(Credit: Screenshot: Tom McNamara/Download.com)

When desktop computers first arrived in offices around the world, they didn't actually do much computing on their own. Instead, they were just terminals. All the real number crunching was done on a mainframe that was connected to the terminals with a bunch of cables.

The computers were much cheaper this way, and the mainframe could eventually be used around the clock, whereas a PC at your desk would not.

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Fast forward a few decades, and we can now do this with video games. Instead of needing to spend a thousand dollars or more on a proper gaming PC (including a monitor, keyboard, mouse, and a copy of Windows), some services have offered to stream the game to you over the Internet, and your basic requirements are just a reasonably fast connection and a computer that boots.

In the case of a game streaming service, a computer in a warehouse runs the game, and you provide the input from your mouse, keyboard, or gamepad. Since the game is technically being played elsewhere, there's a few microseconds of lag between your input and a reaction on-screen. It's no big deal for a turn-based strategy game, but it can be a dealbreaker if you want to try something twitchy like Fortnite or God of War.

But in the past, the biggest issue has been the visual fidelity. Sony's PlayStation Now game streaming service operates at 720p, which gets pretty blurry on a 1080p display. Having to run the game and send a stream of it in real time is expensive, so reducing resolution is one way to keep costs down.

Streaming it in a way that looks nice also requires a reliably fast Internet connection, and the US has historically lagged pretty badly in that department, and not for lack of interest.

(Credit: Screenshot: Tom McNamara/Download.com)

Enter Google

As the owner of YouTube (Android, iOS), Google has had a keen interest in optimizing video streams for many years, and it has the necessary capital and brain power. There's two ways to do it: You either license a codec -- the collection of programming code that can encode and decode a video file -- or you make your own.

Option A will have a predictable price, but it's one that you'll keep paying for as long as you use it. Option B is potentially much more expensive depending on how many mistakes you make along the way, but when it solidifies, it should be much cheaper to maintain than it would be to license. So Option B has a greater potential to be less costly in the long run.

Google chose Option B. So these days, YouTube's lingua franca is the company's own VP9 codec, a direct competitor to the proprietary H.265 (aka HEVC).

If your codec is cleverly written, it can make a stream look quite good without taking huge bites out of your monthly data cap. It takes less time for the stream to start, it doesn't hiccup as much, and the transmission costs are lower.

With Project Stream, Google can stream premium games through its Chrome browser, for users on Windows, Mac, Linux, and Chrome OS. If you get into the beta test, you'll be able to play Assassin's Creed Odyssey for free, though you don't get to keep it forever. If you decide to buy the game, your progress, saved games, and achievements won't carry over from Project Stream to your purchased copy.

According to the Google representative we spoke to, "As far as the timeline, Project Stream is simply a test, and we're ending it in mid-January. There is nothing to announce on this tech beyond that." So this isn't going to be like Project Fi, the company's virtual mobile carrier, or Project Zero, its in-house cybersecurity firm.

(Credit: Screenshot: Tom McNamara/Download.com)

Putting Project Stream through the paces

Either way, we definitely saw some great visual fidelity during our testing. The stream doesn't appear to be scaled up from a lower resolution, and it looks like 60 frames per second, as advertised.

Then again, Google asks for a download speed of 25Mbps, which is on par with a 4K stream from Netflix (Android, iOS) that also runs at 60 fps. It's no wonder, then, that the Project Stream feed can look subjectively great at 1080p/60. However, unlike 4K Netflix, Google is managing Project Stream with H.264 instead of H.265. The latter is arguably better, but it's not supported on as many devices.

Of course, Google doesn't always need all 25Mbps, but over the course of an hour, you should still expect to use up 5 to 10GB of your monthly allotment (unless you're one of the increasingly few who doesn't have a data cap). If your average high-profile single-player game takes 20 hours to complete, well... that can add up fast. And what if someone else in your household is streaming Netflix in 4K at the same time, or actually downloading a lot of games?

With a game like Assassin's Creed Odyssey, the visual component that will use up the most bandwidth, in our experience, is vegetation. Stare at sandy beach, and the stream will drop to around 15Mbps. But if you crawl through a dense thicket, and bandwidth can spike to a little over 26Mbps. Those bunches of leaves and branches just present a lot of shifting pixels to deal with -- until Google or someone else figures out an even smarter codec, that is. Overall, the game feels like it's been selected to test the limits of Project Stream, rather than existing as a slick demo designed to hide the rough edges.

Either way, the age of fiber -- and of real competition in the internet service provider industry -- can't come soon enough. (But at this rate, don't hold your breath.)

