Streaming games from remote internet servers could be the future of the video game industry — or part of that future, anyhow. By removing the need to own a PC or console to play the latest, most demanding blockbuster games, the medium as a whole could become more accessible. That is, if you have a good internet connection. Google’s recent announcement of its Stadia game service has thrust this idea back into the spotlight, and when it launches later this year, it might be an interesting option for both newcomers and seasoned gamers who are curious about streaming games over the internet. But it’s hardly the first cloud gaming platform to debut.
If you’re interested in streaming your own desktop PC games to your PC, Mac, phone, tablet, or console, you can try one of a variety of cloud gaming and in-home streaming options today. (Some of them are free!) If you’d prefer to stream games that you don’t already own, a few companies already have Netflix-like catalogs of games you can stream before Google Stadia arrives on the scene.
The current cloud gaming marketplace is populated by recognizable gaming brands like Steam, Nvidia, and Sony. Alongside the big names is a gallery of startups that claim to have their own proprietary tech. While some game streaming technologies are free to try, others require a credit card, making them less desirable if you’re just looking to dip your toe in the water. And I’d recommend dipping a toe to start because your mileage will vary widely depending on how close you are to a company’s servers and the quality of your home network.
Here are the easiest ways to get a taste of what cloud gaming is like.
Game Streaming Services Compared
|Streaming service:||Streams to:||Streams from:||Streams over:||Game library:||You pay:||Maximum display output|
|Streaming service:||Streams to:||Streams from:||Streams over:||Game library:||You pay:||Maximum display output|
|Steam Link||Steam (Win, Mac, Linux), Android, Steam Link box||Your gaming PC||Home network||Your PC game library||Free||4K 60 fps|
|PS4 Remote Play||Windows, Mac||Your PS4||15 Mbps internet||Your PS4 game library||Free||1080p 30 fps|
|Xbox App (Win 10)||Windows 10||Your Xbox One||Home network||Your Xbox game library||Free||1080p 60 fps|
|Remotr||Windows, iOS, Android||Your gaming PC||Home network||Your PC game library||Free||Any resolution (in theory)|
|Rainway||Windows, web browsers (Mac, Linux, Chrome OS)||Your gaming PC||Home network or 5-15 Mbps internet||Your PC game library||Free||1080p 60 fps|
|HP Omen Game Stream||Any Windows 10 PC||Your Omen PC||Home network||Your PC game library||Free||1080p 60 fps|
|Nvidia GameStream||Nvidia Shield; Moonlight app for Windows, Android, iOS, Mac, Linux, Chrome||Your gaming PC w/ GeForce GPU||Home network or 5 Mbps+ internet||Your PC game library||Free||4K 60 fps|
|PlayStation Now||PlayStation 4, Windows||Sony’s servers||5-12 Mbps internet||750-plus games, added monthly||$20 / month, $100 / year||720p 60 fps|
|Jump||Windows, Mac, Linux||Jump’s servers||15 Mbps internet||100-plus indie games||$5 / month||1080p 60 fps|
|Vortex||Windows, Android, Chrome browser||Vortex’s servers||30 Mbps internet||89 games||$10 / month||1440p 60 fps|
|GeForce Now||Windows, Mac, Nvidia Shield box||Nvidia’s servers||25 Mbps internet||Over 500 supported games||TBD, invite-only||1080p 60 fps|
|Steam Link Anywhere||Android, Raspberry Pi, Steam Link box||Your gaming PC||Internet w/ fast upload speed||Your PC game library||Free||Any resolution (in theory)|
|Shadow by Blade||Windows, Mac, iOS, Android,||Blade’s servers||15 Mbps internet||Your PC game library||$35 / month, $360 / year||4K 60fps or 1080p 144 fps|
|Playkey||Windows, Mac||Playkey’s servers||10 Mbps internet||Your PC game library||$35 for 70hrs, $40 for 200hrs, $45 / month unlimited||1080p 60 fps|
|Parsec||Windows, Mac, Android, Ubuntu, Raspberry Pi 3||Parsec’s servers||30 Mbps||Your PC game library||Hourly charge depending on usage||Any resolution (in theory)|
|Google Stadia||Chrome, Chrome OS, Chromecast Ultra, Pixel phones||Google’s servers||30 Mbps||TBD (100-plus games)||TBD||4K 60 fps|
Even if you don’t have an excellent internet connection — merely a good Wi-Fi router and an Xbox, PlayStation and / or PC — you can still sling games around your home in much the same way a cloud gaming service like Google Stadia will when it launches later this year.
