With all the opinions floating around regarding upstart game delivery systems like Google Stadia and Microsoft’s Project xCloud, it’s easy to overlook Shadow.Tech, a streaming service that’s been around for a few years and which actually offers the kind of experience that gamers are asking for from Stadia and xCloud.
I just pulled the trigger on a https://t.co/j9n2qcqe6n subscription. 5 seconds after that went through I thought “Oh shit, will this work with GameGlass?”— Nimgimli (@pasmith) December 27, 2019
I am terrible about impulse purchases, but they’re running a deal on subscriptions right now.
As if there was a mandate that whatever Nimgimli does, I do, I also signed up for Shadow.Tech’s special holiday pricing (40% off the usual $25USD/month for a 12 month commitment). I had been skirting Shadow.Tech’s platform for some time; I had originally considered it before I had a computer powerful enough to run Star Citizen, but their $25USD/month price tag was pretty high. At the promotional $12.99USD, however, it’s worth a year’s commitment to make an informed decision about the pros and cons of the service.
What is it?
Unlike Stadia, Shadow.Tech provides you with an instance of Windows 10 Home. What you do with it from there is up to you (and up to the TOS you agree to when you subscribe). You have remote desktop access and, from what I can see, admin access. You can install Steam, Origin, Epic, or whatever games you want.
The hardware I was given is an Intel Xeon E5-2667 @ 3.2GHz, 12 GB of RAM, and a Quadro P5000 video card. There is, however, a section on their website which mentions how in 2020 they will start offering several tiers of service, ranging from a GTX 1080, quad core CPU with 12GB of RAM and 256GB of space, all the way up to a Titan RTX, hexacore CPU with 32GB of RAM and 1TB of storage. Naturally, the prices are commensurate with the power, so don’t expect a $12.99USD deal on that Titan build, bucko.
So what’s the experience like? Top of most everyone’s question list is performance and fidelity.
Performance-wise, I didn’t see any issues. I am not a “twitch” gamer, so I was able to perform tasks and they were carried out at a pleasing interval. Fidelity-wise, it’s a streaming service; There will be some “fuzziness” around the visuals, although this might have a lot to do with provider speeds, my network hardware, and all of those “other people’s fault” hurdles — of course. For me, the visuals are acceptable. I will always get better eye-candy on the local PC, and I am aware and accepting of that fact.
Why not just use something like Parsec and stream from my PC? Aside from the fact that this is a closed loop solution, having someone else manage the hardware to keep it up to date for one (relatively) low fee has merit. Also, Shadow.Tech is offering clients that run on Ubuntu, Mac, PC, iOS, Android, and others like Apple TV. They offer their own hardware that can be hooked up to a TV, called Shadow.Tech Ghost, for $99 if you want to keep it all in the family.
Setting it Up
Naturally, I went straight for the jugular in my first test, which was Star Citizen. To add a log on the fire, I also needed to get my HOTAS working, and GameGlass installed.
First step after subscribing is to sit around a bit and wait for your server to be provisioned. I was warned that due to the holidays there might be a greater lag time here, but I got the OK in less than 15 minutes. Once I got the email, I installed the desktop client, logged in, and fired up the VM. This dropped me into a nice, clean desktop.
Star Citizen was a no-brainer. Even with improvements since 3.0, the game can be demanding. I hit up the site, downloaded the client, patched, and was ready to go.
The HOTAS was a little trickier, as VM’s are always a little finicky when it comes to host-system peripherals. The support center articles mentioned a setting in the Shadow.Tech launcher that would enable USB pass-through, but I couldn’t find it. I downloaded the company’s new beta launcher, and there it was! Not sure what or why it was missing from the release client. Once I did that I was able to choose USB devices on the host system to pass through to the VM OS, complete with “Windows is installing X” toast messages on the VM. I verified that everything was on the up and up using Windows’ game controller configuration tool.
