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OnLive Universal Controller
OnLive Universal Controller

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OnLive Universal Wireless Controller review

Is OnLive better with its own gamepad?

When OnLive launched, it was touted as a way for gamers to get high-end titles on low-spec machines. Back in those days, this usually meant netbooks, but with tablets on the rise, OnLive is turning its gaze to less traditional gaming devices. Its latest effort is the $49.99 OnLive Universal Wireless Controller, a cross-platform version of the MicroConsole controller that’s meant to complement OnLive’s PC, Android, and upcoming iOS offerings.

But if you use OnLive already, or are in the market for a new PC gamepad, is this the one for you? Based on our experience, it depends on what you’re looking for. We tested the controller over three devices — a notebook, the Asus Eee Pad Transformer tablet, and the Samsung Galaxy Nexus phone. Some smart TVs are also supposed to start shipping with an OnLive app soon, at which point you’ll be able to use the controller for those as well. Anticipated TV use aside, read on to find out whether OnLive made me want to replace my trusty Xbox 360 controller.

Hardware

Hardware

The OnLive Universal Wireless Controller looks chunky, but it's not actually that big
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Overall, the OnLive controller looks like a single block of plastic into which controls have been set, rather than a group of controls that have had plastic molded around them. It’s not particularly bigger than other controllers, but it feels decidedly chunkier, largely because of a decision to square off the top rather than create a valley between the shoulder buttons. The underside, too, tends towards larger, squarer shapes. Where other controllers might have had more open space between the triggers and the central battery, for example, OnLive preferred to create only a small dip between them. Despite the look, there’s nothing here that would make it more difficult to pack or store than your standard controller.

The glossy front panel is both a distinctive touch and a fingerprint magnet

The controller comes with two battery types: a holder for a pair of AAs or a nickel-metal hydride one that’s supposed to charge in 4 to 5 hours and last up to 36. I still haven't worn down the rechargable battery, so I can't speak to its longevity, but OnLive has covered its bases pretty solidly by shipping multiple battery types. Since there’s no battery charger, you’ll need to plug the controller directly into the provided Micro USB cable. Although the provided cable is fairly short, you should still be able to play while charging if you have a longer one on hand.

The controller is solid, although it doesn’t surpass Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 gamepads. The sides and back are smooth matte plastic, with a glossy front panel holding the sticks and buttons. Compared to most third-party devices, the build quality is excellent, but the textures and seams feel less polished than those of Microsoft or Sony controllers. The two analog sticks are set at the bottom of the device, with inset plastic d-pad controls at the upper left. Two flat, triangular rubber buttons serve the "select" and "start" functions, with a concave center button bearing the OnLive logo. These aren’t going to get the heavy use of the other controls, but it’s worth noting that on my unit, the start button (but not the identical select button, for whatever reason) tended to stick a bit, getting caught under the surrounding plastic for a half-second or so at a time.

Besides the aforementioned rubber buttons, the controls are all smooth, opaque black plastic, including the face buttons, which are labeled in the same orange as the OnLive center button. Below the controller, you’ll see a thin row of orange lights that blink in sequence to indicate power and successful pairing, as well as which controller is which in multiplayer games. Visually, the solid black of the front could easily have looked bland, but setting the matte controls against a glossy background and sticking to the orange-on-black OnLive color scheme gives the device a distinctive visual consistency. The only real downside here is that the gloss is a bit of a fingerprint magnet — although ideally, your fingers won’t be spending too much time on the panel.

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Dedicated media buttons distinguish this from other gamepads

Outside the front panel, you’ll find shoulder buttons and triggers, both a little on the large side. The half-inch-wide triggers weren’t particularly notable, although I found them springier than I'd like — they were easy to depress, but lacked the satisfying click that I've gotten used to on Xbox 360 controllers. The shoulder buttons, however, actually extend off the top of the controller, tapering down into the sides rather than rounding off. Practically, there wasn’t a major difference in gameplay, but it’s a good way to give you more button real estate without affecting the overall outline.

