OnLive Mini Console Review

My PC sucks. That’s why OnLive and its mini console interested me — it holds the promise of access to PC games without the necessity of an expensive gaming rig to play them. Because, truly, I can’t really afford one.

So I signed up for an OnLive Mini Console when OnLive was giving them away for free with a preorder for Homefront. I was going to play Homefront anyway, so for my $50 preorder I was getting the $99 micro console, plus Metro 2033, which a few of the other Fronters have told me is a good time. With so much value, I couldn’t pass up the chance to give the micro console a go.

It’s not a bad concept, both with or without a PC. OnLive is like Netflix Instant for gaming: you pay a game-by-game subscription fee, and with it you stream games from OnLive’s servers to your PC. With the Mini Console, you can go one better, hooking the tiny box up to a TV set with the aid of an HDMI cable and a wireless controller that’s included. You’ll need a sufficient Ethernet cable to jack into the Internet, but once you have one, bam — streaming PC games on your TV.

The OnLive catalog of games isn’t huge, clocking in at less than 100 or so at the moment, but it does garner a few nice advantages over buying games traditionally or using the through-the-mail system that is Gamefly. For one, you get your game instantly, and you can basically pay to play it as much as you want. Each game packs a rental option for three days or six days, plus the unlimited play option that runs at the game’s full retail price — you’re basically paying to own it through OnLive. There’s also a subscription fee of $9.99 you can pay to get unlimited play of a catalog of older games, among them titles such as World of Goo and F.E.A.R. 2.

What’s nice about that is you only get the games you want and only as long as they hold your interest. And speaking of interest, you can run demos on any game you want before you buy it. This basically lets you sample the first hour or so of a game. It runs on a timer, so it’s up to you to make the most of your demo. You can also tap in and play spectator on any game running on the service at any time — whether another player is battling thugs in Batman: Arkham Asylum or sniping rival KPA in Homefront multiplayer, if it’s streaming, you can watch it. That’s another nice way of getting an idea of a game before you buy it. And while you’re playing, you can instantly create 10-second “brag clips” when you do something cool for the sake of sharing with other players on your profile.

So the OnLive Mini Console carries a lot of cool features. Some of it’s useful, some of it, not so much — like the wide-open spectator mode, for example. If you sit and think of uses for it, it’s kind of cool, but it isn’t a feature you’d miss if you didn’t have it. But really, the real question is: How does it play?

The answer is, well, complicated.

OnLive’s micro-console requires a hard line to your Internet router, which is good because it bypasses weak Wi-Fi performance. But it also means having a long-enough Ethernet cable to reach from your TV to your router, and it’s more than likely the one in the box isn’t it.

The difficulty of streaming a game from the Internet is that you’re at the mercy of your connection — and if you live in Los Angeles, like I do, that’s no fun at all. Time Warner’s service struggles whenever the sun goes down, and if the wind blows, you can expect two hours of spotty connectivity or none at all. This seriously hampers one’s ability to play games.

When there’s seemingly nothing wrong with the connection, the micro console fluctuates between just fine but ugly to a bit on the stuttering side. I played Homefront and Metro 2033 on the console pretty extensively, and for the most part, both games handled pretty well — provided I didn’t care about video quality, which is substantially below what one would get off a disc in a traditional console.

Mostly, the two games handled well. Moving around in the games’ first-person worlds wasn’t perfectly smooth, but it’s mostly not game-breaking. It’s also hard to gauge just how many issues were due to a weak Internet connection versus problems with the console itself: every play session had one or two “network problem” notifications that gave my games momentary pause, and a few times the picture would break up into artifacts, only to smooth out a second later.

But connection issues rarely, if ever, rendered games unplayable — they’re just not functioning at the pace one would see on a disc, and sound quality never suffered. Jumping into a few hours of Homefront’s multiplayer worked just fine, with no noticeable latency issues that were getting me thrashed by enemies (or at least, I couldn’t tell if there were). My multiplayer performance didn’t seem much better or worse than any other first-person shooter I’ve never played online before, and I couldn’t really blame the console for that.

