Play all your favorite high-performance video games without a gaming computer

Jacob Krol, CNN Underscored
Thu January 31, 2019

Story highlights

  • Shadow is available now for $34.95 a month with no commitment required
  • Streaming a powerhouse PC will let you game on a Mac or any supported device

Getting a great or even average gaming computer running the way you want it is a big process -- and an expensive one. For starters, you need to decide if you're making your own rig or going for a prebuilt. From there, it's about the hardware on the inside, from storage to a graphics card, processor, RAM and of course cooling -- the last thing you want is for that new rig to overheat.

Shadow wants to change this. For $34.95 a month, you get access to a private high-end gaming PC that's accessible from a plethora of devices. The only requirement is a minimum 15Mbps internet connection -- and yes, you likely have this.

Shadow is constantly updating the hardware of the gaming PCs. Currently, you get a 256GB solid-state drive, an Intel Xeon CPU, 12GB of RAM and an Nvidia GPU that's equivalent to the top-of-the-line GTX 1080. Safe to say, it's impressive.

What is Shadow?

In its simplest form, Shadow is a Windows 10 PC that lives in the cloud, which you connect to over the internet. It makes use of real hardware, and all the data stored on it is locked to the user. No shared drives are used, and what lives on your 256GB solid-state drive is yours alone. It's kept safe behind your Shadow account and the actual Windows 10 password; if you want, you can take extra steps to encrypt it.

Shadow envisions it for gaming, for those who want to play processor-intensive games, but don't have the physical PC. It's certainly cheaper to maintain, and the upfront costs are a lot less. The combination of an eight-core Intel CPU, 12GB of RAM, an Nvidia GPU and gigabit internet connection make it a powerhouse. Shadow will update the hardware as new standards are defined as upgrades. All of this for just under $35 a month is a pretty good value.

You can also use this always-on PC for heavy-duty tasks, batching images, and really anything. It can let you game on a Mac, an older Windows PC, and even on an iPhone or Android.

Stream, stream, stream

A peak inside one of Shadow's data centers.

Once you sign up for the service, Shadow will start to provision and activate your Windows 10 machine. That can take several days, but once it's on, you can access it immediately. Why the potentially long wait? Shadow is building its own data centers, so the infrastructure and bandwidth are just for you, the customer.

Accessing your Shadow is simple: Download the app for the Mac, Windows, Android, iOS or Linux. The latter are in beta testing, but any subscriber can access them. You'll also need an internet connection, but after that, click start and you're good to go.

For a stable connection, Shadow recommends a minimum 15Mbps. It works over Wi-Fi or Ethernet as well. In my few weeks of testing, I connected to my virtual machine from a gigabit connection, a 75Mbps one, and 4G LTE cellular connection.

How does Shadow perform?

Being mainly a Mac user, I'm used to my friends telling me, "Oh, you can't game!" or "It's a shame this title is PC only." Shadow changed this, and the experience was pretty surprising. I tried out several games like "Fortnite," "Orcs Must Die 2," "Grand Theft Auto V," Microsoft "Flight Simulator" and "Airport Madness 3D."

Latency is a common problem with online gaming; it's the dropping of frame rates and buffering, which can lead to a negative experience. On Shadow, since you're streaming the virtual machine from long distances, I was a bit worried about latency. But most of the time the experience was smooth as butter, even with an online multiplayer game like "Fortnite." In any of those matches, it's me with around 99 other players all connected. Of course, there were some frame rate drops, but nothing crazy, and it happened less than playing on my Mac.

A massive title like "GTA V" (an over-50GB download from Steam) performed really well and only glitched when a lot was going on. For the most part, Shadow performed as promised across different connection types.

Bottom line

If you've been struggling to game or run performance tasks on your computer, Shadow is definitely worth looking into. The price of $34.95 a month is most certainly another expense, but you get a lot for it, and the company behind it is committed to offering a smooth user experience. It's less expensive than building or buying a gaming machine, when you consider the initial cost and the cost of upkeep.

You can sign up for Shadow now at $34.95 a month with no commitment here.

And if Shadow isn't yet available in your state, fear not! More data centers will be opening soon, and you can sign up to be notified when it will be available in your location.

Note: The price above reflects the retailer's listed price at the time of publication.