Because the games come from your own library and you don’t have to pay for server time by the month or hour, it’s the easiest and most straightforward way to try streaming games right now.
Valve’s Steam Link has been around for a few years, and its free in-home streaming solution is one of the best and most reliable out there. You can stream games installed on one of your home computers (Mac, Windows, Linux) to practically any other desktop, laptop, phone, or tablet on the same network while using a controller or a mouse and keyboard. Plug in an HDMI cable, and you can easily sling that content to a TV, too.
To get it working, you need two machines (a PC or Android device) to be logged into your Steam account at the same time, adding the new machine to your account with an approval code. Once you have a game installed on your host PC, all you have to do is head to your library, select the installed game’s “Stream” option, and proceed from there. You can also stream your computer’s desktop in a pinch.
Apple didn’t let Valve bring the Steam Link app to iPhones and iPads, and Valve has sadly discontinued the physical Steam Link box, but you can also try it on 2016 and newer Samsung Smart TVs or a Raspberry Pi 3.
PS4 Remote Play
Sony’s PS4 Remote Play feature allows you to stream and control your entire PS4 experience from your Mac or Windows PC. The app and service are free, so all you need to get started is a PS4, DualShock 4 controller, and at least a 15 Mbps connection, according to Sony. It’s fairly straightforward, only requiring you to install a desktop app and then make a quick trip over to your console’s settings to pair both systems using your Wi-Fi network. You can adjust the quality settings, too — up to 1080p and 30 fps if you’ve got a PS4 Pro.
Xbox App on Windows 10
If you have an Xbox One, One S, or One X, you can wirelessly stream games and control your console via the Xbox app on a Windows 10 computer. Since the app is free (like the PlayStation equivalent) and already baked into Windows 10, all you have to do is link your Xbox with your Windows PC using the same Microsoft account, then find the Xbox on your local network.
After everything is set up, you can control the stream quality (up to 1080p at 60 fps), play games from your PC by controlling your Xbox remotely, chat with other players using in-game audio chat, and even use an Oculus Rift to generate a virtual room and giant flatscreen to immerse yourself in the gameplay.
Similar to the Steam In-Home Streaming, the free game streaming platform Remotr works by using your gaming PC’s library and processing power to deliver a stream to an Android device, iPhone, a tablet, or another computer. But Remotr requires you to install not one, but two dedicated apps (one for the host and another for the receiver) to get it working. One cool feature is local network support for couch co-op games. If you’re firing up a party game like Castle Crashers, you can have up to three friends use their phones or tablets as controllers, each with their own screen.
If you fulfill the requirements and follow the setup guide, it’s another way to stream smooth, relatively low-latency game sessions from your host machine without relying on some distant data center that you’d have to pay for monthly.
Rainway is a game streaming service that allows you to remotely stream games from your preexisting Steam, Origin, Battle.net, or uPlay libraries, and its claim to fame is the web: you can stream games directly to a web browser window, as well as Mac or Windows PCs or Android phones, with an iOS version planned for a later date. Rainway makes sense if you want to stream games like you would with Steam Link, but you don’t want to sign into multiple machines with your Steam user credentials.
The desktop app features plenty of settings you can tweak, including what quality you’d like the stream to be, which GPU to use for encoding, and which of your monitors you’d like to pull the game stream from if you have multiple monitors set up.
It’s free, so it’s worth a shot if you’re curious but don’t want to invest in a game streaming platform quite yet.
Nvidia GameStream (and Moonlight)
If you’ve got a relatively recent Nvidia graphics card, there’s a pretty nifty way to try in-home streaming (or even over the internet) to practically any platform under the sun: the unofficial Moonlight app for Nvidia’s GameStream platform.
Originally, GameStream only worked if you owned a $179 Nvidia Shield TV set-top box — or the old, discontinued Shield Tablet or Shield Portable, all of which still work — but the Moonlight open-source project brings it to Windows, Mac, Linux, Android, iOS, Chrome OS, and even Amazon’s Fire OS devices. Again, you’ll need an Nvidia GeForce card, plus the free GeForce Experience app, but then it’s just a matter of pairing your device of choice to your gaming PC with a four-digit PIN.
Nvidia’s GameStream has been around even longer than Steam In-Home Streaming, and it’s felt nearly as good in our tests.
