Cloud gaming has revolutionized the way we play games, allowing audiences to bring their favorite games anywhere, regardless of their hardware’s power. Thanks to the power of the cloud, games can be streamed instantaneously without you needing to worry about updates, patches or upgrades.
Cloud gaming has come a long way since the hype train left the station in 2018. There’s still no guarantee that you’ll have a seamless, consistent experience, but it’s reached the point where it feels like you can sit down and start playing without getting bogged down by glitches — at least most of the time.
Network issues remain, but WiFi 6 and 6E other 5G cell service have helped smooth over the rough spots. It’s still not a great option, however, if you live in or travel to places somewhere with poor connectivity or if your broadband costs are exorbitant.
But from a gamer’s perspective, there are really only four major options dedicated to gaming, as opposed to general PCs-as-a-service, like Shadow, or closed-network solutions, like console remote play or Steam Link, those four are: Xbox Cloud Gaming (part of Xbox Game Pass Ultimate, one of our top game subscription services), Nvidia GeForce Now, PlayStation Plus Premium and Amazon Luna.
And of those four, only Xbox and GFN really deliver on the promise, though Luna has its high points. The only non-PlayStation machine that PlayStation Plus Premium works on is PCs. And while Google’s Stadia had strong underlying technology, Google always seemed more interested in making money off the platform rather than a consumer service — as it demonstrated when it announced Stadia’s shutdown months ago.
The two top choices are completely different from one another as well. Xbox Game Pass Ultimate streams games from its subscription library, while GeForce Now streams games you already own, as long as they’re supported. If you can afford it and already have a large library, they complement each other nicely.
Xbox Game Pass delivers something for everyone who plays games, making it a great option for many types of gamers. Though the feature is still technically in beta, it also delivers robust cloud gaming with the $15-a-month Game Pass Ultimate subscription tier ($1 promo price for the first month). In addition to all the Game Pass perks, it can stream to any device via dedicated apps (PC, some TVs, Android phones), browsers (for iPads, iPhones and Chromebooks) or Xbox.
The library has close to 500 games, almost 400 of which are playable via the cloud, and that includes EA Play, with cloud support for quite a few of its games. That makes it one of the largest cloud-capable libraries available. And Game Pass offers some Xbox Game Studios games on day one — the Studios produce a fair number of games — and Microsoft says later this year it plans to expand support to allow you to play games you own via the cloud if they’ve left the service.
Some features, such as the frustrating “play with touch,” feel like they’re still in beta. Plus, as with many libraries, games come and go, and sometimes come again. It’s also limited to 1080p at 60fps.
Read our Xbox Game Pass review.
Because of its smart set of plan options, solid performance and big and growing list of supported games, along with Nvidia’s aggressive strategy for its data center and GPU businesses — the bedrock on which GeForce Now is built — it’s a great choice for gamers who’ve amassed large game libraries and want to play them in more places. GeForce Now distinguishes itself from the competition because, in addition to a host of already free-to-play games, it lets you play games you’ve already paid for. It works primarily with Steam and Epic Games Store, but also GOG, and supports launchers for Ubisoft Connect and Origin. In other words, unlike all the others it doesn’t require that you buy a special version of a game or stream games from a subscription library.
It works, via an app or web browser, on Android; Windows and MacOS; Chromebooks; Chrome, Safari (for iPad and iPhone) and Edge web browsers; and Some TVs natively, all TVs via Nvidia Shield. Plus, with a browser it can be coaxed to run on more novel devices as well, such as the Xbox or Valve Steam Deck.
Pricing starts at free, basic 1080p streaming for hour-long sessions and ramps up to as much as $20 a month ($16.70 if you pay six months up front) for all the perks, including streams up to 4K/60fps HDR or 1440p/120fps for 8-hour sessions, ray tracing, priority server access and access to the highest-power servers.
Read our GeForce Now review.
Screenshot by Lori Grunin/CNET
Given that it’s the oldest service — Sony launched PlayStation Now in 2014, then bought the assets of OnLive in 2015 — you’d think Sony would have added a lot more capabilities. When it was relaunched in a tiered plan model in June 2022, it incorporated a relatively large catalog of older titles and a refreshed version of PS Now, available in the $18 per month Premium plan ($10 per month if you pay annually).
The non-console cloud gaming is strictly for PCs and only for a small subset of the catalog (and they’re all PS4 or earlier games), via an app. And it doesn’t include some of the desirable features of the service, such as the limited-time game demos, or features offered by other services, such as better-than-1080p quality and day-one availability.
Like Xbox Game Pass Ultimate’s Cloud Gaming, though, you can stream games to your console if you’re strapped for storage space or want to try before you buy.
How to Play PS Plus Premium Games on Your PC
Amazon Luna is just over 2 years old, and has expanded since it launched, but it seems to get no love from its parent company. It’s nearly impossible to find the service on Amazon’s site, though you’ll see lots of promotion for the optional Luna Controller. You don’t need Amazon’s controller to play games through Luna, but the controller can connect directly to your Wi-Fi network for the lowest latency possible.
It works through an app (PC, Mac, Fire TV and Fire Tablet) or browser (PC, Mac, iPad, iPhone, Android phone).
What makes it stand out is the large number of kid-friendly titles and its relatively granular parental controls for managing what they can or can’t play. It’s also joined at the hip with Prime Gaming, so you get the time-limited freebies and perks, plus integrated broadcasting via Twitch. Since it comes with a Prime subscription, if you’re already a member you really don’t lose anything.
It can get expensive, almost, though. The service is modeled after Prime Video. As a Prime member, you get access to the base games and the Luna Plus channel, which is essentially the core game library of a little more than 120 games — you can also subscribe to it separately for $10 per month, with a seven day free trial. They’re mostly older titles, without many AAA games.
The rest comes in add-on channels, which currently include family ($6 a month), retro ($5 a month), Jackbox games ($5 a month) and Ubisoft Plus (a whopping $18 a month for less than 40 games). So if you’re not a Prime member, the total monthly cost can range from $10 to $44. Quality tops out at 1080p and 60 fps.
And unlike other services, you can’t buy individual games in order to continue to play them via the cloud (like Stadia Pro) or locally (without losing progress) when they leave the rotation.
Read our Amazon Luna preview.
RIP Sept 29, 2022
Stadia would have been 3 years old in November 2022, but Google shuttered it before it could leave toddlerhood. I’m leaving our original take here, though, because of history.
It seems like Google still hasn’t figured out what to do with it as a service. The underlying technology is solid, but the service feels like it hasn’t evolved at all in the interim, still offering only 51 titles for the subscription tier. Google shuttered its game studio over a year ago and in March the company launched its Immersive Stream for Games platform, which third parties can license in order to create their own streaming offerings.
There are only two tiers for Stadia: free and Pro. You can try Stadia Pro for a month free, and after that it’s $10 a month. If you “buy” a Stadia game, you don’t need to maintain your subscription to play it, but it will only play via Stadia. It runs in Chrome and it supports 4K and 60fps for a few of the titles.
It operates via an app on compatible Android phones, browsers (Chrome for PC and Mac, Safari for iPhone and iPad) or on a TV via a Chromecast Ultra.
One benefit of Google’s push for third-party licenses is that Stadia has accumulated a nice-sized library of free game trials that you can play without an account. They’re not very long — they range from 30 minutes to 2 hours — but they include higher-profile titles like Assassin’s Creed Valhalla and Far Cry 6.