Shadow is a streaming service that grants you access to a full-on, high-end Windows 10 PC in the cloud. This means that you can stream PC games from a gaming rig located on a remote server to any cruddy old computer you have lying around. While this might sound a little like the now defunct OnLive service, OnLive was marred by issues like heavy compression, latency, and poor game selection. Shadow, developed by the Blade Group, has largely mitigated most of these problems. And since it streams a full-on desktop PC and not just a curated library of games, you could also use it to launch all your Steam games and for productivity tasks like video editing. In addition, you can stream it to numerous devices such as laptops, tablets, smartphones, MacBooks, and more.
Shadow suggest that the PCs in its server farms are the equivalent to a $2,000 gaming PC. The monthly subscription service starts at $35 per month, and might be a compelling option given the current cost-prohibitive price of GPUs (thanks, cryptocurrency).
Currently, it does have some issues, however. We’ll give you our impressions and tell you if Shadow is worth your time and money.
Shadow’s PCs are equipped with Nvidia’s Quadro P5000 professional graphics cards. In terms of gaming performance, Shadow asserts that this GPU is roughly as fast as Nvidia’s consumer-based GTX 1080. Its systems also have 12GB of RAM, but the lone 256GB hard drive doesn’t provide a lot of storage. The company does plan to roll out different storage payment tiers in the near future that will allow you to pay extra per terabyte each month.
The company’s data centers are located in Paris, the UK, and Santa Clara, CA at the moment. In the United States, Shadow is currently only currently available in California, but the company has plans to roll out several more data centers across the country.
Since streaming gameplay has to be done in real-time with minimal latency, you don’t have the same buffering safety net as you would on a video streaming service like Netflix. Shadow requires an internet connection capable of at least 15 megabits down. For reference, this is three times faster than Netflix’s HD tier, which requires a five megabit per second connection. It is less than Netflix’s 4K streaming standard, however, which requires 25 megabits per second down. The Blade Group also recommends that subscribers use a wired internet connection for better/consistent performance.
Shadow starts at $35 per month if you commit to a one-year subscription. A three-month contract costs $40 a month, and users can also subscribe month by month for $50. The company will soon allows users to buy a physical “Shadow Box” for $140 or to rent one for $10 per month that you can stream to. The Shadow Box measures 7.5×7.25×4.3 inches and comes with a wide variety of ports that include two DisplayPort, two USB 3.0, two USB 2.0, Ethernet, microphone jack, and headphone jack. It also comes with an HDMI adapter and supports 4K streaming.
Shadow is certainly more expensive than Netflix, but the Blade Group asserts that it would take subscribers over 4.7 years to pay off its supposed $2,000 cloud-based PC at its cheapest rate. In addition, the company says that it will periodically upgrade its rigs, and users will reap the benefits of these hardware enhancements at no extra cost.
The company asserts that Shadow’s response time is fast enough to fool a CS:GO pro. Because we noticed occasional performance hiccups on our end playing CS:GO and Street Fighter V, we wouldn’t say it’s that good from what we’ve tested thus far. But we do think Shadow is responsive enough for most games. A non-competitive single-player game like Rise of the Tomb Raider, for instance, felt nearly indiscernible from playing a locally downloaded copy. We occasionally noticed some slight compression, but it was largely a non-issue.
In terms of graphical performance, when we ran the Rise of the Tomb Raider benchmark, the PC achieved a 59.1 average FPS on max settings at 1080p. While that’s very playable, it isn’t on par with an actual GTX 1080, which should be able to hit over 100 FPS pretty consistently.
One counterintuitive benefit that Shadow does offer is access to internet that’s probably faster than your own. The company says that its servers are outfitted to reach one gigabit per second; you’re essentially getting a mirrored image of a computer that has super fast internet. While we didn’t come close to hitting that theoretical max speed, we were able to download games above 40 megabytes per second, which is still quite fast.
While it’s not recommended, we ran Shadow on a laptop over Wi-Fi. Your mileage will vary depending on your internet connection and router setup, but we did notice more performance hiccups running on a wireless 25-megabit connection. Games were still largely playable, but we wouldn’t couple Shadow and Wi-Fi to play competitive games.
While there’s a lot to like about Shadow, we encountered several little annoying issues during our tests. We came across an instance in which the service said, “We could not reach your Shadow. Please try again later.” The company informed me that the computer on the other end encountered an issue with a Windows update, and needed to be restarted. Luckily, the Shadow app does allow you to restart the PC on the other end to mitigate these issues.
We also encountered a problem where our wired Xbox 360 controller wasn’t working when we connected it to our PC. The Blade Group tells us they are aware of the issue and are trying to solve it and said that a wireless Xbox One controller that supports Bluetooth should work. While we could get one to work, we still experienced occasional bouts with it, too.
Beyond that, we had problems where the mouse cursor would randomly disappear and reverse issues where it annoyingly wouldn’t go away. In addition, one time when we were playing CS:GO, we couldn’t get our mouse to look up or down.
We also experienced audio bugs where sound would work on the desktop, but not in-game and vice versa. You can restart the Shadow desktop app or your respective PC in the cloud to mitigate these issues, but all of these issues pile up and make the service feel more like a promising beta rather than a polished, finished product.
In addition to using Shadow on a desktop PC and a laptop, we also tested it on an Android phone. Pairing Microsoft’s Bluetooth Xbox One controller to a Pixel 2 XL, we were able to access Steam on our phone and play Rise of the Tomb Raider on it. It was kind of surreal seeing such high quality graphics come from a mobile device. One hurdle that immediately becomes clear here, however, is that the Windows 10 user interface was not designed for a phone-sized screen. We found it cumbersome to navigate the desktop with our fingers, for instance. The company is refining a pinch-to-zoom feature to improve functionality, however.
Lastly, we tried running Shadow on Nvidia’s Android TV Shield device. While we were able to install the app from the Google Play store, we weren’t able to navigate Windows with the Shield controller. To properly get it working, you effectively have to connect a keyboard and mouse to the set top box.
While Shadow is currently only available in California, the Blade Group has plans to roll it out across the US. In its current state, it feels like a good open beta. While Shadow offers surprisingly good latency and minimal compression, it is marred by a bunch of little technical issues that currently hold it back.
The good news is that the company is aware of all of these issues and are trying to fix them. When Shadow works though, it’s great. It’s very promising technology that’s worth paying attention to, especially given how costly it’s become to try and build your own gaming PC.