NVIDIA can be included among the pioneers of cloud gaming with GeForce NOW, which began its journey over six years ago. Sure, there were OnLive and Gaikai before, but they simply didn't have a real chance of breaking through due to the lack of the necessary infrastructure for cloud gaming to take off.
Now, though, the situation is very different. Thanks to a combination of technological advancements, it is now very much possible to stream games from a remote hardware to PCs, smartphones, tablets, or even TVs (GFN has rolled out support for select LG 2021 televisions).
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GeForce NOW has evolved, too, and not just when it comes to tech. At first, NVIDIA tried to market it as the 'Netflix of gaming', a subscription-based selection of games playable through SHIELD devices. At CES 2017, however, the company announced an evolution of the concept. GeForce NOW would instead offer gamers remote access to a gaming PC and they would connect their own libraries from platforms like Steam, Battle.net, Origin, Uplay, and GOG.
After nearly three years of beta testing (when users could stream games entirely for free), GeForce NOW officially launched on February 4th, 2020. Ever since then, users have been able to choose between the free membership tier and the Priority tier, which is priced at $50 for six months or $9.99 monthly and allows access to RTX 2000-Class hardware with ray tracing and DLSS availability in supported games. With this tier, you can stream games up to 1080p@60 FPS and enjoy much longer gameplay sessions of up to six consecutive hours.
But NVIDIA is now targeting a higher end audience with the RTX 3080 Tier. With this more expensive ($100 for a mandatory six-month commitment) option, PC gamers can secure RTX 3080-Class performance through the cloud. They can also stream their games at up to 1440p@120 FPS on PC; 1440p/1600p (depending on the model)@120 FPS on Mac; and 1080p@120 FPS on select Android smartphones like the Samsung S20 FE 5G, Samsung S21, Samsung S21+, Samsung S21 Ultra, and Samsung Note20 Ultra 5G.
4K HDR@60 FPS streaming is available as well, but only to owners of any of the NVIDIA SHIELD devices, sadly enough. That may change in the future, but there's no timetable for when 4K HDR streaming via GeForce NOW will be available through PC or Mac.
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Do note that the hardware and connection requirements needed to take advantage of the RTX 3080 tier are steeper than previous tiers. When it comes to the PC hardware requirements, these are relatively mild and should be easily met and surpassed by any GPU released since 2015.
* Note GeForce GTX 760, 770, and 780Ti do not support 1440p/1600p
Mac users will need a 2012 or later model to stream at 1440p/1600p@120 FPS, which again shouldn't be a serious hurdle for anyone looking to do some gaming. That said, make sure to be using the native GeForce NOW PC or Mac apps, as 120FPS streaming is not supported through browsers.
The connection requirements may be a bit more problematic. The RTX 3080 tier requires a 35 Mbps internet connection (70 Mbps recommended) for 1440p@120 FPS streaming and 40 Mbps (80 Mbps recommended) for 4K HDR streaming on SHIELD devices. If you choose to play at 1440p@120 FPS, your data usage will be around 13 GB per hour, which is definitely something to keep in mind in case your ISP has implemented data caps.
If you do meet and surpass said requirements, the RTX 3080 GeForce NOW tier offers much better performance than the RTX 2000-equipped Priority tier, but also much lower latency. NVIDIA claims to have tested a 30.86% improvement in Destiny 2's click-to-pixel latency as measured by the LDAT tool with 15ms RTD (Round Trip Delay).
NVIDIA didn't just replace their server hardware with Ampere-based GPUs, anyway. They've also worked heavily on the software side to deliver smoother and stutter-free game streams. The main result of this effort is the Adaptive Sync option available in the streaming options.
According to NVIDIA, Adaptive Sync is based on the latency lowering REFLEX technology applied to the server side. This allows the NVIDIA driver to pace frames between the CPU and GPU and then to synchronize them to the refresh rate of the local display. The goal here is to reduce both dropped frames and repeated frames as much as possible.
The synchronization buffer time doesn't happen at the server and client-side, which would lead to higher latency. Frames are instead rendered by the game engine synchronously to the streaming (encoding) process at 60 or 120 FPS, depending on the chosen refresh rate. Finally, potential network jitter is reportedly compensated for thanks to a feedback loop.
Still, if you want the absolute lowest latency, NVIDIA itself recommends turning Vsync off, though of course, that exposes you to the risk of tearing.
The thing with cloud gaming is that your mileage may very well vary greatly depending on your connection. As such, it's only really possible to relay one's personal experience.
In my case, NVIDIA's EU Central server (the first in Europe to be updated with RTX 3080-Class hardware) is between 28 and 30 milliseconds away, judging from the GeForce NOW app's own testing tool. Not exceptional, but not bad either, and below the recommended value of less than 40 ms. To test the actual experience, I've picked three popular games: Outriders, Guardians of the Galaxy, and New World. A cooperative game, a single player game, and a massively multiplayer game.
I recently had the chance to try the first two via Parsec as part of hands-on previews, which gave me a pretty good idea of how they felt when streamed via the cloud. The difference was significant here, with GeForce NOW's top tier easily outmatching Parsec (which, to be fair, is entirely free) in both image quality and responsiveness.
On the other hand, when compared to the crispness I'm used to with my local PC and LG 55" 4K OLED, the image quality took a visible hit. That was to be expected, anyway, since I don't own a SHIELD device and was forced to stick with 1440p resolution when testing GeForce NOW on PC.
Once I attempted to play natively on my PC at 1440p (without resorting to upscaling like NVIDIA Image Scaling), the IQ gap became far smaller and mostly owed to the inevitable compression of the video stream. This was more or less comparable to the difference between watching a movie with an UltraHD BluRay and a regular 4K stream from Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Disney+, or Apple+. It's there, but you get used to it.
