The France-based cloud PC service Shadow is finally making its way to America, and with it comes the choice to have a cloud-based gaming-level Windows machine on any computer you own—from your aging Windows desktop to your iPad to your Chromebook. The cost is pricey, but the promise is enticing.
Shadow originally launched last year in France, where its parent company, the equally terribly named Blade, housed its first server farm. By the end of 2017, Shadow claimed to have over 11,000 subscribers in France, with over 53 percent of those subscribers claiming to use the service as a desktop replacement.
Those numbers are small but impressive for a French startup, which, according to Venture Beat, secured $86 million in venture capital last year and opened a new office in Palo Alto. It suggests there’s a market there for a costly Windows 10 streaming service, even in a country with a fifth the population of the US.
Their service itself is relatively simple, and in the carefully controlled demos I witnessed, it seemed to work remarkably well. You pay your $35 a month (when you subscribe for 12 months; three months is $40 a month, and month-by-month is an insane $50) and get instant access to your very own Windows 10 machine hosted on Blade’s server. While Blade wouldn’t detail the specific guts, a spokesperson said it would be a Windows 10 machine with a 4 core, 8 thread CPU, 12GB of RAM, and an 8.2 TFLOP video card with 16GB of VRAM. That suggests something like an Intel Core i5 or i7 processor and a Nvidia 1070 graphics card.
Once you’re subscribed you use an app to access your PC. The app is available on Chrome OS, Android, MacOS, Windows, and Sony and Samsung smart TVs (iOS should also be available, but Blade is waiting on approval from the App Store). And, at least in the demo, you use the exact same PC, regardless of the device used to access it. The Blade spokesperson launched Rise of the Tomb Raider from Windows 10 on one device and the switched to another device, the game picking up exactly where he left off on the last device.
He claimed that games will play back at up to 144fps at 1080p and 60fps on 4K—and require a minimum 15Mbps download speed—which is nothing short of incredible for cloud-based PC gaming. By comparison, Nvidia’s GeForce Now service, which is currently available on Nvidia Shield set-top boxes and in beta on MacOS, goes for $7.99 a month and requires 25Mbps.
GeForce has the equivalent of a Nvidia 1080 at the core of its cloud-based PCs, so it should, theoretically, match Shadow for streaming quality. But it’s also limited to specific games (there are a little over 100 now), and there’s now big Windows machine at its core. You couldn’t edit a video in Adobe Premiere or blaze through spreadsheets in Microsoft Excel.
Blade has also considered the UI, especially the touch-based UI that it wants to be unified across platforms—meaning interacting on an Android phone should feel the same as a Window or Apple tablet or even a Chromebook. And if you have a MacBook Pro with Touch Bar, Shadow has promised Touch Bar integration.
If this all sounds too amazing, if pricey, to be true, then know Blade is aware of the potential problems, particularly maintain quality as the company grows across a nation significantly larger than France and working with an internet infrastructure that isn’t nearly as good. Blade president and co-founder Asher Kagan told Gizmodo, “We actually stopped sales because we didn’t want to degrade the quality to users [in France].” The company halted subscriptions when demand began to outpace supply because it didn’t want to force users to share resources and potentially diminish the quality of individual streams.
Which also explains why rollout will be slow going in the US. It will launch in California only in mid-February with nationwide coverage planned for this summer.
Kagan isn’t worried about the US’s notoriously shoddy internet, though, citing Shadow needing just 15Mbps to operate. He even boasted to seeing it work with speeds as low as 5Mbps—although he was quick to point out that wasn’t a typical result.
Whether Shadow will be as good as Kagan promises remains to be seen, but if you’re willing to shell out the cash, you can get in the subscription queue now if you’re based in California. And if you, somehow, don’t have a single computing device already at your disposal, then Blade can rent you a Shadow Box for $10 a month or sell you one for a flat $140. The Box supports both 4K resolution and 144Hz refresh rate, and Freund claims more than 50 percent of French subscribers currently use the device.
Personally, I’m curious to see how it works on a cheap Chromebook. Having top-tier games playing on a $500 laptop is a dang appealing offer. We’ll be able to provide more details, and a hopefully interact with the service in a far less controlled environment, next month when it becomes available in the US.
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