I’ve been trying to decide just whether I can recommend the OnLive Mini Console. On the one hand, it’s definitely an inferior experience to playing on a Playstation 3 or an Xbox 360 — it looks worse and it plays worse, more often than not. But OnLive’s service offers a lot of cool benefits, and if you can get a Mini Console for free, like I did, the game changes substantially.

For me, the Mini Console is a great way to play games on rental, or games I don’t really care that much about, such as Homefront or Metro 2033: games in which lower performance or the occasional hiccup aren’t going to make me throw a controller at the wall or scream about a loss of stats and face among my online friends. Now that I have the Mini Console, I’ll likely use it to fire up F.E.A.R. 2 at a discounted rate (I never did get around to playing it) and to give the recent Alien vs. Predator a try (as I love the Alien franchise beyond all reason and really don’t care if that game’s terrible or not).

Don’t pay $99 for a Mini Console. OnLive is coming along nicely, but with its smallish game catalog and some lingering lag issues, it might not be quite ready for prime time. If you can get one at a discount or as part of a deal, though, the equation quickly changes, and OnLive’s service is totally worth using with the free or cheaper micro-console. But it’ll by no means become your go-to gaming experience — at least not yet.

Pros:

  • On-demand gaming
  • Watching any other game being played on the service instantly
  • Easy to use demos of any available game
  • Rentals or full passes at some pretty good prices
  • Mini console streams to your TV, which is even better if you already use OnLive on a computer
  • Seems to handle multiplayer as well as single player equally well
  • Great if you like to rent games frequently but not pay to own them

Cons:

  • Not nearly as pretty as disc-based games
  • Generally not very smooth — some stuttering that’s not game-breaking
  • Infrequent connection losses or momentary picture breakup
  • Hard to justify full price for Mini Console
  • Smallish game catalog
  • Hard to come up with reasons to use the service over traditional disc rentals

Final Score: 70

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1 Comment on OnLive Mini Console Review

Frank

On August 17, 2011 at 12:35 am

i like your review. now partial at all. you based the review on your experience. I would like to share you mine. I like in south florida with comcast cable internet. it’s the lowest service at 6mb/s. I heard horror stories, but decided to give it a shot like you anyway. I got the microconsole and hooked it up and boy was I impressed. I played batman arkham asylum and mafia 2 with graphics quality that were the same as my ps3. Many question this, but before i even purchased the console i contacted onlive customer support. they told me that the resolution displayed on your tv is according to the current internet speed you have. they said u need a 3 to 6mb/s connection to use it. the max will give the best resolution which is 720p. anything extra is extra headroom in case you experience congestion. also if your tv supports 1080i, the microconsole will upscale the image. native 1080i and 1080p support are on the way. Also if you have the console hard-wire hooked up to a wireless router or play through your pc or mac with a wireless connection you will get a lower resolution image that is a bit blurry. with a hard wire connection to the wall your problem is solved.

so, in a nutshell, the system is good. I love the controller. the game library could be better too. the one thing that makes me a believer is that i realize that this is the future of gaming. let me explain into further detail what this technology is…

a server in an undisclosed location has all of the onlive games stored. at home, you click to play dirt 3. the server starts the game using its awesome graphics card and takes each and every image frame, compresses it using a technology that onlive created, sends it through the internet, then your computer or microconsole almost instantly decompressed it and displays it on your tv. simultaneously when you press buttons on the controller, your pc or microconsole send info back almost instantly. you are essentially playing a gaming pc that can be thousands of miles away. the advantage with this new technology is that you don’t ever have to upgrade this console ever again. changes in technology and gaming requirements will force onlive to upgrade their servers while you stay unaffected using the same onlive console.

so this may really be the way to go as far as gaming is concerned in the future. you just need a decent internet connection so this may not be for you. I hope this helps and thanks again to phil for the great review.