The benefits to this: there are no games to download, gameplay begins almost immediately and there's no need to upgrade your own hardware when more advanced games are released, since OnLive simply upgrades its servers to be up to the tasks at hand. The are also perks, such as being able to spectate on other players in their own games, recording short "Brag Clips" to share with friends, and cloud-based saves that are automatically transferred to the nearest server cluster when you log in from a new region. Oh, and games max out at $50 -- $10 cheaper than most console releases.
For the purposes of our review, I used the MicroConsole on my primary gaming display: a 52" LCD television viewed from a distance of roughly nine feet. I have a 68 megabit per second downstream broadband connection.
My first impression of the MicroConsole: its packaging is really nice. The console, controller and necessary cables come neatly packaged in a hefty black matte slip-top box with varnished/raised accents -- not the sort of look you'd expect from a $99 product. Opening it up, the concept of a "micro" console is driven home immediately. All you'll see is the small, DSi-sized console and its controller. Underneath them lies a power supply -- the unit only requires a measly 6 watts -- an ethernet cable, a standard to micro USB cable for controller syncing/charging and something that more expensive, HD consoles leave out: a nice, long HDMI cable.
The controller has undergone a drastic redesign since the original prototype we saw a couple of years back. The new pad is a hybrid of a PS3 and Xbox 360 controller, featuring all the same means of input and vibration feedback. It can accept a rechargeable battery pack almost identical to the one used by the 360 wireless controller. There's a micro-USB port on top of the pad for charging, which is done by connecting it to the MicroConsole with a provided cable. Additionally, a set of video playback controls have been added below the analog sticks, including a dedicated Brag Clip recording button.
The only thing the controller's lacking is any sort of headphone jack, like the one on every 360 controller. That's because the MicroConsole will offer support for Bluetooth devices -- the only ones formally announced being headsets -- at launch. Unfortunately, the system software available at press time didn't sport this feature, nor another biggie: 5.1 Dolby Digital audio for HD-capable connections. Again, this is something that OnLive says will be ready in time for the device's December launch.
Hooking up the MicroConsole and pairing the controller (it supports up to four, using a wireless tech that promises very low latency) is about as simple as it gets. For my first test of the actual MicroConsole experience, I simply turned it on using the "OnLive button" on the controller and it was ... on. No bootup logo, no wait, just on. It presents a very basic screen featuring login and account switching options, as well as a settings menu, where A/V options can be tweaked. The MicroConsole supports 1080p/60 output (though no content is available at this resolution/framerate yet) but I was told by OnLive CEO Steve Perlman to set it to that resolution anyway (I have a 1080p/60 compatible TV) since the video scaler built into the console is, according to him, much faster and higher-quality than those used in and by most HDTVs. The MicroConsole is also 3DTV-ready, though 3D content availability is to-be-announced.
My experience with logging in wasn't nearly as quick as during the demo of the hardware I'd received from OnLive itself, during which the system was able to go from power-on to playing a game in less than 10 seconds. In my case, I selected the log in option and it took five seconds to connect, followed by a (skippable) zoom in on the main menu. Fast, yes, but hopefully getting faster with software upgrades. I was immediately struck by the image quality, having used the Mac client for months on a MacBook and being able to see artifacting even on the main "hub" menu.
Once in a game, I was wowed by the quality of the picture and the framerate. Assassin's Creed 2, Dirt 2 and many others looked noticeably better than their console counterparts, with higher framerates as well. My experience with the video looking compressed was mixed. Unreal Tournament 3 got downright muddy at times, while the aforementioned games and others such as Batman: Arkham Asylum, a very dark game, were razor sharp from my viewing distance, with compression artifacts only visible if I stood an abnormal distance from the screen (2-3 feet).
The only problem I had with the hardware related to the controller and its connection with the console. I had several incidents of the controller losing sync for no reason, requiring me to remove and re-attach the battery and, on multiple occasions after being idle for too long and getting signed out, I found that I could neither get the controller to re-sync or even turn the console off manually. It required disconnecting the power supply entirely. This is hopefully a firmware kink that needs ironing out, because it's rather frustrating, and repeatable.
Controller flakiness aside, I have to say that I consider the OnLive MicroConsole (and its controller) to be a pretty fantastic piece of hardware. It's instant-on and relatively quick to get into games, the navigation's snappy and, as hard as it has been to believe, the picture quality from a normal viewing distance is largely superb.
So, here's the deal. When (and if) you buy the MicroConsole, you're basically paying for the controller (first-party PS3 and 360 pads run $50-60) and the included "free game" voucher (another $50). Do I feel that it's worth that nigh-hundred bucks? Yes. The real validity of the purchase -- and the platform -- actually hangs on the content and the ability of OnLive to, for lack of a better way of saying this, stay in business. The software library as it stands today could definitely be more impressive, and it can be tough to go on assurances that hundreds of games are on the way. More than that, though, there's being willing to put your faith in OnLive that you'll be able to pay it $50 for a game and still be able to play it years from now. If OnLive goes away, so does that game (and any others you've bought). It's just the nature of the business model.
Being an optimist, I'm going to consider a future where OnLive is alive and healthy, in which case I wouldn't hesitate to recommend the MicroConsole to those who don't already have an HD console, aren't keen to play the games the service offers via PC/Mac, or are PC gamers who have grown just plain tired of upgrading for each major new release. There's something kind of magic about OnLive, and now with this impressive hardware, it will hopefully start to get some recognition from the masses. And that, dear Readers, can only help stave off my "the games are gone!" doomsday scenario.