OnLive can already stream blockbuster games to your Mac or PC -- when we reviewed the service we called it "a water faucet for games." Now, the brand-new MicroConsole, available for preorder here, is upping the ante by streaming those same games to your HDTV in glorious 1080p60 (or 1080i60 or 720p60) with killer stereo sound -- from a tiny piece of hardware that runs on just 6 watts of energy, less than a lightbulb.
Setting up the MicroConsole is a snap. It requires an HDTV, connecting via an included HDMI cable. An HDMI-to-component adapter and cable is available for $29.99 if you don't want to use HDMI. To route the audio to your stereo separately, use the optical audio-out, although that's optional. A power cord and the Ethernet cord round out the connections. If you want to play over Wi-Fi, you can set up a bridge, or connect to a Powerline or MoCA network. An Eithernet cable is also included -- we always appreciate it when the cables come in the box, don't you?
For $99, you get one controller, the MicroConsole, Ethernet and HDMI cables, and a code for a free game.
Broadband requirements increase as your TV gets larger. If you're under 30 inches, a 3Mbps connection should suffice. Between 30 and 40 inches, you should have 4Mbps, and if your TV is larger than 40 inches, you'll want to have a 5Mbps connection. The faster your connection speed the better performance you should see. If your network speed drops, OnLive will display a warning, and if the network starts dragging to the point your game can't "keep up," OnLive will stop working.
That only happened twice in our testing. Typically our Comcast cable internet service is plenty fast -- 15Mbps download speeds at the time of this writing, which is definitely in off-peak hours. During peak demand times in the early evening, we saw the warning intermittently, although the games usually kept playing. Two times the speed dropped below what we needed to play, and both times it turned out other computers on our same home network were downloading large files. Power-cycling the router also helped chase some of the warning message away.
But generally the MicroConsole "just works," and when it does we couldn't notice any lag between pressing buttons on the controller and seeing the effect -- even though OnLive had to send our button-press data up to OnLive's servers, and stream the low-latency video back to our TV. I frequently forgot I was playing remotely; the experience is responsive enough that it seems like you're playing the normal way, from a disc in a console right in front of you. Only since there's no disc has to spin, the MicroConsole is silent. (It still gets pretty hot, though.)
The well-designed controller is a blast to use -- it resembles a PlayStation DualShock, with two analog sticks, a D-pad, four buttons on the right, and two buttons and two triggers on top. The D-pad is especially easy to use -- the designers opted for four distinct buttons, like on a PlayStation controller, rather than the single-button D-pad on an Xbox controller. But the OnLive controller has a thumb-shaped divot where those four D-pad buttons meet, which makes it easy and comfortable to execute "roll" moves just like on an Xbox D-pad. Nice touch.
Force feedback works great, and the controller can run on 2 AA batteries or an optional rechargeable battery pack, which is $19.99 and includes a long USB sync cable for keeping the game going as the battery pack recharges. The OnLive controller also has a row of media-playback buttons along the bottom, where they're easy to reach but still out of the way. The only one that works at the moment is the round Record button, which grabs a Brag Clip when pressed. (A Brag Clip is the last 10 seconds of your game, uploaded to your profile to show off your leet skillz. So as soon as you do something rad, press that Record button.)
We loved playing with the OnLive controller -- it's heavy enough to feel solidly made, but was still comfortable to hold and didn't cause fatigue or sweaty hands. But if you don't warm to the controller right away, the MicroConsole also works with any PC-compatible gamepad -- it's got two USB ports on the front for connecting a wired controller or wireless dongle, or for connecting a mouse and keyboard to play, well, mouse-and-keyboard games. The MicroConsole supports four controllers at once -- we used two OnLive controllers and a couple wired Xbox 360 gamepads with no problems. Unfortunately, you can't buy a second OnLive controller right away -- OnLive includes one with each MicroConsole but doesn't yet have enough inventory to offer a second controller a la carte.
The wireless controller runs on two AAs, or an optional rechargeable battery pack.
The MicroConsole kit costs $99, including the actual console (which is small, a little larger than a deck of playing cards), one controller, an HDMI cable, Ethernet cable, and power brick. The service is free -- sign up at onlive.com -- but the games are a la carte. You do get one free game with the MicroConsole purchase, and blockbuster titles like Mafia II and NBA 2K11 can be up to $49.99 for a full PlayPass, so getting one of those free is a nice perk. Indie titles are less, down to $9.99. And if you don't want to buy a full PlayPass, you can opt for a 3- or 5-day PlayPass rental for $4 and up. Your PlayPass purchases are tied to your account, so you can play them on the PC, Mac, and MicroConsole -- and eventually on your iPhone and iPad (apps are coming soon).
Plus, every game has a free 30-minute demo. OnLive execs told us they don't mind if all you do with your MicroConsole is play demos, and then you go out and buy the games on actual discs for your Xbox. (You can also "spectate" other users' OnLive games for free -- obviously a better representation of gameplay than what you'd see on a commercial or even a YouTube trailer.) And if you get to the end of a 30-minute demo and decide to buy a full PlayPass or rental, you don't lose your progress in the game. You just keep on playing.
Right this second, OnLive has 35 games, some with additional add-on packs for a few extra dollars. And the company promises more on the way. All updates and patches are automatically handed by OnLive -- users never have to download anything or really concern themselves at all. We loved the convenience, as well as the sheer speed -- the MicroConsole powers on in seconds, login takes but a few seconds more, and we never had to wait more than 10 seconds for a game to launch. Switching games is equally fast -- faster than having to walk over to an Xbox and switch discs, that's for sure.
The bottom line. The MicroConsole is a winner, making OnLive's already solid games-streaming service more versatile than ever. Games look terrific at full 1080p, and we never noticed controller lag. Being able to demo games before purchase and opt to rent instead of buying is a huge plus, and OnLive will even offer an optional "all you can play" service later this year, offering unlimited access to its "back catalog" for a monthly fee (more details to come on onlive.com). The only way OnLive could make gaming easier or more convenient is if they sent over an intern to finish your chores so you'd have more time to play.
Small, quiet. Easy setup. Great performance. Well made, fun to use controller. Cables included.
No a la carte controller yet. No voice chat yet. No all-you-can-play yet. All those said to be coming soon.