Computer

Shadow Ghost

Want to rent a gaming PC in the cloud? The Shadow Ghost is a microconsole, a small device with wavy, black-and-white plastic styling, that connects to your TV or computer monitor and lets you play games streamed over the internet from that PC-for-hire. Unlike competing devices such as the Nvidia Shield TV, the Shadow Ghost is a portal to your own personal Windows 10 PC in the ether, which means you can do much more than just stream games: You can use that PC in any way you might use one sitting on your desk. At $ 139.95, it’s also cheaper than the Shield TV and includes plenty of USB ports to plug in mice, keyboards, and other PC peripherals. Caveats? It requires a $ 34.95 monthly subscription to the Shadow cloud service, and its software is occasionally temperamental, which makes it far from a perfect substitute for a gaming PC or console.

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A Tiny, Wavy Ghost

Weighing just 7 ounces and measuring 2 by 7.2 by 4.8 inches (HWD), the Shadow Ghost is tiny, though slightly larger than the 0.5-by-6-by-3.7-inch Shield TV. You can fit the Ghost pretty much anywhere near your TV or on your desk, with two exceptions: There are no mounting ports for hanging it on the wall, and because its top is wavy, rather than flat, you can’t put anything on top of it.

The top, with its futuristic curve that slopes downward from the front to the back, is made of deep-black, soft-touch ABS plastic. The rest of the device is pure white plastic, giving it an overall aesthetic that’s vaguely yin-and-yang. The power button is integrated into the front of the white base, directly below the curved top’s highest point. I frequently found myself grabbing the curve like a handle as I powered up the Ghost, and after a few power-button presses, the top was peppered with fingerprints.

Around back are enough input/output ports that you might confuse the Ghost for a tiny desktop PC, which it apes in function but most certainly is not inside. There’s an HDMI port, two USB 3.0 ports, two USB 2.0 ports, a Gigabit Ethernet jack, a 3.5mm audio in/out combo port, and the connector for the power adapter. The adapter thoughtfully includes swappable plugs that fit continental European and US outlets, and though the adapter is capable of delivering 36 watts, the Ghost consumes only 5 watts while in use.

Inside are wireless radios for 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.1, but no active cooling. All of the Ghost’s components run cool enough that no fans are required, which means that it won’t add any noise to your living room in the way an actively cooled traditional desktop PC or a DVR might. The surface gets warm—though not hot—to the touch when it is running.

One key missing feature is any form of user-accessible storage. Unlike the Shield TV, which comes with 16GB of accessible built-in storage, the Ghost’s internal bytes are used solely to host the basic Linux operating system that enables you to log in to your Shadow account. The inclusion of USB 3.0 ports makes this slightly less of a problem than it might otherwise be; you can use them to plug in an external hard drive and expand your storage room to work with your Shadow-PC-in-the-cloud. (The Shield TV also offers this storage-connection capability.)

The video output uses the HDMI 2.0 standard, which means it is compatible with nearly any HDMI screen and has enough bandwidth to handle a full HD (1080p) video signal at a refresh rate of up to 144Hz. This lofty peak rate will matter if you plan on hooking up the Shadow Ghost to a high-end gaming monitor, but it’s overkill for most TVs, which can typically display only 60Hz or less.


The Shadow Service: An Entire PC in the Cloud

Once you’ve unpacked, connected, and powered up the Ghost, it will likely perform some system updates automatically before displaying the Shadow login screen. This is where you enter your Shadow account info.

The Shadow Ghost works only in concert with an active Shadow account, which costs $ 34.95 per month to maintain. (If you’re willing to sign up for a year, that drops to $ 29.95 a month.) This is far higher than competing services like PlayStation Now or GameFly, or the GeForce Now service that works with the Shield TV. Then again, none of these services offers you your own personal Windows 10 PC in the cloud. GeForceNow is also limited to a top resolution of 1080p. Shadow lets you game at 1440p and 4K, if you want, which could further help justify the price difference.

