Imagine playing video games on an Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 attached to your TV, a stack of disks nearby. Now take away the Xbox and the disks, and you'll get the idea behind OnLive. Using a palm-size MicroConsole adapter hooked up to your TV and home network, you play "in the cloud"over the Internet, with the games actually running on powerful servers that might be 1,000 miles away.
This has the potential to be disruptive, maybe even revolutionary, technology. The $99 adapter plugs into a high-definition port on your television, and comes with a wireless handheld controller and one game. The system doesn't work over Wi-Fi, so a hardwired Internet connection is required. This isn't a problem if your TV is located near your router; if it isn't, you'll have to come up with a solution, such as using adapters that transmit a signal over your electrical wiring.
Most of the 50 or so available games are cheaper to buy than on Xbox and PlayStation, and OnLive is also introducing a Netflix (NFLX)-like (NFLX) all-you-can-play plan for $9.99 a month for a selection of its titles. While you won't find many newly released games—and a couple of major publishers are missing—you'll still come across some recent, recognizable hits.
Hard-core gamers debate whether OnLive's response times are fast enough and whether graphics look as good as they do on a dedicated console. As long as you have a solid network connection, play moves swiftly, and video is stutter-free. While graphics quality varies among titles, the differences between the OnLive and console versions are all but invisible to the untrained eye.
Because OnLive is a service and not just hardware, it offers some cool additional features. You can play on a computer as well as on your TV, starting a game on one device and picking up where you left off on the other. You can create and share a "brag clip," while a mode called Arena lets you watch someone else's game in real time and register digital cheers or jeers at their performance.
Like Netflix, OnLive may eventually be built into other devices; it announced a deal with TV manufacturer Vizio at last week's Consumer Electronics Show. OnLive has answered the biggest question about itself: It's for real. But it still needs to beef up its library—and get that Wi-Fi issue taken care of—before it's really cloud nine for gamers.
The Popularity Game
Four of OnLive's top offerings
Assassin's Creed II: Roam around the deadly, assassin-plagued world of Renaissance-era Italia.
Batman: Arkham Asylum: Take on Gotham's greatest villains using Batman's arsenal of tricks and gadgets in this 2009 cult favorite.
NBA 2K11: Play against classic NBA teams of the past, such as Michael Jordan's late-1990s Bulls, in this 2010 hoops challenge.
Shaun White Skateboarding: While skateboarding on city plazas and buildings, try more than 80 tricks picked by superstar Shaun White.