Anyone who loves games has run into this situation: You’re traveling, whether for business or pleasure, and you can’t take your games with you. Consoles are bulky, gaming PCs are huge and unwieldy. But if games are your primary method of unwinding, then you surely want to game on the go if you can.
For years the only solution was handheld consoles. But the games they offer are not the deep, immersive experiences that most people look for nowadays.
Only recently has a new possibility come to light, making use of advancements in internet infrastructure and data transferring: Cloud gaming.
Table of Contents:
What is Cloud Gaming? ☁️🎮️
The idea behind cloud gaming is simple: You play games over the internet. On one end of the internet connection is a console that is running the game. And on the other end is you, the player. You play this game as if it were on a console right in front of you. The best part is you can do this almost anywhere.
Let’s think about a few of the limitations that cloud gaming gets rid of. For one, you no longer need the console itself. That means saving space at home or, as we mentioned before, being more mobile.
But you might be wondering: If you do not have a console, what do you play on? That is the brilliant part. There are cloud gaming services that let you play on your phone. Or your laptop. Or even a web browser. This is the biggest limitation cloud gaming removes: The need for bulky technology.
The last limitation that cloud gaming removes is limitations on your collection. You see, only certain games are available to play through cloud gaming. It depends on the service, the device from which you are streaming, and a variety of other factors. But the best part is that the services open these up to you.
That means if you are subscribed to a cloud gaming service, you can get access to tons of games through them. Cheaper services might only have a few games, but the better ones have hundreds of games.
Top 5 Cloud Gaming Services
1. Xbox Games Pass – Best Overall Cloud Gaming Service
So, funny thing about this one: Despite being the best cloud gaming service of them all, not everyone knows that Xbox Games Pass is a cloud gaming service.
You probably recognize it as being a game subscription service. This means its primary function is that you pay a monthly fee in exchange for the ability to download games from a huge library (rivalling PlayStation Now’s library, in fact).
That is mainly what Xbox Games Pass is used for, and in that respect it performs excellently. But in addition to that, most of its games are available for streaming as well. They cannot be streamed to your Xbox One, oddly enough, but they can be streamed to the Xbox Series S, your PC, and your phone.
It is worth underlining that point: Xbox Games Pass does not require an Xbox to use.
The thing you have to understand is that it is hard to really treat the other cloud gaming services as competition for Xbox Games Pass. Really, what they offer is the ability to play PC games as if you were on a higher end PC than you actually are. The other features that they offer are all second to this.
Xbox Games Pass offers more games at a higher fidelity with lower latency. Multiplayer is included for all of them, and while you need an Xbox Live subscription to play console games on multiplayer, that is included for free with Games Pass Ultimate. And that is worth unpacking as its own point.
Games Pass Ultimate includes the EA Play collection, meaning that you get access to download and streaming of tons of EA games. This is a bit fiddly on the PC, since it requires you to use the EA Downloader, which is itself an app that is still in beta. You also have to use the Xbox PC app.
Since we mentioned something negative, it is probably time to start talking about the service’s issues. We gave it a good bunch of compliments, but it is hardly a perfect service. The reason most cloud gaming services exist is not just to offer the ability to play PC games as if you were playing on higher end machines. Those other services also usually cost less than the Xbox Games Pass does.
The PC and phone versions of the Games Pass are also both in beta. If you remember a paragraph ago, we mentioned that the EA Downloader app is also in beta. This is all to say that it is all on the cutting edge, which lends itself to crashes, bugs, and other problems you do not want to run into.
That is the Achilles’ heel of Games Pass. Those other cloud gaming services are also more stable, due to always linking together extremely well-built computers. Due to being native to a console made in 2013, Games Pass has some issues that are still getting worked out.
All the same, it is far and away the best option you have for cloud gaming, whether it’s on PC or phone.
2. PlayStation Now – Best Library of Games
While it is hard to track this sort of thing, PlayStation Now is one of the earliest cloud gaming services, and the first one offered by a major console manufacturer.