This voyage sometimes takes a detour

According to Project Stream's documentation, your compatibility needs are covered by the Chrome browser and an Internet connection that can manage 25Mbps. However, one of our test devices, an older Dell laptop with an Intel i5-4310U, just couldn't keep up.

This result isn't exactly a shock, since this same laptop struggles to stream YouTube videos in the Chrome browser at anything more demanding than 1080p at 30 frames per second.

If we move over to our newer test unit, the issue goes away, even though this device uses a much more modest Intel Core m3-6Y30 CPU. The Asus Chromebook Flip C302 that houses it is a low-key aluminum slab of laptop, and its CPU contains the Intel HD 515 IGP (integrated graphics processor). It's the second-slowest IGP that came out for that Skylake-era CPU.

But despite only 18 months separating the release of the 4310U and the 6Y30, the Chromebook sailed right through the gauntlet and ended up being the best performer on all the devices we tested on. Bemusingly, the Dell laptop originally debuted at $1,974, while the Chromebook retails for less than $500. Of course, the Dell unit has more features, including an Ethernet jack and an HDMI port, but it's not $1,500 better.

On the Chromebook, Assassin's Creed Odyssey practically looks like it's running natively on the device, rather than just being streamed over the Internet. Colors are full, there's no detectable banding (at least on this 12.5-inch screen), and there isn't even much latency.

As far as we can tell, the game is running more or less at medium settings. You can't adjust that, or even see the graphical settings menu, so it's hard to say for certain. But this is roughly the level of visual fidelity that you'd get from the version running on an Xbox One X or a PlayStation 4 Pro. But at twice the frame rate.

Of course, if your computer's display goes higher than 1080p, or if it's more than 24 inches diagonally, some banding and compression artifacts will emerge. That's definitely what we noticed when we swapped to a 1440p 27-inch monitor. So Project Stream probably isn't something that would scale well to a 4K display.

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(Credit: Screenshot: Tom McNamara/Download.com)


Should you check out Project Stream?

While we experienced some hiccups, keep in mind that Project Stream is a test that's only been publicly available for about a week, in a limited beta. There's plenty of time between now and January for Google to work out all the kinks.

If you get selected for the beta, we definitely recommend a mouse and keyboard, or a wired gamepad, at least for a game like this. As does Google. The Chromebook version of Project Stream doesn't support an Xbox One controller, but it will take one of Sony's DualShock 4 gamepads, as will all the other compatible platforms -- Windows, Mac, and Linux. Wherever Chrome may roam.

We're also happy to report that you can switch between a keyboard and a gamepad at any point -- though that's thanks to the game's designers, Ubisoft Quebec, rather than Google. Just press any key or tap a shoulder button, and you're swapped over. You can also plug and unplug different input devices while the game is running, and it will recognize that change.

What is Project Stream, exactly?

While Project Stream has the appearance of a beta that leads to a retail product, Google's statement kind of shoots down that idea, and they're a bit tight-lipped about what they plan for it to actually be.

When Project Stream is firing on all cylinders, it's a wonder to behold -- pushing out a number of pixels and polys that would otherwise be impossible on a device like the Chromebook Flip, whose gaming ambitions are so mild that it's not even actively cooled.

Project Stream also doesn't even need much system RAM. During our testing, the Chrome browser used up less than 1GB -- about average for web browsing and streaming video. Load times are also on the level of a solid-state storage device.

We just wish we knew what Google plans to do with all this fancy tech in the long run. If we had to guess, we'd say that this is a trial run for an upgrade to uPlay, which is Ubisoft's competitor to Steam.

In the past, this has been a tricky niche to succeed in, because potential customers who had fast Internet connections were also more likely to have computers nice enough to run a game locally. But as high-speed broadband continues to grow its user base -- no thanks to lobbyists for the established giants -- game streaming services are beginning to make sense.

(Credit: Screenshot: Tom McNamara/Download.com)

Takeaways

  • Google has launched a game delivery platform called Project Stream. The service runs a game on a server and streams a live video of it to your Chrome browser.
  • For the game to look good, the service needs a 25Mbps Internet connection, like you do when streaming Netflix in 4K. The game runs at 1080p resolution, at 60 frames per second.

Also see

Tom McNamara is a Senior Editor for CNET's Download.com. He mainly covers Windows, mobile and desktop security, games, Google, streaming services, and social media. Tom was also an editor at Maximum PC and IGN, and his work has appeared on CNET, PC Gamer, MSN.com, and Salon.com. He's also unreasonably proud that he's kept the same phone for more than two years.