OnLive MicroConsole Review: Future Imperfect

By  |  Wednesday, December 1, 2010 at 8:17 am

OnLive is instant gratification tempered with disappointment, a glimpse at the future of video games that constantly reminds you that we’re not there yet.

The value proposition: Subscribe to OnLive, and you’ll never have to buy another game console or graphics card. The service streams video games as compressed audio and video from remote servers with minimal effort from your own hardware. Although OnLive launched for Windows PCs and Macs in June, the service takes a major step this week with the MicroConsole, a tiny $99 television set-top box and game controller that starts shipping on Thursday.

I’ve been playing around with a loaned MicroConsole from OnLive, and while I wouldn’t dare abandon my Xbox 360 or Playstation 3 for it right now, I won’t rule out the future that OnLive keeps promising.

The Service

OnLive rarely ran perfectly on my cable Internet connection, which clocks around 10 Mbps in speed tests. (between 3 Mbps and 5 Mbps is recommended, depending on screen size.) Cutscenes would usually hit little bumps of video choppiness, and games, while smooth enough to play, were prone to service interruptions. A few times in any given hour, the game would stop and a “network problem” message would pop up in the corner of the screen. At best, the game would quickly sling forward to what I was doing before the interruption. At worst, an error screen would encourage me to quit or try again later, but I was always able to resume playing after about 10 seconds of waiting.

Then there’s the input lag. As you might expect, OnLive excels at games whose pacing is slower. The spy shooter Alpha Protocol was managable, but I barely survived the tutorial of Unreal Tournament III. I’m not entirely confident that OnLive can handle racing games like Dirt 2, which require split-second reactions, but I barely noticed the lag when playing Madballs in Babo: Invasion, a simple top-down run and gun. In all cases, the controller’s analog joysticks help mask the input delay, which is more noticable on a PC mouse and keyboard. (The controller has its own problems, which I’ll get to shortly.)

Despite OnLive’s service issues, it has one redeeming factor inherent to the service: Because all data is stored remotely, you can pick up on the console precisely where you left off on a PC, and vice versa. It’s a wonderful feeling to be liberated from hardware, and it’s just convenient when someone wants to use the TV and you want to keep playing.

The Hardware

Next to the hulking Playstation 3 and Xbox 360, OnLive’s MicroConsole is a statement of defiance. It literally fits in the palm of your hand, and I immediately imagined myself sliding it into my laptop bag for travel. (I probably never would, but it’s possible.)

There are two USB ports on the front for charging and syncing controllers, and ports for HDMI, Ethernet and optical audio on the back. I’m not bothered by the lack of AV outputs–chances are, if you’re checking out OnLive, you’re cutting-edge enough to own an HDTV–but the lack of built-in Wi-Fi is a drag.

The controller looks like an Xbox 360 gamepad at a glance, but positions both thumbsticks towards the center, like a PS3 controller. It feels nice in the hands, with one potentially dealbreaking drawback: There’s a huge deadzone in the thumbsticks that really hurts accuracy. I’m sure the aforementioned input lag isn’t helping, but after testing extensively, I found minor aiming and movement adjustments to be nearly impossible with OnLive’s controller, to the point that headshots in first-person shooters were practically out of the question.

On the bright side, the OnLive controller’s D-Pad feels better than any current console, producing an audible and tactile click when you depress the directional buttons. It makes me wish that OnLive offered some classic platformers and arcade games in addition to its modern choices.

The Games

For a service that can serve up any game in an instant, OnLive’s current library is a letdown, with only 35 games at launch, none of which were released for consoles or PC in the last month. Activision and Take-Two Rockstar Games are absent for now, which means no Call of Duty and no Grand Theft Auto. (There’s hope for the latter given that one of Take Two’s other subsidiaries, 2K Games, has several titles on the service.) Electronic Arts, which supported the service in beta with hits like Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age: Origins, no longer provides any games. (A licensing deal with competitor Gaikai could be to blame.)

Even if OnLive’s game library grows, it’ll have a tough time competing with consoles whose bread and butter are exclusive franchises. If streaming games are the future, Microsoft and Sony will build their own services before handing over Halo, God of War and LittleBigPlanet. Mario and crew will never leave Nintendo for third-party hardware.

OnLive can potentially create its own exclusive content. Powerful servers allow the company to deliver better graphics than any modern console, but it’ll take pioneering publishers and developers to tap that potential, and they won’t commit until OnLive has an audience.

