Nvidia just kicked Google’s butt. That’s my overarching takeaway.
One week ago, Nvidia announced it would effectively begin renting out its impossible-to-buy RTX 3080 graphics card over the internet. The graphics giant now offers a new tier of its GeForce Now cloud gaming service, $99 for a six-month membership, that promises 4K HDR gaming at 60fps, or 1440p at 120fps, delivered to practically any device you own, with far lower latency than Nvidia’s service has ever offered before.
I spent a huge chunk of yesterday testing it out on my phone, laptop, a borrowed Nvidia Shield TV set-top box, and even my own RTX 3080-equipped desktop PC for some direct comparisons. And on the performance front, at least, I came away impressed.
How cloud gaming works
Whether we’re talking about Google Stadia, PlayStation Now, GeForce Now, Amazon Luna or Microsoft’s xCloud, the core concept behind cloud gaming is the same: instead of a having a powerful gaming PC or game console in your house, you’re remotely accessing a gaming computer that lives in a server rack far away. Those servers stream the game to you just like a YouTube video.
Every time you press a button, move a mouse, or flick a joystick, that command has to travel over the internet to a server. That server then has to update the game and transmit a compressed video frame of that reaction all the way back to your TV, laptop, or phone. And it has to do it all so incredibly fast that you don’t notice a delay.
That’s why simply having a fast internet connection (in Mbps) isn’t enough: it also needs to be stable, decongested, and you need to be physically close enough to those servers (think hundreds, not thousands, of miles away) so the round trip doesn’t take too long.
One other downside of cloud gaming is that, because you’re constantly downloading video frames, it can eat up far more data than downloading game files themselves. Your average big-budget game is 50GB, but cloud gaming services can consume tens of gigabytes per hour.
I should warn you that I tested under best-case conditions: I live near Nvidia’s west coast servers, I’m using 5GHz Wi-Fi and/or wired Ethernet to connect, and while I hate Comcast, it does tend to have favorable peering arrangements that keep me from seeing a lot of lag in online games. But that goes for Google’s service too, so let’s get into it. In 2019, it was clear Google’s Stadia had surpassed every other nascent cloud gaming service in terms of responsive gameplay and clear image quality, even if “4K” was a lie. It’s equally clear today that Nvidia has leapt ahead on both fronts — to the point it’s starting to feel like a valid alternative to a next-gen game console and a promising stopgap if chip shortages mean you can’t find the console or PC parts you want.
Let’s make the console comparison first, because I think it’s the more favorable by far. I fired up Control: Ultimate Edition, Shadow of the Tomb Raider and Destiny 2 on the $150 Nvidia Shield TV, the only platform where the company currently offers 4K HDR streaming. While these aging games don’t have PS5 Ratchet and Clank levels of detail, it otherwise felt like I’d just plugged in the best game console ever made. Shadow of the Tomb Raider at 4K is everything the Stadia version was not: crisp, detailed graphics that actually feel like 4K. I launched it again on Stadia and found it muddy by comparison. Then I fired up Destiny 2, maxed out the settings at 3,840 x 2,160, bumped up the field of view to 90 degrees, and still saw it stay well above 60fps in a frantic firefight.
And I felt competent in those fights: the controls felt roughly as responsive as they do on a console, if not as good as a mouse and keyboard on PC.
But for me, the real console-style winner was Control, which ran butter-smooth at an AI-upscaled (DLSS) 4K at the highest levels of detail with half the ray tracing features turned on. While I’m not usually a fan of DLSS on a computer monitor, I couldn’t really tell the difference at the distance I play from my TV. Considering that the PS5 and Xbox Series X versions are lower-res and lock you to 30fps if you want raytracing, this might be the single best way to play Control if you’ve got the money and don’t have data caps — I clocked it at nearly 50Mbps, which is a lot of data.
On phone, too, I was impressed. At native 1080p, Control let me max out every single setting including ray tracing and ran beautifully — quite a bit better than it did on my old GTX 1080 desktop, frankly. I measured my Pixel 4a pulling down up to 30Mbps while streaming that. (I haven’t tried over cellular yet, nor did I get to try 120Hz on a phone.)
I just wouldn’t quite pick GeForce Now over an actual RTX 3080 desktop.
Technically, it’s got more horsepower than my desktop: with a 16-core AMD Threadripper Pro 3955WX and an Nvidia A10G with 24GB of VRAM, the company’s servers were 12 percent faster in the Shadow of the Tomb Raider benchmark, and I’m not surprised based on those specs.
But Nvidia made a choice to only offer 4K HDR streaming on its Shield TV set-top box to start, not on PC — and both the lower resolution and lack of HDR really hurt my PC experience.
When streaming games are perfectly still, they can look almost as good as games running natively. Here’s some screenshots I captured in Control on different platforms so you can see what I mean (blow them up to full-res first please):
If you look closely, you’ll see more fine detail in Jesse’s hair, her leather jacket, and her jeans, but it’s only when you get to Stadia (where Google is clearly rendering less detail) that we see a huge gap in quality.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider has even less of a gap between streaming and native when the game’s completely still:
What I can’t easily show you, not even properly in a video, is how muddy a stream can get when objects are moving... and those moving objects are getting compressed into images that can easily be streamed across the internet... and then that compression creates nasty image artifacts that smear across your field of view. But I can try:
This has plagued cloud gaming for years, and it’s particularly noticeable at lower render resolutions and in distant, grey regions like fog, smoke, steam, or simply semi-dark areas. Different video compression techniques can help, and that’s part of why Google Stadia was remarkably better at this than GeForce Now was in 2019. But a higher resolution stream and HDR also help a lot — I don’t see these issues nearly as much in the 4K HDR stream on my big TV, even when I stand up close. But on my desktop at 1440p, there’s a lot of the smearing going on.
Cloud gaming’s state of the art has just advanced thanks to a new infusion of hardware, but there are still plenty of reasons to hesitate. For one thing, this is the second time this year that Nvidia’s doubled the price of its top GeForce Now tier, first from $4.99 a month to $9.99 a month in March, and now from $99.99 a year to $99.99 for six months (though the previous tier is still around and “founders” are grandfathered into that one for life as long as they keep paying the bill.) That price includes access to many games that are free-to-play on other platforms, but you’ll need to bring paid games from Steam, EGS and Uplay yourself. Your savegames do come along for the ride.
For another, I’m not convinced GeForce Now is very tolerant of bursts of network congestion: my Destiny 2 session became totally unplayable after my wife started syncing a bunch of files to Dropbox, and freaked out again when she downloaded a single app installer to her MacBook a little later.
The reason I won’t buy in, though, is because large portions of my PC game collection simply aren’t there since Nvidia can’t obtain the streaming rights. I can’t play Deathloop or Back 4 Blood or Sekiro or Nier Automata or PUBG, all of which are on my current slate. Nvidia’s adding new games every week, including titles as new as Far Cry 6 and New World, but Nvidia can’t promise that some of them won’t also disappear.
Still, real RTX 3080 cards are still going for $1,600 on eBay, and PC hardware in general is very expensive to piece together right now. Gaming rigs use a lot of electricity, too, and energy costs are soaring in parts of the world. For the right person, $200 a year doesn’t sound like too much to ask for a competent gaming PC in the cloud.