NVIDIA GRID Review; Game Streaming Gets a Makeover
NVIDIA’s SHIELD Tablet is seen by many as a great all-round mobile device that offers excellent battery life, high end processing power, an affordable price and several gamer-centric features that make it stand out in a crowded market. Now NVIDIA is moving SHIELD’s possibilities to the next level with the inclusion of their GRID gaming service which has begun rolling out in beta form. We’ve been intensively testing it for the last week and while there still may be a few kinks to iron out, GRID could become the “killer app” of on-demand gaming services.
When it was first announced more than two years ago, NVIDIA’s GRID cloud gaming service was seen as the next logical step for a burgeoning ecosystem. It promised nearly seamless interaction between gamers and datacenter-based processing, putting the latest games and their high end graphics fidelity into increasingly small form factors.
Since the heavy lifting would be done offsite (in the so-called “cloud”) rather than on a local PC or console, the hardware necessary for processing the streamed content could be easily placed in a tablet, HDTV or cable box. The content was simply streamed down into your house and any inputs would be sent upstream through a low-latency internet connection. In principle all that was needed was a device with NVIDIA’s Kepler-based graphics architecture, sufficient internet bandwidth, and willing partners to host the GRID servers. It seemed simple enough but actually moving vision towards reality proved to be a challenge.
The first hurdle to overcome was the loss of Gaikai, a key component of the GRID vision, which was taken over by Sony for game streaming to their PS Vita and PS4 platforms. It was also tough to convince partners in the telecom and consumer electronics sectors that cloud-based gaming services carried mass market appeal when promising services like OnLive failed to achieve critical mass.
So, like the SHIELD Tablet and the SHIELD Handheld, GRID has morphed into a technology showcase that is being used to wow gamers while also providing an effective litmus test for NVIDIA’s partner marketing. It’s a brilliant tactic and one which has been proven time and again to provide long-term benefits for users of NVIDIA’s products.
While there have been some limited beta trials of GRID, November 6th marked a quantum leap forward for the service. In order to increase capacity and lower lag, two North American datacenters –one on the east coast and one on the west coast- began distributing the load, a relatively broad range of titles was announced and NVIDIA’s SHIELD Hub received GRID compatibility. More importantly, access to GRID will now be completely free up until June 2015, after which it will likely transition into a pay-by-month service with a price that hasn’t been announced yet. If you already have a SHIELD Tablet or Handheld, that’s seven months of access.
GRID won’t be a North American exclusive either (the service is perfectly useable in Canada) with rollout planned for Europe in early 2015 and parts of Asia later in the year. There will however be some limitations our outright blocks in some European countries that require unique checks and balances for online content distribution.
For the time being the list of games available for streaming is limited with a mere 18 titles on tap but there are some a-listers here like Borderlands 2, Darksiders 2, Grid, The Witcher 2 and Batman Arkham City. NVIDIA is also working to expand those offerings at a somewhat rapid pace and just this week Psychonauts and Red Faction: Armageddon were added.
NVIDIA’s selections are pretty basic right now with four main genres being represented: shooters, platformers, third person action and racing games but the possibilities are endless. Since the SHIELD Tablet features compatibility with Bluetooth mice and keyboards which opens up the door for strategy, simulation and puzzle games, point and click RPGs and every other PC-based title. A wireless mouse / keyboard combination can be used for any game if you haven’t ponied up the month for NVIDIA’s excellent $60 SHIELD Controller.
This leads us to the “meat” of this quick article: how does the GRID gaming service actually run? Remember, we’re in Canada and all testing was done in Montreal which is nearly thousand miles from the closest server. In addition, the internet we are using is fast by Canadian standards (75Mbps upstream and downstream) but we limited it to a more pedestrian 20Mbps at times. If that doesn’t present a unique challenge, we don’t what does.
GRID used to be controlled through a stand-alone app within the Android operating system but with the new update to NVIDIA’s SHIELD Hub, it has been incorporated directly into this straightforward application.
Within the Hub there’s access to the store, a news feed that covers recent launches and patches, access to the Android games library, compatible media apps, games that are stored on your PC and played through GameStream and finally GRID. For the purposes of this article, we’ll focus solely on the latter.
This entire section has an extremely polished feel to it even though it is technically still in a beta state. Navigation with either the standard Android touch interface or the SHIELD controller is fluid and transitions were seamless. Throughout our week with it, Hub never crashed once and could easily be pushed into the background with a game still running to answer an email or browse the web, after which resuming the game was as easy as pressing a few buttons. Developers take note: this is the way an app should be designed.
Upon starting GRID, the app runs a quick check of your network connections to insure compatibility with the streaming service. NVIDIA’s minimum requirements are a 10Mbps hard line connection, a ping time to the GRID server of less than 60ms and a GameStream certified router with a 5GHz wireless channel. This systems check can be restarted at any time through the settings menu if you want to troubleshoot connection issues or connect to a new wireless network.
This process is straightforward, forgiving and perfectly geared presenting information to folks who may not be technically inclined. It will even allow you to access GRID if the diagnostics fail, though the experience will suffer greatly. Trust us, if this doesn’t pass you don’t want to use GRID.
With that being said, we did encounter major bandwidth problems over our 5GHz network after updating the SHIELD Tablet to Lollipop. After updating our router’s firmware and instructing Android to “forget” the saved networks, the problem was resolved.
If there’s a need for even faster connections, NVIDIA has you covered. The SHIELD Tablet features support for Ethernet over USB so with the proper dongles it’s possible to achieve an ultra low latency link for the ultimate twitch-style gameplay experience.