Which brings us to the business model. OnLive lets you rent individual games for $4 to $9–if publishers allow it — and purchase them at retail prices, but you never really own the games, and they’re only guaranteed to work for three years. That’s why OnLive’s promised flat-rate subscription plan is so important. If the company can put together an appealing smorgasbord of back catalog games, it’ll at least have a unique service for gamers to consider. This could provide the audience OnLive needs to grow.

The Features

Beyond all the fancy technology, OnLive needs to be a good game console. Count achievements and voice chat on the list of sorely needed features, but the latter might be tricky because OnLive needs all the bandwidth it can get for games.

I really liked the ability to instantly spectate from a random selection of games, and for that matter, to be spectated. Periodically, you might see a little message that someone’s watching, and if you’ve got an ego, you’ll feel the urge to show off. Other players can “cheer” or “jeer” your performance, which adds a neat social element even when you’re playing alone.

Players can also upload highlights, or “brag clips,” of their virtual exploits, but honestly I never felt compelled to do this. Maybe some sort of OnLive-administered contest would provide some incentive.

OnLive still seems more like a proof of concept than a fourth competitor in the game console wars. I can’t recommend it on the strength of the service and MicroConsole alone, and the wimpy game library doesn’t inspire confidence.

Then again, $99 is not a lot of money as far as gaming hardware goes. If it weren’t for the substandard game controller, I might’ve splurged on the MicroConsole just to have it around as OnLive evolves. It’s the kind of whimsical technology that a lot of people should check out, but few should invest in right now.



27 Comments For This Post

  1. Saieno Says:

    A negative review from a website I've never heard of. It's a pretty popular and under-handed way to get hits to your site. Good luck with that, I certainly won't be back unless you get some real journalism. Google "OnLive Microconsole Review" for example. Take care.

  2. Harry McCracken Says:

    So we should only run positive reviews, huh?


  3. Saieno Says:

    Nope, but you could certainly wait till the 2nd for the service to be updated and actually release before you make a review that is already out-dated.

  4. mirrorman Says:

    The research for this review was not done correctly, obviously bias, the criticism is not upbuilding at all. The words used clearly states that the reviewer is bias towards Onlive "Imperfect, wimpy". On top of that, Onlive doesn't consider themselves as contenders in any console war, they are simply an additive to an already growing market. I agree, this should have waited till the Console was shipped, there might be some features that get added over the weekend that could have changed the reviewers mind.

  5. JaredNewman Says:

    "The words used clearly states that the reviewer is bias towards Onlive 'Imperfect, wimpy'."

    Are you saying the review can't contain adjectives, or do you simply disagree with the ones I chose?

    "Onlive doesn't consider themselves as contenders in any console war, they are simply an additive to an already growing market."

    You're saying OnLive has no aspirations to replace game consoles or high-end PC gaming rigs. That's not what I infer when the company's press releases trumpet "the Dawn of the Cloud Gaming Era for the Living Room."

    "there might be some features that get added over the weekend that could have changed the reviewers mind."

    If this happens, I'll be glad to update the review.

  6. JaredNewman Says:

    That's an error on my part. I've clarified that Take Two doesn't have any games from Rockstar on the service.

    I'm not going to apologize for not loving the service as it was presented to me. I can only review what I'm given.

  7. Saieno Says:

    I didn't ask you to apologize for anything, I personally think its poor journalism and a poor attempt at trying to get a 'review' out before everyone else. You should be more aware of the service as the release date is clearly December 2nd, which could mean lots of features and games you're assuming couldn't exist.

    If OnLive were simply some static console then I would understand, however just yesterday (11/30/2010) OnLive was updated with far better visual clarity, as well as their data centers with better performing hardware which is very evident in the games. You jumped the gun without any knowledge of what may come tomorrow. Voice Chat? 5.1 Surround Sound? Universal 1080p Output? What about other game titles since they've stated they plan to have 50-60 titles before the end of 2010?

    Its a poorly written article with biased statements that attempt to put OnLive in a negative light from the beginning. It's completely asinine statements like "it’ll take pioneering publishers and developers to tap that potential, and they won’t commit until OnLive has an audience." that you have no basis making or source for. You're just making an assumption based on your obvious limited knowledge of the OnLive Service.

    OnLive didn't work well for you, thats fine and perfectly acceptable. However, these poorly made comments and baseless assumptions are completely unprofessional. Not to mention your overview of the hardware and inexperience with the service is evident even though you claim extensive testing. You can defend your opinions, but don't start claiming opinions as fact.

