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Impressions: online and live with OnLive [update]

Kevin Kelly

Even though OnLive said it wouldn't be at E3, we still got to give the streaming game service a shot. It wasn't actually on the show floor, but inside an actual home ... as in luxury downtown condo that no one actually lives in. OnLive rented the place for the experience, and the service was running over a normal at-home internet connection.

As proof, it showed off an actual Time Warner cable modem to prove that the experience was real, complete with blinking lights (pictured above) and bundles of cables. Update: An OnLive executive told us that speeds through the modem were peaking at four to five megabits per second, which is near the top limit of a low end cable modem usage tier, although average speeds were two to three. They were able to dial up or down what the OnLive service was using on the fly, although the cable internet connection maxed out at six mbps, which again is standard for a low-end connection.

We wanted to crack that sucker open to make sure it wasn't filled with pixies armed with LED lights, but time did just not allow. So how did everything work? You'll have to head beyond the break to find out.

The service worked well enough to make us suspicious that OnLive actually moved one of its servers into the back bedroom. However, we were assured that it was running off a bank of machines in Santa Clara, almost 350 miles away. We played a shooter, a racing game, and a flight simulator, and a first-person action game (we weren't allowed to disclose titles) on a big LCD television in the living room through its microconsole, and on a MacBook Pro running the service via the browser plugin. We used a prototype of their Xbox-style controller on the TV, and tried out both a mouse and keyboard combination, and a Logitech game controller on the laptop.

Of the four games, the shooter was the only one that felt slightly sluggish, and it was also the only active multiplayer game out of the bunch, pairing us with other OnLive users scattered around the country. It also was a title we weren't that familiar with, and since it's E3 week we can't just go home and try it out and see if it was the service, or if that's just how that game plays. Everything else performed very well: several of the games were extremely reliant on timing, and we were able to nail jumps and avoid obstacles fairly easily after a couple of tries.

What was very slick was the interface: multiple streaming video windows of other players playing at that moment form a tile background, and they flip and transition as you move from location to location within the GUI interface. Most of these videos are canned, since they only have a hundred or so beta users right now, but they'll eventually be all live streams. In the Arena, you can scroll across all of these and click on any of them to spectate in full-screen mode, and in some cases join their game instantly.

When you launch a game from your collection, you'll see a brief video of that title while a progress bar fills up at the bottom of the screen, but at longest that load took us no more than 10 seconds. Once you're in the game, it's just like a normal game experience. A press of the center OnLive button, or a keystroke when you're playing with a keyboard, will take you back to the OnLive "home" space, for lack of a better word. You can also press the right thumbstick down or hit alt-b on a keyboard for the 15-second "Brag Clips" we talked about earlier, which are transparently saved out into the OnLive ether instantly.

In summary, the thing works. Games load and play fairly quickly, we didn't have any hardware on-hand other than the microconsole and their controller, and no physical media like game discs or files. Although the speeds indicate almost full usage of a low-end cable modem connection, which are below normal DSL levels, so you're probably going to use cable if you plan on getting on this service. OnLive is in the process of rolling out a closed beta, and we're hoping to be a part of the open beta later this summer. Stay tuned. Or live. Either way.

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