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Shadow Impressions and Thoughts: is It for You?

So let’s begin with what is Shadow? Shadow is a company and a service that allows you to cloud game. Whereas other cloud gaming services give you a selection of games to play, Shadow lets you play the games you already own. Think of it less as the Netflix of gaming, and more the Blu-Ray upscaler for your DVDs. This means you can use your personal gaming library to play the latest and greatest games on offer, without the need for the hardware at home. At least that’s the premise. It also offers its streaming service for mobile devices like Android and Apple products, meaning you can game on the go.

At MCM, I was able to talk and get myself access to the cloud gaming service Shadow, boasting a Nvidia GTX 1080 and a Xeon Processor with 4 cores (Clock speeds later). This subscription model isn’t the first to come, but does it stand to compete and have an active audience? Well in France and other European countries it seems to have, with Shadow being a three year old company. They’ve managed to build up a strong infrastructure, which went from 200Mb of data to just 5Mb at minimum to maintain a stable game stream. In theory, paying £26.95 a month isn’t terrible with a free cancel anytime policy (a much needed change compared to their previous pay in for a contract deal). But, are there other factors at play that need you to think about whether or not this is a service for you? Well hopefully this article helps sway your decision into either picking up a gaming PC or a cheap cosy system to run Shadow.

Value Proposition:

First off, you need to factor cost. This will come in the form of start up and maintenance cost. For a PC, I tried to build a comparable system using their own configurations as well as a system that is comparable to the visual quality I got. Whilst I don’t have screen capture performance or metrics, I think this is a small factor compared to the overall experience of using Shadow compared to owning a system. Added is my personal gaming laptop that I also use for work purposes.

 

1080 build

1050Ti

Dell Inspiron 7000

CPU

Intel Core i5-8600K

 Intel Core i5-8600K

Intel Core i7-7700HQ 

CPU Cooler

Cooler Master Hyper 212 Evo 82.9 CFM Sleeve Bearing CPU Cooler

Cooler Master Hyper 212 Evo 82.9 CFM Sleeve Bearing CPU Cooler 

Stock 

Graphics Card

EVGA GTX 1080 8GB Superclocked Gaming

EVGA GTX 1050 Ti 4GB SC GAMING 

 

Motherboard

Asus ROG Strix Z370 Gaming Mini ITX LGA1151 Motherboard

Asus ROG Strix Z370 Gaming Mini ITX LGA1151 Motherboard 

 

RAM

Corsair Vengenance LPX 16GB (2x8G) DDR4-3000

Corsair Vengenance LPX 16GB (2x8G) DDR4-3000

16GB stock

Storage

Western Digital 1TB 3.5” 7200RPM

Western Digital 1TB 3.5” 7200RPM

1TB HDD 5200RPM and 256GB M.2 SSD

Power Supply

EVGA SuperNOVA G2 650W 80+ Gold certified Modular ATX Power Supply

EVGA SuperNOVA G2 650W 80+ Gold certified Modular ATX Power Supply

N/A

Case

Fractal Design Define R4 w/Window (Black Pearl) ATX Mid Tower Case

Fractal Design Define R4 w/Window (Black Pearl) ATX Mid Tower Case

N/A

Total Cost (at time of writing

£1256.04

 £918.53

£800~ 

 

Things to note is that this build isn’t with any design behind it and using PC Part Picker, these parts were selected using user reviews. Whilst the storage can be opted for SSD, as I’ll talk about performance later, it’s not as notable for some games as people think. Also to note, obviously these PC builds could be far better optimised for certain budget ranges and even personal taste and needs for the home. But this provides a good base comparison for things like return on investment and other factors. Another factor removed is peripherals such as keyboard, mouse, monitor, etc as they are being factored as a shared cost.

Shadow Break Even Chart

This chart mainly for illustration, something it doesn't account for it is labour and potential issues.

The graph represents the break-even time for someone using a subscription compared to buying the hardware. Factors not accounted in this are electricity, comfortness of the environment, and internet bills as examples. Something to note here is that the Shadow Sub is only a baseline under the assumption that you own a laptop or system capable of streaming their service. Breaking even after 30 months, as long as you don’t upgrade more often than that, Shadow isn’t as relevant for you. Although given how graphics cards aren’t exactly being updated that often, chances of upgrading are less. Also, for someone like me who’s just bought this laptop for the £800 mark. I would need to keep it for about two years before it would be more expensive to use Shadow rather than upgrading. That said, my upgrade cycle is more 3-4 years mark.

