OnLive Makes The Impossible a Reality: A Smorgasbord of Top-Shelf Games on Your Mac [Review]



I’ve had one particular conversation with Windows blockheads far too often; you know, the one where the blockhead says something like “Macs are overpriced marketing gimmicks created to sell nothing but empty fashion to upscale fops!” (only it’s usually expressed as an eloquent “Macs are stupid!”) Which, of course, is nonsense — and so you confidently and patiently ladle responses over the blockhead’s statement like thick gravy, watching his ego deflate further and further…until the blockhead’s eyes light up as his addled brain finally digs up the winning phrase: “But gaming sucks on the Mac!” And all you can do is begin to protest by muttering something about Civilization or Borderlands, and then slowly hang your head in shame.

Unless you know about OnLive — in which case he’s toast. Oh, and you might want to mention the iPad app as well.

OnLive is a gaming system with a radically different approach: You don’t purchase games and then install them on your computer (either as a DVD or through an online service like Valve’s Steam); instead you purchase a “PlayPass” for the game you want, which remains on the OnLive servers and streams to your computer. You can then play the game as you would a game purchased in the more usual ways, as long as you’re around a broadband connection.

That’s the basic idea. But there’s actually a dizzying array of purchase and play options: you can try 30 minutes worth of most games for free; if that doesn’t give you enough to go on (or you’re just short on funds that week) you can buy 3- or 5-day rental passes; or, $10 gets you a monthly pass to the PlayPack Bundle, with unlimited access to about 60 games — games like Homefront, NBA2K10 and Just Cause 2 that are getting just a little long in the tooth, but still have lots of life left. And if you want to play on the big screen, there’s the $99 pocket-sized micro-console which comes with a Xbox 360-like wireless controller and all the cables you need to hook up to a flatscreen TV.

The Good:

OnLive is a Mac gamer’s paradise — a world of gaming that could only be dreamed about is suddenly a reality. Games like the Warhammer 40K series, Duke Nukem Forever and F.E.A.R. 3 are all playable on the Mac.

Worrying about hard drive space or compatibility requirements is a thing of the past, because everything is streamed; advanced, gig-hogging games that would normally bog down on slower machines run smoothly, and take up zero storage space. All that’s required is a smallish OS X app that acts as a gateway to the service.

OnLive can be a remarkably inexpensive way to get your game on. There are often several titles offered at deep discount; the PlayPack Bundle is the real killer deal though — a big bowl of mouth-watering games, all for just $10/month. And OnLive is constantly tweaking the deal — so if you don’t see anything you like, try back in a few months.

Full-blown gaming is now extremely portable. At an airport? As logn as you brought your laptop (or soon, iPad — see below) all your games are with you, since they’re all online. At a friend’s house? Connect to the service on her computer, download the app, fire up your games and you’re off. Even the MicroConsole is portable enough to pack for a trip.

Not sure if you wanna bite? That’s ok — pretty much all the games in OnLive’s stable are free to play for the first half hour, no strings attached, to help you decide whether to take the plunge or not.

Another of the system’s unique advantages is that since the games are all played on OnLive’s servers, any game session is potentially viewable by any other user/s (if players who allow it; users can also opt out to keep their sessions private). The biggest advantage here is that users can see what games actually play like, which also works surprisingly well as a try-before-you-buy technique. Or if a player is stuck at a particular point in a game, another user can show them how to blast through it. Then there’re the gloat clips (of, say, that three-pointer from halfway across the court) that can be posted and shared online.

Want to be among the first to play a just-released game? OnLive is your best bet; you’ll be up and running not five minutes after the game is released, while your friends are still waiting for Best Buy to open, or waiting hours to download the game. Of course, this assumes OnLive is carrying said game (a big question mark — see below).

And then there’s the iPad app. That’s right — imagine playing top-shelf console games on your iPad; the idea practically makes me shiver with anticipation. Before you run off screaming into the street though, wait up — right now all you can do is imagine it. But OnLive says they’re on track, and the app should be out before the end of the year, along with an Android app. In the meantime, the free OnLive Viewer iPad app will let you watch — but not play.

The Bad:

Even with my meaty, 12 Mbps pipe, the system still went south every once in awhile. Most of the time, games were still playable, with some slight fuzziness to the image; more uncommonly (perhaps once a week) a big “Network Trouble” sign would pop up on the screen and movement would become extremely choppy and/or severely downsampled, making the game unplayable. The bigger your screen, the more this will become as issue as the faster a connection you’ll need in order to maintain picture quality. Understandably, this was much more prone to occur over wifi rather than when the game was hooked up through an ethernet cable (in fact, the system was remarkably stable when used with an ethernet cable, even on a 32-inch screen using the MicroConsole).

Although their library is growing, there still aren’t that many titles available yet — excluding the PlayPack Bundle, around 50 at last count — and there’re some big players missing: Nothing from Rockstar Games, Electronic Arts or Activision — so no Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty or Madden NFL right now.

It’s not apparent on all the titles, but many games exhibit a bit of cursor lag, to varying degrees of annoyance. It seems non-existant on Borderlands, for instance; an eventually-ignored, minor irritation on the Warhammer 40K games; and more problematic on multiplayer FPS games like HomeFront. And a slow connection makes the issue aggravatingly noticeable while playing any game.

