In case you hadn’t noticed, it’s hard to get your hands on a graphics card right now. Like, really hard. Even older graphics cards from Nvidia and AMD are being sold on at a premium amidst the worldwide shortage, and with stock shortages projected to last much of the year, it doesn’t look like the situation is going to change anytime soon – in fact, it could get worse before it gets better.

That’s frustrating given the huge leap in performance on offer from Nvidia’s RTX 30 Series and AMD’s competing Radeon RX 6000 Series, with even Nvidia’s mid-range RTX 3070 outperforming the £1000/$1000+ last-gen RTX 2080 Ti.

If there weren't the problems of limited stock and the knock-on effect of higher prices, now would be the ideal time to upgrade. So, what's the alternative if your gaming PC can’t quite run the latest AAA titles?

The answer, for some at least, could be cloud gaming.

For the uninitiated, cloud gaming means you don't need a beefy PC: all the processing is done in the cloud. It means you can play the latest games in high quality on just about any computer.

And judging by the fact that big players including Nvidia, Microsoft, Sony and Google are all experimenting with the tech, cloud gaming looks to be the next big thing.

The tech is still in its infancy and companies are working out how to best implement it. There are already several options if you want to try cloud gaming. One is Google Stadia, a standalone platform where you have to buy (or re-buy if you already own) the games that you stream, while the likes of Microsoft’s Xbox Cloud Gaming allows you to stream any of a growing list of 100+ titles from Xbox Game Pass, including some Xbox-exclusive titles.

The cloud gaming platform you opt for will largely depend on your game library and platform preferences, but if you’re a PC gamer with a large existing library, Nvidia’s GeForce Now might be the best fit.

Unlike other platforms, Nvidia GeForce Now allows you to link your Steam, Epic Games Store, GOG and Uplay accounts to access a variety of titles that you already own – no need to pay again as with Google Stadia – and any title you buy via the service will be available anywhere, not just on your GeForce Now account.

It doesn’t tie you down, and with a free tier available, you can dip your toe into the world of cloud gaming without spending any money at all. Even if you signed up to the premium Priority tier of GeForce Now for a year while you wait for GPU stock to become readily available, it’d come to a total of £89.99/$99.99, a fraction of the cost of an RTX 3080 right now.

The idea is solid, but unfortunately, it’s not the perfect solution. During its closed beta phase, GeForce Now supported multiple platforms. But several big publishers including Activision and Bethesda pulled out at launch, leaving a sizable hole in the service’s offering.

That said, there are hundreds of titles available to stream as part of GeForce Now, including day-one support for AAA games like Cyberpunk 2077, and there are more games being added to the service every week. 

That’s all great in theory, but what’s it like in practice? Does it work as well as having a GeForce RTX 3070?

It’s relatively simple to get going; you need only select the game from the library and log in with the appropriate account to confirm that you own the game. You’ll then get connected to a server close to your location, it’ll run a speed test to make sure you’ve got an adequate connection, and the game will then begin. It’s a quick process, taking no longer than 15-20 seconds from the moment you hit play to reach the loading screen of most games.

There’s no need to mess around with graphics settings either, with all supported titles automatically rendering at the best possible graphics settings for streaming gameplay – although you are free to change them if you so desire. But just as if you were gaming normally, you’ve got a choice between keyboard & mouse and controller depending on the title and, with mic support, you’re free to chat to your buddies in online games too.

That means the game streaming experience is familiar – so familiar that at times I completely forgot that I was playing games via the cloud, with no real lag during my sessions the majority of the time.

I wasn’t just playing single-player titles either, dabbling with the occasional match of Apex Legends without noticeable input lag most of the time despite the fact that it’s rendered at Nvidia’s servers, sent to my PC, my PC input is then sent back, and that data is then sent to the game servers, all in real-time.

It’s impressive when it works well, but of course, that relies on stable internet connectivity and strong Wi-Fi. Any problems there will result in pixellation and sometimes outright freezes, and that could be the difference between life and death in a competitive shooter. And even with a stable 125Mbps download and 13Mbps upload over Wi-Fi, it’s something I still experienced on occasion.

Nvidia recommends 15Mbps at the minimum for streaming 720p gameplay and 25Mbps for 1080p. There’s a cap at [email protected] streaming for now, which is fine for casual gamers, but those with 4K displays may be left wanting more quality-wise – Nvidia says [email protected] gameplay is in the works, but there’s no word on when that might launch.

GeForce Now could well be the ideal solution to the lack of affordable graphics cards right now, but you haven't heard the best part yet. Yes, the beauty of cloud gaming is that you don't need a desktop PC at all.

You can play GeForce Now games on a range of tablets and even smartphones. I've been using the service on an old entry-level iPad and a Samsung Galaxy S8, as well as an old 27in iMac from 2011 that's barely capable of running Candy Crush, let alone AAA PC titles.

Despite the low-powered nature of the devices, I was still able to play recent PC titles with relative ease, although I must admit that the 5.8in display of the Galaxy S8 was a little small for my taste.

This is all fine for casual gamers, but the problem is that, even with the power of huge RTX-powered server farms, the visual quality of streamed games isn't always as good as it would be if you had one of those unobtainable GPUs in your PC.

Take Cyberpunk 2077 for example; despite RTX technically being ‘on’, it’s the lowest possible implementation, and looking at other graphics settings, most are set to low or medium and not the usual high/ultra that some gamers expect.

It still looks great, but it’s not quite the ultra-detailed gameplay clips shared online by some PC gamers.

I imagine that’s mainly to do with transferring all that extra detail to your PC in real-time without noticeable lag, and it’s something that’ll likely be improved as internet connectivity becomes faster and more reliable, but it’s certainly one of the biggest drawbacks compared to running games on your rig locally right now.

So, while Nvidia GeForce Now may not be the perfect alternative to local gaming right now, it could be a temporary fix for the graphics card shortage we’ve been seeing in 2021. Tsk, who needs an RTX 3080 anyway?

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