GameGlass was nothing short of a late-90’s nightmare in computing. GG works by installing a “server” on your machine where you run Star Citizen. You then install the client on your tablet or phone. Using the same login, you communicate with the GG back-end servers, and the two magically link up (or so I am lead to believe). I figured that if the VM OS had internet access and wasn’t hampered by the firewall, this should “just work” (assuming I wasn’t running the server on the local machine).
Hahahahahahano. Down the Reddit-rabbit-hole I went, and when I emerged I felt dirtier than I usually do when I have to resort to Reddit for information. To solve my GG issue, according to them, I needed a VPN.
Back in the early days of computing, we used VPNs like Hamachi (before they went all corporate) to connect our remote PCs for some private, easy-to-manage gaming. This time, I was recommended a service called Zero Tier VPN. Once I signed up and installed the client on the VM OS and my Kindle Fire tablet — which requires that you either sideload it via APK from somewhere, or you hack in the Google Play store — I had to hit up the Zero Tier site to set up a network.
Once you are logged in, you must click NETWORKS from the top navigation bar. Then, click CREATE A NETWORK.
This will generate a new network for you to use.
There’s a lot of networky garbage in here that I’m sure networky people will love to obsess over, but there’s only one thing you should pay attention to, and that’s the fact that the default setting is that all new clients must be authorized through this page before they can use the network. Once a client has connected, you’ll need to return here, scroll down, find that new client in the list of clients who have added the network, and check their “AUTH” box to let them in.
To register a client on either side (VM or tablet), you will need the network’s unique ID. This is provided on the page show directly above, but blanked out here for obvious reasons. Depending on the client, you’ll either be able to C&P this from the page into the client, or will have to type it out by hand. Remember, you’ll need to return to the website to authorize the client!
Finally, you’ll have to install GameGlass, and in the desktop server settings panel, choose the Zero Tier Ethernet adapter and hit save.
That should be it. Any issues you encounter from this point on are beyond the scope of what I can help with.
Performance and Fidelity
I didn’t really have any noticeable issues playing Star Citizen through Shadow.Tech. I started out at Olisar, summoned my Pisces, took a local deliver mission from Daymar to Cellin, and returned home without incident. The HOTAS was just as responsive as it is when I play local, and GameGlass came through with flying colors (redeeming the headache of setup).
Visually and as mentioned, there was a bit of blurriness and slight pixelization around hard transitions in color and luminescence. I used the cockpit “zoom” feature at one point and noticed that the HUD had gotten noticeably less sharp; not a state I’d normally be in, and not to read the HUD, but it was obvious nonetheless. When heading down to Cellin’s night-side, some of the darker colors were a little washed out which made an already difficult viewing task a tad more difficult, but not insurmountable.
Overall I was pleased with the experience. Of course it’s better on my local PC, but I know now that if I had a laptop, I could totally play Star Citizen using M&K or gamepad (if I were up to the challenge).
I do plan on setting up some other games, maybe through the Xbox Game Pass for PC, to see how the platform performs overall. I will report back on occasion and let you know what I find.
Is Shadow.Tech Worth It?
Recommendations are bullshit because value is in the eye of the beholder. If you are agonizing over the cost of building a whole new PC for 2020 because your circa 2010 PC is just not cutting it any longer, this service might work for you if you want a new PC and want to get in on the ground floor of what this cloud streaming brouhaha is all about. If visuals are important to you above all else, or if you have concerns about input latency for games that demand a hair-trigger, then this might not be an option for you. It would be nice if they offered a free week’s trial, considering how ubiquitous cloud gaming is becoming, and considering how established their technology is. It would do a lot for those who want to “kick the tires” before committing to or avoiding a solution.
Shadow.Tech is a little on the pricier side without their promotional discount. At about $25USD/month, that’s about $300USD per year, which is less than the price of whatever video hardware you’d need to buy yourself to equal what Shadow.Tech is running, and even less than the latest mass-market video card in general. Granted, there’s a lot of mileage between their server and your home that can contribute to reasons why people would take umbrage with the service, but if you can nab a year’s sub at the discounted price, it might be as good a service as any, especially when you consider how flexible the system is in allowing users to run whatever they want to run.