Stadia billed itself as a streaming revolution, nothing less than a paradigm shift that would change the way we think about gaming. It’s … something less than that. NVIDIA’s entry in the streaming game market isn’t quite so bold, but it has a lot more in its favor at launch than Google’s offering. Or, anyone else, for that matter.
The greatest boon to GeForce NOW is its library. By using existing PC games and connecting to established marketplaces like Steam and Epic, this service leverages the huge collection of digital titles PC gamers have been building for years. It’s also wonderfully cheap: free for a lot of capability, but not without restrictions even on its $5 paid tier.
Is this the streaming service we’ve been waiting for, the one that can unshackle us from gaming PCs and consoles alike? Frankly, no, but it’s certainly the closest thing we have at the moment.
The biggest problem with Stadia is a limited selection—just a few dozen games, even months after its much-ballyhooed launch. In comparison, I counted 553 individual games available to play on GeForce NOW, going by the master list in the SHIELD app. That probably isn’t a final tally—a few games are available via multiple PC-based game stores, and NVIDIA claims that “thousands” of older PC games can be played via limited installation sessions. But suffice it to say, it’s a lot.
And, for most of that lot, you don’t need to buy them again if you already own them on PC. GeForce NOW lets you log into Steam, Epic, Blizzard Battle.net, EA’s Origin, and Ubisoft’s Uplay stores, streaming the purchases you’ve already made. If you don’t own a game, you can buy it through GeForce NOW, after which the title will still be available on the PC store where you made the purchase.
Sounds great, right? It’s definitely an improvement. But it isn’t unlimited: A game needs to be supported by GeForce NOW in order to be accessed on the service. If it isn’t in that list of 553 (or possibly quite a bit more, if you’re playing on the PC), you can’t play it.
The GeForce NOW selection is mostly focused on games that are new, popular, or both. Most games falling into those categories are supported, and if you’ve been building a Steam library for a decade or so, odds are good that you’ll have a very wide selection from which to choose.
That said, selection may seem haphazard, based on your tastes. Search for Fallout and you’ll find the latest title in the series, Fallout 76. You’ll also find the much older but still popular Fallout 3 and New Vegas. But Fallout 4, the smash hit from 2015, is nowhere to be found. You can play Epic exclusives Fortnite and Borderlands 3, but not indie darlings like the Untitled Goose Game or The Outer Worlds. You can play Apex Legends from Origin, but not any of the recent Battlefield or Madden games.
Don’t get me wrong, the selection is extremely impressive. But if you’ve been reading about how GeForce NOW is better than Stadia because it has “your whole PC game library,” that’s a long way from true. I think NVIDIA will be working to expand its already-impressive selection as soon as it can.
How Does It Work?
When you start the game via GeForce NOW for the first time, it installs into NVIDIA’s remote virtual machine with a basically instant download from the data center. From that point on, you can launch it at any time via the GeForce NOW app on Windows, Mac, Android, or the NVIDIA SHIELD. Controller, mouse, and keyboard inputs are available on all systems. Chrome OS support is coming later this year, but oddly, there’s no mention of an iOS app.
Visual fidelity is using the latest in graphical oomph from NVIDIA. The Windows-based virtual systems in GeForce NOW are equipped with the latest GPUs, though only those who pay for the Founders tier get access to RTX lighting effects (in the few games that support them thus far). Unless you have a cutting-edge gaming PC, or you’re playing at higher resolutions and frame rates than usual, GeForce NOW can probably give you better graphics than you have on your own computer.
You need a minimum of 15Mbps of up and down bandwidth to run GeForce NOW, though NVIDIA recommends 25. While the service will let you try to play at lower speeds, it lets you know you’re gonna have a bad time. Should you choose to ignore the rather extensive warnings, you’ll find out that it’s right.
Now, if you happen to have a solid connection, you’ll find GeForce NOW a pleasant experience. For single-player games, I was able to enjoy a rock-steady 60 frames per second at 1080p (the only resolution supported at the time of writing), with barely a hiccup as I scaled over Skyrim and double-jumped through Doom.
Multiplayer is another matter entirely, of course. Latency issues, which are barely a consideration in a single-player game, can suddenly become a headache when you’re streaming. GeForce NOW handles them surprisingly well, however, I was able to play Overwatch, Fortnite, and Brawlhalla (a free-to-play take on platform fighters, a la Super Smash Bros.) with only occasional dips in my reaction time.
But there’s a torture test I’ve developed for streaming games, both local and in the cloud, and it’s called Rocket League. I’ve found that the irreverent three-on-three soccer driving game relies on split-second timing and reaction far more than any shooter or fighter, and so far, no streaming platform has been up to the challenge of giving me the same experience as my desktop. This proved to be true for GeForce NOW as well.
Latency was just a hair above tolerable for competition. (I’m sorry, random teammates, it was for science.) Using an Ethernet connection on my desktop, I could aaaaaalmost get the game to where I was used to the input lag. Even 5GHz Wi-Fi wasn’t up to that challenge.
In addition, NVIDIA’s system seemed to chug mightily whenever more than two cars were in the same area. At times, the framerate dropped down to under 10 per second. Keep in mind that this is a game that can run on almost any hardware, including the Nintendo Switch, and NVIDIA’s supposed to have all of these GeForce NOW games preoptimized.
To be fair, I only saw this terrible performance in a stretch of a few hours—after that, I wasn’t able to replicate it, and neither was a friend I asked to test on his own GeForce NOW account. But it does demonstrate that the platform isn’t quite as smooth and ready for action as NVIDIA likes you to think.
