OnLive MicroConsole review: The hardware and experience

While we've been using the OnLive service since it debuted for PC and Mac this past June -- whose client we've already put through its paces -- for the past 10 days I've been gaming on the OnLive MicroConsole (the "TV Adapter," as it is also referred to by the company). Now that the pricing and release date have been announced I can finally share with you, dear Readers, my experience with this teeny-tiny (truly micro!) console. Read on for the full review, and check out some photos I took of the final hardware in the gallery below.%Gallery-107697% If you're not quite up to speed on what OnLive's all about, I'll give you a brief primer. The service (originally slated to run about $15/month in addition to the cost of buying or renting the actual games on offer, but since made fee-free) runs specialized, PC versions of the games it sells on its high-end server computers, and streams their video output to the platform you're playing on using a proprietary compression codec. On your end of the equation, the input from your controller is being sent to OnLive in order to actually control what's happening on the remote computers, a process which, through optimization, has been reduced to 35-40 milliseconds, according to the company.

The benefits to this: there are no games to download, gameplay begins almost immediately and there's no need to upgrade your own hardware when more advanced games are released, since OnLive simply upgrades its servers to be up to the tasks at hand. The are also perks, such as being able to spectate on other players in their own games, recording short "Brag Clips" to share with friends, and cloud-based saves that are automatically transferred to the nearest server cluster when you log in from a new region. Oh, and games max out at $50 -- $10 cheaper than most console releases.

There are potential downsides, of course. These include input lag (your character may not seem to move immediately when you press in a direction, for example), the need for at least 5 megabits per second downstream bandwidth for HD video (or 3mbps for SD) and, despite the compression algorithm in play being very good, the appearance of some artifacts from squeezing down all that data -- which may be more noticeable depending on how close you sit to your TV (and, in turn, how large said TV is).

For the purposes of our review, I used the MicroConsole on my primary gaming display: a 52" LCD television viewed from a distance of roughly nine feet. I have a 68 megabit per second downstream broadband connection.

The Hardware

My first impression of the MicroConsole: its packaging is really nice. The console, controller and necessary cables come neatly packaged in a hefty black matte slip-top box with varnished/raised accents -- not the sort of look you'd expect from a $99 product. Opening it up, the concept of a "micro" console is driven home immediately. All you'll see is the small, DSi-sized console and its controller. Underneath them lies a power supply -- the unit only requires a measly 6 watts -- an ethernet cable, a standard to micro USB cable for controller syncing/charging and something that more expensive, HD consoles leave out: a nice, long HDMI cable.

The front of the console boasts two USB 2.0 ports which are used for syncing controllers and, if you'd like, attaching a wired (or wireless) keyboard and mouse -- it worked with several I threw at it, and OnLive says it works with "most" models and manufacturers. There's a tiny power button as well, though powering on and off on the MicroConsole is almost always done using the controller.

On the back, you've got the power socket, HDMI port (component cables are available as an optional accessory), optical audio output, ethernet port and a mini audio line-out for connecting the console to analog stereo setups. And that's it for the console itself. You can set it up almost anywhere in your entertainment space due to its size (or lack thereof) -- I eventually hid it behind another component and it worked just fine.

The controller has undergone a drastic redesign since the original prototype we saw a couple of years back. The new pad is a hybrid of a PS3 and Xbox 360 controller, featuring all the same means of input and vibration feedback. It can accept a rechargeable battery pack almost identical to the one used by the 360 wireless controller. There's a micro-USB port on top of the pad for charging, which is done by connecting it to the MicroConsole with a provided cable. Additionally, a set of video playback controls have been added below the analog sticks, including a dedicated Brag Clip recording button.

As the most elaborate component of the entire package, I found that the controller feels very high-quality, with a nice texture and decent heft to it. The buttons and sticks don't feel like cheap knock-offs, yet there's something about the aesthetics of the pad that says, loudly, "third-party controller." Thankfully, when it was in my hands, I never gave that a second thought. It was comfortable and fully functional.

The only thing the controller's lacking is any sort of headphone jack, like the one on every 360 controller. That's because the MicroConsole will offer support for Bluetooth devices -- the only ones formally announced being headsets -- at launch. Unfortunately, the system software available at press time didn't sport this feature, nor another biggie: 5.1 Dolby Digital audio for HD-capable connections. Again, this is something that OnLive says will be ready in time for the device's December launch.