Besides the standard sticks and buttons, there’s also a five-button row of media controls that work specifically with OnLive’s video sharing. Set between the grips and below the sticks, the buttons will allow you to pair the controller (with a caret-like "function" button), and to rewind, record, play, pause, and fast-forward the roughly ten-second gaming "brag clips" that are shared between members of the OnLive community. You don’t have to anticipate your gaming stunts, though — hitting the button actually tells OnLive to grab and use the last ten seconds of your gameplay, so you can show everyone the cool thing that you’ve just pulled off. On non-OnLive controllers, you can still record clips, but it’ll take a two-button combination, and there’s no equivalent to the play or rewind buttons. OnLive isn't the first PC service to use media capture and sharing — Steam has offered screenshot saving and uploading for some time, and dedicated software like WeGame is built entirely around sharing screenshots and recordings. Both of these services, however, are designed to work with keyboards, making this a truly unique addition to the controller and something we’d like to see catch on elsewhere.

Probably the biggest downside, hardware-wise, is the controller’s inconsistent rumble feature. The gamepad has haptic feedback, but it appears to only work when connected through the dongle, meaning that you won't be able to use it on tablets or phones. For many games, this isn’t an issue — haptic feedback on PC titles is increasingly common, but most games use vibrations only as indicators of things you already know. Titles like LA Noire, however, have made haptic feedback an integral part of gameplay, to the point that playing them with this controller feels incomplete. In clue-finding, for instance, you can get a distinctive sound or icon when you’re near something that somewhat makes up for the lack of feedback, but once you’ve picked up a clue, the main mechanic for examining it — tilting it until you feel vibrations, then letting it zoom in — isn’t there at all when using phone or tablet, and even on PC it's fairly feeble.

Haptic feedback and some other minor issues aside, the controller performs very well for a mid-range third-party device. The build quality feels solid, and while it’s obviously pulling elements from the larger console developers, the design is both attractive and distinctive. For pure hardware, there isn’t anything that surpasses an Xbox 360 controller or a DualShock 3, but it’s still a legitimately handsome piece of work.

Pairing

Pairing

Pairing worked great, once we figured it out 20120222-17570884-onlivecontroller-dsc_7118_300
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The biggest perk of the OnLive Universal Controller, as opposed to its MicroConsole counterpart, is the USB dongle and Bluetooth pairing that lets it connect to PCs, tablets, and phones. The pairing and indicator lights both work well, although given that the process isn't obvious, we wish that OnLive had included documentation. Both direct Bluetooth pairing and the dongle work the same — turn on the controller with the center button, make sure that either Bluetooth is enabled or the dongle’s power button has been pressed, and the hold the OnLive and pairing buttons simultaneously.

When using a dongle, the controller will pair after the right buttons are pressed. For Bluetooth, you’ll initially need to go to your control panel and connect the controller, although later pairings with the same machine should happen automatically. I did note a few hiccups when switching between Bluetooth and the dongle — if I paired the controller with a tablet on Bluetooth, then turned off the controller and put the tablet to sleep, the controller wouldn’t see the dongle until I had pulled and replaced its battery. Overall, though, the indicators and two-button pairing system made it clear what was happening, and even the worst-case scenario of replacing the battery doesn’t take more than a second or two.

OnLive Performance

OnLive Performance

OnLive’s service is essentially streaming video, and a bad connection will both slow down the framerate and blur the picture. On a traditional PC, the service will prompt you to switch to a wired connection if possible, and on any device, OnLive will simply shut down if the connectivity is deemed subpar. On my roughly 40Mbps home wireless connection, alone and near the router, the service worked phenomenally — it was virtually indistinguishable from a somewhat low-resolution locally-played game. Move a couple of rooms over in my railroad apartment, however, and service would cut off altogether. I guess those concrete walls are thicker than I’d thought.

