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GeForce Now Ultimate first impressions: Streaming has come a real long way


Enlarge / It’s not actual GeForce RTX 4080 cards slotted into GeForce Now’s “Superpods,” but Nvidia says the hardware is pretty close.
Nvidia

Cloud-based gaming service GeForce Now’s new Ultimate tier is rolling out today, promising a series of adjectives about game streaming that might have seemed impossible just a few years ago: high-resolution, ray-traced, AI-upscaled, low-latency, high-refresh-rate, and even competition-ready.

I tested out the Ultimate tier, powered by Nvidia’s RTX 4080 “SuperPODs on a server set up for reviewer early access, for a week. If I hadn’t been hyper-conscious of frame numbers and hiccups, I could have been tricked into thinking the remote 4080 rig was local. Ultimate streaming could also be “better than local,” such as when it lets you stream a AAA, ray-traced game on a low-powered laptop, tablet, or TV with no console attached.

Ars had previously described our GeForce Now 3080 experience as “dreamy” and called the performance “a white-hot stunner that rivals the computing power you can muster” with the same RTX 3080 card in your PC. It’s easy to lay at least the same kind of praise on the new Ultimate tier. It replaces the previous RTX 3080 option with the next generation’s chipset for the same price ($20 per month, $99 for six months). That might be a steep price tag for a service that mostly makes you buy your games, but given the 4080’s $1,200 price tag, the rent-versus-buy question is worth considering at this level.

Ulimate had me playing Hitman 3 on a MacBook Air (through a monitor) at rates higher than 60 frames per second, with every graphic option I could find pushed up. I casually logged a few impressive-looking battles in Marvel’s Midnight Suns, sitting on a couch with an iPad and a Nintendo Switch Pro Controller. I almost felt bad when Cyberpunk 2077 on an Nvidia Shield was delivering 90 fps of 4K gameplay to my 60 fps TV (save those extra frames for lean times!). Lowering to 1440p or switching off ray tracing could usually get me to 120 fps or above, though sometimes it wasn’t necessary.

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Not everybody has the high-refresh monitor, or the interest in GeForce Now’s particular games library, to need the Ultimate tier. But if you have wider bandwidth on your Internet connection than in budgeting for a single piece of a gaming PC, or want to test the waters of max-spec PC gaming, GeForce Now Ultimate is mighty intriguing.

Test-driving a monster GPU across the Northeast

What follows is a first impression of the service, more like a test drive than a full review covering every facet. That’s for a few reasons. My monitor’s refresh rate only (“only”) goes to 144 Hz (i.e. 144 fps). I tend toward single-player games, not twitchy multiplayer shooters. I didn’t dig much into Reflex mode, the latency-reducing setting aimed at competitive games like Apex Legends, Rainbow Six Siege, Destiny 2 and the like. My personal graphics card is an RTX 3050, a budget-minded model that couldn’t hope to hit 60 fps at 1440p on ultra or max settings on our test games.

In other words, I’m a PC gaming enthusiast living with a pedestrian mix of hardware—potentially just the type GeForce Now is targeting.

Still, I had some basis for comparison. I previously had a Founders Edition account that provided access to less-powerful card types (GTX 1080 and, on occasion, GTX 2060) and was familiar with the games’ performance on my local RTX 3050. I mostly stuck to games in my library that worked on GeForce Now, though I briefly dipped into Destiny 2 multiplayer to see how remote multiplayer felt. And I’ve been a regular user of Nvidia’s local-streaming GameStream, with the lowest latency you could hope for.

What you need to roll with Ultimate

GeForce Now’s Ultimate tier has the same basic network requirements of other GeForce Now plans, though at this level (and price), they’re even more important. You need to connect to one of their servers at a maximum of 80 ms latency, though below 40 is recommended. Nvidia recommends ethernet wherever possible, or at least a 5 GHz router connection if you can’t summon the cable.

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Whether you’re ready for this high-end cloud experience depends on two main factors:

  • Your connection—type, speed, latency, and distance from a GeForce Now server.
  • Which games you have in your Steam/Epic/GOG/Ubisoft/EA libraries, and how optimized they are for both general performance and any NVIDIA-specific graphics or streaming features.

