Nvidia GeForce Now is as exciting as it is poorly marketed. It’s a game streaming service that’s been stuck in beta purgatory for more than two years. In that time, Google launched its Stadia service and Microsoft xCloud opened its own beta. Meanwhile, GeForce Now still hasn’t claimed mindshare or word of mouth.
But GeForce Now might not need mindshare to win out over its competitors. That’s because it has a different tact – GeForce Now streams the PC games you already own. Nvidia isn’t running a games store here, unlike Google’s Stadia service. Instead, GeForce Now connects to your existing digital game libraries to verify if you own the games you want to play. And because the games are cloud-based, there’s no updating or maintenance required. But it also means only select games are supported. It’s effectively free, at least for an hour session at a time, but paying for the subscription ($4.99 per month, though Nvidia hasn’t settled on a long-term pricing model) gives you priority access to servers, ray tracing in games that support it, and up to 6-hour play sessions.
GeForce Now doesn’t seem to be aimed at tech enthusiasts or early adopters. Instead it’s almost perfectly suited for people who own outdated PCs or Macs but still want to play the hottest PC games.
Setup and Interface
Setting up GeForce Now for the first time is a bit of a nightmare.
When you log into the service, which is available on PC, Mac, and Android, you’re presented with a sort of junior varsity Steam client. There’s a carousel of hot games, but at this point, it’s filled with old titles like Cuphead and Tropico 6. I was thrilled to load up Halo: The Master Chief collection, but it wasn’t available. Neither was Monster Hunter World, Red Dead Redemption 2, Temtem, or Control. GeForce now currently supports more than 400 titles, but there’s no place where they’re all listed. Instead you can either scroll through a limited list of “featured” games, or use the search bar to check for the game you want to play.
The library is already much more impressive than the paltry selection found on Google Stadia, but it’s still disappointing when you’re especially amped for a certain game, only to find it not available on the service.
When you find a game you want to play, you click a button to add it to your library. GeForce then asks you to confirm that you own the game. (Though it doesn’t actually perform a check that you own it until later.) Then a new dialogue box appears, establishing your connection to the GeForce servers. The screen chugs along for a minute with a display that’s a dead ringer for the AOL 56k modem dial-up connection. It’s a weird system that feels really outdated. Thankfully it doesn’t seem to happen every time you start a game.
Once you’ve connected with your virtual rig, things get really weird. GeForce opens what looks like a virtualized desktop, complete with a virtualized window of Steam, Epic Games Store or whatever client you own the game at. (It’s unclear how GeForce Now determines which store to load up if the game is available on multiple stores.) This is when GeForce Now asks you to log into your Steam, Epic, etc. account to verify that you own the game you want to play – two factor authentication and all. Once you’re finished authenticating, click play to start the game, just like when using Steam or another client on a regular PC.
Occasionally, when you start a game, you’ll need to wait for a rig (hence the subscription for priority access to servers). In this case, I finally finished authenticating everything and had to wait about 5 minutes for an available rig to play Destiny 2. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, I was able to start a game.
I had similarly weird problems when connecting via Shield TV, Nvidia’s streaming box that also allows you to stream GeForce Now to your TV. When I opened certain games, the controller inputs stopped working altogether (despite the games technically providing gamepad support). I couldn’t authenticate my Battle.net account because I couldn’t type my credentials – then the same thing happened with the Epic store. It seems the Shield doesn’t know what to do when you haven’t authenticated across the virtualized desktop, in which case you need to authenticate these games beforehand on a computer. That’s a problem, because certain games, like Apex Legends, ask you to authenticate every single time you log in.
Another weird quirk is that once you’ve loaded into your virtual machine, you can only play the game that you launched it with. For example, if you select The Witcher 3 in GeForce Now and launch into the virtualized Steam page, but then decide you want to play Cuphead instead, you have to fully exit out of the virtual machine and re-launch Cuphead from GeForce Now. From a user experience standpoint, things could definitely be streamlined. As it is, it feels like it’s still in beta.
Every single person reading this is going to have a different experience with GeForce Now’s performance. Whether you’re gaming on Wi-Fi, Ethernet, or cellular, our environments are drastically varied, with different ISPs, routers, congestion, and limitations. Heck, I had a great experience in one room of my house, and a slipshod experience in another.
Nvidia recommends a minimum of 15 mbps for 60fps at 720p or 30 mbps for 1080p, and suggests connecting via Ethernet for the best experience. In testing, sometimes you need a fair bit more than that.
My office is the furthest room from my modem and router, so I wasn’t surprised to find GeForce struggle there, despite having much faster speeds than required. When I checked, I was rocking 48.56 Mbps down and 41.63 Mbps up.
Under those conditions, the quality of my experience depended just as much on my internet speeds as which game I was playing. Less resource-intensive games, like Cuphead, played perfectly. Despite the game requiring lightning-fast reflexes, I was able to make my way easily through several boss fights. But when I tried more graphically intensive games, like Destiny 2, the game stuttered, I felt noticeable latency, and the visuals descended into a smudgy, cubist hellscape. During one mission, I died over and over again, unable to discern friends from enemies from random trees.
