection?
The subscription service should be available tonight for iPad, and come to Android, Windows, OS X, and embedded OnLive devices like the MicroConsole "soon." If this sounds neat, but you'd want to install your own apps, OnLive's working on a solution for that too: it's called Cloud Desktop Pro, and it'll cost $10 a month.