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Is Shadow the PC-as-a-service offering you’re looking for?

Shadow offers its subscribers a high-end Windows 10 PC in the cloud, which can turn almost any device into a powerful gaming or productivity rig, but does it actually work?

After all, this is an idea we’ve seen before. Cloud gaming service OnLive made similar promises several years ago, but the experience was marred by compression and latency issues, and its enforced selection of games. Shadow is different.

“The whole idea is to show people that Shadow is cool PC, it’s not like the cloud PC of a few years ago, which was laggy and blurry, and you couldn’t start your own games,” says Shadow’s UK country manager Bruno Pennes. “We’re not trying to be the Netflix of PC games. We’ve worked hard on the technology, and it’s entirely our IP, our servers and software.”

Log in to Shadow, and you’re assigned a Windows 10 PC from one of its data centres in the UK, Paris and California (with more data centres planned across Europe, the US and Asia in the near future). These systems come equipped with an Nvidia Quadro P5000 professional graphics cards, which Shadow claims is roughly equivalent to Nvidia’s GTX 1080. It also gives you 12GB of RAM, eight threads on an Intel Xeon 2620 processor, and 256Gb of storage.

One immediate issue is that storage, in that it isn’t much, but different pricing tiers offering more space are coming.

Once you’re in, you’re free to use the service like it’s your own local PC. Download your Steam library, do some video editing, or anything else you can do with a Windows 10 PC. The only requirement is that you have a device powerful enough to watch YouTube (since watching a video of a remote PC executing your commands is effectively what you’re doing), and a minimum 15Mb per second download speed.

For this, you also effectively get a 1Gb per second download rate, which is what the your provisioned PC in the cloud can access over its fibre connection.

“With Shadow your own internet connection is only used to show pictures. You don’t need an expensive fibre line, you pay £26.95 per month (the basic tier, if you subscribe for a year), and get a powerful PC and a fibre connection as well,” says Pennes.

Computing hasn’t tested this download rate yet, but we did see how quickly a user can log in to the Shadow client, with a system provisioned and available in seconds.

As for performance, we were shown iD software’s Doom (the newer version from 2016, not the 1993 debut) running via Shadow, and it was buttery smooth on highest settings. What’s even more impressive, is that we experienced that running on Shadow’s own PC, then on an Apple Mac, then a £200 Chromebook, and finally on an iPhone (with an Xbox controller plugged in).

In all instances it took a matter of seconds to disconnect on one machine then get back into the same moment in the same game on another system, again with all settings on maximum (something entirely impossible otherwise on the less powerful devices).

So, it does what it says on the tin.

If the service takes off, there are lots of potential advantages, and not just for gamers, although that’s who Shadow are targeting, at least initially.

“We must have decent PC specs, if you can satisfy gamers you can satisfy architects, and 3D designers,” Pennes adds.

Not only does Shadow promise to keep its equipment up to date with the latest kit, but freeing users from the need to upgrade their own devices enables them to use lower powered machines with longer battery lives. That could be invaluable for designers and number crunchers who are traditionally tethered to higher powered machines in the office.

And future developments could make the service still more attractive for certain productivity use cases.

“Right now Shadow works really well for gamers, but we don’t want to be stuck in the gaming market. The potential developments are endless; possibly in few months we’ll have 3D rendering technology available. Say it traditionally takes eight hours to render a piece of work, and you need it done sooner, today you’re stuck. With Shadow you’ll soon be able to tick a box and say I want 4 GTX 1080s instead of one, then rent those for as long as you need and get the work done faster.”

All of which sounds fantastic for Bitcoin mining, however that’s one use case which isn’t allowed.

“We forbid cryptocurrency mining as it destroys GPUs.”

According to Pennes, there are several companies looking at the technology as a way to avoid the regular refresh cycle.

“We met lots of firms at [technology trade show] CES saying they’re tired of buying 500 PCs per year, which takes months to set up, instead they might do it with Shadow, which only takes an hour or so. Then they just download the app and log in,” he says.

Shadow is available now in the UK.

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