OnLive Desktop Plus: Windows at Its Speedy Best — on Your iPad

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Harry McCracken /

Last month, cloud gaming pioneer OnLive put its sophisticated technology to a new purpose: running Windows 7 on an iPad. It launched OnLive Desktop, a free service that let you use Word, Excel and PowerPoint–the real, full-fledged editions, not stripped-down iPad applets. It also said that it was working on a more powerful Pro edition that would permit you to install apps and customize your environment, for $9.99 a month.

(MORE: Now OnLive Is Putting Windows in the Cloud)

OnLive Desktop Pro still isn’t ready. But rather than making everyone wait for it, the company decided to add another edition to the mix, with Word, Excel and PowerPoint, plus Internet Explorer. (It also brought Adobe Reader to all versions of Desktop, including the freebie one.)

It’s calling its new incarnation OnLive Desktop Plus, and is rolling it out today for $4.99 a month. Steve Perlman, OnLive’s founder, gave me a demo, and I got a bit of hands-on time with the new version ahead of its release.

Now, Internet Explorer is only one application, and it may not even be the browser you’d prefer to use. But adding it to OnLive Desktop makes the Plus version infinitely more useful than the free one–because a browser is a gateway to the world’s richest source of useful stuff, the web.

With IE on board, you can use Gmail or another Webmail client of your choice.  You can use Google Calendar. You can also shuttle files between OnLive and other computing platforms via Dropbox, or another file-storage service of your choice. (OnLive also has its own rudimentary cloud drive, with 2GB of space.) In all cases, you’re getting full-featured Windows versions rather than whatever’s available for the iPad.

OnLive’s IE comes with the most robust version of Adobe’s Flash, the one for Windows. So you can use services which require Flash and don’t otherwise run on Apple’s tablet, such as the free version of Hulu. Shows on Hulu streamed beautifully over my home network, running full-screen with nary a hiccup. I’ve never seen Flash–which is now a dead technology walking, at least on mobile devices–work so smoothly on any other tablet.

In fact, OnLive’s version of IE is remarkably speedy, period. It’s not running on the iPad–it’s on a remote, powerful server with an amazingly torrid 1-gbps Internet connection. Pages snap into place; downloads come down in a jiffy. The Office apps are just as zippy. The only thing that gets pushed across the Net onto your iPad are the pixels that change on the screen.

(MORE: The Looming Cloud-Streaming Game Wars: OnLive Partners with Google TV)

OnLive does want a decent amount of bandwidth. When I used it at home, with my Comcast cable-modem and high-end wireless router, it felt like one of the fastest Windows computers I’ve used. Over 3G, however, I got a warning that my session would be limited to ten minutes–due to a limitation Apple puts on third-party apps–and the screen was too fuzzy to be of much use. At a hotel with poky Wi-Fi, I got an error message and couldn’t use the service at all.

(The company says that Desktop performs like a champ over a 4G connection–something you can only get at the moment by connecting your iPad to a 4G mobile hotspot or by tethering to a 4G phone. But if the iPad 3 turns out to have built-in 4G, OnLive Desktop should be one of its killer apps.)

Using OnLive Desktop Plus isn’t quite like having your own Windows PC in the cloud. It doesn’t let you download and install Windows apps of your choice, for instance–they’re banned because they could carry malware along with them–and you can’t permanently change the Office apps’ settings. Instead, you get what feels like a virgin copy of Windows each time. That has upsides as well as downsides: Desktop won’t ever get bogged down by crudware and can’t be permanently hobbled by viruses and other Internet intruders.

From a sheer technical standpoint, OnLive Desktop Plus is a stunner. But that fact alone doesn’t answer the most important question: What’s it good for? I see three primary types of people who’ll get excited by it:

Microsoft Office fans. From revision marking in Word to perfect PowerPoint presentation fidelity, OnLive’s full-blown Office apps beat the Office-compatible suites available on the iPad on multiple fronts when it comes to advanced features. You can get Office for free in Desktop’s basic version, but having IE at your fingertips as well makes Office more usable. And OnLive doesn’t guarantee access to the free service; it’s on an “as available” basis.

Browser power users. Some people will be so blown away by IE’s performance that they’re willing to pay for Desktop; others may need one or more web services that don’t work well in the iPad’s Safari browser. (Such as me: I do my writing for using the WordPress blogging service, which doesn’t operate properly in Safari. It has some minor glitches in the current version of Desktop Plus, too, but it’s much more usable.)

Flash freaks. Assuming that there are such people–are there? Actually, I’ve been using my iPad as my primary computing device for months, and have rarely pined for Flash–almost everything I want to do what Flash does, the iPad can do perfectly well without it. But there are some specific instances where Flash is still useful: For instance, Amazon’s video-on-demand service requires it and isn’t otherwise available on the iPad.

If you fall into one or more of these three categories, I think you’ll really like OnLive Desktop Plus, and will find the $4.99-per-month cost perfectly reasonable.

But you’ll probably have some quibbles with it, too. For instance, it doesn’t support iOS multitasking–you need to log in every time you leave the app to use another iPad program, then come back. It also forces you to use Internet Explorer even if you otherwise abandoned it long ago for Firefox, Chrome or another browser.

And remarkable though OnLive’s conversion of Windows 7 into a cloud-based iPad service is, there are little reminders everywhere that Windows was never meant to run on an iPad-style tablet. “Clicking” Windows menus and icons with your fingertip rather than a mouse pointer requires precision, and the on-screen keyboard–which was designed by Microsoft, not OnLive–isn’t as smart as the iPad’s own virtual keyboard, and covers up much of the screen. This service was born to be used with a physical Bluetooth keyboard such as a ZaggFolio, which lets you avoid using the on-screen keyboard, thereby letting the iPad devote its full resolution to Windows itself.

When I chatted with founder Perlman about OnLive Desktop’s current limitations, he told me that the company is working on fixing just about all of them. It plans to improve the keyboard, permit multitasking with other iOS apps and allow for browsers other than IE. It’s also going to release versions for Android tablets and phones, the iPhone, Windows PCs and Macs and its own MicroConsole TV box. And it still says that the Pro version–with the ability to run apps other than those offered by Plus–is on its way. So are versions customized for large companies.

In short, if OnLive accomplishes everything on its to-do list, Desktop will be even better, and it’ll be everywhere.

Even in its current form, it’s both useful and important. Most iPad users won’t ever need to run Windows on an iPad. But if you might want to do just that, you know who you are–and you’re likely to be dazzled by OnLive Desktop Plus.

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