  8. JaredNewman Says:

    Before everyone else? There are plenty of OnLive reviews out already. If OnLive didn't want me to run a review before the console launched, they wouldn't have provided me with the hardware in advance.

    You're absolutely right that OnLive is not a static service. Of course they're going to add more games and features, but I can't review the product based on features that don't exist yet. It's definitely worth revisiting.

  9. Saieno Says:

    The reviews that are out actually review the hardware and a general over-view of the service, however they state that they will have more in-depth reviews once the console launches. They sent you the hardware in advanced to get familiar with it and the service, which is why they also probably included a press package explaining what the service is and the features such as 5.1 Surround, 1080p (which the console does), and Voice Chat that are coming soon.

    For a service such as this, the feature set and full game list shouldn't be assumed until the actual launch of the system. In the last 5 months the library has doubled, before 2010 they plan to have 50-60 titles, and in 2011 they have 100 games in the pipeline for release, and you don't mention any of this in your review either. Instead you talk about how it would still fail because theres no exclusives and publishers aren't committed, half of which is true while the other half is completely fabricated.

    Sure its worth revisiting, but it makes much more sense to just re-write it.

  10. JaredNewman Says:

    Nope, the press package doesn't mention any of that. Do you have some kind of inside knowledge that I'm missing?

  11. JaredNewman Says:

    Also, added a link in the article to where OnLive says publishers are waiting to develop high-powered exclusives. My apologies for not citing it before.

  12. Saieno Says:

    Third-party exclusives are rare as it is, its silly to assume we'd see them for OnLive. However, OnLive certainly plans to have exclusive titles, which is evident and very possible with their Mova subsidiary. However, how its worded in your review is very vague, makes it seem like you're stating publishers aren't supporting OnLive at all.

    Also, on the Gizmondo review you linked to, it states right after the quote you're referencing "It's not that OnLive is competing directly with the Xbox 360 or the PS3, it's that they're capable of doing something drastically different and insanely better, if there's software support for it." which completely contradicts your response to mirrorman in these comments.

    As far as the voice chat and 5.1 surround sound, Joystiq clearly states it in their review here:… with the quote "The only thing the controller's lacking is any sort of headphone jack, like the one on every 360 controller. That's because the MicroConsole will offer support for Bluetooth devices — the only ones formally announced being headsets — at launch. Unfortunately, the system software available at press time didn't sport this feature, nor another biggie: 5.1 Dolby Digital audio for HD-capable connections. Again, this is something that OnLive says will be ready in time for the device's December launch."

  13. JaredNewman Says:

    We're getting into nitpick territory here. "Drastically different and insanely better" still counts as competition in my book. The Wii was drastically different from the Xbox 360 and PS3, but it's still a competing platform.

    The Joystiq quote seems a little vague on whether voice chat is coming tomorrow. If it happens, I'll make a note of it in the review.

  14. Saieno Says:

    Sir, this was your response to mirrorman when he stated that Onlive doesn't consider themselves as contenders in any console war, they are simply an additive to an already growing market:

    "You're saying OnLive has no aspirations to replace game consoles or high-end PC gaming rigs. That's not what I infer when the company's press releases trumpet "the Dawn of the Cloud Gaming Era for the Living Room."

    That's not what you infer? You're making assumptions, please stick with facts instead of these assumptions! It has nothing to do with nit-picking, it has to do with you presenting your opinion as some twisted fact when its not.

  15. Dirk Says:

    Achievements a sorely needed feature? Give me a break man. Achievements are for the so-called achievement whores, nobody cares about those.

  16. Biff Says:

    My biggest issue with this review is the "only 35 games at launch" statement. That's where I start to get the feeling you're bias is showing through, and that feeling is carried throughout the rest of the review. Name one other console that has released with that many games? What do you expect? Every next-gen game currently in existence queued up and waiting for you the second the service launches?

    I have to say I'm surprised at how poorly you say the service ran for you. I get 10 down, 1.5 up at my house, and the service runs perfectly… Honestly, if the service isn't running right, it's not the fault of OnLive (they've done extensive testing for years on their delivery model), but rather you should maybe look at your isp and make sure you're getting the service you pay for… Standard speed tests aren't going to give you an accurate reading either, because onlive uses bandwidth in bursts of up to the recommended speeds, usually streaming at much lower rates than that. Maybe you've got some packet loss going on or something?

    In the end I can't say I recommend this review to anyone… It's too biased and it feels like you spent hardly any time with the service, which even if you did, it still doesn't come off that way in your article.

    C for effort on this one….