I tested the Ultimate tier on a 1Gbps Fios fiber-optic connection from Washington, D.C., to GeForce Now’s “US Northeast” servers (supposedly in Newark, New Jersey, mostly confirmed by the “NWK” label in diagnostics). I mainly used an ethernet-connected Windows PC hooked up to a 4K/144 GHz monitor. I also tried out a MacBook Air and Windows laptop connected to Wi-Fi (Eero 6+ mesh routers), connected to that monitor and on their own screens, and an iPad. You obviously can’t get higher frames-per-second on those laptops or portable devices if their screens can’t support it, but you still benefit from the improved latency, graphical effects, and steadiness of the 4080-class cards.

Speed-wise, what you need depends on what fidelity you’re after. Keep in mind these are dedicated speeds; you need to have this much bandwidth free even if someone else in the home is deep in a Zoom meeting or Netflix binge.

  • 45Mbps to stream at 4K quality (3840×2160p) and 120 fps
  • 35Mbps for 2560×1600p or 2560×1440p at 120 fps
  • 35Mbps for 1080p at 240 fps (for games that support Reflex)

If you have an ultrawide monitor, Ultimate can meet you at 3840×1600, 3440×1440, or 2560×1080 resolutions, generally with a 35Mbps minimum.

Assuming you have a Mac or PC (there’s no Linux option for GeForce Now, unless you count Chrome/Edge browsers) and that strong connection, you’re good to go. There is no trial period for Ultimate membership, though there is a free tier with which you can check your connection. AT&T 5G customers can also try the lower-powered Priority for six months.

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Let’s play some games in Newark

GeForce Now has its own frames-per-second counter, which you’ll see in most of my screenshots. It measures ping latency, the frames per second of the video stream sent out by your remote rig, and the game frames per second as you’re experiencing it. I sometimes kept a separate frame counter running (whether from Steam or the game itself); they were largely concurrent, although they updated at different intervals, making it hard to compare.

In our review of the “offline” RTX 4080, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey ran at an average of 92.1 frames per second at 4K resolution and ultra high settings. Playing it on GeForce Now Ultimate at the same settings, I saw my fps count occasionally dip to the 77-80 range, but it mostly stayed above 100 and below 110. Fighting about a dozen bandits on a Mediterranean island felt fluid, and I didn’t feel dropped frames.

Assassin’s Creed Odyssey running on GeForce Now Ultimate at 4K and Ultra High settings. Note the FPS counter in the upper-right corner.”>

Marvel’s Midnight Suns held up well during overhead battle planning, but what about when Ghost rider pulls off one of his school-notebook-drawing-like-a-demon moves?
Kevin Purdy / Firaxis

  • Actually, not bad there, either.
    Kevin Purdy / Firaxis
  • You get it by now: I’m impressed how well 4K gaming worked over a series of network hops between D.C. and Newark. When I’ve lowered the resolution closer to 1440p or 1080p, such as when using a laptop or iPad over Wi-Fi, the system has a lot of breathing room.

    It’s an understatement to say your mileage will likely vary. I had maybe 5 or 6 moments over the space of a week where I felt a game chugging and saw my latency rise, seemingly due to just normal network variations. You can do a lot to set yourself up for network success, but traffic happens. GeForce Now never dropped entirely for me during a streamed game—with the exception of the Witcher 3 next-gen update, which stuttered, stopped, and generally seemed dehydrated and confused, though Nvidia is aware of the problems and working on a fix. It’s an extreme example, but some games, even those with DLSS, RTX, and other features friendly to the glowing green chip maker, are going to be easier to beam into your house than others.

    The catch: You can’t play everything (though it’s getting better)

    With Stadia shut down, GeForce Now stands out even further from its major competition, Xbox Game Pass and Amazon’s Luna service. Unlike those services, you don’t pay for a Netflix-style subscription or content “tiers” from specific publishers. If you already bought a game from a major PC gaming store, and GeForce Now supports it, you can play it through GeForce Now, free or paid. (It’s easier to download the free client and scan your game libraries than searching one by one.)

    That makes the $20/month cost of an Ultimate subscription, or even the $10/month Priority package, a tricky question for those without a huge library and backlog. There’s no Horizon Zero Dawn, Elden Ring, or God of War: Ragnarok. There is, however, Cult of the Lamp and Tunic, most games from Ubisoft and EA, and about 1,500 others, including lots of indies. For the 4080 tier to pay off, specifically, you’d want to have a few games lined up that can really stretch your remote rig. That will certainly apply for some people, but uncertainty about future releases can skew the value.

    And yet, GeForce Now Ultimate, at $20 per month and hooked to a good line, is an impressive high-fidelity loan, or even just a test, of $1,200 hardware.

    Listing image by Kevin Purdy / Firaxis

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