Playing video games requires processing power, and that kind of power is expensive. Consoles start at $300 (with the next generation of systems rumored to retail for up to $500), and gaming PCs can easily cost several thousand dollars. There’s a new, less expensive alternative that’s slowly picking up steam, though.
Game streaming services let you play as if you have a gaming PC or console right in front of you, only they’re located in a server rack somewhere else in the country. These services give you access to loads of gaming power for a monthly fee; all you need is a modest PC or mobile device to play them on. We’re here to walk you through how these services work, how much they cost, and which are the best ones we’ve tested so far.
What Is a Game Streaming Service?
Game streaming lets you remotely access hardware on the service’s servers. You use a client to log into a powerful PC over the internet, and the games you play run on that PC instead of your own hardware. The client simply provides a live feed of the video and audio coming from the server hardware, and sends all of your inputs to that server to translate into gaming commands.
Essentially, you’re controlling a computer that isn’t in front of you, and seeing everything that computer displays.
How Do You Start Streaming?
As you can imagine, you need a fast network connection for these services to be useful. If your internet is slow or inconsistent, the inputs you send won’t come through properly, and you’ll experience lag and glitches in gameplay. More than a fraction of a second of lag between your commands and the system responding can make a game unplayable.
Depending on the service, you should have a connection of at least 5Mbbps to 20Mbps. You don’t need a wired hookup, but it helps, as does 5GHz Wi-Fi. You don’t want to skimp on your router for these services, and you should seriously consider a fiber connection if it’s available in your area.
With a fast and consistent connection, gameplay can feel instantaneous, with input lag of milliseconds. This will make most games perfectly playable, though it might still be too slow for competitive gaming. If you’re controlling a multiplayer shooter or fighting game, every frame can make a difference, and you might not want to rely on a streaming service in those cases.
What Games Are Popular to Stream?
This is where the different streaming services can get complicated. Each system has its own structure for playing games, and this can drastically limit or expand what you can play on it.
Google Stadia is the most limited. You can play a few free games with the $9.99 Stadia Pro membership, but otherwise have to buy your games individually through Stadia. These titles remain on Stadia, and cannot be downloaded or incorporated into any other digital game library. Several dozen games are currently available on Stadia, but it’s a limited list.
PlayStation Now goes completely in the other direction. Its $9.99 membership ($4.99 monthly with an annual subscription) doesn’t let you buy games, but provides access to a library of hundreds you can stream from Sony’s servers, spanning the entire PlayStation family’s lifetime. It’s hardly a complete library (not surprising considering how many games were released on the PlayStation, PS2, and PS3), but it’s a huge list with plenty of gems. You don’t own these games at any point—it’s like Netflix for PlayStation games.
GeForce Now doesn’t provide any games, but it lets you bring in some titles from your own digital libraries. The service can incorporate your Steam, Epic Game Store, and UPlay libraries, letting you access games you might already own on those services. It isn’t a complete list, though, and the rather sudden removal of Blizzard’s games a few months ago means you can’t be certain if the game you want to play will stay on the service.
Shadow is the most powerful method of game streaming by far, letting you access nearly anything you can install on a PC. The service provides total control over a Windows 10 machine, which means you can install any digital games store, or any other software, on the system’s storage. Whether it’s on Steam, Battle.net, Origin, or even Xbox Games Pass, if it works with Windows 10, you can play it through Shadow.
Project xCloud is currently in an early preview phase, so it offers a small library of games to users participating in its streaming test. Microsoft hasn’t announced what the price structure of Project xCloud will be when it is publicly released, or what games will be available.
What Is the Best Platform to Stream On?
Most services feature Windows 10 clients, which effectively let you turn even a cheap work laptop into a high-end gaming PC. PC clients have the added benefit of supporting Ethernet connections as well as Wi-Fi. Every publicly released game streaming service is available on Windows 10 in some form, either as a dedicated app (GeForce Now, PlayStation Now, Shadow) or in a web browser (Stadia). Curiously, Microsoft’s Project xCloud doesn’t have a Windows 10 client yet, but the service is still in very early stages of development.
You can also use a smartphone to play on most streaming services. Every service except PlayStation Now has an Android app, though you’re limited to Google Stadia and the Project xCloud game streaming test if you want to play on your iPhone or iPad. Just remember you’ll be playing console and PC games on a smaller smartphone or tablet screen, which can feel awkward.
Three of the services also have straight-to-TV options, with extra hardware. The Google Stadia Premiere Edition comes with a Stadia controller and a Chromecast Ultra you can pair together to let you access Stadia on your TV. You can also access Nvidia’s GeForce Now over the Nvidia Shield TV. Finally, PlayStation Now can work on any PlayStation 4. Project xCloud will presumably come to the Xbox One or Xbox Series X in some form, but again the service is still in development.
What Else Do You Need?
Well, you almost certainly need a gamepad. Stadia works best with the Google Stadia Controller (which is currently the only way to play with a wireless gamepad on your PC), but it’s compatible with the Xbox Wireless Controller, the Sony DualShock 4, and some other Bluetooth controllers as well. GeForce Now works best with an Xbox Wireless Controller, but you can also use any wireless gamepad that works similarly over XInput. PlayStation Now requires a DualShock 4.
Shadow, meanwhile, can work with any gamepad that’s compatible with Windows 10, but you’ll also want a keyboard and mouse as well. After all, you’re accessing a Windows 10 PC directly, and the ability to move a pointer and enter text is very useful. You can use a touch screen and on-screen keyboard if you’re using the Android app, but if you want to get the most out of a Windows PC, you really need a mouse and keyboard.
For more, check out our stories on what you need to get started streaming and the best games to stream.
Pros: Full access to a Windows 10 PC. Responsive connection. Powerful specs.
Cons: Expensive. No iOS client.
Bottom Line: Shadow by Blade is a service that lets you remotely access a powerful Windows 10 machine from any other PC, Mac, or Android device for a lag-free gaming experience.
Pros: 1080p60 video with no noticeable input lag on a fast connection. Supports many games on Steam, Battle.net, Epic, and UPlay.
Cons: Requires fast internet connection. Only free-to-play games available aside from titles you already own. Some general user interface and library integration wonkiness.
Bottom Line: Nvidia’s GeForce Now streaming service lets you play many games from your Steam library on nearly any device.
Pros: Boasts a library of more than 300 PlayStation games. New titles added weekly.
Cons: Latency and visual artifacts can lessen enjoyment. Long load times. Lacks some high-profile titles. No search box.
Bottom Line: Sony’s PlayStation Now has the potential to become a must-own app for playing PlayStation3 games on your PC, but the service is still in its infancy.
Pros: Excellent performance on compatible phones and in Chrome.
Cons: Significant input lag over Chromecast Ultra. Limited wireless controller support. Games must be purchased individually and are only accessible on Stadia. Small launch library.
Bottom Line: The Google Stadia streaming platform offers a high-quality gaming experience on your phone or PC, but gameplay lags on TV and the launch library and pricing structure are disappointing.
Pros: Brings Xbox gaming to your phone or tablet.
Cons: Early stages in terms of features and performance. Inconsistent responsiveness in testing. No PC client yet.
Bottom Line: Microsoft’s Project xCloud aims to bring game streaming to Xbox fans, but it needs more development to make it fully functional.