Whilst they do have an app for Android and iOS, I found that the experience wasn’t the best. To quote my experience: “4G support makes this unusable for even reading Visual Novels and unless you have stable internet, the delay between tapping the screen and input made even navigating the Windows’ VM (Virtual Machine) feel like a punishment”. Luckily I had a Bluetooth mouse to solve this problem, but that just narrowed down the latency between each action as painful or awkward, as I had my phone in one hand and the mouse in the other on my right leg, not super usable on a bus.

A gripe I do have is that at MCM Comic Con, they showcased it working on Android devices that used the normal Xbox One controller and their spokesperson told me that you can connect them via Bluetooth. I thought it wasn’t possible, and it isn’t without a lot of workarounds that look great for showcasing the product. I just think it’s a tad sly, and not the final experience.

Use Cases for Shadow are compelling, but...

I bring this up because in principle, running a Windows’ VM on your smartphone is a compelling reason to purchase and use Shadow regardless of use case. And whilst you can use the Steam Link app on devices, it’s restricted to your home environment. And as much like the Nintendo Switch for its portability, it [at the time of writing] lacks the games I would consider a must buy to play the games I just wouldn’t do on my PC. But with Shadow, you can, on the way to work: grab your smartphone with mobile data, a controller, and play on the go. At MCM, they showcased Star Wars Battlefront 2 in single-player. Visually it was definitely impressive, whilst the obvious caveat is that their internet on-hand was more powerful than most home setups it showed the upper limits of the service.

Having a OnePlus 3T, it’s got strong enough internals that should be able to handle this. But like any internet-based service, your connection is key. As I was still at Uni, I could test it out using internet that’s more powerful than the usual home would have. Under these conditions, my ability to use Shadow on my phone and laptop was great, and if it continued to run like this, the argument of having a device or two for streaming becomes stronger.

286667 Lifestyle04 4cc2a3 original 1533039512

This, but on Windows and a better game hurhur.

Something I would definitely have appreciated is being at lectures for rendering and loading projects like Blender and Unreal at full speed, without the need plug into an outlet. That and not lugging a 2.5KG laptop for a day. An added benefit is potentially streamlining your workflow by not being chained to a device or storage enclosure. This means you can start your work on the phone, resume on a desktop, have it do render/download/buffer whilst travelling back home, and seeing the finished results upon arrival, potentially. A small, but cool thing to note is, you can use Shadow to speed up and improve your web browsing experience if your laptop has limited RAM and CPU power. So quite a few positives, and since I’m a very handheld pro type of guy, this is a major selling point for me. But, what if the internet is weaker? How bad can it get?

Internet at my home place isn’t exactly great, peaking at 20Mbps, but it’s usable for most cases. Sadly running Shadow is almost impossible for stable gameplay to the point that visually, most games were worse than if I was running them locally. Playing wise, the stuttering and weird frame drops here and there tested my tolerance. Whilst Nier Automata isn’t the most intensive game, it’s intensive enough that my i7-7700HQ/1050Ti Inspiron Gaming Laptop can’t run it with their default medium settings and requires disabling anti-aliasing to run without having an unstable framerate. Also, when trying to play Wolfenstein 2 it was nearly suicide because one of the levels I was in was dark, coupled with bad internet, which made seeing enemies at times near impossible.

My personal test case though was Final Fantasy XIV, running that on my phone or portable laptop was my true test to whether or not this was viable. Being an MMO, it needs stable ping and consistent stable gameplay to do some of its end game content. To start off I did some dungeons, which performed passably. But the instance that made me think this wouldn’t be that viable for endgame content is The Vault. Not a difficult dungeon by any stretch of the imagination, but as an aggressive White Mage player I’ve got a solid rotation to keep up to help speed up dungeon runs. This means I have to be on point with my heal and damage skills, each running a timer to cast and then a delay after casting. Instant cast time skills wouldn’t activate as expected IE Lucid Dreaming, Assize, Divine Benediction etc. My Samurai and Red Mage rotations suffered a bit more, Samurai has a skill that removes the combos to active certain buffs that allow you to cast Midare Setsugekka twice in quick succession. In order to quickly cast the second Midare, I need to proc Meikyo Shisui, an instant cast skill. Typically, skills like this tend to line up so that game can chain a follow up. Except, this wasn’t the case and this was done using my University’s WiFi. 