And Shadow really is offering you the equivalent of having an entire PC at your command. Once you log in, Windows takes over and transforms your TV or Ghost-connected monitor into a PC desktop. Device Manager reports it as powered by an Intel Xeon CPU and an Nvidia Quadro graphics processor. The exact specs can vary from account to account, and Shadow frequently updates its components, but my test account reports back a Quadro P5000 and a Xeon E5-2678 as the CPU/GPU engine powering my cloud machine.

You can also access your Shadow account from your own laptop or desktop PC (without the Ghost as an intermediary), similar to how you might log in to a virtual machine for work, or from Shadow’s Android or iOS apps. In fact, you don’t need to buy the Ghost at all if you just want to use Shadow’s service on your existing PC or mobile devices. Taking this flexibility into account, $ 34.95 per month seems fair, especially since Shadow regularly upgrades the components in its virtual machines.

In addition to the Xeon CPU and Quadro graphics card, which Shadow claims is equivalent in performance to an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080, my test account also shows 12GB of RAM and 256GB of dedicated storage at my cloud PC’s disposal. The 256GB limit could be a significant drawback if you have an extensive library of dedicated AAA titles. In the past, Shadow has offered 1TB of storage for an additional payment of around $ 3 per month, but the option to buy more storage isn’t currently available, according to Shadow, due to “high demand.”

Meanwhile, the Shadow virtual machine’s internet connection is lightning fast—that is, the connection from the cloud PC to the internet. It’s rated at 1Gbps for downloads and 100Mbps for uploads server-side, so you can always uninstall and redownload games as necessary using that fast pipe. And the internet connection really was that fast in my testing: I got exactly the speeds that Shadow advertised using the Speedtest Windows app from Ookla, running it server-side. (Disclosure: PCMag’s parent company, Ziff Davis, also owns Ookla.)


Decent Performance for Casual Gaming

It’s important to remember that these speeds apply to the connection between your virtual Shadow PC in the cloud and the internet, not between your Shadow Ghost device and the cloud. The latter connection is limited by your home internet connection. Shadow says its service is optimized for a good experience at speeds as low as 15Mbps, which should cover nearly every home broadband subscriber (and even folks connecting to Shadow over a 4G LTE connection). You can manually set bandwidth in the Shadow Ghost’s Settings window, or you can let Shadow adjust it automatically.

In my testing in PC Labs, using both a wireless 5GHz Wi-Fi connection and an Ethernet connection with download speeds of 70Mbps or greater, the Shadow Ghost experience was mostly smooth for ordinary PC tasks. Installing apps and browsing the web using Microsoft Edge while the Shadow Ghost was connected to a 1080p computer monitor and a wired keyboard and mouse was seamless. There was no tearing or pixelation, and no annoying lag of the sort you might expect if you’re used to connecting to a remote PC at your office. After a few minutes, I even forgot I was using a PC in a data center instead of a desktop sitting next to me.

Before I tested resource-intensive games on the Shadow Ghost, I followed Shadow’s instructions for installing Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 1080 Windows drivers on the virtual machine. (Yes, even though the system reports the use of an Nvidia Quadro card on the cloud side, Shadow still explicitly advises in that case to install the GTX 1080 driver.) Installing the driver took several hours; the initial install seemed to go fine, but the service took quite some time to sync back up with our Ghost post-install. But once it was done, running resource-intensive games like Far Cry 5 was mostly smooth, though not quite as seamless as it would have been on a physical PC equipped with specs similar to the ones Shadow offers. (Again, I tested over both Ethernet and Wi-Fi connections.)

For instance, over the course of several days and multiple tests, I recorded an average of 68 frames per second (fps) on Far Cry 5’s in-game benchmark at 1080p resolution and Normal graphics quality settings. (That is well below the frame rates we saw from PC Labs’ GeForce GTX 1080-based testbed; more on that in a bit.) That’s above the minimum 60fps we typically regard for enjoyable gameplay, but combined with some slight input lag from the wired mouse and keyboard I noted during free play in the game, and a few times when the Ghost dropped the connection to the server mid-mission, the experience left me slightly wary of how well the Ghost can deliver on its intriguing promise of a gaming PC with equivalent performance to a GeForce GTX 1080 GPU. (This was in a single-player game, mind you; serious esports types will find any discernible input lag a deal- and match-killer.)

