When Sony launched its PlayStation Now service as a beta last year, the ridiculous per-game rental pricing structure almost immediately stopped us from giving it any serious thought. Last week, however, the service graduated from beta with a more viable all-you-can-play subscription. Suddenly this was an opportunity. Has the idea of running games on remote servers progressed at all since the launch of OnLive, which was way ahead of its time in 2010?
We’ve been using the service for about a week now, and what we’ve found is a surprisingly attractive addition to the pay-per-game ownership model of store discs and downloads. If you’ve got the bandwidth and the desire to try some of the PS3 classics from the service’s somewhat limited initial selection on your PlayStation 4, then PlayStation Now is definitely worth checking out.
When I first viewed OnLive in 2010, running a game through the offering’s remote servers was a noticeably worse experience than running that same game locally. Even with a 20Mbps FiOS connection, our reviewer could “see that the game wasn’t running natively” thanks to “frame rate bumps, sudden drops in resolution, and gameplay blips.”
Quite a bit has changed in the intervening time. First, we tested PlayStation Now on a relatively sturdy (but still residential-level) 75 Mbps FiOS connection in the Washington, DC suburbs. At that speed, the streaming experience was practically indistinguishable from loading a disc on a local PS3. After about 30 to 60 seconds of booting up (including a required connection test to confirm bandwidth), PlayStation Now games ran at a solid HD resolution. We saw a smooth, rock solid frame rate and seemingly instantaneous responses to our controller inputs.
Performance over this connection was identical for wireless and wired connections, and it didn’t seem to drop even if someone was streaming video in another room. While pro-level players might notice some dropped frames in a twitching game Super Street Fighter IV, an average player (including this reviewer) should see no obvious issues. If you put the PlayStation Now app next to a PlayStation 3 running the same game, it’s hard to tell which was which.
Of course, not everyone has such a healthy internet pipe (#humblebrag) these days. To see how the service scaled, we went into our router settings and intentionally limited the bandwidth going to the PlayStation 4.
Our guest tests started with a limit of 5 Mbps download speed, which Sony recommends as a minimum “for an optimal gaming experience”. At that bandwidth level, the service usually wouldn’t even start; instead, a pre-launch connection test told us the connection simply wasn’t good enough for PlayStation Now. The same error popped up when increasing the bandwidth limit to 6 Mbps.
At 7 Mbps, we were able to launch PlayStation Now reliably, but with a significant performance hit. The image was noticeably grainier than at full bandwidth. At times we were able to get a relatively smooth frame rate at this bandwidth, but most of the time the frame rate stuttered and dropped noticeably constantly up and down. A game like Super Street Fighter IV was technically playable at this level, and input seemed to register just fine, but the constant stuttering made it a frustrating experience most of the time.
However, with just a little more bandwidth, the experience improved quite a bit. Capped at 8Mbps, the image reverted to what appeared to be 720p HD and had a solid frame rate throughout. At this bandwidth level, the only issues were occasional compression artifacts that showed up as little, distorted boxes of pixels here and there for a few frames. By the time we hit 9 Mbps download speed, streaming felt like playing locally again.
Before we consider PlayStation Now, we recommend that you go into your PS4 settings and see what kind of download speeds you can register via the Connection Test option. If you’re consistently getting numbers below 5 Mbps, you’ll need to boost your connection before you can use the service reliably. At anything from 5 to 9 Mbps, you’ll find PlayStation Now usable, but probably not always ideal.
(Note that the PS4’s connection tests can be quite unreliable, and they can give different numbers across multiple tests. Also note that the PS4’s reported bandwidth is usually slightly less than your ISP’s theoretical maximum, even without interference, and others using the same connection at the same time may affect the available throughput to the PS4).
However, if your PS4 can clock in for downloads in excess of 9 Mbps, you’re in for an impressively functional streaming gaming experience. It’s all the more impressive when you consider that four years ago a 20Mbps FiOS connection wasn’t good enough for solid OnLive performance in our tests. It appears that Sony’s 2012 purchase of streaming company Gaikai, along with the interim wait for improvements in the underlying internet streaming technology, has paid off.