First Look: OnLive’s Cloud Gaming Service Comes to Tablets and Phones

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Courtesy OnLive

Know any serious PC gamers? The odds are sky-high that they’re also serious experts on PC hardware.

That’s because 3D gaming requires more sheer computing horsepower than any other home-computing task. Ardent game players, therefore, obsess over specs that most folks can safely ignore. They also plunk down serious money for machines outfitted with state-of-the-art processors and graphics cards, both of which help boost frame rates and 3D rendering. It all requires a level of dedication that not all of us can muster.

Take, for instance, me. These days, I can’t tell you much about the components inside my PCs. The prospect of tweaking them for maximum performance is alarming, not alluring. Come to think of it, my primary computer is a Mac, a platform that most big-deal games ignore–and I use that less these days than my iPad. As a result, I rarely partake in games any more demanding than Bejeweled, even though I’m intrigued by ambitious titles such as the gritty 1940s epic LA Noire.

(MORE: Top 10 Video Games of 2011)

And so I’ve been paying attention to OnLive, a service that aims to put no-compromises gaming at your fingertips on devices of all sorts. In June of 2010, the company released versions for Windows PCs and Macs. Later that year, it introduced a $99 “MicroConsole” the size of a slice of pound cake that put the service on HDTVs. And now it’s announcing apps for the iPhone, iPad, Android phones, and Android tablets (including Amazon’s Kindle Fire). The company recently gave me a sneak peek at the new stuff, and let me try out a nearly-final version of the iPad edition in the comfort of my own home.

Founded by Steve Perlman, a veteran entrepreneur whose résumé goes all the way back to early-1980s gaming icon ColecoVision, OnLive was based on an audacious technological question: What if almost all of the computing power that games needed was relocated from players’ homes into the cloud? Starting in 2002, the company spent years developing a system for running games on potent servers. Its technology sends a game’s graphics over the Internet to the device a gamer is using, and relays that player’s keystrokes or controller clicks back to the server. It’s like playing games on a console that happens to be located thousands of miles away.

Because OnLive’s servers do so much heavy lifting, the service’s hardware needs on your end are modest. That’s why it works on wimpy PCs, Macs and, starting now, on tablets and phones. The company has also announced that it’s working with Vizio to build the service right into HDTVs and Blu-ray players.

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