The games themselves load very quickly (typically under 30 seconds) and haven’t been modified from their original PC versions. Some of them actually include the full video options menu. This is an opportunity for those who have never experienced PC gaming to see some of the eye candy they’ve been missing on consoles.
NVIDIA streams all of their content in 720P but when used in Console Mode (with its screen turned off) the SHIELD Tablet’s Tegra K1 processor will upscale the image to 1080P on the fly which will avoid the letterboxing that occurs in Mirrored Mode. Meanwhile all of the content is presented in stereo sound. We’re guessing 5.1 has been pushed aside due to bandwidth constraints, not to mention the preference of many gamers to use headphones.
The translation of game content through GRID is nearly flawless, unlike other game streaming services. Even though it is technically based off of a more “mature” service, Playstation Now still features extended load times, random artifacts and other gameplay issues. OnLive had its own set of teething problems while other solutions like G-Cluster are known for massive amounts of input lag.
On the gamplay front GRID is something unique in our experience. The environments are streamed in rich and vibrant detail without any distracting image problems, what input lag there is tends to be minimal provided a proper connection is maintained and onscreen fluidity is second to none. Most importantly, the entire experience is pure, unadulterated FUN.
To our eyeball-based measurements, most games seemed to remain well above 30 FPS and closer to a fluid 60 FPS regardless of how much detail was being displayed onscreen. There were some rare times when framerates chugged along but it’s hard to point a finger at NVIDIA’s technology in those cases since it could have been caused by anything from network bottlenecks, to poorly coded levels to an actual server-side hardware shortcoming.
The SHIELD Tablet proved to be a willing companion throughout testing by delivering an awesome 12 hours of battery life when in Console Mode and about 5 hours when continually used with the screen at 60% brightness.
After numerous sleepless nights and logging some 40 hours of GRID gaming, it was extremely hard to find any glaring problems with the games as they’re currently presented. That’s really saying something considering this is a feature that’s still in its beta phase.
If we had to be extremely picky, there were some instances where the minimal yet perceptible amount of lag in extremely fast paced games like Street Fighter and Race Driver: Grid. Maybe that’s to be expected since the input signal has to travel between the wireless controller, the SHIELD Tablet, a WiFi connection and GRID servers before being retransmitted downstream. That’s a lot of steps and we did find the lag to be somewhat reduced when using an wired Ethernet connection between the tablet and router. It isn’t pretty but it got the job done.
One major drawback for some people will be GRID’s single player-only focus. Right now none of these games has their multiplayer component included which does somewhat hamper the amount of replay value. Then again, we can’t look a gift horse in the mouth since the service is free and there’s plenty of time to add multiplayer interactions before it transitions to a pay-to-play model.
When looking past the raw gaming aspects, we did experience four connection losses with the GRID servers, none of which lasted more than 20 minutes. The SHIELD Hub automatically links your device with the closest server but it would be nice to have the option of choosing another location when connection issues arise. There were also one or two instances where the service’s cloud-based save games failed to download but that was remedied by a SHIELD Hub reboot.
For the vast majority of users GRID will provide a no-holds-barred and eminently accessible gaming experience but its appeal may be lessened for those of us living under the draconian umbrella of bandwidth caps. It consumes between 1GB and 1.5GB of data per hour which is comparable to Netflix’s HD service so folks with sub-100GB plans may feel pinched if it’s used alongside Steam, video streaming and other bandwidth-hogging services.
GRID also delivers an amazing amount of potential for gaming away from home but there are some limitations. While NVIDIA does have an LTE version of the SHIELD, utilizing mobile data for streaming is next to impossible due to higher latency present on most mobile networks and the large amount of data required for a stable GRID connection.
Even gaming in WiFi-connected environments is a challenge. For example, I was able to play without any perceptible lag during a business trip to New York but encountered connection issues when faced with throttled WiFi at a Hilton in Chicago. Nonetheless, being able to whip out a tablet, connect it to a hotel TV via HDMI and stream a non-Android game from the cloud is a revelation of epic proportions….or at least when gestapo-style blocks aren’t trying to mess with the connection.
Cloud gaming services have been tried before and many have failed but GRID somehow feels different. Maybe it’s the widespread adoption of high speed internet access across most of North America and the presence of wireless networks that are faster than ever before. Maybe it’s the polished interface, almost lag-free gameplay or awesome SHIELD hardware or just the fact that the service is something different in an Android ecosystem full of regurgitated ideas. Whatever the reason for our love of GRID it is more than evident that NVIDIA is in the process of accomplishing something that many other companies have thus far failed to achieve: a nearly seamless gaming stream between a cloud-based service and your living room.
Theoretically, GRID is able to process significantly more information both upstream and downstream than its direct competitors. This leads to every benefit we saw during testing: less artifacts, enhanced responsiveness, and very fast load times.
The reason for GRID’s presence should be self-evident as well. NVIDIA is being forced to look beyond the typical add-in graphics card format that it has championed for decades. In the process they implemented quite a few initiatives that remain true to their core market of gamers while also introducing forward-thinking delivery methods to a more casual crowd. Thus far this strategy is paying dividends in a number of ways, with GRID being simply the latest step towards an all-inclusive and very capable multifunctional platform.
In the end GRID is simply one more item in the SHIELD lineup’s already impressive bag of tricks. It may not be absolutely perfect but even in its beta format, this is a force to be reckoned with. If NVIDIA is able to further refine the experience and expand their library by the time June 2015 rolls around, they’ll likely find plenty of gamers ready and willing to sign up for a basic monthly fee.
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