In a semi-public environment, service was erratic. My wireless office connection wasn’t particularly overburdened, but probably had around ten to fifteen other people on it, and the games I played would range from very clear to almost unplayable, regardless of device. However, unlike at home, I was never cut off completely.

Despite these performance issues, the controller was never anything less than responsive. Any problems with the games felt clearly like problems with the video rather than the controller, regardless of platform. Since the controller uses Bluetooth, which works over the 2.4GHz frequency, I was also warned about potential interference between the Bluetooth connection and the 2.4GHz Wi-Fi that’s used to deliver content. Any issues I found, however, seemed to occur whether or not the controller was connected, and there were no separate issues with control responsivity. If 5GHz Wi-Fi is available, it’s probably worth switching your PC or tablet to use it, but the service is certainly workable either way.

Performance varied, but the controller didn't seem to slow it down
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PC

PC

Probably the least interesting use, but the most practical
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Non-Onlive games? Sorry, it doesn't do that

I started using the OnLive controller and dongle on a laptop — probably the least unique use of the controller, as there are plenty of options in this realm, but by far the most practical. Technically, there's nothing stopping you from ditching the dongle and pairing directly via Bluetooth, but OnLive recommends using it for better performance. For what it's worth, I wasn't able to tell the difference between the two, though it is marginally less work to pair with the dongle.

Once OnLive is launched, the controller takes over right away, and the OnLive interface is well-tailored to work with it. On this point, it’s worth mentioning that several other controllers are supported by the service, including my wired Xbox 360 gamepad, which was able to do everything but pause, rewind, or fast-forward the brag clips. As would be expected on a PC-based service, you won’t be able to use a gamepad with every game: launching AaAaAA!!!, for example, will prompt you to switch back to a mouse and keyboard. But for most titles, you won’t have a problem.

Outside OnLive, however, the controller simply doesn’t work. The gamepad’s input was recognized by my computer, and several of the games I launched recognized that it was connected. However, for whatever reason, the controls were almost useless. About half the games, including Shank 2 and LA Noire, would let me scroll through options with a stick or d-pad, but I couldn’t make selections or use any other controls in actual gameplay. Other games, like Prototype, didn’t recognize that a controller was connected at all.

Of the non-OnLive games I tried, I had only two marginal successes. Battlefield: Bad Company 2 allowed me to map some of the buttons successfully, although it didn’t recognize any sticks or face buttons and labeled the others incorrectly — mapping one of the triggers, for example, got me a label of "start." Left 4 Dead, meanwhile, mapped the controls automatically after I had created a custom joystick configuration file, but my character wouldn't stop running, making even this victory somewhat limited.

When we contacted OnLive about the issue, we were told that the company "hadn't tuned the controller" for non-OnLive games, although support might be coming in a later update.

Within OnLive, the biggest issue is differentiating this device from the other gamepads that the service supports. The media buttons certainly help with this, as does the ease of pairing and ability to connect more than one controller via Bluetooth or (as far as we can tell) a single dongle. The apparent lack of support for non-OnLive titles, though, makes it difficult to recommend if you’re looking for a general-purpose PC gamepad.

Tablet

Tablet

The OnLive controller really shines on a tablet
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According to OnLive’s site, the controller has been tested with five different tablets: the Acer Iconia Tab A500, ASUS Eee Pad Transformer, Motorola Xoom, Samsung Galaxy Tab, and Toshiba Thrive. In our tests, I used the Eee Pad Transformer running Android 3.2.1 and was not disappointed: after turning on Bluetooth and pairing the gamepad, the controller worked as well as it did on PC. And unlike PC, where OnLive’s offering is stacked against a developed ecosystem of competitors, less attention has been paid to tablet-based gamepads.

