Some time before Christmas I was in a rut. It went like this: install Windows via Bootcamp, install X-Plane in Windows, install eGPU drivers, try various experiments, then throw up my hands and delete the entire Windows partition out of frustration.
For reference, I have a 2016 13” MacBook Pro laptop (2 GHz i5, 8 GB memory, Intel Iris Pro 540 integrated graphics with 1536 MB). Separately, I have a Gigabyte Gaming Box eGPU with a RX580 graphics card. Surprisingly, the stock configuration (without the eGPU) enables me to run X-Plane moderately well, getting 19 FPS - 35 FPS depending on where I am. I can even do max world objects and high texture quality as long as I’m not in a huge city, only knocking that number down by a few frames.
The eGPU unfortunately is useless with X-Plane, because the Mac version of X-Plane does not support eGPUs currently (Laminar, please fix this!). Plugging it in actually lowers the FPS.
These numbers are at 1440 x 900 resolution with no antialiasing, shadows, or reflections. It would be nice to run at my Retina monitor’s full resolution of 2560 x 1600 and get over 40 fps.
On Christmas day, I decided to try Shadow Tech, which advertises itself as “high-performance gaming for all”. Shadow Tech, in essence, is a virtual Rent-a-Center, allowing you to subscribe to your own personal fully-configured Windows gaming computer. Your virtual computer has an Intel Xeon core with 12GB memory 256GB storage and a NVIDIA GTX 1080 GPU. The way you access your computer is through a streaming app which works on your laptop, desktop, phone, or tablet.
Currently the subscription is $34.95 USD per month, although when I signed up there was a holiday deal of $24.95. For twenty-five dollars, I thought I’d give it a whirl.
After signing up on their website, I received a notification that it may take up to ten days to activate my account. I signed up 12/25 and it was ready 1/1. When I first launched, it was mindlessly easy: open the app and click the big red start button. Poof! You’re in Windows. For some reason, Windows launched in 1024 x 768 resolution the first time, which looked alarmingly blurry. After tinkering with the display settings I was able to put it at my monitor’s full resolution and it looked great.
I have to say, I was impressed by the seamlessness and lack of latency. If there was any lag between me moving the cursor and seeing it happen on my streaming desktop, I could not tell with my eye. For me, this was via a wifi connection using Comcast’s basic internet tier, so, you know — nothing special — what an average human being would have.
Make no mistake, this is a new Windows install. Just as if you did a new Windows install on your own computer, you will need to go and install the software you want, run Windows updates, and generally tinker with your system until it is the way you like.
So how does one get software on his hosted computer? You can direct download from a website or install Steam. I did both, installing X-Plane and the Steam version of XCOM 2. What about my gigabytes of orthophotos, planes, and sceneries saved on my hard drive for X-Plane? Here I encountered my first limitation. As far as I can tell, there is no file transfer capability with the Shadow app. Moving files from your real-life computer to your Shadow computer involves uploading them to a third-party service like Dropbox, then downloading them. This was disappointing. Given the choice between uploading and redownloading 50 gigs of orthophotos, it was faster just to make them all from scratch on the Shadow side by installing Ortho4XP. It would be nice if the Shadow app had an FTP client, even if it were only usable when the app was not streaming.
Once X-Plane was installed on the Shadow PC, I eagerly launched it, maxing out settings and envisioning 60 fps. What I got was low teens. Frowning, I set X-Plane up with the same levels as my Mac, and, to my surprise, only got mid twenties for FPS. In fairness, the Windows Shadow X-Plane ran at a higher resolution (2560 x 1600) versus the Mac’s 1440 x 900, but still, this seemed low. After much tinkering, I came with the compromise of High World detail, no shadows, minimum reflections and antialiasing, and HDR (instead of HDR+SSAO). This gave me 40 - 50 fps.
I also tried XCOM 2. On my Mac, no eGPU, XCOM runs on medium settings well. With eGPU, it runs on high settings. On Shadow, it ran at max settings smoothly. No complaints.
