Six months ago I took the cloud gaming service ShadowTech for a test drive. Cloud gaming isn’t quite the right description. ShadowTech’s service is more like leasing a higher-end Windows PC which you can access via a streaming interface. I have to admit, the streaming interface is pretty slick, and works much better than you might expect. My goal for trying ShadowTech was to find a way to play X-Plane at full settings with high frame rates, and to do it from the comfort of my MacBook Pro laptop. Back in January, ultimately I decided it wasn’t a good fit and cancelled my subscription.
I’ve kicked around just buying a Windows gaming PC. Years go I had two computers, and I was happy when I condensed to one laptop, freeing up the desktop space my PC occupied. So, this is what is so appealing about a streaming PC service for my laptop. I have can two computers without having two computers.
Over the past six months I’ve received emails from ShadowTech about their updates and new features. Wondering if the limitations were addressed, I gave it another try this weekend. Here’s how I fared.
TLDR: Gave up on X-Plane after 3 days
My experience was similar to my January trial. ShadowTech has an updated launcher which is very easy to use. You simply download the app from their website, launch it, login with your credentials, and POOF, you’re in Windows. The last time I did this, I had to go through a full Windows setup, just like someone buying a new PC. This time it was ready to go. I’m not sure if they simply reactivated by previous setup, or this is standard for new users.
You can run in windowed or full screen mode. In the upper right, there’s a (hideable) quick-access Shadow control panel. If you click on it, you’ll get several options, including UBP over IP. This feature was not available for Mac in January, and was a welcome improvement.
Most USB devices I plugged into my Mac appeared on the list. Simply ticking the resulting checkbox enabled my Shadow PC to use them. Notably I was able to use my flight joystick and access my external SSD drives. When I previously tried this in January, USP over IP did not exist for the Mac Shadow launcher and, although Shadow did auto-recognize some USB devices, it recognized my flight stick as an X-box controller and X-Plane would only assign buttons based on the X-box configuration. This time, it correctly recognized the model of my flight stick.
So, I downloaded and installed X-Plane with all of my payware planes and customizations. Here’s where things start to go off the rails.
Problem #1: The reality of remote access
Although I could access my external SSD, in reality I was uploading files over my home wifi network to the internet to Shadow via USB over IP. My average speed was 1 GB per hour. This meant the 500 GB of orthophotos I had stored on it could not reasonably be used. Even accessing my payware aircraft (1-2 GB each) wasn’t realistic. It was only useful for quickly moving very small files (such as config files for X-Plane and Ortho4XP).
Note, because my SSD was formatted for Mac, I needed to use Paragon’s windows app which let you access Mac drives from your PC (I used the free 7-day trial for this experiment). The USB over IP setup was a bit wonky. My SSD would not be recognized if I plugged it in using its native USB-C port, but if I added a USB-A adapter, it was happy.
Problem #2: No UDP over local network
I use head tracking via simhat and moving maps on an Android tablet via FlightPlanGO. Both connect to X-Plane over my local network. Since the Shadow PC is not physically on my network, all connections are broken. No head tracking. If you’re used to flying with head tracking, it’s really hard to go back. It’s like trying to drive a car without turning your head.
I emailed Shadow support asking for a work-around. To their credit, Shadow support was crazy-fast and responded to any inquiry I sent them within ten minutes. They confirmed this feature would not work, but suggested I might find a way with the 3rd party app VirtualHere.
I spent a good day getting VirtualHere setup and trying different head tracking software. VirtualHere is just USB over IP. It seemed to work better than Shadow’s built-in USB over IP, recognizing more devices. Crucially, it was able to recognize my iPhone, which is required for head tracking. Simhat, which is an iPhone app I use for head tracking, does not have a tethered mode, so this didn’t help. Other apps, such as KinoTracker, did. Yet, no matter how I tried, I couldn’t get them to work with X-Plane.
I also tried head tracking apps which use my laptop’s camera for eye tracking, such as TrackerXP. Unfortunately, there was no way for my Shadow PC to access my laptop’s camera. I suppose if I bought a USB webcam or sprung the $150 for TrackIR, they might work, but I’m not sure.
Just for fun, I tried SteamVR with Ivry app using a tethered iPhone with VirtualHere to connect the iPhone via USB over IP. It did work. Sort of. Frame rates in the Steam VR setup room were single digits even at lowest resolution, with the same experience in X-Plane. I abandoned it.
Problem #3: X-Plane SASL Authentication
This is not at all related to the Shadow PC but appears to be a Windows 10 issue. I mention it so that, if like me, you are used to playing X-Plane on a Mac, you will have a heads up. As I mentioned before, I couldn’t copy my payware aircraft, but needed to redownload them all from the X-Plane store. Then, one-by-one, I needed to authenticate them with their serial numbers. Every time I shutdown my Shadow PC and returned later to play, all fo the payware aircraft became unauthenticated, and I needed to do it all over again. Some, such as Aerobask’s DA-62, even locked me out due to too many authentications. I needed to email Aerobask to have my key reset. A bit of Googling showed this to be SASL issue with Windows 10. I downloaded and installed the latest version of SASL, and this resolved it.