They launched with tons of games before the PS4 was even out, and after years of adding PS2 and PS3 games to their catalogue, they now have PS4 games as well, giving them well over 1000 games in their cloud gaming library.
Features-wise, these games are available in their native resolutions. There is a desktop app for playing on PC, and if you have a PS4, then you can even download PS4 and PS2 games. Not PS3 games, however.
PS3 games can be streamed on desktop and through the console, but not downloaded.
These games will occasionally come with DLC, and even feature online multiplayer (though you need a PlayStation Plus subscription to play multiplayer PS4 games). New games are being added all the time too, with a big expansion to the service, which looks to add PS1 and PSP games.
In short, the variety and accessibility of the PlayStation Now service makes it stand head and shoulders above most of its competitors, especially with just one price point available at £10 a month.
Of course, this is all well and good, but it is best if you enjoy PlayStation games. Otherwise, you are going to find yourself 1000 games deep into a service that does not offer you much. And as good as a ton of those games are, many of the most popular releases are excluded from that list.
This makes it a huge list of highly desirable games from as recently as two years ago and as distantly as fifteen years ago. But it is not highly modern. It does mean you can get PlayStation exclusives on your PC, but they will be reliant on your internet connection, and those games are getting ports soon anyway.
PlayStation Now satisfies a niche. But it satisfies that niche so much that you might be able to find something for yourself in it.
3. Vortex – Best Mobile Cloud Gaming
If your neurons are still activated from when we mentioned streaming games to your phone, then Vortex is one of the best services out there for you.
It specializes in getting high-end PC games playing on your phone at the best graphics and gameplay settings. This is no easy task either.
Vortex’s list of games is broken up into its three subscription tiers. There are more than 150 games, with more being added every week. Their focus is currently on multiplayer games, such as Rainbow Six: Siege and Dota 2. But they also have single player experiences like Euro Truck Simulator and Hades.
Perhaps the most important thing to understand about Vortex’s library is that it is more substantial than it looks. The thing is that many services pad out their games by including year after year of sports games.
Vortex is focused on the core gaming experience, making their library denser than you might expect. All of these games have uniquely customized (and customizable) controls for the phone, ensuring that no matter how deep their interface, it all fits onto your phone’s little screen.
It is also worth mentioning that Vortex’s game collection is not dependent on your own personal game collection. Account linking will come around in the future, but for right now you can stream any of the games they offer at whichever plan you end up getting.
The focus Vortex has on bringing games to the phone means that there are not a lot of things that set it apart on its PC client. Its resolution and frame rate are not going to blow anyone away.
While its library of games is good, you might have caught us saying that many of them are locked behind greater subscriptions. This is true, although worth noting that most of the games are available to you at the cheapest level. That does raise the question as to how certain games are picked for certain tiers.
4. Playkey – Best Low-Price Option
While the free service provided by NVIDIA is nice, Playkey finds a better balance. It offers several different payment options.
The main appeal is its hourly payment option. This is about what it sounds like: Rather than pay into a subscription, you pay an hourly rate to stream a game you already own.
This is a good deal because the hourly rates start as low as £1. What really sets it apart is the variety of games it gives you access to, as well as guarantees of high quality in the machines you are using. You can rest assured that no matter what game you play, Playkey will give it to you at maximum settings.
It is important to point this out, because Playkey provides a disclaimer on their website. They list a variety of resolutions you have access to depending on your internet connection. For instance, a 15 megabyte per second connection will be able to stream 1080p games, while a 25 MBPS can do 4k.
But that does not mean that Playkey can only run the games at those resolutions, only that you will be streaming at those resolutions. Natively, the games will always be run at their highest settings.
The other side of the coin for Playkey is that their prices increase the more you use them. This means that they are a good solution for wanting to play a certain game at a certain time when you are away from home but paying by the hour will get old and get expensive fast.
Their premium subscriptions are not bad, but they lack the games to justify them in a highly competitive marketplace. That statement would be true even if it wasn’t priced higher than even NVIDIA’s service.
All in all, you can get a lot out of Playkey. But it is better in short bursts than over a long time.