The MicroConsole is hit or miss. It’s super-portable and works great for putting games on a TV; but it’s an extra $99 and the controller feels a little awkward and imprecise, with no alternative. It’s actually a great, high-value package let down somewhat by the controller. If you really want one, OnLive occasionally has promotional offers that’ll net you one free with purchase of a game; the last offer was earlier this year with a Duke Nukem Forever purchase.


Make no mistake, what we’re seeing is nothing short of the beginning of the next evolution in gaming; and while it may not be completely ready to overthrow the current gaming status quo, it’s getting awfully close — and it keeps getting closer.

[xrr rating=90%]

A session of Just Cause 2 about to launch on my MBP.
The MicroConsole package: power adapter, console, controller, AA battery pack (also included is a rechargable battery pack) and upmpteen cables, including an HDMI cable.



  • Jonathan-David Jackson

    I’m an OnLive user myself, it’s great to see a positive article about it. I think many Mac users will love OnLive, since they get access to games they never had access to before – it’s a great way to shut PC gamers up. The selection of games is low right now, but soon that will be a distant memory: Steve Perlman, CEO of OnLive, says he expects 1,000 games for it by the end of next year

    Also, you mentioned the deal to get a MicroConsole with Duke Nukem earlier this year, but there is also a deal going on right now where you get a MicroConsole if you preorder the new Duex Ex.

  • Robert Pruitt

    I don’t really like the OnLive selection but I can see how if I had an older Mac this would be appealing. I have an i7 Macbook Pro with just 4 gigs (not the 8 I wanted) of ram and I game like a banshee via bootcamp.  I’m playing Modern Warfare 2, Battlefield Bad Company 2, Farcry 3, Dragon Age 2 & Witcher at or near the fully souped up graphics settings with no problem.  What’s another $150 for Windows for gaming on a $2,300 machine anyway?  It was hard to give up 100 gigs to the partition though, I do have a lot of photos.  I can say that the Mac game selection is improving.  I play Call of Duty 4 on the Mac end and it’s quite nice. However; OnLive is a nice crutch for now and when their game selection improves even a viable option to keeping expensive hardware up to date.

  • William Habgood

    Valves steam service is alot better IMO, isn’t this just a crafty way for ONLive to grab $10 Per Month per client ? Instead of buying the games outright through steam and playing without any financing ‘problems’

  • netnerd258

    I have Steam and tried playing Team Fortress 2 on my 2011 iMac, the smaller base version, yes it plays, yes it pretty, but let me say this, Macs really aren’t gaming machines.

    1) The mouse tracking is just wrong for first person shooters that is, or I’m just used to the Windows style mouse tracking, the Mac mouse tracking swings too far if you jerk the mouse suddenly, it depends on the speed of your sudden movements so setting in game mouse sensitivity doesn’t help. 

    2) the iMac isn’t a game machine, its design is not for suitable for the type of heat generated when its running intense full screen 3D games, it just gets way too hot for my liking. Too much heat means higher chance for internal components to fail, or higher wear, I’ve had experience with weakly ventilated PCs and parts breaking too soon. Since its hard to DIY an iMac, I just prefer to not game on it, in other words I love this machine too much to give it a hard time.

    3) The Magic Mouse? Just forget it, for gaming this is probably worst than a generic cheap mouse.

    Design wise the Mac Pro is the only mac suitable IMO, but the price is too much to pay to be a gaming machine, OnLive seems to solve at least these issues but it does require a super fast internet connection.

  • Takeo

    1) change to a microsoft mouse and use their drivers
    2) bullsh*t. iMacs get hot, yes, they ventilate the air upwards – no big deal. It won’t fail. It would rather shut down before it fails – don’t talk, if you don’t know.
    3) agree.

  • Takeo

    Valves service is a download-games service.
    You need a hardware that supports the games etc.

    Onlive provides the power to play any game and then streams the “images” to your computer – which makes it obsolete to buy new, expensive hardware to play games.

  • Takeo

    Valves service is a download-games service.
    You need a hardware that supports the games etc.

    Onlive provides the power to play any game and then streams the “images” to your computer – which makes it obsolete to buy new, expensive hardware to play games.

  • poppa1138

    I prefer to buy games on disc,I know when I complete them I can part exchange it against another game.
    digital downloading will affect gaming shops,which I like to visit and browse through pre-owned games.

  • netnerd258

    I don’t want to get to the point of it shutting down automatically, because that means it is too hot for its own good. I’ve had enough HDDs fail on my on old PCs with poor ventilation to know not to push hard disks too far, other components have failed now and then, while I’m not really sure I can blame everything on heat. But HDDs though, I’m quite sure was effected because they almost burned my hand!

    That’s what I learned from my old PC, which is why I don’t want to push the iMac too far. But if you are using SSDs then different story.

    And thanks for the MS Mouse recommendation, I’m-a-gonna check that out.

  • Gimpymw

    So let me get this straight. You claim an iMac isn’t a gaming machine because your previous Wintel computers would fail  because of excessive heat. Now there’s some Vulcan logic!

  • Saavykas

    This service is a fascinating one, and when I first heard about it almost a year ago it felt like a pipe dream that wouldn’t live up to expectations. I’m glad to see the service is impressing.

    I didn’t think of its application to the Mac world; it would seem OnLive has a potential to become a killer app for Mac users even moreso than Windows users.

    The only limitation I can potentially see for the service is individually-logged-in games like MMOs.