Nvidia's GeForce Now cloud gaming service feels like playing on a high-end gaming PC

And it's free for the foreseeable future!

Credit: Nvidia

GeForce Now performance

Nvidia did it. Cloud gaming’s promise has finally become reality. GeForce Now feels just as good as playing on a dedicated gaming machine, at least in the early days of the beta, and on my setup.

I don’t even have a face-melting connection, which made me keen to test the service. My basic Comcast home Internet plan promises at least 25Mbps download speeds, barely skirting by GeForce Now’s minimum requirement, and doesn’t deliver much more than that. Because of that I tested the service while plugged into my router via Ethernet the entire time.

And it ran like a champ despite GeForce Now network scans that (incorrectly) claimed I was dropping frames left and right. 

geforce now connection bad Brad Chacos/IDG

I'd notice if I was dropping nearly 80 percent of frames, and I don't know why the app kept saying I was.

Supported games installed and were ready to play in mere seconds. Once I booted into games they looked beautiful, powered by GeForce Now’s GTX 1080-equivalent graphics. (In-game settings reveal the real hardware as a Tesla P40 with 24.5GB of VRAM.) GeForce Now automatically uses Nvidia’s Optimal Playable Settings for some of its games, but the service doesn’t hide or lock any in-game visual settings.

Even with the eye candy cranked in modern triple-A games, frame rates stayed nice and high, never dipping below 60 frames per second in the titles I tested, and often going much higher. GeForce Now defaults to 1920x1080 resolution but lets you crank that up to 2560x1600 if you have a monitor that can handle it. The virtual PC's potent graphics hardware can keep the pedal to the metal at those resolutions.

geforce now d2 sweep Brad Chacos/IDG

Sweeping up Destiny 2's gorgeous vistas.

Gaming feels great, too. With every other cloud gaming service I’ve tested, you always felt like you were battling the technical infrastructure—lag, stuttering, pixelated images, et cetera—just as much as your enemies. Not with GeForce Now.

Playing several games at several different times felt utterly smooth. The service does add a very, very small bit of latency to your inputs but never enough to affect your gameplay. I only noticed it when using a mouse and keyboard in fast-action games like the Doom reboot, and mostly when I was actively trying to detect lag in my role as a reviewer. (Trying to play Doom forced me away from the rival LiquidSky beta last summer.) My brain and reactions adjusted quickly. Lag was largely imperceptible when pulling off headshots with a controller in Destiny 2, even during busier weekend hours.

geforce now ultra game streaming Brad Chacos/IDG

The Ultra Streaming Mode toggle lurks in GeForce Now's otherwise barren settings screen.

If you encounter latency issues, hop into the GeForce Now app’s settings and activate Ultra-Streaming Mode. “Adjusts in-game settings to minimize latency,” the description reads. “This may affect visual quality and cause performance issues on some systems.” I never had to use it, so I can’t speak to its efficiency.

Some small quirks remind you that you’re using a cloud gaming service from time to time. Once, later in the afternoon, I received a message that “Lots of people are using GeForce Now right now, you’ll be connected as soon as possible.” The game still launched in less than 30 seconds. Another time—just once—the game became heavily pixelated and lagged for a few seconds in the middle of a hot and heavy Destiny 2 public event. Those are the only minor issues I encountered in several hours of gameplay. Your mileage may vary depending on your network conditions and distance to Nvidia’s servers.

geforce now wonky Brad Chacos/IDG

The single time GeForce Now hiccuped in many hours of testing, it got real ugly—though the disruption lasted less than 10 seconds.

If you pay close attention to the visuals you’ll sometimes notice minor compromises introduced by the service. A lot of the time graphics appear flawless. But image quality can occasionally be slightly softer than what you’d see on a comparable local gaming rig, and fine details slightly less fine—there’s sometimes a vague sense of graininess. Stark, straight lines sometimes can show some jaggies even with anti-aliasing settings cranked, particularly in text.

You have to look hard for most of these issues, though, and the fact that I normally play these games on similarly high-powered gaming rigs means I’m probably more prone to noticing them. If you have a lower-powered gaming machine (or no gaming machine) you probably wouldn’t even notice them—the softness doesn't affect gameplay whatsoever. You’d just be awed at how good everything looks overall.

GeForce Now also takes the administrative hassle out of PC gaming, keeping your games and graphics drivers up to date. Nvidia’s GeForce Experience software is active when you’re gaming, too.

[ Further reading: How ShadowPlay Highlights and Nvidia Ansel make GeForce Experience more fun ]

GeForce Now price and bottom line

GeForce Now knocks it out of the park. It’s the first cloud gaming service that feels like playing on a local rig. It can turn crappy laptops into high-end gaming systems. Bravo, Nvidia. This is a stunning technical achievement.

Some interface quirks aside, the biggest questions revolve around the service’s future, and doesn’t affect beta users. GeForce Now for PCs and Macs will remain free for the extent of its beta period. How much it costs when the service opens to everyone is the big question.

nvidia geforce gtx 1080 Nvidia

GeForce Now lets you put one of these in your tired old PC using the power of Internet pipes.

At GeForce Now’s original CES 2017 reveal, Nvidia said the service will cost $25 for either 20 hours of gameplay on a virtual PC with the power of a GTX 1060, or 10 hours of the GTX 1080-level oomph provided during this beta. That’s a steep entry cost, especially since you need to BYO games. But the GTX 1060 option isn’t present in the beta, and Nvidia hasn’t muttered a peep about pricing—or a firm launch date—since GeForce Now (belatedly) landed on PCs this January. Nvidia might be rethinking that sky-high cost. The cloud gaming space has exploded in the past couple of years, with rival companies like LiquidSky, Shadow, and Parsec moving in on the action, sometimes at significantly lower prices.

And significantly lower quality.

I’ve never played on a cloud gaming service that looks and feels as superb as GeForce Now, full stop. It’s just as satisfying as playing on my gaming rig. Will it stay as smooth as more people pile in, and can Nvidia streamline GeForce Now’s unhelpful interface? Those answers remain to be seen—but that’s what beta periods are for.

With graphics card prices being so ludicrous and Nvidia’s service running so smoothly, GeForce Now is worth your attention if your Internet connection’s up to snuff. Hell, it’s worth your time if you’re running anything less than a GTX 1080 right now. Trying the service costs nothing for the foreseeable future, remember. Sign up for the wait list and cross your fingers. GeForce Now kicks all sorts of ass.

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Brad Chacos

Brad Chacos

PC World (US online)
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