  17. JaredNewman Says:

    "Name one other console that has released with that many games?"

    Name one other console that can draw upon years of existing games that have already launched on other platforms.

    "I have to say I'm surprised at how poorly you say the service ran for you."

    I never said the service was poor. I've seen plenty of reviews that note input lag and service interruptions. Of course it's going to vary by user, but I can't pretend that the issues didn't occur or assume that customers would want to investigate their ISPs if the service wasn't flawless.

  18. Saieno Says:

    "Name one other console that can draw upon years of existing games that have already launched on other platforms. "

    Again you're making assumptions that OnLive is just a PC and you can throw whatever you want at it. Licensing deals need to be made for every game on the OnLive service, and then development needs to be done to port it to OnLive. OnLive is its own platform and has an SDK that publishers must use to make their games compatible with OnLive.

    Its not as simple as grabbing the PC version and just running it through OnLive, using the PC version though is easier since OnLive requires Keyboard & Mouse options as well as Controller. OnLive is a unique system that runs on computer hardware, much in the same way Xbox 360 and PS3 run on computer hardware. There isn't an army of Alienware PCs behind the scenes, its a data center filled with server racks that contain custom GPUs. The multiplayer component is also unique to OnLive, and isn't compatible with PS3, Xbox 360, or PC, just like your average console.

    Hope I'm giving you enough info so when you revisit OnLive you'll have a better researched article.

  19. JaredNewman Says:

    I never said getting games on OnLive was automatic, but it's different from launching a new generation of console hardware for which the games themselves are developed from scratch. That's the only point I was trying to make in response to Biff's comment.

  20. Saieno Says:

    And when the next generation of hardware releases, the OnLive Microconsole will run the games without needing to be upgraded. Gamers nowadays are finicky, they consider a game that released in October is old and outdated. OnLive is doing a lot for a start-up company, especially in 5 months time. To expect anything more than what they've done and what they have planned is a bit unrealistic.

  21. Jk Says:

    This was a very fair review and I thought you were optimistic about what you hope this system will turn into. I don't know if these comments are from guys who are getting paid or if they are just haters, but they are all way over exaggerating. Don't let them get you down.

    I'm sure just like very online gaming experience there will be lag time which is my main concern with it. I have Verizon fios and there is still lag time with xbox online every once an awhile. So obvi a system run entirely off the internet is going to have problems, but like you said, this is where the future is headed and maybe this onlive will be a cornerstone of that gaming world, but it won't happen this year… Duh.

  22. Joseph G Says:

    Funny how every1 thinks this review stinks. Technologizer? new to me … and forgotten also. Hint: next time try doing some more research and focus on outlining the actual features & specs not the POSSIBLE flaws.

  23. Stilgar Says:

    Wow, who knew there were so many OnLive fanboys out there already? I liked the review.

    FYI, it's pretty much the industry norm to give pre-release copies of a game or hardware to reviewers so that their stories can get to press just before or at the same time as the hardware.

  24. Trollby Says:

    I lul'd heavily at the PS3 and Xbox 360 comparisons.

  25. JustFeltLikeAdding Says:

    I sense that OnLive employees are posting these comments. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, even if it doesn't agree with yours. If your not an employee, then you must be a fanboy. Why would you be looking at various OnLive reviews when you already have used it?

    On another note, complaining that the review is outdated is simply ridiculous. Games have updates all the time, especially on release dates. These reviews are typically done with early copies sent to the press. Are you going to ask them not to review because things may change?

    Since OnLive can be updated at any time, I guess we should hold off on a review until the console is defunct.

  26. TheGG Says:

    Why would OnLive bother to post these? They have other things worry about .
    This comment and this review is completely bias. The only way that the MicroConsole will be a defunct is IF the company goes under. Next time, give the service a try! See if you like it. Its free so it won't do no harm to your Card. But I'm going to predict the future and say that you will reply with a nasty comment. I may like OnLive, You may like the PS3. Thats fine, but never and I say NEVER. Criticize a Product / Service that you never tried…

  27. Glenn Says:

    You attempt to invalidate honest posts.
    You state that it is OnLive employees, which seems a sad tactic to say "…anyways..", such as a petulant teenage girl might.

    I am petty I admit, atleast to when it comes to troll commenting.

    Biasing for failure from lack of real world experience is to assume your opinion holds weight.
    It the world of Cathedral Vs. Bazaar (google it), this is the Bazaar, & your peers make up the validity of your argument.
    My opinion: It will succeed or fail on the achievements of the company, & FUD (google that also) be damned.