Nvidia’s cloud gaming service, GeForce Now, officially hit beta on ChromeOS today and it’s helping to make the gaming PC obsolete faster than you’d expect. Just a good internet connection and a Chromebook, and off you go! Visit play.geforcenow.com and log into your GeForce Now account. That’s it. You don’t need to download a dedicated app, as it works right in the Chrome browser. It’s sort of like how Stadia works in the sense that they both use WebRTC (Web Real-Time Communications) to stream your game over the cloud, but there is a key difference between GeForce Now on PC and ChromeOS, which could affect how your game performs at lower bandwidths.
While cloud gaming has struggled on mobile—where it’s been largely kept off one of mobile devices’ largest platforms, it’s totally accessible on the PC and Mac. But apart from Stadia and a handful of third-party apps, cloud gaming has been absent from the browser and Chromebooks. Now GeForce Now has rolled out a web-based system and it has given GeForce Now a major edge over Stadia when it comes to granular network controls. Unfortunately, some of those controls aren’t as robust as I’d like to see on GeForce Now’s web-based solution.
A few important, custom settings are on ChromeOS right now, like max bit rate, resolution, and frame rate, but not only is it missing the Data Server and Competitive streaming quality presets that are on the PC version, it’s also missing the ability to automatically adjust for poor network conditions, which lowers the resolution to achieve a playable frame rate at low download speeds.
Nvidia says users will need a minimum 15 Mbps internet connection to avoid lag and other unpleasant visual side effects—although a 25 Mbps connection or greater will yield the best results, even on a 5.0 GHz wifi connection. That’s good news for a lot of Chromebook users. But it appears that without the option to automatically adjust for poor network conditions, games are unplayable at 25 Mbps and lower.
When I last tested GeForce Now on PC at a 5 Mbps connection, the frame was still smooth even though the graphics were heavily pixelated. But when I limited the bandwidth on the Pixelbook to 25 Mbps, Nvidia’s recommended download speed, the game was unplayable. It was pixelated, and I moved so sluggishly I would have thought the game was frozen had it not been for the fact that sound was still coming from the game. When I bumped up the download speed to 35 Mbps, the game ran near perfectly, save for a tiny bit of lag and pixelation here and there.
One place it really shined was input latency. Input latency matters much, much more than resolution and frame rate when it comes to cloud gaming. The lower the input latency, the faster you’ll see your commands registered on screen. Testing Shadow of the Tomb Raider at a high download speed (285+ Mbps), GeForce Now on the Pixelbook via a 5.0 GHz wireless connection performed nearly identical to my local, high-specced PC connected via Ethernet, 38ms to 25ms. The GeForce Now latency is much lower than I expected.
Sure, there’s always going to be more input latency playing games via the cloud than locally, but the result is so close here that it almost voids the argument that PC gaming is better because there’s less input latency. Your eyes aren’t going to detect a 13ms difference.
But GeForce Now does have longer loading time than a local PC, because Nvidia’s servers need to connect with Steam/Epic/Uplay’s servers first before you can actually load into the game. However, when it comes to loading times across different digital storefronts, the time there is pretty much even.
I don’t own duplicate copies of many games, but I was able to compare loading times between Tacoma on Steam and Tacoma on Epic Games Store. Using a stop watch, I timed how long it took to load the game from each library. It took 40 seconds to load into the main menu on Steam, verses 44 seconds for Epic. That is roughly twice as long compared to loading from a desktop PC, but with a solid internet connection, there’s no perceivable difference between playing the same game on a Pixelbook via the cloud and locally, so that makes up for it for the most part.
However, sometimes a game will refuse to load altogether because it actually requires a different launcher than the one you bought the game from. Example: I own The Division 2 on the Epic Games Store, but to play that game I still have to launch Uplay. (Same thing goes for PC. It’s a pet peeve of mine, but that’s another conversation for another day.) GeForce Now kind of choked the first time I tried loading The Division 2. It totally froze. I had to exit the game and try again for it to work, and even though I was able to get it to load, it took about two to three minutes to get into the main menu. I didn’t have the same issue loading Far Cry 5 from Steam, however, as that game also needs Uplay to run. That might be because since I loaded The Division 2 first, GeForce Now already associated my account with Uplay.
Running a quick benchmark test in Shadow of the Tomb Raider, at 1080p and at the highest graphical setting, yielded an average of 84 frames per second. The Division 2 was 128 fps at 1080p on ultra, and Far Cry 5 was 53 fps at 1080p on ultra. But while these results are a good testament to the hardware powering Nvidia’s cloud gaming servers, there’s a downside to cloud gaming on GeForce Now as a whole—cloud gaming as a whole, actually.
Streamed video is limited to 30 fps or 60 fps, as those are the only two options in GeForce Now, regardless of if your screen’s refresh rate is higher. In the games above, my refresh rate was capped at 60 Hz, and I verified this by running Fraps while benchmarking. (Note: I had to test this on my Windows PC because Fraps is not available for ChromeOS, but the result would be the same since both screens were capped at the same refresh rate.)
The fps counter showed what frame rate was rendering based on the hardware in Nvidia’s server, but Fraps only showed 60 fps because it was basing its reading off the GeForce Now launcher, which is streaming the footage from the server to the Pixelbook or whatever device you’re using. Sure, it’s kind of a bummer, but you can use GeForce Now on nearly any modern device (except for iOS) for free, and 60 fps is just fine for anyone playing on a Chromebook.
If you already own a Chromebook or are now thinking of getting one, Nvidia has tested GeForce Now on several different models of Chromebooks for compatibility, and so far has internally verified the following, but does not recommend using voice chat on the models listed with an asterisk:
- Acer Chromebook 15 CB3-532-C4ZZ
- Acer Chromebook 715*
- Acer Chromebook Spin 13
- ASUS C101P Flip
- Asus Flip C302CA
- Asus Chromebook Flip C434*
- Google PixelBook
- Google Pixelbook Go
- HP Chromebook x360*
- Lenovo Yoga Chromebook C630
- Samsung Chromebook 3
- Samsung Chromebook Plus*
- Samsung Chromebook XE350XBA*
- HP 15-de0517wm*
Once Nvidia adds the option to automatically adjust for poor network conditions for ChromeOS, games will most likely become playable at 25 Mbps and under. If you have poor or unreliable internet, ChromeOS is not the best platform to use GeForce Now at the moment, however, Nvidia said that it will be adding more network settings over time for ChromeOS and for those with a fast and stable internet connection, GeForce Now runs lag-free at 1080p on the Pixelbook with near-local PC input latency speeds.
As long as you’re not looking to play games from Blizzard Entertainment, 2K Games, Bethesda, Warner Bros, Xbox Game Studios, Codemasters or Klei Entertainment—as those developers/publishers pulled their games from GeForce Now—it might be a better deal to toss out the idea of getting a gaming laptop. If you need something cheap to get your kid who only plays Fortnite, you might want to consider the Chromebook/GeForce Now combo.