Hands-on with OnLive for Android (and iOS)

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OnLive has been mentioned on the site before. It’s a company that aims to eliminate the hardware part of console gaming by instead having the games run on a server owned by OnLive, and just have a small box to receive the video output from the game and handle control input by the user. That way, the hardware of the receiving unit isn’t what determines the game quality, and a whole new world opens up where games aren’t dependent on hardware. Now, OnLive is venturing into the mobile space with apps for Android and iOS. While the iOS app is still awaiting approval, I’ve gone hands-on with the Android app.

First off, OnLive is currently only available in the UK and US, but works from other countries if you can just get it installed. You won’t get the free Lego Batman game they offer to tablet users then, though (EDIT: yes you do, it was just very slow to register), and I doubt you can purchase games, but at the very least you can play with the trials. The way the system works is that the app basically connects to OnLive’s servers and streams everything from there – including the menus. There are currently 25 games that have been modified with touch screen controls, and hundreds more than work if you have the $50 wireless controller (Android only, from the looks of it). I was also able to somewhat control the controller-dependent games by connecting a keyboard, but it really wasn’t optimal.

Among the games that are currently available with touch controllers, there are a lot of games that don’t really need a proper console simply because they aren’t really very advanced. Puzzle games and things like that. There are however a handful of “normal” games as well, where Lego Batman is the one they’ve decided to give away for free to showcase the system. I tried both it and some others, and they worked quite well even here in Norway. Ping is always going to be as much an issue as actual connection speeds with OnLive, meaning the time it takes for a signal to go from the device to the server and back, compared to the amount of data you can deal with at once (what we normally call internet speeds). I noticed a slag controller input lag where the character didn’t move immediately as I pressed the button, but that’s because the signal has to travel half a planet longer than if you’re actually in the countries they provide the service in. The on-screen controls were ok, though you really should get the controller if you plan on really getting into OnLive. Not sure if that one will make it to the iPad, but one can hope.

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As for the graphics quality, you notice that it isn’t running on the device. Ping shouldn’t really be an issue with that, and I’m on a 100/100Mbit connection, so not sure if that’s just how it normally looks. Basically everything has that streaming video look, meaning that it looks like a somewhat low bitrate version of a video clip. Even so, the textures, lighting effects, polygon count and so on naturally looked like a console game. On native mobile games, you have pixel sharp games that have squared off edges, low resolution textures etc. Here you have high resolution textures, rounded edges, and video-like blur. Again, it might be because of where I am, but screenshots on other sites show the same tendency. The technology is still young though, and this is more about being able to play console games at all than anything else. For such an early release, I really can’t complain about it, as it worked very well.

It’ll be exciting to see where gaming is headed in the future. The way we’re going, it’s likely that with the life cycles of consoles these days, mobile hardware will be able to exactly duplicate today’s game consoles by the time the next ones are mainstream, and overtake those even faster. That means that there will be a race between OnLive’s remote hardware system and simply porting games directly. So far the big game companies have been rather oblivious to the fact that their 10 year old games (Playstation 1, Nintendo 64) run so perfectly on emulators , essentially depriving users from legal access to some of the best games you can play on tablets. If they continue like that in the future, OnLive might be the only way to actually get console games on mobile platforms, no matter if the hardware is capable. OnLive being the first of the “big guys” to release a controller that works with mobile device (something I’ve said that Gameloft should do on multiple occasions) might also be what gives them the edge.

If you’re in the UK or US, you can now get the app from the Android Market. iOS users will have to wait until Apple’s monkeys figure out what side of the iPad is up.

[Android Market]

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Andreas Ødegård

Andreas Ødegård is more interested in aftermarket (and user created) software and hardware than chasing the latest gadgets. His day job as a teacher keeps him interested in education tech and takes up most of his time.

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