I’ve never been much of a PC gamer, preferring the ease of access and convenience of consoles and handhelds. Gaming on a PC, in comparison, has always felt like a last resort to me. While I’ve had great experiences playing on PC, I’ve never really owned a rig powerful enough to run a current-gen game at ultra-high specs.
Why haven’t I upgraded? There’s a certain DIY aspect to PC gaming that I’ve never quite connected to. Finding and purchasing the right graphics card, CPU, RAM, case, etc. is not only expensive but also a time suck. Needless to say, even though I’ve always been curious about the graphical superiority of PC over consoles, I lack the patience or time to beef up my current PC or build a gaming rig from scratch.
Fortunately, the Shadow Ghost, a new streaming box that brings the power of a high-end Windows PC to your home office or living room without any of the hardware, feels specifically made for gamers like me, those who want to play on PC without having to do any of the technical work. I spent a few weeks with the Ghost in February, streaming games like Apex Legends and Anthem, and came away hopeful for the future of this cloud gaming service — even if it does have a few kinks to sort out first.
The Shadow streaming service itself, which can be accessed through the Ghost as well as an app for PC and mobile (think remote desktop connection), gets you a dedicated private server that runs like a powerful Windows gaming rig. With an Nvidia GPU equivalent to the GeForce GTX 1080, 12 GB of RAM, an Intel Core i7 processor, and with 1 Gb/s download speeds, Shadow provides the power you need to play current-gen titles on PC with the graphical uptick.
Once you log into your Shadow account and connect to the dedicated server, you’re basically running a brand new, cloud-based PC, one that, according to Blade, the French company behind Shadow, is continuously upgraded to meet the requirements of even the most demanding games. That last bit is an enticing proposition, especially for console gamers who expect everything to run accordingly without the hassle of having to upgrade GPUs or RAM or download drivers. It’s the sort of convenience that could very well hook the PC-curious.
From there, you’re free to run whatever gaming platforms you want, whether it be Steam, Origin, GOG Galaxy, or anything else. Shadow runs just like a regular PC, which means you can even use the service for work, browsing the web, or streaming a movie on Netflix. Some might find the fact that Shadow doesn’t run its own customized gaming operating system — or at least something akin to Steam’s Big Picture mode — a bit peculiar, since this box is clearly targeting gamers, but I really like the flexibility of the service. I used it for work, not that running a CMS on a web browser is demanding, and I enjoyed how much faster I was able to run everything.
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Using Shadow on the Ghost, PC, and iOS offers up vastly different experiences. Both the Ghost box and PC app work great. Connecting to and booting up your server mostly feels seamless, although I did encounter a few instances when my server failed to boot or the Ghost didn’t connect to the server at all. That said, you’re able to optimize your experience based on your own internet speed, so you’re unlikely to face much graphical lag or framerate drop while streaming your cloud PC, although there were a few times when the sound stuttered while in a game. There’s also a low-connectivity mode for those who don’t meet the 15 Mb/s recommended minimum internet speed.
Unsurprisingly, streaming on the Shadow Ghost is the way the service was truly meant to be experienced. The box is about as plug-and-play as it gets, with two USB 2.0 and two USB 3.0 ports, an HDMI 2.0 port that supports 4K resolution at 60Hz or 1080p at up to 144hz, audio and ethernet ports, and WiFi and Bluetooth connectivity. Just plug in your keyboard, mouse, monitor, and speakers as you would a regular PC and you’re all set. I found that the box runs best with an ethernet connection, but using WiFi doesn’t feel like too much of a downgrade if you want to use it in your living room.
The Ghost is extremely lightweight, with an aesthetically-pleasing curved shape that sits very well on the corner of your desk or in a TV stand. It’s very compact, perfect for users who want to take the Ghost to their office or coworking space. (I plan to take mine to the Den of Geek office!)
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The iOS app is more of a mixed bag. While switching between the Ghost and a mobile device feels seamless — the app logs onto the server surprisingly fast — you’ll still have to navigate a Windows desktop, which isn’t ideal on a smartphone. You may fare better on a tablet. Still, your best bet is to launch your game of choice on a PC or the Ghost before continuing the game on mobile. This is where a dedicated Shadow operating system would have come in handy.
Most of my play time was spent with Apex Legends and Anthem, two graphically impressive online multiplayer games that require a steady connection, and in the case of Apex, precise controls to get the winning kill. There’s no delay in the controls, whether on keyboard and mouse or an Xbox One controller. Commands feel responsive as if you were playing on a local PC, which is impressive considering I was indirectly connected to an online server through another server running in a data center. Besides one or two instances of lag, playing on the Shadow Ghost felt incredibly comfortable.
Graphically, I was able to run both games at an incredibly smooth 1080p 60fps at ultra high settings with very little issue. There was none of the delay or latency that could have made a game of Apex Legends an absolute nightmare. I was unable to test the 4K as my monitor at home isn’t 4K-ready. Take a look at other reviews for info on that. But if you just want to quickly jump into the world of visually impressive and smooth PC games, the Shadow Ghost is an excellent entry point.
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The Ghost leaves a little to be desired if you plan to use it purely as a gaming device in your living room. For one thing, unlike the Nvidia Shield or the Steam Link, you’ll still need a keyboard and mouse to log into the Shadow and boot up a game. There’s currently no way to solely use a controller on the device. Yet another way the service could benefit from a gaming-specific Shadow OS.
In terms of price point, a Shadow subscription will set you back $35 per month, not a bad deal if you don’t already own a gaming rig, which might actually be cheaper to upgrade than adopt a cloud PC. But if you’ve always wanted a $2,000 Alienware rig or the equivalent, Shadow is more than worth the investment, especially since it comes with the upgrades you’ll need to keep the specs up to date. At $35, it would take you almost five years to reach the $2,000 cost of a high-end gaming PC.
That said, whether this service is worth it or not will depend on the user. Some gamers don’t need $2,000 worth of tech to enjoy a PC game. For those who want a more standard gaming PC at a $1,000 price point, the Shadow might not be such a great deal.
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My impression is that the Shadow Ghost won’t convert veteran PC gamers any time soon. Again, part of the joy of gaming on a PC is building and upgrading your own rig to your liking. Customization is key, something the Shadow Ghost definitely lacks. But the same can’t be said of the uninitiated, players like myself who want to game on PC without having to worry about keeping their rigs up to date. That’s where the Shadow service and the Ghost will probably find the most success.
Personally, I came away a big fan of the Ghost and look forward to seeing how Blade continues to improve the service. While Shadow is now available in most states, it’s still early days, with more improvements to come as the service continues to roll out around the world. But as a foundation for what could be the future of cloud gaming, Shadow is well on its way.
Users can access Shadow on any desktop PC, laptop, Mac, tablet, smartphone, or smart TV with the dedicated Windows, MacOS, iOS, and Android apps. Ghost is now available for $139.95.
John Saavedra is Games Editor at Den of Geek. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @johnsjr9.