Even if you don’t experience any lag from the Gigabit connection in the cloud, the possibility of a dropped or throttled local connection is still something you’ll have to consider, since reconnecting after a hiccup, I found, takes at least 15 seconds. Fortunately, each time I reconnected, everything on my Shadow virtual PC was just as I’d left it. That’s no consolation if it gets your character killed (and in a multiplayer game, it probably will), but it means that there’s little danger of, say, losing unsaved work or your place in a movie. This is highly dependent on your home network connection; those with stable, fast connections might not experience these issues.

Gaming in the Glow

While a 1080p gaming experience with the graphics quality settings dialed down is within the Shadow Ghost’s capabilities, 4K gaming is a much dicier proposition. When I hooked up the Ghost to a 65-inch 4K TV and did some testing, it served up 40fps on the Far Cry 5 benchmark at Normal quality settings and 36fps on Ultra settings. During each of these benchmark runs, I also noticed significant tearing in the streamed image on the TV.

Those frame rates are under what PC Labs saw from a GTX 1080 card at 4K and the same detail settings, but not critically so. However, it’s worth noting that PC Labs achieved around 110fps on the Far Cry 5 benchmark at Ultra quality settings and 1080p resolution when we reviewed the original GTX 1080 Founders Edition. The Shadow virtual PC scored nowhere close to that. (And to emphasize: That is at the much more demanding Ultra detail setting, not the Normal setting that I tested Shadow at and saw only 68fps.) That’s way too big a discrepancy to chalk up CPU limitations or variants within GTX 1080 cards. So instead of thinking of the Shadow service as reliably equivalent in performance to a GTX 1080, it’s better to think of it as offering decent performance on some demanding games at a 1080p resolution.

That large discrepancy led us to do some more anecdotal benchmark testing to see if the Shadow service came up signficantly short of what’s possible from an ostensible GTX 1080-based desktop. It’s possible to do much better than we saw at Far Cry 5—though still not as good as a GTX 1080-powered machine—depending on the games you’re playing, but it seems it will be hit or miss.

One telling test was UL’s 3DMark benchmark suite; I ran the Fire Strike subtest. The Shadow Ghost achieved a score of 12,983 on this test, a standard benchmark trial that heavily taxes a PC’s graphics subsystem. That’s far short of the 19,311 that the GTX 1080-powered Acer Predator Orion 5000 achieved, but roughly equivalent to the GTX 1070-powered Microsoft Surface Studio 2, which achieved 12,275 on this test.

If you mean to connect your Shadow Ghost to an HDTV, living-room gaming of the kind that the Shadow Ghost would offer is best suited to a wireless keyboard, mouse, or gamepad. Although Shadow doesn’t include any of these peripherals with the Ghost, the tiny console’s Bluetooth capability works with third-party ones. I had no trouble connecting a Bluetooth-enabled Xbox controller, but note that you must turn on Bluetooth in the Settings panel before you log in to your Shadow cloud account—you can’t do it from within the Windows virtual machine.


A Glimpse of the Streaming Future

The Shadow Ghost promises a cloud-rental alternative to a desktop gaming PC. It’s indeed a compelling alternative for casual gamers who always want to ensure that they have cutting-edge components without coughing up the significant upfront investment that a high-end gaming desktop requires. On the other hand, hardcore esports gamers will likely be frustrated by occasional network hiccups, input lag, and unpredictable frame rates on some games, while those with massive game collections might bump up against the 256GB storage limit. Moreover, gamers on a budget may chafe at the requirement to pay for both the Shadow Ghost and the $ 34.95 monthly subscription it requires.

The Nvidia Shield TV and an $ 8-per-month GeForce Now subscription could serve as a decent affordable alternative, assuming they offer the games you want to play. Meanwhile, a traditional console like the Sony PlayStation 4 or a powerful gaming PC are high-end substitutes. But the Shadow Ghost’s real competition will come from the upcoming Google Stadia game-streaming service and other new entrants into this nascent industry. It may be worth hanging on to your aging gaming desktop or console a bit longer to see what else turns up in the Shadow vein.

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