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Caught by your own shadow.
The idea of playing games through a cloud streaming service is trending upward due to the likes of Sony's PSNow, Google Stadia, and Nvidia's GeForce Now. And many signs point to cloud-based gaming being the next big shift in the industry with names like Microsoft and Amazon making moves in this space. Right now, French company Blade has a stake in cloud gaming with its Shadow streaming service and Shadow Ghost set-top box (an improved version of the Shadow Box we reviewed last year).
Blade has been expanding the reach of its service--it was previously only available in California for US customers, but is now currently available in most states in the US, the UK, Germany, and France. And I spent several hours using Shadow on a MacBook Air and the Shadow Ghost to see if this setup is a viable solution for those looking for a mid/high-end gaming PC.
How It Works
Any device that runs Windows 7 / 8.1 / 10, macOS 10.10 or later, Android 7.0 Nougat or later, or iOS 11.0 or later can run the Shadow application and essentially turn into a gaming PC (Ubuntu support is currently in beta). You'll also have to pay $35 USD per month--or $30 per month on a year-long commitment--and use an internet connection that's fast and stable enough. This isn't a Netflix-style service, or a parallel to Xbox Game Pass since you're not subscribing for access to games, you're subscribing to a powerful Windows 10 PC.
In a sense, Shadow functions similarly to any other video streaming service since you're simply getting video feed of a PC you're controlling remotely (located at the closest data center to you). As of now, you can set a Shadow stream bit rate to run between 5 Mbps to 70 Mbps which dictates the visual quality of the stream; just be sure you have the proper bandwidth and are aware of any data limitations you may have. Blade recommends having at least a modest 25 Mbps connection and suggests using wired connections for reliability.
As for the set-top box, the Shadow Ghost is a slimmed-down version of Blade's previous hardware offering, the Shadow Box. Aside from the redesign that includes significantly condensed dimensions, Ghost has its ports in a more sensible configuration--they're all neatly positioned on one side of the device and offers one HDMI out instead of two DisplayPort outs. Otherwise, the box serves the same purpose and goes for $140 USD (subscription not included).
Shadow Ghost--the local hardware that can run the service--has the necessary ports for a fully functional PC. This makes Ghost ideal for living room or home theater setups, and if you're not looking to use another compatible device to control your Shadow PC. Regardless of whether you use the application or the Ghost, Shadow presents you with a home menu to configure settings and access your account. From there, you boot your virtual PC and start getting feed of the Windows 10 desktop.
The Ghost itself features two USB 2.0 ports, two USB 3.0 ports, one HDMI out, one 3.5mm audio jack, and an Ethernet port. It's powered by a 5V DC plug and runs completely silent since there are no fans. As far as wireless capabilities, it features dual-band WiFi for up to 400 Mbps and Bluetooth 4.1 support. A keyboard and mouse are required to at least navigate the Ghost's menus and Windows desktop.
When it comes to actual hardware that runs the games you're streaming, Shadow packs some fairly beefy specs. Blade says that it'll upgrade Shadow's specs free of charge in the future, so you'll be getting a better PC for the same price down the road. But for now, this is the PC you'll be working with:
- OS: Windows 10 Home Edition
- CPU: Intel Xeon E5-2678 v3 @ 2.5GHz
- GPU: Nvidia Quadro P5000
- Memory: 12 GB
- Storage: 256 GB QEMU Drive
- Connection Speed: 805 Mbps down, 106 Mbps up, 1 ms latency
One thing jumps out when taking a quick look at the spec sheet; you only get 256 GB of storage space. In the modern era where the latest games can take up well above 50 GB, your Shadow drive will fill up fast. For example, I was only able to have Anthem, Apex Legends, Assassin's Creed Odyssey, and Metro Exodus installed at once with very little room left. Unfortunately, Blade currently doesn't offer any subscription options that grant you more storage space.
This isn't a Netflix-style service, or a parallel to Xbox Game Pass since you're not subscribing for access to games, you're subscribing to a powerful Windows 10 PC.
If it's any consolation, your virtual PC accesses an internet connection that's rated at 805 Mbps down according to Google's own speed test. This makes games incredibly fast to download; Origin and Uplay were all downloading games at around 130 Mbps. In a way, you're getting access to gigabit internet via Shadow. Remember, you're not using your own connection to download games since you're controlling a PC remotely, but keep in mind that you are using your own bandwidth to stream.
It may sound odd that Shadow's cloud-based PCs use Nvidia Quadro P5000 workstation video cards as opposed to the more common GeForce gaming lineup--the rough equivalent would be a GTX 1080 in this case. And the same can be said about having an Intel Xeon E5 instead of the popular Intel Core i7 CPUs. Regardless, these specs make for a very capable gaming rig, if you're not expecting to run 4K with high settings in the latest games at 60 FPS.