Limiting factors but not limited to

This sounds like I didn’t have a positive experience with the overall use of Shadow, but I did have my ups. Playing games without my laptop heating up is a major plus, coupled with my room turning into a sauna because of British summer kicking in. It made having my laptop in bed less uncomfortable since I wasn’t using two laptops, and being able to game on it was a huge positive. When this service works, it just works “I was running Fallout 4 on my phone” and since this article is getting pretty lengthy, I’ll just list the technical issues I ran into whilst I had my press account for it:

  • Connecting my PS4 controller to my phone would cause the app to back out.
  • Mouse would do something similar, but not as bad.
  • Connecting a third party wired Xbox One controller wouldn’t always work, but this depended on which laptop I was using.
  • Connection via ports was very iffy, with my PS4, normal and Scuf Xbox One controllers having weird edge cases of not always connecting.
  • My screen resolution using Shadow was locked at 1366x768 because I accidently set the console to change Shadow’s resolution based on my chosen display.

Other issues, or rather things to note in terms of their cloud performance is their unexpected throttling. I couldn’t record this since at the time I didn’t realise this until writing the article, but my VM’s CPU allocated performance would bounce about. Same for storage speeds, at times being worse than my lighter laptop’s 5400RPM 500GB storage. But at least their downloads weren’t trivial, and were fast enough to download games in minutes. But that’s assuming their SSD storage wasn’t also being throttled for performance. This was during what I think were peak times, so I’m not going to hold them to it since you would be gaming and not downloading during said times (that being after 8PM to 10PM-ish times).

Final Thoughts

So is Shadow for you?

depends on your main set up, if you’re a very mobile person or someone who’s at University, this is definitely something to look at, with the ease of access, lack of concern over potential hardware problems, and the advent of cloud gaming services as a whole. Purchasing Shadow for that work purpose, on top of their policy to have up-to-date hardware, it’ll make potentially difficult projects easier to process. Of course certain software and internet limitations do mean you need weigh up your options more. Also, even if you do purchase a laptop or PC for more processor intensive work. Purchasing Shadow whilst daft as a concept, can potentially save you a lot of headache with rendering. As a personal anecdote pulling some all nighters in the library, I’ve seen a lot projects taking a full night to render and having more powerful hardware can ease your problems, especially nearing hand-in dates.

However, if you’re searching a platform to game on that becomes a different topic depending on how you play games to begin with. Whilst hardware is a big factor to what games you can play comfortably, your best bet is to work out what your upgrade cycle will be and how much does the value of streaming content affect your use case. Someone who’s mainly going to use it at home will probably benefit from Shadow less than if they’re on the go. But, if you don’t like faffing with hardware, have good/solid internet, limited in physical space, and find the idea of a portable computer on your smartphone appetising then Shadow is probably for you. But, if you’re any of the opposite or even just care about the idea of a long term investment of hardware, then Shadow is probably not for you. If you’re super nerdy about the numbers and value, factors you’ll need to factor for yourself is cost of internet and electricity. In the UK, getting better internet isn’t that hard depending on your area. But again, factoring your setup is key to know if Shadow is a wiser investment over hardware purchases.

Personally for me, because my internet just sucks and I tend to buy hardware to last me for at least four years. Purchasing Shadow isn’t for me necessarily for a few reasons, I’m a heavy content consumer and their storage capacity is too small for me. Case in point, I want all of my games on hand and I’m in need of another 1TB of storage because I don’t delete anything it seems. And as previously stated, since the Android experience for me wasn’t great where playing games on the go was a difficult experience. I can’t justify spending a full subscription for it, if it was potentially half the price for half the hardware or even a cheaper tier, I’d probably pick this up alongside having hardware on hand. Also, having a trial period would definitely be handy.

TLDR?

Check your internet and see if it’s stable enough to game for it. Find your break even point of hardware purchases and see if they’re the right value for you. If you care about 60+ FPS, ping, and aethestical building or just building a PC, Shadow isn’t for you. Also, if you care more about having a set and forget experience, Shadow is for you. Personally, I care more about upgradability and longevity over high end performance and will settle with “it just works”.

Owen Chan

Owen Chan

Staff Writer

Is at least 50% anime.

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