HP Omen Game Stream
If you own one of the three supported HP Omen gaming PCs, the Omen Game Steam app is one last way to stream games from your host PC to other Windows 10 PCs on your home Wi-Fi network. Simply hop onto your Omen computer, download HP’s required drivers, install the Omen Command Center on your non-gaming PC, and then start gaming. It’s simple enough.
Here’s where it gets interesting. With a true cloud gaming platform, you can stream blockbuster games directly from remote servers, removing the inconvenience of acquiring the latest graphics card or a whole new gaming PC. The catch is that you need a fast internet connection with a home located near the data center that will be rendering your game stream to avoid lag overcoming your game. Different cloud gaming services have different internet speed requirements, but you may need more than 20 Mbps to stream at 1080p, and you’ll need a low ping (the time it takes for a server to respond to your request) to avoid the game lagging behind your button presses.
Some of these true cloud gaming services are trickier to start using because they require an invite-only beta or they ask for a credit card before offering you a free trial (assuming they offer one at all). Still, these services are what you should aim for if you want to unlock a remote library of blockbuster games for your phone, tablet, or computer that you can play anywhere your internet allows.
If you want to know what a cloud game streaming service would be like on a console and a PC, perhaps give PlayStation Now a shot. Sony offers a seven-day free trial (credit card required) so you can get started without having to pay the $19.99 monthly subscription fee. PS Now includes more than 750 PS4, PS3, and PS2 games (over 275 of those are PS4 games), with more being added every month.
It’s an impressive, functional archive of Sony’s best classic PlayStation games, including the original God of War series, The Last of Us, and Uncharted, and it also brings more contemporary titles like NBA 2K18 and For Honor. Since PS Now can be used on a Windows PC, it also serves as an emulator of sorts for PC players who have a spare DualShock 4 controller. (You can’t use other gamepads.)
However, like any of the currently available game streaming services, there are faults. For example, Sony’s support page says that PS Now streams are capped at 720p resolution, which is sub-par no matter how you spin it. It’s a particularly annoying issue because cloud gaming generally feels a little low-res to begin with (due to artifacting in the compressed video stream), and starting at 720p makes the experience worse.
If you don’t care for big-budget titles and instead prefer indie games, then the Jump indie game service might be up your alley. Simply put, Jump is an on-demand indie game subscription service. It has 100-plus indie games in its catalog, it includes unlimited access (some streaming platforms attach time limits), and it costs $4.99 a month. Also, it’s promising to see that Jump still prioritizes low-latency gameplay, just like the more expensive services, yet it still values being an indie games service.
Jump can “stream” indie games to you, but it doesn’t offer one of the key benefits of a game streaming service — playing graphically intensive games without requiring powerful hardware — because it doesn’t work quite the same way. Instead of the servers handling the entire workload, your PC takes on some of the data in order to run the game.
It’s definitely worth checking out since you might discover a new favorite game by an indie developer. And isn’t discovery the best part about gaming?
This is a game streaming service without a free trial, so I’m less keen on recommending it. But if you’re curious, Vortex costs $9.99 per month for an 89-game subscription that includes Apex Legends, Rainbow Six: Siege, and a bunch of other popular titles. However, a number of games in Vortex’s library require you to own them in order to play. In the case of Steam games, Vortex verifies your license ownership by checking your Steam profile (assuming it’s public).
You can stream games using Vortex to an Android phone, Windows PC, or the Chrome browser over your Wi-Fi or wired internet connection with at least 10 Mbps download speed.
Between the limitations to the service — namely around Steam games —and the lack of a free trial, Vortex might not be the best service for newcomers to try out.
This is the most technical and advanced option; this is for the power users. These services don’t offer a catalog of games. Instead, they let you play games you already own on an extremely powerful, cloud-based gaming PC.
Some of these services literally let you rent a virtual Windows gaming PC in the cloud, so you can download at high speeds, install, and play games on a virtual desktop as you would normally. This is especially useful to Mac users, who are excluded from most PC games or don’t have properly optimized versions available.
Nvidia’s desktop game streaming platform is in beta, and it has been since October 2017. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth looking into — particularly since it’s free during the beta, as long as you own compatible games. GeForce Now is a game streaming and PC virtualization service that basically lets you click to instantly install your own Steam and Battle.net titles on a powerful remote PC that lives in a network of servers across North America and Europe. Not every game works, but Nvidia’s 500-plus supported titles include crowd-pleasers like Counter-Strike and brand-new titles like Sekiro.