Just a few miles away, at the IGN headquarters, connections were unstable and stream quality varied wildly. That’s despite having a fairly stable 50-60 Mbps connection, though the congestion of the corporate network could be just as much to blame.
I took my horribly outdated Macbook Pro to a friend’s house and at 24.71 Down and 4.71 up, I found Apex Legends virtually unplayable, descending into the surrealist, blocky oil painting that’s so familiar with a poor connection.
In my living room, with my router nearby, nearly every game I played through GeForce Now looked stunning and played with indiscernible latency, whether on my desktop, Macbook, or using Shield TV. And honestly, I would hope so; my speeds held steady at about 200 Mbps down. I don’t think many people will have that kind of network luxury, but it completely changed my experience.
In fact, I could barely tax it. At one point I simulated a congested network by streaming music to my Sonos, watching YouTube TV, and loading a video on my phone. Even with all that going on, Destiny 2 and Fortnite didn’t falter in the slightest. Each game looked pristine and I had no noticeable latency. Apex Legends, on the other hand, often yielded a “spotty connection” alert, and was prone to framerate drops and visual problems, no matter what my connection speed. Doom seemed to sit between Apex and Destiny. After an hour-plus of gaming (with visual settings maxed) I can say the game performed rather admirably. The game stuttered maybe three times, but quickly righted itself. Only twice did it significantly impact my gameplay. But losing even a split second of visuals every twenty minutes is intolerable in many games.
I’m not really convinced that streaming is ever going to provide the crispest graphical fidelity, and GeForce Now hasn’t changed my mind. Apex Legends, for example, looked pretty underwhelming – even with the visual settings cranked up. But when I loaded up Tomb Raider, I was able to max the visuals completely, turning all the graphics options to ultra – textures, hair quality, you name it. Even with everything cranked to the max, the game still streamed without any lag or buffering.
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That’s the first time I’ve been truly wowed by graphics through a streaming platform. As more games are added that support RTX (Nvidia’s branding for ray tracing), I expect visuals to become even more impressive. Currently, RTX is only available for a handful of games and is restricted to those who pay for a GeForce Now subscription (currently priced at $4.99 a month).
If you have a gaming PC, you’re probably within your rights to be incredulous. After all, what’s the difference between being stuck in the room with the fastest internet and the room with your gaming rig?
But for that small contingency of gamers who 1) don’t own a gaming PC, 2) want to play the best PC games, and 3) have blazing fast internet – GeForce Now seems like a winner. In some ways, it’s almost perfectly suited for Mac enthusiasts, though the in-your-face gamer aesthetic will doubtlessly turn many of them off.
Latency and Bandwidth Usage
If your internet is fast enough, it’s really difficult to perceive any latency with GeForce Now. The only time I really felt any was when I was playing graphically-intensive games far from the router.
In our tests, the latency from input to action on screen was between 150ms and 183ms. That means every button press was registered in less than .2 seconds. That’s not scorching fast and people who are prone to notice every input – competitive fighting pros come to mind – may find it unconscionable. After all, the infamous 8 frames of lag in Street Fighter 5 roughly translated to about 135 ms. Still, without getting too in the weeds, I don’t believe 150ms will be perceptible to most players – at best, my reaction time is only marginally faster anyway.
GeForce Now has several settings that can ameliorate or exacerbate your latency as well. Streaming quality is decided by flipping a toggle: Balanced, Data Saver, Competitive, or Custom. The three generic options allow you to incentivize resolution, frames per second, or bandwidth. Nvidia approximates data usage, and it varied from 4 GBs to 10 GBs per hour, depending on which Streaming Quality you select. Somewhat surprisingly, Competitive, which optimizes for 120 FPS, isn’t intended to use the most data – it sits around an approximated 6 GB/hr. By dropping the FPS in the Custom tab, you can get the bandwidth usage down to what Nvidia suggests will be about 2 GB/hr.
In reality, these numbers are going to vary wildly, based on game, device, performance settings, and more. In our testing, Destiny 2 had eaten through nearly 5.5 GBs of data after 30 minutes, and 1.2GB in just 5 minutes. Meanwhile on mobile, the bandwidth usage was about a third of that, with 5 minutes of playtime consuming only 448MBs of data.
If your internet is barely capable of streaming games, none of these options are going to have much effect on your play. But, by setting Nvidia’s Custom tab to that 2 GB/hr threshold, I was able to noticeably improve the quality of my experience during a game of Apex with a poor connection. It still wasn’t perfect, but the experience was significantly improved, which bodes well for those with close-but-not-great connections.
Nvidia GeForce Now is available for PC, Mac, Android, and Shield TV. The free tier gives standard access with 1-hour play sessions, while a subscription currently priced at $4.99/month gives priority access to servers, 6-hour session length, and access to RTX in games that support it. There’s currently a limited-time 90-day introductory period available for free.