Performance And Experience
In terms of performance metrics, I used the Final Fantasy XV benchmark to get a gauge of how the system's Quadro P5000 video card stacks up against more common cards. At 4K using the High settings preset, the FFXV benchmark gave a score of 3132, which roughly translates to an average of 31 FPS. This puts the Quadro P5000 right next to the GTX 1070 Ti and slightly below a GTX 1080, which are both formidable mid/high-end cards. For an idea of how it can handle 1080p using max settings in a graphically demanding game, we turned to the Assassin's Creed Odyssey benchmark, in which it got an average of 49 FPS.
One big concern when it comes to cloud-based gaming is latency, but you can largely put that to rest. The moment-to-moment gameplay experience using Shadow Ghost is undoubtedly impressive with little to no perceivable input lag. Games like Anthem, which move fast and pack a ton of action at any given moment, played so well that I soon forgot it was being streamed. This means that other games with forgiving windows for timing and less emphasis on speed, such as Assassin's Creed Odyssey, flow smooth and play nearly indistinguishable from a local PC. The level of performance Shadow delivers considering the asking price is quite impressive, but you probably don't want to rely on it for competitive games that move super-fast and emphasize twitch reactions.
I was able to stay competitive throughout my few hours with Apex Legends using Shadow, but hitches in the streaming feed were a lot more noticeable by nature of the game's speed and style. It rarely tripped me up, but having a stutter during an intense high-stakes firefight is less than ideal, which happens more frequently when using a wireless connection. I connected to a a WiFi network that had a 200 Mbps download speed and 5 ms latency reading, but hitches tended to happen at regular intervals and bogged down my experience in Apex Legends. It's readily apparent in audio; if you listen to a steady, sustained sound effect such as a waterfall in Anthem or simply listen to a song, you'll easily pick up on this issue.
Another concern that some may have about cloud-based gaming is video compression; the loss of image quality from a streamed feed. You can probably pick up on compression when reading text or looking at smaller, more detailed objects in a game world, even at the highest bit rate of 70 Mbps. But loss in video quality largely goes unnoticed when you're in the heat of the moment or entirely focused on what's happening in the game you're playing.
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The Ghost itself had a few of its own issues. My Xbox One controller and USB headset would only be recognized when plugged into the two USB 3.0 ports. The 3.5mm audio jack was inconsistent in sending audio and would occasionally deliver no sound. A restart of the Ghost itself would often resolve the problem, but it's certainly frustrating. I also experienced hard crashes on two separate occasions that had the Ghost revert to a command prompt screen that stated "Error: No calibratable device found." It was solved by unplugged the power source before starting it up again, but another inconvenience nonetheless.
If anything, Shadow showcases where gaming can go and where gaming hardware could fit into that future and makes that readily available in a competent form.
Using Shadow to turn my modest MacBook Air from 2015 into a decent rig by today's standards is more than just a novelty--it's a convenient, adequate way to play games in the presence of any viable internet connection. For the most part, the compact Shadow Ghost box proved to be a practical way to use the service in the absence of a device that can conveniently hook up to TVs and monitors. And regardless of however you use Shadow, you're putting very little stress on your local hardware and consuming relatively less power since, again, you're only streaming.
Blade further proves that cloud-based gaming is a viable option for the near future with its Shadow service. It's already impressive in many cases, especially when it comes to nearly imperceptible input lag and limited video compression on high-speed internet connections. When it comes to the Shadow Ghost set-top box, it decently fills the void for those who have no other means of running the service via Ethernet or conveniently for bigger screens.
It's not without its faults, however. Minor technical hiccups are bound to show up with the Ghost, but the lack of storage space and noticeable hitches in fast-moving games on a wireless connection prevent Shadow from being the best option for PC gaming. Shadow may be the right solution for the right person, though. For those who don't have much interest in playing competitive games dependent on quick reactions and don't concern themselves with pixel-perfect fidelity, it would suffice.
The most cost-effective way to get into Shadow is through a year-long subscription of $30 a month ($360 a year) when using a device with the application. Adding the Ghost to that puts it up to $500 for the initial year. You dictate (and own) what you play instead of being limited to what a service would offer, and that means having to buy games yourself. But as these technologies grow in capability and availability, how important it is to maintain an up-to-date PC at home is something you'll have to consider. If anything, Shadow showcases where gaming can go and where gaming hardware could fit into that future and makes that readily available in a competent form.
|The Good||The Bad|
|+ Access to mid/high-end specs at a decent price||- Severely limited storage space|
|+ Little to no perceivable input lag||- Technical issues on the Ghost device to work through|
|+ Shadow is versatile and works on any device that can use the app||- Minor, but noticeable hitching, especially on a wireless connection|
|+ Low stress on local hardware||- Slight video compression even at the highest bit rate|
|+ Prospect of upgraded hardware in the future|