Speaking of platforms, it’s worth noting what NVIDIA is based on. Unlike Stadia and Sony’s PlayStation Now, both built from the ground up for streaming, GeForce NOW is based very firmly on Windows. When managing games in Steam and other stores, especially on your own desktop, you can see the bones of Windows underneath GeForce NOW as if you were looking at an X-ray.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. After all, Windows has the greatest selection of games on the planet, which is one of the chief advantages NVIDIA is banking on. But it does mean that things are a little rough around the edges. Especially when launching and closing games, you can see NVIDIA’s virtualized Windows system barely hiding its applications. It’s not bad, per se, it’s just kind of like getting a glimpse into the kitchen at a greasy spoon diner. Things would be generally more pleasant if you couldn’t.
It’s a little less jarring to use GeForce NOW on the SHIELD set-top box or an Android phone.The interface there defaults to Steam’s controller-friendly Big Picture Mode when it’s visible at all. However, it’s still less than ideal, especially if you have to input text for logging into games or services. (I found myself getting tripped up on the keyboards for Android, Android TV, Steam Big Picture Mode, and the game itself more than once.) Stadia has a lot of problems, but its buttery-smooth presentation is a lot more appealing in this case.
Speaking of platforms, there’s a definite preference for Steam over almost anything else in GeForce NOW. While the system works with the likes of Epic and Origin, the vast majority of games are available in their Steam flavors, which might be a headache if you’ve dabbled in multiple PC storefronts.
For example, I picked up Subnautica, Celeste, and FTL: Faster Than Light on Epic when they were offered for free. And, I can play all three on GeForce NOW … but only in their Steam versions. To stream these games from the cloud, I’d need to pay Steam for the privilege. A few games are available from multiple storefronts—Ubisoft games like The Division and the latter Assassin’s Creeds are available on both Uplay and Steam. But this is very much the exception, not the rule.
What’s the Catch?
GeForce NOW is free—you can download it right now on its supported platforms, and play any PC game you own that’s in its library. If you don’t own any PC games, you can still use it to play freebies, even technically demanding games like Apex Legends, Paladins, or Dauntless. You’ll be using NVIDIA’s high-powered cloud hardware, not to mention some pricey bandwidth, on the dole.
So, what’s the catch? While both free and paid tiers are limited to 1080p and 60 frames-per-second performance, you’ll have to pay a fairly reasonable $5 a month to get fancy RTX graphics. That’s not such a bitter pill, of course—only a few dozen games even support RTX graphics, many of which aren’t even released yet.
No, the bigger advantage is the time limit. Free users are limited to one-hour sessions, after which GeForce NOW kicks you off. That’s an absolute killer for gamers used to long play sessions, doubly so if they’re in multiplayer. You’re also in something of a slow lane: If the GeForce NOW system is overburdened, you won’t be getting in immediately. Paid users get priority access, and their sessions can be four hours long, repeated indefinitely.
Those are some pretty hefty restrictions, even on top of the necessary bandwidth. But GeForce NOW also has a bit of a conceptual issue. You see, while services like Stadia try to appeal to users who don’t have the high-powered hardware necessary to play the latest games, leveraging users’ huge existing libraries means that the primary audience will be people who already own gaming PCs. And, aside from the novelty of accessing their library somewhere else (provided that somewhere has the bandwidth), those people … well, already own gaming PCs.
It is undeniably cool to be able to play games anywhere, and it’s even cooler to get more and more of them. But here the current limitations of the system are evident, and users who rely on iOS or ChromeOS for mobile computing will feel unaccountably left out.
A Competitive Offering
Even so, NVIDIA’s made an excellent initial offering. Having a free tier alone puts GeForce NOW ahead of Stadia (still planning on launching free options later this year) and PlayStation Now ($10 a month), and $5 for not-quite-unlimited access is undeniably competitive. That’s to say nothing of a built-in library for users who already have a huge backlog of PC games.
Sony and Microsoft may be able to put up a better fight. PlayStation Now includes a library of games for its monthly price with unlimited play time, many of which are tempting PlayStation exclusives. Microsoft is only beginning to test its streaming system in advance of the Xbox Series X launch later this year, but presumably it will include something similar, as Microsoft already offers the Xbox Game Pass. PlayStation Now is limited to 720p playback—a paucity of pixels in the age of 4K—and Xbox cloud streaming is months away at best.
The best comparison on the market might be Shadow, an independent service that rents you a remote virtual Windows machine for $35 a month. It’s definitely made with gaming in mind, thanks to powerful GPU hardware, but it’s also meant for people who are pretty technical. Unlike GeForce NOW, the Windows 10 machine is fully unlocked, so you can use Shadow to stream something like Photoshop or Blender, something your typical low-power machine can’t handle. And yes, it can play more or less any PC game. Check out our review of Shadow here. While it’s technically much more capable than GeForce NOW, it’s also much less accessible, with no free (or even cheap) options.
GeForce NOW is, in a word, cool. In two words, it’s really cool—and refreshingly accessible to boot. But don’t take my word for it. If you live in the United States or one of its other supported areas, give it a try and make your smartphone jealous as you play Fortnite on full settings at 1080p. If you don’t live in one of the supported areas (the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, western Europe, Japan, Russia, and South Korea at the time of this writing), you can still give it a try … but you’ll probably lose a lot.
Here’s What We Like
- Massive library of existing PC games
- ...that you don't have to buy again
- High quality, low latency
- Free or cheap service
And What We Don't
- Not quite fast enough for the fastest multiplayer
- Windows virtualization peeks through the UI
- Support for non-Steam stores is limited