The OnLive controller really shines on tablets. The screens of most tablets are large enough to accommodate games made for a TV or monitor, and although it was sometimes awkward to prop up the tablet while holding the controller, tablet stands (or, in the case of the Transformer, keyboards) are relatively common. As on the PC, I wish I could have used the controller for non-OnLive games, but that’s less of an issue on a mostly touch-based platform. Since OnLive works particularly well on tablets, there's a lot of potential here; even so, it would be an even better device if it could be used outside OnLive.

Once again, non-OnLive games recognized the controller but didn’t perform well. Shadowgun let me map the controls without issue, but once I started the game my character spun uncontrollably unless I kept him wedged against cover — an issue I didn’t have with the wired Xbox controller. Weirdly, Angry Birds actually saw the OnLive controller too, allowing me to pause the game with it.

Phone

Phone

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Of all the platforms that support the OnLive controller, the one I was most excited about — and ultimately disappointed by — was the phone. As with the tablet, I had trouble getting the phone propped at a viewable angle, but without a stand or keyboard dock, the issue was much more pronounced. I ended up tilting it against my laptop, which worked well but made the whole experience seem like an exercise in redundancy. And while tablet stands are common, relatively few people carry equipment to prop up their smartphones.

Actually playing on the phone was more of an amusing novelty than anything else. The bright colors and forgiving controls make Lego Batman playable, but the graphically intensive games OnLive is most useful for are almost impossible to play on a phone’s tiny display. Even on a relatively large, high-quality screen like that of the Galaxy Nexus, there's simply no way to pick up fine detail while being far enough from the phone to prop it up. Sure, it's nice to have played the world's tiniest Human Revolution, but you won't get very far if you can barely see the hostiles against a bunch of thumbnail-sized crates. Theoretically, you could plug the phone into a larger display, but what are the odds of having a TV or monitor on hand but no other tablet, computer, or smart TV?

There's also the issue that only Android 4.0 has default support for Bluetooth controllers, meaning that without special apps or hacks, the device really only works on the Galaxy Nexus. This should become less limiting as Ice Cream Sandwich upgrades roll out, but the problems mentioned above still make phones a poor platform for the device. Given that OnLive has developed touchscreen controls for a selection of its games, you may be better off playing those instead.

More of an amusing novelty than anything else
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The OnLive Universal Controller is a truly good idea: a simple, cross-platform device to match a service that works on almost anything. The gamepad itself is of good quality, and includes some useful new features, like the media buttons tailored for OnLive. At $49.99, it’s also cheaper than an iCade and the same price as a wireless Xbox controller, and will work with a wider range of devices. However, being tethered to the OnLive service severely limits its use.

For tablets, the bulkiness of the controller may also work against it. As I’ve mentioned, it’s not significantly larger than an average PC or console controller, but a nod towards portability would have been nice, whether that be a smaller, thinner form factor or a way to carry it easily. And for phones, it’s probably a lost cause — while it frees up some space on a mobile screen that would otherwise be taken up by controls, it’s just too difficult to hold the pad while keeping the display at a distance where it’s still viewable. If you’re looking for a casual way to enjoy OnLive phone games, it might work, but the design isn’t optimized for phones in the same way as something like the iCade Mobile.

We didn't have a smart TV that could run OnLive to test the controller, but this may be the most promising use of the peripheral. TV gaming in general calls for a gamepad, and the media buttons would be particularly useful as you get farther from the screen. If OnLive is able to integrate itself into smart TVs as the primary gaming platform, its controller could be a natural fit for the technology.

For now, though, if OnLive is your primary gaming platform and you’re planning to use it on both a supported tablet and a PC or TV, I’d be hard-pressed to recommend a better gamepad. If you’re thinking about using OnLive but haven’t made the switch, the controller makes the service a little easier to use, especially on tablets, but doesn’t provide anything revolutionary.

For everyone else, unfortunately, it’s probably a skip — at least at this point. If the controller had worked with non-OnLive games, it would be a great third-party device, although the uneven haptic feedback is a strike against it. But current PC gamers will probably want to stick with something like an Xbox 360 controller, the wired version of which works on both laptops and tablets.

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