Problem #4: Controller Woes
Although my Thrustmaster joystick was recognized, when I copied over the key mapping configuration it seemed to swap some of the assignments. For example, the throttle lever became mapped to the camera view. I manually reassigned everything. But, on subsequent loadings, it would loose its mind again, gleefully swapping keep assignments like a sinister gremlin trying to drive me mad. You can imagine my horror when I click the gear-up button during takeoff only to watch the mixture go to cutoff. It reminds me of the 80s Tom Hanks movie The Man with One Red Shoe, where CIA agents disassemble Tom Hanks’s bathroom while he is away, looking for hidden objects, and hastily reassemble it incorrectly. The result is that the sink faucet causes the toilet to flush, and his toothpaste is refilled with shampoo.
Later, when I disconnected the joystick and attempted to fly just with the mouse, I couldn’t. X-Plane was convinced an X-Box controller was plugged in, refusing to display the mouse.
All-in-all, between the soap bubbles coming out of my mouth and possessed aircraft, I gave up.
Problem #4: Limited Storage
My ShadowPC has 256 GB of storage. With external SSDs rendered mostly useless due to internet upload speeds, I was limited to whatever orthophotos could fit on my ShadowPC. Which isn’t many. Back in January, ShadowTech offered additional storage up to 1 TB, for a fee, but I didn’t see this option on their website anymore. As I noted in my last review, read/write speeds on my ShadowPC seemed similar to conventional HDD speeds, so any big file operations (downloading and saving Orthophotos) is much slower than when executed on my laptop’s SSD. I spent hours watching Ortho4XP recreate a few tiles.
Problem #5: Glitches
First, I’d like to recognize that the ShadowTech streaming experience is fantastic. There’s no lag or pixelation, and you quickly feel that you are running on a native Windows PC. That was my experience in January, and it was the same now. Technical hiccups were few a far between, and I only mention it here because it wasn’t zero. Once or twice my Shadow PC had trouble starting and I needed to return to it a few minutes later to see if it was successful. Once, it wouldn’t start at all, and it was down for about 30 minutes before resetting itself. I didn’t contact tech support. A similar thing happened in January and it also reset itself after 30 minutes.
Okay…so, now the good:
Benefit #1: X-Plane looked great
I could not run X-Plane at maxed out settings. In fact, I needed to run it at similar settings as my laptop’s settings (which surprisingly can run HDR/high world detail/high textures well, but requires reflections and shadows to be off). The big difference with the Shadow PC was that I could run it at full Retina resolution with antialiasing. On my laptop, I’m forced to run at 1440 x 900 to get reasonable frame rates. On my Shadow PC, I got 30 - 40 fps. Aside from the higher resolution, colors just looked better (which I attribute to the much better graphics card). Flying at night was a joy, with luminous buildings and streets. In my Mac, flying at night is a murky meh. It was also awesome to see how snappy X-Camera view transitions were due to the higher frame rates.
Benefit #2: iPad, iPhone, Android, AppleTV apps
A bit of magic happened when I installed the iPad app and let my daughter play Abzu. My SteelNimbus controller was immediately recognized by the Shadow app and set up in Steam, and she played it like it was a native iPad game. ShadowTech has a beta version of the AppleTV app, which (admittedly still in beta) wasn’t quite fully baked, but has potential. When I loaded Abzu on it, the Apple TV remote at first functioned as the mouse, moving the mouse pointer around the screen. I could not get the controller to work, and then the mouse disappeared, forcing me to kill the app to get out of it. But, you can see how an Apple TV app which lets you play your full PC library on you TV with a controller and no computer has potential. I should mention here that ShadowTech sells a peripheral, Shadow Ghost, which you can hook up to your TV or monitor, accomplishing the same thing. I did not try it.
Benefit #3: Works great for other games
Typical mouse-and-keyboard PC games worked great, and looked awesome. If you want to play PC-only games like the Witcher 3, this is a great solution.
So, in summary, still not the solution I’m looking for to play X-Plane. I actually think the only solution I’ll find is to buy a gaming PC, which I may do. Plus, with a gaming PC I have the option of getting an Occulus Rift-S…which I admit, I really do want to try for X-Plane.
Maybe Laminar will finally introduce eGPU support for the Mac version of X-Plane, allowing me to use my RX580 (which works awesome for other Mac games). I do have the remainder of the month to play with the Shadow PC service. I’ve deleted X-Plane to free up room for other games, so maybe I’ll get in some time to play No Man’s Sky and just enjoy some PC fun.
Enjoy flightsims? Check out my X-Plane adventures: