The OnLive gaming service has been available to PC players for some time now. In an effort to bring cloud-based gaming to console players, and to move OnLive from the PC to the HDTV, the company began shipping its MicroConsole in December.

It’s a bold move and it puts OnLive in direct competition with Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo. How does the system stack up? Is this an idea blossoming at the right time between console generations, or is cloud-based gaming not ready for the living room just yet? Read on for Game Rant’s full review of the OnLive MicroConsole.

The OnLive MicroConsole arrives in an attractive, modern package that mimics Apple’s efforts. Upon first opening the black box, players will find the system and its controller nicely set side by side, with the various cables and power supplies neatly bundled in discreet boxes underneath.

It’s all but impossible not to be immediately struck by the smallness of the system. Barely half the size of a DVD case, though slightly thicker, the MicroConsole is shiny black, roughly rectangular and emblazoned with the orange OnLive logo. It’s an extremely clean presentation, which carries over to the system’s functionality.

The face of the system is home to two USB ports, which allow both a keyboard and a mouse to be attached (they are actually required for some games), and are also used to sync the OnLive controller. A single, small button sits in the center and can be used to power the system on or off.

OnLive MicroConsole Review

The back of the unit is nearly as streamlined, and features one port each for HDMI, ethernet, optical, and power. The OnLive MicroConsole requires an HDMI connection by default, though a component cable is available separately from OnLive for $29.99.

The package also includes an HDMI cable, a USB cable, an ethernet cable, and a power adapter for the system, in addition to both a rechargeable battery pack and a pair of AA batteries for the controller.

Setting up the unit is tremendously simple, though players will first need to have registered an OnLive account on a PC. Plug in the power and connect the system to the television with the included HDMI cable, and the process is practically complete.

The online documentation for the system indicates that it requires a wired internet connection, and that is true initially. Upon first powering up the system, it immediately downloaded a software update, then asked whether I would be using a wired connection or a wireless bridge. In the interest of full disclosure, I have predominantly used the system attached to a wireless bridge.

Once the system is powered up, it will need to sync with its controller, which requires little more than plugging it in with the included USB cable. The controller itself nicely splits the difference between Microsoft’s Xbox 360 controller and Sony’s PlayStation 3 controller. The overall form factor more closely resembles the 360’s controller, but the placement of the dual analog sticks and their resistance, in addition to the digital pad, mirror the Dual Shock 3. The tops of the analog sticks are concave, like the 360’s, with a slightly slippery surface, though they function perfectly well.

OnLive Wireless Controller

The controller also sports the now standard bumpers and triggers, in addition to a set of DVD-like playback control buttons. The OnLive controller is slightly larger than its peers, but feels great in the hand, with substantial rumble and nicely springy buttons. The system supports up to four controllers, though additional controllers are not currently offered for sale.

The hardware is uniformly well conceived and constructed. Of course, this is a game system, and the real question is, how well does it work? Game Rant has previously offered up an in-depth set of OnLive playtest impressions, and those who are unfamiliar with OnLive as a service are encouraged to give them a read. The short version is that OnLive offers a cloud-based, streaming games experience. No waiting for games to download — just choose a title, and start playing. Though not flawless, it works extremely well.

Any of the 38 games currently available from the OnLive marketplace are available to be instantly demoed. These are not custom designed demo levels as players would find on the Xbox 360 or the PS3, but simply the first 30 minutes of a given game. If players want to continue playing, they can buy a three day, five day, or full pass to the game. The OnLive MicroConsole is also offering a beta of its forthcoming PlayPack Plan, which offers a number of games (currently 18, some of which are not available outside the PlayPack) for $9.99 a month.

OnLive claims that its games “run over the Internet from state-of-the-art OnLive game data centers.” So, how do the games look and play on players’ high definition televisions? Furthermore, does the fact the the whole experience streams over the internet introduce significant lag?

OnLive MicroConsole and Wireless Controller

I played a variety of games in a number of different genres to put the service to the test, and came away impressed. Predictably, different games exhibited different performance characteristics, but generally speaking, the fidelity of each game remained consistent over a number of play sessions.

For starters, the speed of the experience is impressive. Once chosen, games start up in mere seconds. Similarly, restarts during games take practically no time. The speed with which games may be previewed or purchased is a major selling point of the service, and one that OnLive delivers on completely.

Graphically, OnLive’s games look solid, and occasionally spectacular. Many games have a slightly “softer” look than they would running on 360 or PS3, though most players would probably need to look at instances of the games running side by side on both sets of hardware to notice. Other games really benefit from the obvious power of the machines running them. Batman: Arkham Asylum running on OnLive, for instance, clearly looked superior to its PS3 iteration.

While most games ran perfectly smoothly, instances of choppy frame rates did occur, notably on Codemaster’s Dirt 2 and, to a much lesser degree, Gearbox’s Borderlands: Game of the Year Edition. In the case of Dirt 2, the dropped frames never significantly impacted the game’s control, but at the same time, the game never maintained the rock solid, smooth performance that it achieves on the 360 and PS3. It is difficult to comment on whether Dirt 2’s performance issues are inherent to OnLive, or a result of the game’s programming. There currently aren’t any other racing games available on the service to compare it to. Still, the experience of playing it isn’t bad, just less impressive than that of some other games.

OnLive Dashboard

Though Borderlands suffers far less “choppiness” than Dirt 2, it unfortunately impacts the game more. The occasional, though admittedly rare, framerate stutter can make precise aiming more troublesome than it should be. Again, it doesn’t render the game unplayable in any way, but gamers used to playing Borderlands on PS3 or 360 should be prepared to make some adjustments.

Borderlands also highlights the other major concern for prospective OnLive MicroConsole players: lag.  OnLive recommends a 5 Mbps internet connection. The connection I used for the MicroConsole currently tests out at 14 Mbps down and 8 Mbps up, but I still experienced some slight lag. In many games (Assassin’s Creed 2, Lego Batman and Harry Potter, Batman: Arkham Asylum), lag was all but undetectable. In Borderlands, where extremely small controller movements are often required to properly line up a shot, the lag was clearly apparent. Not a game-breaker by any means, but a bit of a nuisance.

Nevertheless, the experience of using the MicroConsole is overwhelmingly positive. On balance, most games were extremely playable, absolutely the equal of (and occasionally, as with Arkham Asylum, even better than) their console counterparts.

As with the PC version of the service, the OnLive MicroConsole allows games to be spectated, which turns out to be surprisingly fun. Players can also record gameplay to post as BragClips, and there are options to send messages to and “friend” other gamers. The dashboard is cleanly and logically organized, giving players quick access to the Market Place, their games, messages, and previews of titles coming to the service.

At $99 for the system and one free game, the OnLive MicroConsole represents a serious challenge to the traditional console market. The convenience and speed of the streaming service is frankly wonderful, and the technical performance of the system is impressive. The only limiting factor currently is the number of games available, but for players who are willing to give the service time to build up its library, the OnLive MicroConsole is strongly recommended.

The OnLive MicroConsole is available now from OnLive.

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