The Experience

Hooking up the MicroConsole and pairing the controller (it supports up to four, using a wireless tech that promises very low latency) is about as simple as it gets. For my first test of the actual MicroConsole experience, I simply turned it on using the "OnLive button" on the controller and it was ... on. No bootup logo, no wait, just on. It presents a very basic screen featuring login and account switching options, as well as a settings menu, where A/V options can be tweaked. The MicroConsole supports 1080p/60 output (though no content is available at this resolution/framerate yet) but I was told by OnLive CEO Steve Perlman to set it to that resolution anyway (I have a 1080p/60 compatible TV) since the video scaler built into the console is, according to him, much faster and higher-quality than those used in and by most HDTVs. The MicroConsole is also 3DTV-ready, though 3D content availability is to-be-announced.

My experience with logging in wasn't nearly as quick as during the demo of the hardware I'd received from OnLive itself, during which the system was able to go from power-on to playing a game in less than 10 seconds. In my case, I selected the log in option and it took five seconds to connect, followed by a (skippable) zoom in on the main menu. Fast, yes, but hopefully getting faster with software upgrades. I was immediately struck by the image quality, having used the Mac client for months on a MacBook and being able to see artifacting even on the main "hub" menu.

There was none of that to be seen here, with vivid colors and deep blacks that were in line with the best content I've viewed on my LCD set. Menu navigation was snappy, while actually launching into a demo (or full game) took anywhere between 10 and 15 seconds of waiting (again, slower than in my demo with OnLive, and as I mentioned earlier I have pretty fast broadband). Again, though, this wasn't any sort of deal-breaker.

Once in a game, I was wowed by the quality of the picture and the framerate. Assassin's Creed 2, Dirt 2 and many others looked noticeably better than their console counterparts, with higher framerates as well. My experience with the video looking compressed was mixed. Unreal Tournament 3 got downright muddy at times, while the aforementioned games and others such as Batman: Arkham Asylum, a very dark game, were razor sharp from my viewing distance, with compression artifacts only visible if I stood an abnormal distance from the screen (2-3 feet).

On the topic of control lag and latency issues in general: I didn't notice them. I'm sure there's lag, but in the (many) games I played it just didn't have any noticeable effect. Any dropped frames or stuttering -- which were infrequent -- were the result of the games themselves. The video streaming itself was entirely devoid of hitches or jumps in speed or quality.

The only problem I had with the hardware related to the controller and its connection with the console. I had several incidents of the controller losing sync for no reason, requiring me to remove and re-attach the battery and, on multiple occasions after being idle for too long and getting signed out, I found that I could neither get the controller to re-sync or even turn the console off manually. It required disconnecting the power supply entirely. This is hopefully a firmware kink that needs ironing out, because it's rather frustrating, and repeatable.

The Verdict

Controller flakiness aside, I have to say that I consider the OnLive MicroConsole (and its controller) to be a pretty fantastic piece of hardware. It's instant-on and relatively quick to get into games, the navigation's snappy and, as hard as it has been to believe, the picture quality from a normal viewing distance is largely superb.

So, here's the deal. When (and if) you buy the MicroConsole, you're basically paying for the controller (first-party PS3 and 360 pads run $50-60) and the included "free game" voucher (another $50). Do I feel that it's worth that nigh-hundred bucks? Yes. The real validity of the purchase -- and the platform -- actually hangs on the content and the ability of OnLive to, for lack of a better way of saying this, stay in business. The software library as it stands today could definitely be more impressive, and it can be tough to go on assurances that hundreds of games are on the way. More than that, though, there's being willing to put your faith in OnLive that you'll be able to pay it $50 for a game and still be able to play it years from now. If OnLive goes away, so does that game (and any others you've bought). It's just the nature of the business model.

Being an optimist, I'm going to consider a future where OnLive is alive and healthy, in which case I wouldn't hesitate to recommend the MicroConsole to those who don't already have an HD console, aren't keen to play the games the service offers via PC/Mac, or are PC gamers who have grown just plain tired of upgrading for each major new release. There's something kind of magic about OnLive, and now with this impressive hardware, it will hopefully start to get some recognition from the masses. And that, dear Readers, can only help stave off my "the games are gone!" doomsday scenario.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.