GeForce Now: A Review
In my writeup the other day about not getting a new computer (or, more accurately, about ordering one and then cancelling the order because of supply chain issues), I mentioned that in lieu of getting a ginchy new computer with a top-of-the-line graphics card, I got a subscription to the GeForce Now streaming service, which would allow me to play games on my current computer as if I had a shiny new graphics card, for $99 for six months, instead of the few thousand dollars a fully-specced-out new computer would cost right now. Was this a smart choice? So far, yes.
A little more detail about the GeForce Now service: It’s run by Nvidia, a company most famous for its computer graphics cards, which allow for the complex visuals of current PC gaming. The current Nvidia line-up is its RTX 30×0 series, from the relatively modest 3050s to the behemoth 3090s, the latter of which is larger than some actual computers. Among the things these cards do is “ray-tracing,” which allows for more realistic lighting effects in games, making it look like light is actually bouncing around in the game rather than just offering flat illumination.
Up until very recently the 30×0 series has been difficult and expensive to get hold of, not only because of the supply chain issues that have plagued the world over the last couple of years, but also because GPUs (the processors that run graphics cards) are really efficient for cryptocurrency mining. Wannabe Bitcoin barons have been snapping graphics cards of all kinds and driving prices to ridiculous levels.
The good news is, crypto crashed, which means prices have come down considerably recently. The bad news is, these cards are still really expensive: On Amazon right this second, a top-of-the-line RTX 3090 is $1,740, or, about the same as you would pay for an entire new Mac Air with the M2 chip in it. Naturally, this also means that buying a computer with an 30×0 card in it is commensurately expensive, even with dropping card prices.
So Nvidia apparently thought: Hey, if our graphics cards are hard to find and expensive, why don’t we just rent them to people, relatively cheaply? Thus, the GeForce Now service. For $99 every six months (or $20/month if you bill monthly), they set you up with access to a virtual gaming rig rocking an RTX 3080. You get all the benefits of the ray tracing and improved graphics, but those graphics are streamed into your computer rather than being native on it; it all takes place in the nebulous “cloud.” What you need to bring: A fast internet connection and the actual games, the latter being a significant differentiator from other streaming services, many of which include game access as part of their package.
I already have a lot of PC games via Steam, which integrates with the GeForce Now service, and my internet speed… well, it’s just barely fast enough for 1080p, 60 frames-per-second streaming off the GeForce Now servers. So I thought it was worth giving it a shot. I signed on, downloaded the PC application, connected it to my Steam account and fired it all up. After a couple of days of intermittent gaming, here are my thoughts.
1. GeForce Now does what it promises: Gives me next-generation game graphics on my current, two-generations-past computer, without the expense of buying a whole new graphics card and the rig to go around it. I fired up Cyberpunk 2077 (current-generation AAA game with ray tracing built in), Cult of the Lamb (current-gen indie game with cute but not complicated graphics) and Half-Life 2 (old game with graphics impressive for its day but now kind of clunky). All of them streamed from the virtual rig instantly, without complaint, and (in the case of HL2) with all my key bindings and preferences already in place because my Steam account had that information, and shared it with GeForce Now. It was a pretty seamless experience.
2. Seamless but not perfect — although that has less to do with the GeForce Now service than it does with my own Internet connection. My rural internet connection is 40mbps/sec down in theory — in practice it’s between 25 and 40 depending which second you poll it, and the speed is affected by whether someone is downstairs watching Netflix while I’m upstairs playing a graphics-intensive game. That being the case, from time to time I experienced stutter and warnings that my internet was slow, and that slowness was in danger of affecting my gameplay.
Again, that’s a me problem and not a GeForce Now problem, so I’m not holding that against the service. Also, as a practical matter these stutters did not have a huge impact on my game play. They were brief enough, and also I’m playing solo games, not massively multiplayer online games where every millisecond counts to avoid being sniped by a 13-year-old gamer who does nothing else with his time. For how I roll, this is not a real issue.
