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OnLive: Is it still blazing trails?

One month on we go hands-on with the cloud gaming service...

OnLive has landed - welcome to the future. Companies like Google and Apple are telling us everything digital is going to the cloud. Now games are, too, with OnLive the first big push to bring this new technology to the masses. And guess what? It works.

In a nutshell, OnLive is a gaming service that allows you to play the PC versions of many big new games, from Deus Ex: Human Revolution to Saints Row: The Third. Whether you're on a netbook, an iPad or on your own TV, choose a game and you'll be playing it in seconds. Witchcraft? Nope. In fact, it's the same sort of magic that drives YouTube.

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The game isn't running on your computer - it's running on an up-to-the-minute PC far away in a data centre that streams the video and sound down to you over the web, while your control inputs are fed the other way. It's amazing to see top flight games running on a puny laptop that struggles with Bejeweled. The full selection of games on offer is already near on 150, covering many new releases, plus a wide selection of older and indie games. But some big publishers aren't present - there's no EA, Capcom or Valve.

On the other hand, OnLive's running a fantastic introductory offer of any game for £1, and you can subscribe to a 107-strong bundle of games for just £6.99 a month, which is a great deal even if it doesn't include the most recent releases. Best of all, though, is that you can get 30 minutes free play with every game on the roster, which is completely brilliant.

That's 30 minutes with the complete game, not just a demo, so you really get a feeling for it. If nothing else, OnLive is a perfect way to try, wherever you ultimately decide to buy - and when that 30 minutes runs out, you can always rent it from OnLive for a while. Buying games outright feels like a completely different proposition to renting and the bundle, though. We still feel uncomfortable not physically owning a game, and even less comfortable knowing that getting to play it depends on your internet connection behaving itself.

JET LAGGING

Yes, new technology like this comes all sorts of caveats, and OnLive is no exception. The big question before OnLive launched was about lag - surely it takes time to send signals from your joypad down a wire to that data centre who knows where, and then to get the picture sent all the way back again? The sort of delay that makes playing a lot of action games really hard?

Well yes, you will feel a delay. But, assuming your broadband connection's pretty good and you're not too far from your ISP's exchange, it matters far less than you might ever have thought. On a 6mb connection with a ping of 32ms (that's an average connection according to broadband testing website Speedtest. net), we tried Duke Nukem Forever. Using mouse and keyboard controls, we initially found ourselves overcompensating our aim. But in a couple of minutes, we hardly noticed any more. And with OnLive's menus, the lag is almost undetectable.

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Of course, people with bad connections, especially those living in rural areas, simply won't be able to get a workable connection to OnLive. But that's not OnLive's fault - they're in the hands of UK broadband providers. The second big issue with OnLive is the quality of the picture. In the best of conditions - by which we mean a good, steady connection - the video you get is 720p, which is great for most laptop screens and your TV. But because it's compressed, even at its best it doesn't match the clarity you get from your 360 over HDMI. The visuals can look smeary and the colours less punchy.

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