Furthermore, the compression was way more noticeable when playing New World simply due to the fact that I was forced to play closer to the screen with the keyboard and mouse since the game doesn't have native controller support yet. The other two can be played with a gamepad, and that naturally lends to laying further back away from the screen, which in turn makes it harder to spot any potential compression artifacts.
By default, GeForce NOW will set the graphics settings of your games to a very conservative level. In all three games, medium presets were selected; that surprised me, given the hardware that's in those SuperPODS. I would definitely recommend raising that at least up to the high preset, if not even further, as the RTX 3080-Class hardware can absolutely handle it (more on that further below). One new feature that NVIDIA added to the app is the option to save in-game changes made to graphics settings, which comes in handy for tweaking the presets as desired.
The star of the show here is, obviously, the high frame rate enabled by this new tier. There is no cloud gaming service capable of supporting 1440p/1660p@120 FPS; even the considerably pricier Shadow (from $29.99 monthly upward) stops at 1080p@144 FPS. Between the high frame rate and the aforementioned Adaptive Sync, GeForce NOW does feel more responsive than any cloud gaming service I've ever tried, including Google Stadia. That's not to say it's exactly the same as playing locally, but that's honestly a pipe dream unless you're literally sitting in the same building where the server is located. This is as good as it gets for now as I didn't have any trouble dodging or executing abilities in any of those games, except for a couple of instances where the connection had some hiccups. Such is the way of cloud streaming, after all - the same happens once in a while with Netflix and its siblings, too.
I did notice some minor problems compared to my regular PC experience. For example, the Xbox controller's vibration didn't work in Outriders, while Guardians of the Galaxy didn't allow me to select a higher than 60Hz refresh rate even though my display supports 120Hz and it was set as such in the GeForce NOW app, which was easily recognized by the other tested games. These are relatively trivial shortcomings, but they show that some quirks still need to be ironed out by NVIDIA.
Something that's not subjective is the hardware capability of GeForce NOW's RTX 3080 tier. To test that, I've run the built-in benchmark of Guardians of the Galaxy with the same settings (1440p, DLSS on Quality, maxed options with ray traced reflections and transparent reflections enabled) on both the GFN RTX 3080 tier and my own PC, equipped with an Intel i9 9900K CPU and GeForce RTX 3090 GPU.
The benchmark tool reveals that there actually isn't an RTX 3080 graphics card in the GeForce NOW SuperPOD you'll be connecting to. Instead, there's an A10G graphics card, likely derived from this one. Interestingly, this GPU features 24GB of VRAM, as much as my RTX 3090 and over twice the 10GB of the actual RTX 3080 GPU, though its memory bandwidth of 600GB/s is lower than that of the RTX 3070 Ti. Then again, the A10 has more CUDA cores than the RTX 3080, 9216 versus 8704. Tradeoffs that make sense for a datacenter GPU, surely, and the bottom line is that this is a very powerful graphics card no matter how you slice it.
The CPU, an AMD Ryzen Threadripper Pro 3955WX sporting sixteen cores, is also interesting. It's based on the Zen 2 architecture, so it's not as fast as the latest Zen 3 or Alder Lake chips from AMD and Intel. In fact, it even renders a bit more slowly than my Intel i9 9900K (11.2ms vs 9.9 on average), but ultimately it does its job well enough. The minimum FPS registered in the benchmarks is actually higher on the GFN platform, as you can see from the graphs.
NVIDIA's RTX 3080 GeForce NOW tier comes at the right time. PC gamers are beyond fed up with the ongoing chip shortage, which is preventing them from purchasing any graphics card at a decent, close-to-MSRP price. That situation isn't going to change any time soon, according to NVIDIA's own CEO Jensen Huang.
Any PC gamer left hanging for an upgrade could conceivably sell their older graphics card at a premium on the used market and ride it out for as long as needed with GFN's RTX 3080 tier. Compared to other cloud gaming services, it provides a premium experience. It is more expensive than Stadia Pro ($9.99/mo), of course, but the high frame rate option, lower latency, and far larger roster of games are well worth the additional cost. Moreover, PC game sales are much more frequent and more aggressive than anything on the Stadia store, with discounts largely offsetting the more expensive monthly cost of GFN.
That said, there are other considerations to make. While NVIDIA has steadily worked to add new games to the GeForce NOW library on a weekly basis, there are still some huge publishers missing. Chief among them are Microsoft and Sony, and since they are both competitors in the cloud gaming market through xCloud and PlayStation NOW, it's hard to imagine they will ever join GFN.
But there's more: there are no 2K, Activision Blizzard, SEGA, or Koei Tecmo games on the library. Electronic Arts has recently made a comeback on GeForce NOW, but only with a handful of mostly older games like Mirror's Edge Catalyst and Dragon Age: Inquisition. Sure, Apex: Legends is there, but you won't find FIFA 2022, Madden NFL 22, Battlefield 2042, or Mass Effect Legendary Edition on GeForce NOW. Last but not least, there's no word yet on whether Elden Ring, arguably the most anticipated PC title due in 2022, will be playable through GeForce NOW. Currently, no Dark Souls game is, and that's far from reassuring.
Ultimately, I know that I'd definitely consider it if I didn't already own a top-of-the-line gaming PC, but you'll have to carefully assess your specific needs to understand whether NVIDIA's cloud gaming service is worth it in your case. Are the games you play on GeForce NOW's library? Does your connection hold up well in all regards (bandwidth, latency, etc.)? The latter, at least, can be easily tested with GFN's free tier before committing to a subscription.
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