OnLive Desktop offers a Windows desktop for your tablet

Scott Lowe takes a look at OnLive Desktop, a full Windows desktop for your iOS or Android tablet.

A company named OnLive has been in the news quite a bit lately. First, the company jumped into the cloud hype cycle by releasing a full Windows desktop, called OnLive Desktop, which is available as a cloud service accessible from an iPad. But, there was a twist... the basic service was free, and it included access to Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Adobe Reader. More recently, the company added full support for Internet Explorer and Flash to the service.

As of this writing, the company makes their desktop service available to both iOS- and Android-based devices, but support for additional platforms is expected in the future. There are currently two service plans to choose from (with more tiers coming):

  • Desktop Standard (free): This is a "best effort" connection. As long as there's available capacity on the company's systems, connections will be allowed. This tier includes 2 GB of storage.
  • Desktop Plus ($4.99 per month): This adds support for Flash and includes priority access to the service.

Disclosure: OnLive provided me with one month of free Desktop Plus service for the purpose of this article.

The other reason that OnLive has been in the news lately is that there have been serious questions raised about their licensing practices -- specifically, whether they've properly licensed their software from Microsoft. I won't be discussing that topic here, but I wanted to bring it to your attention as a possible risk in the event that you decide to buy the service.

Working with OnLive Desktop

The first step in the process is to subscribe to the service. Once that's done, you can download the OnLive Desktop app from the Apple App Store or Google Play.

Under the right circumstances, I found the OnLive Desktop solution to be a good tool. These circumstances include meeting the company's bandwidth requirements. OnLive requires at least a 1Mbps Internet connection, and the company recommends a connection that runs at least 1.5 to 2.0 Mbps. When I was in a location with a stable and sufficient high-speed connection, the service was both flawless and impressive. Word and Excel worked exactly as one would expect, and full-screen (9.7") video was crystal clear and lag free.

In Figure A, you can see the OnLive Desktop icon on my iPad. Figure A

The OnLive Desktop app is installed.
Once the app is installed and you've created your OnLive Desktop account, launch the app and provide your account credentials (as shown in Figure B). Figure B

Log in to your OnLive Desktop account.
Assuming you've provided correct login details and you have sufficient bandwidth, you'll be presented with a shiny new virtual desktop (Figure C) that includes the applications you know and love. Figure C

Screen grab of the OnLive Desktop.
Here's proof that I'm actually running Microsoft Office Word (see Figure D). Figure D

Microsoft Office Word in action.
When it becomes necessary, the virtual keyboard pops up so that you can type the web address that you'd like to visit (as shown in Figure E). Figure E

Internet Explorer on the virtual desktop.
Full-screen video worked extremely well, much to my surprise. This is a part of the reason that the company requires a really fast connection to the Internet. In Figure F, you can see a screenshot from a video I played through OnLive. Figure F

Video playback worked very well.
Figure G shows how horrible my handwriting actually is. Surprisingly enough, though, Windows was able to figure out what I meant so that I could perform an extremely important search on Google. It took my chicken scratch and converted it into "Scott Lowe." Figure G

Handwriting recognition is surprisingly good.

On the down side of OnLive Desktop

Bandwidth was my biggest struggle when I was using the OnLive Desktop service. In my new role as an independent consultant, I travel much more than I used to. Unfortunately, most hotel Internet connections vary wildly in their quality, and I did experience quite a few problems while I was on the road -- from hotel rooms, multiple airports, and even when I had my iPad tethered to my iPhone, sharing its connection to the Internet.

Upon login at a location with insufficient bandwidth, the app provides a warning (like the one shown in Figure H). Figure H

The network connection is insufficient for a full experience.

I was occasionally able to get to a desktop, but the experience was far from usable, as you can see in the next couple of screenshots.

Figure I

A garbled screen is a sign of a poor connection.
Figure J

Another garbled screen.

Bottom line

OnLive Desktop is a good service. And, from a purely technical perspective, I understand the need for the minimum bandwidth. I do, however, wonder if OnLive could scale back the bandwidth requirements a bit. This service seems perfect for the mobile pro. Of course, with 4G everything coming within the year, perhaps this problem will go away.

As it stands now, too many public places simply don't have the bandwidth needed to support their environment. I'm able to use other remote services, such as LogMeInPro, with great success -- even at lower speeds, I have no problems. If OnLive is able to reduce bandwidth consumption, that will certainly place the service into a major sweet spot.