This also means that while theoretically I am able to stream games at 1440p or even at 4k resolutions, at framerates up to 120fps, again, as a practical matter, I’m at 1080p/60fps. I don’t find this to be a problem — 1080p is detailed enough for casual gaming and again I’m not playing games where every millisecond matters — but if you’re considering GeForce Now and have a less than perfect internet connection like me, it’s something to consider.
3. Also something to consider: While GeForce Now supports a large number of my games on Steam, it doesn’t support them all. It gives me access to 88 out of my over 400 purchased games, with the emphasis being on more recent and/or more popular games. My understanding is that GeForce Now is adding support for new and classic games as it goes along, so it’s likely that more games will show up in my queue eventually.
But again, it’s worth being aware that not every game is available to stream, and as I understand it, in some cases, what’s available to stream depends on it being in one particular store: Some games available through Steam are not available via the Epic Games Store, and vice versa. Also, there are some companies who just don’t offer their games regardless; Bethesda, which publishes some of my favorites like Dishonored and Deathloop, doesn’t, although they once did. So that is another thing to be aware of: Just because a game is currently on GeForce Now doesn’t mean it will always be.
So far, this reality is fine for me. I have 400 games but I don’t play most of them (I am, like many people, a victim of Steam Sale Syndrome, in which I buy older games at deeply discounted prices and then never actually get around to downloading them, much less playing them), and the older and/or indie games that GeForce Now doesn’t support I can download and play on my current computer. The graphics card I have (an Nvidia GTX 1080ti) plays them just fine. Newer, more graphics-intensive AAA games not on the GeForce Now service may eventually become something I have to consider (I suspect I would buy any Deathloop sequel or DLC regardless of its availability on GeForce Now), but I’ll worry about that later.
4. When games are supported on GeForce Now, firing them up is really easy. On Sunday I bought Cult of the Lamb on Steam; it was immediately available on GeForce Now for me to play. I didn’t have to download the game onto my actual computer (and haven’t so far). The instance of it I’m playing is on the GeForce Now servers. I’m digging it.
5. What I’m also digging: The fact that, since GeForce Now is a streaming service and all the processing is done on its side of things, the games themselves can be ported into any computer, including tablets and phones. As an example of this, here’s the frankly delightful spectacle of Cyberpunk 2077 on a Chromebook:
Am I going to play Cyberpunk 2077 on the Chromebook? No, because among other things my preferred keyboard control scheme requires a number pad. But I could. There will be other games I probably will play on my Chromebook, whilst I am traveling, just because I can now. Or on my other laptop, or on the M1 Mac Mini I have downstairs in the music studio. Or on my TV! There’s apparently an LG widget for GeForce Now. How about that. The portability of this service is a big plus in my book.
6. I should note that I got the GeForce Now RTX 3080 subscription plan, which is the service’s most expensive, which aside from the 3080 gaming gives me priority access to the service (I don’t have to wait in a queue for an available rig) and the ability to play for eight hours straight before the service punts me out. I don’t expect that I will in fact game for eight hours straight, because I am old and also have a job, but even if I did I could immediately sign back in and keep going. But, look, $99 for six months (so, $200 a year) isn’t cheap or practical for everyone. There are less costly plans, including one that is free (that one will make you queue, limits you to an hour, and doesn’t offer top-of-the-line graphics). If you’re curious about the service, you can check out one of those first.
Would I recommend the GeForce Now service? If you have a fast internet connection and don’t mind that some games aren’t available, then, sure. I’ve been well satisfied with it so far, and it’s doing what I want it to do: Act as a stop-gap current-generation gaming solution until such time as I decide to splash out again on a new gaming/desktop computer. And yes, I will eventually buy a new desktop computer, and when I do I will get a top-line graphics card in it, because as it turns out, those things are handy for other things besides gaming and destroying the planet by mining crypto. Now, however, I feel less internal pressure to get something immediately. That’s good for my wallet, and for getting a computer that’s right for me, not just what’s available.
For all those reasons, GeForce Now seems like a decent value for me, right now. It might be the same for other folks as well.