By utilizing its own Tesla graphics cards, Nvidia’s servers can push games to Mac, PC, and Nvidia Shield players at a solid 1080p resolution and 60 frames per second. Nvidia also has plans to eventually switch to the new RTX Server so that features like ray tracing and DLSS can be enabled for supported games streamed on GeForce Now.
But you might just have to wait for a free beta invite. As Nvidia says on its site: “Entry into the beta will vary depending on geographic location and space.”
Steam Link Anywhere
How could I compile a list of services that allow you to stream games across the internet using a host PC. and not include Steam Link Anywhere? Valve’s new internet game streaming feature was recently added as a beta feature within Steam In-Home, so right now, it’s still half-baked. I’ve tried it and decided that a how-to would help you test it for yourself because the app can be a bit unclear about the setup process.
In my tests, I’ve found that Steam Link Anywhere is decent if you’re playing on a fast LTE or Wi-Fi connection using your phone and you have great internet upload speeds at home for your host PC. However, there are some issues with certain Wi-Fi networks and regional carriers, which Valve reps tell me they’re working on fixing.
Right now, Valve is being somewhat cryptic about the exact requirements for Steam Link Anywhere. According to the beta page, you need to have “a good upload speed and [that] your Steam Link device has a good network connection.” Once you get past that, all you need is a Windows PC to host the games, plus the Steam beta client running on an Android device or the ill-fated Steam Link box.
There’s no indication as to when Valve’s game streaming service will exit beta or if it will have additional features, but it’s out there for you to try for free.
Shadow by Blade
You might not have heard of Shadow, but it’s a real cloud game streaming service based in the United States. Like other similar platforms, Shadow works by giving you a virtualized computer with the means to play 3D games. Currently, Shadow is operational in 38 out of the 50 states, with more on the way.
Shadow is subscription-based, so you can subscribe for $34.95 per month or $29.95 monthly with a year-long commitment. Unfortunately, you have to select one of those paid plans to gain access to the month-long “trial,” which I think is a bit underhanded. Blade promises to send you a reminder three days before you get charged for the next month of service, but since there’s no way to demo it for free, I’d say tread carefully.
Blade, Shadow’s parent company, is also selling a game streaming console alongside the subscription named the Shadow Ghost. It’s capable of outputting video at 4K resolution at a 60Hz refresh rate or 1080p HD at 144Hz. Regarding pricing, it’s $139.95 for the hardware — which is pricey — but who said cloud gaming was cheap?
A game streaming service based out of Russia, Playkey is a data center-powered game streaming solution that requires you to bring the games you want to play. You can test it out by subscribing, then sign-in with your own Steam, Battle.net, Origin, or uPlay account to have games in your digital library streamed in 1080p at 60 fps to your computer.
Unfortunately, while Playkey used to offer a trial period, that offer seems to have been removed from its site, which makes me even more skeptical about recommending its service. My other concern is that Playkey lacks servers in North and South America; its servers are in Frankfurt, London, and Moscow. To make up for its shortcomings, Playkey’s network is decentralized, so anyone with a GTX 1080 (or better) can host and contribute to the overall computing power of the network.
Pricing is time-based on a monthly pay cycle, with a 70-hour plan available for $35, 200 hours for $40, or unlimited gameplay for $45. However, if you don’t have any games, you can purchase the full games through Playkey, stream them, and then play them locally as you would on a regular gaming PC.
What if you wanted to try cloud game streaming on a per-hour basis? That’s what Parsec does with different machines that you can rent at different cost tiers, powered by Amazon Web Services or Paperspace data centers that are located near New York City, San Francisco, and Amsterdam. If you are located near or in those cities, it might be a good idea to opt for the Paperspace option.
However, games are a time-consuming activity that I think Parsec’s own website sums up pretty well: “If you play more than 8-10 hours of games each week and you want the best experience possible, you should still build / buy your own gaming PC.” It’s evident that Parsec is warning you about the costs over time.
Like other cloud game streaming services, Parsec offers 60 fps, low-latency gameplay over the internet, including a desktop app and an experimental web client.
More to come
Now, you should hopefully have a few different options within easy reach if you want to try streaming games for yourself. But the free and trial services listed here don’t necessarily represent what’s possible once big players like Microsoft, Google, and maybe Amazon join the fray. These big internet businesses have the scale and existing infrastructure that existing cloud gaming companies can only dream of, and competing services may be forced to stay competitive by adding new features or data centers, too.
The dream of being able to reliably stream and play games from anywhere in the world might not be that far-fetched in the years to come.
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