So, after trying Shadow for about two weeks, here’s the pros and cons:
No noticeable latency. I flew my X-Plane aircraft the same as if it were on my own system. I can’t stress enough how impressed I am with the responsiveness of the streaming. It was the thing I had my biggest initial doubts, and was pleasantly surprised.
Not once did the Shadow interface pixelate or lower resolution due to streaming issues. It really felt like I was interacting with a natively-installed copy of Windows.
I could run X-Plane at full resolution, and it really does look much better there.
I could get 20 - 50 fps on X-Plane, as long as I turned off some settings (shadows, reflections, etc).
Although I could run similar graphics settings for XCOM on my local Mac using my eGPU, the Shadow version, not surprisingly, was much faster. XCOM load screens were much quicker with the Shadow.
Cumbersome to move files from my Mac to the Shadow. If you play X-Plane, you probably have a large library of custom scenery and payware aircraft to move. Uploading gigabytes to Dropbox is just too slow (hours too slow). Initially there was some Windows setting blocking Dropbox downloads, but after installing Windows updates Dropbox worked fine, but I abandoned it in favor of just making new ortho tiles from scratch.
X-Plane UDP functions which require X-Plane to be on the same local network do not work. This is just the reality of remote access. This means things like head tracking using SImhat or external moving maps on an iPad will not function.
USB connections are a bit wonky. Shadow does recognize some USB devices you plug into your local computer, but my experience with X-Plane was that my HOTAS joystick was recognized (by X-Plane) as an X-box controller, and I could not convince it otherwise. With my local PC, X-Plane recognizes my joystick as its exact model and configures it correctly. I could not get Shadow to recognize an external USB hard drive. The Shadow app for Windows seems to have a workaround with USB over IP, but as far as I can tell the Shadow app for Mac does not.
There were a few technical glitches, but they were the exception, not the rule. Sometimes the Shadow interface would lock up when toggling between full screen and windowed mode. Once or twice I couldn’t boot up my Shadow - it would either just hang or launch in low resolution with the cursor not matching up with the click location. It seemed to be stuck like this for about thirty minutes once, resetting itself eventually (I didn’t bother to contact tech support).
XCOM 2 would occasionally get confused as you scrolled the game cursor offscreen, trying to pan the map. It would work as designed for a while, then seem to think you were trying to launch the Shadow app menu bar, forcing you to use the arrow keys in game to move the screen instead of the mouse. Not a big deal - just quirky.
Maybe I’m spoiled by my Mac’s very fast SSD, but simple file moves in Windows (for example, moving the Ortho tiles from the Ortho4XP folder to the Custom Scenery folder) were slow, sometimes taking minutes for large files. Yes, yes, where you’re used to dragging your newly created orthos into the Scenery folder and being ready to play five seconds later, waiting two minutes feels like a long time.
The 200 GB of storage I was allotted seemed to fill up faster than expected. X-Plane plus eight ZL16 orthotiles used up the majority of it, and I needed to delete XCOM2 to free up space. Note you can purchase additional storage through Shadow.
So, what’s the verdict? I think that will depend on how you want to use Shadow Tech. If you have a Mac, it’s certainly compelling to have a full Windows PC accessible through your Mac without taking up any hard drive space. This probably will be most beneficial if there are Windows games you want to play which either aren’t available or unplayable on your Mac. There are countless Windows games which fall into this category. For me, both X-Plane and XCOM2 play well already on my Mac, so it becomes a cost/benefit analysis of things like “play X-Plane at full resolution” versus “lose Simhat head tracking”. Also, I find that I change out my orthotiles often, shuttling them to an external hard drive. The difficulties of moving files to the Shadow PC is definitely a negative here. So, net, I’ll poke around for the remaining two weeks of my trial, but I probably won’t renew. There’s nothing wrong with Shadow - it does exactly what it advertises, and does it well - but it’s just not for me.