5. NVIDIA GeForce Now – Best Free Option
We will talk about NVIDIA GeForce Now to start with, as it is one of the few cloud gaming services with a free option. It is also unique in that it does not have its own native collection of games to stream.
Instead, it connects to your Steam or Epic Games accounts to let you stream games you already own. This actually lets you stream games that are normally not available for streaming anywhere else. It also has paid plans that give you access to a greater library of games than the ones you own.
Their paid plans also give you access to better “rigs”. These are the computers you stream games from.
NVIDIA is a graphics card company, after all, and this is PC gaming you are dealing with. That means a big part of the appeal is playing with the highest fidelity graphics you can get. That means RTX, volumetric lighting, and other effects that help you get the high-end gaming experience you want.
The issue with NVIDIA GeForce Now is that while it does have a free option, that free option is very clearly meant to whet your appetite for the premium version. The rigs they provide on the free option are sub-optimal, and they actually limit your play time to a measly one hour per day as well.
There will be people for whom one hour of play time works just fine. After all, that’s one hour out of every 24. Plenty of people do not play games for longer than that. But even their £10 a month tier gives you six hours. Their £20 tier gives you eight hours, which is only a slight increase at double the price.
Also worth noting is the fact that while there are games on this service that you cannot get anywhere else, it is almost certain that you will not have access to every game in your Steam or Epic Games libraries. So, be sure to check whether or not a game you want is available before spending money.
All in all, this makes NVIDIA GeForce Now a service best used by a single person. Some cloud gaming services are great for sharing between friends, but the limitations put on this one makes that difficult.
What Does a Cloud Gaming Service Need? ➡️
Now that we have talked about a few cloud gaming services and their advantages and disadvantages, let’s expand the conversation out. These are not the first cloud gaming services (except for PlayStation Now, depending on your definition) and they will not be the last.
Given that, the question is: How do we evaluate these services? What makes a good one and a bad one?
There are primarily three factors: The cost of the service, the accessibility of the service on different devices, and the stability of the service. You might be wondering: What about the library of games?
That is actually a highly secondary factor. Our honest advice is that you do not get one of these services unless there is a specific game you want to play on it. Library size is a good marketing tool. But consider that you are unlikely to suddenly develop an interest in a game you were not initially interested in.
Cost of the Service 💰️
The best way to judge whether or not a service is cost effective is to look at its other features. PlayStation Now and Xbox Games Pass set the bar: Multiplayer should be included, and there should be no time limits for play if the service costs more than £15 a month.
Granted, those services do not connect you to high-end PCs. Time limits for play is a limitation borne from the burgeoning industry, not pure corporate greed, making it an unfortunate obstacle to your fun that is not necessarily a deal breaker.
Accessibility of the Service 🔑️
Here, we are purely measuring whether or not the service is available on your device. Remember, most cloud streaming services are not available on iPhones or Macs, so not every device is covered.
You should also be sure to check if the service is completely available on the device you want to use, or if it has limited functionality on that device. Many phone apps limit your play to certain games.
Stability of the Service ⚖️
This metric is easy to measure because there are so many ways to measure it and they all make sense intuitively. Basically, you are looking for what internet conditions the service can operate under.
This is particularly important for multiplayer games, where your internet connection will have to handle both the cloud gaming service and the game it is streaming to you. What you need is the right balance between the performance you want and the aesthetics you desire.
Adding it All Up 📑️
This is what makes us choose Xbox Games Pass as the best: Its cost is not the cheapest, but it is fair and offers unlimited gameplay besides. It has lots of reach, working on more devices than any other service. And it is highly stable, whether you are streaming games or downloading them to your computer.
But of course, there is room for other products, as there are needs the Games Pass does not fulfill. If you only want an hour or two of gameplay, then Playkey will work for you. If you crave PlayStation’s huge library to explore, give it a try. Vortex works for phones, and NVIDIA works for PC gaming sans PC.
Just remember that these things will evolve. That is the most exciting part of the technology. A cloud gaming service that feels basic now might end up dominating the market next week.