The history of PC gaming is littered with companies that thought they could get cloud-based streaming services up and running. From the famously failed OnLive to Sony’s somewhat lackluster PS Now to Nvidia’s still-in-beta GeForce Now service, no company seems to have cracked the code to getting streaming to work for games in the same seamless way that services like Netflix and Hulu made it work for videos.
Now a French startup named Blade thinks it can get the formula right. And at CES, the company will announce that it’s expanding its Shadow cloud computer service to America.
Shadow was originally launched back in 2016 in France and is meant to succeed where other attempts have fizzled out with two key changes: by offering each user their own dedicated, high-end virtual machine (instead of shared resources), and by only selling Shadow in areas where it has data centers to ensure low-latency performance.
For now, Blade is only launching in California — where its first US data center is located — with limited availability on February 15th. But the company is looking to expand over the coming months, promising coverage for the entire continental US by the summer with local data centers scattered across the country for optimal efficiency.
Users will be able to access the Shadow streaming service on Windows PCs, Macs, and Android devices through dedicated apps, although the company recommends a minimum internet connection of over 15 Mbps for optimal performance. Blade is also planning to release a dedicated Shadow cloud computer box later this year that you’ll be able to connect to your regular screen, keyboard, and mouse and use just like a regular local PC.
Each dedicated machine offers a “high-end” Nvidia graphics card that Blade promises will handle 1080p gaming at 144Hz or 4K at 60Hz, 12GB of DDR4 RAM, 8 threads on a Xeon processor (which the company claims is equivalent to an i7 chip), and 256GB of storage. Blade also promises that it will continue to upgrade components over time so that users don’t get stuck with outdated hardware.
I was able to give Shadow a brief test in The Verge offices in New York City — two and a half thousand miles away from Blade’s California data center — on Blade’s dedicated box, a Mac, and an Android phone (with a Bluetooth controller). While the experience was occasionally jittery between our office Wi-Fi and the less than optimal test conditions, playing Rise of the Tomb Raider on an Android phone was still a pretty impressive experience. But we’ll have to wait to see how it handles under intended conditions before we make any final judgements.
Blade has only sold a few thousand devices in France, largely due to the speed at which it can scale up, since each user needs a dedicated machine in an at least somewhat local data center for the service to work well. The model may come under strain on the larger scale (in terms of both users and geography) that Blade is seeking in the United States.
Aside from the service’s very limited availability, there’s also the price. Giving users dedicated machines is a costly venture, and Blade subscriptions aren’t exactly cheap, running at $34.95/month for a one-year subscription, $39.95/month for three months, or $49.95/month without any long term commitments. Subscribers are looking at what basically amounts to renting a high-end gaming PC for between $420 to $600 per year, and that’s before you factor in the cost of games, which you’ll have to buy and install on your cloud machine just like you would on any other PC.