The latest EeePC has a low-power Intel Atom processor and a horribly old graphics chip that was never any good in the first place. And yet you can now lie in bed and switch between browsing the web on its diminutive screen and blasting away on legendary system hog Crysis.
This isn't quite the end for high-spec games machines. The secret is in a small piece of server/client software called StreamMyGame. This cunning application launches the game on your high-end PC and allows you to play it remotely from almost any other computer in the house. There's software for Windows XP, Windows Vista and various flavours of Linux including Yellow Dog for the PS3 – so you can play PC games on the TV without lugging a desktop box through to the lounge. Only the Mac is absent from the list.
Compared to the kinds of remote-hosted applications common in the workplace, StreamMyGame has a brute force approach to streaming. There's no super-clever instancing of applications going on: the full screen display on the server machine is encoded into an MPEG4 feed for audio and video, which is picked up by the client in bespoke player software. Keyboard and mouse commands are then captured and fed back to the host. It's not the most elegant way of getting an app from one PC to another, but it works – to a certain extent, anyway.
The technology that powers StreamMyGame was originally developed for recording and broadcasting games demos and tournament matches at LAN events. The parent company, Tenomichi, is well known for 3D Edit, a video-editing suite which uses videocard shaders to create special effects, and which has appeared on PC Plus cover disks in the past. CEO Richard Faria explained how the company moved into games streaming: "We got to understand the way GPUs work and how they process data very well. We developed a lot of knowledge about how to extract and process video inside the graphics pipeline. Rather than just selling products, wewanted to put together a set of applications based around a community gaming site."
Initially, the software was used for straight video feeds that were highly compatible with YouTube's compression algorithms – making them useful for sharing. In order to create what Faria calls "a dumb terminal for games", though, there has to be as close to zero latency between client and server as possible.
It's no use being able to play an FPS remotely if you can't see enemies before they kill you. "Normally lag isn't an issue for streaming video," explains Faria, "because so long as there are no pauses, no-one notices if the played back video is a few seconds behind the source. For us, though, if there's any lag, the game is unplayable. As a result, we've had to ditch conventional methods of streaming video and create our own."
Testing the water
It's technically feasible to use StreamMyGame over a broadband connection to play in a separate location, but we've found that it works best when confined to a LAN.
Despite this, games are launched by logging into a dedicated website rather than through a Windows application. The creators claim that this is to ensure the initial security of the connection, enabling it through their own SSL layers before releasing the two machines to communicate ona peer to peer basis.
There are few games that aren't compatible with StreamMyGame, and a full list of those tested is on the site. Unsurprisingly, the most popular are Crysis and World of Warcraft, but the program works with more or less any standard desktop application – including Microsoft Office and many others.
Theoretically, there's no limit to the quality of the video feed used. The free version of the software is capped at 640x480, but an unlimited subscription is available for $19.99 a month.
It's not quite perfect though. Although the streaming options for resolution and compression are highly configurable, a lot depends on the hardware at either end, and the quality of the network between. Even with the source PC running a quad-core processor and a GeForce 8800GTS, anything over 1,024x768 ataround 1Mbps can be too laggy.
The Eee proves itself surprisingly good at decoding a stream, though, and given that the largest screen model is just 1,024x600, playing in native resolution is just about possible – although quality of pixels at lower compression is more important than resolution. It lends itself well to less intense games like WoW over a fast FPS, but the novelty of lying on the sofa playing around in the Outlands can soon be replaced by longing for a larger screen and bigger text.
It's more than just a fun project, though. StreamMyGame may offer a glimpse into the future, with a role to play in the larger trends for server and storage virtualisation going on in the IT world. Google, Microsoft and Amazon are gradually turning office applications, desktop programs and storage into server-side apps, and Tenomichi's plan is to do the same for games.
A boost to these hopes came at Computex, where Intel hosted the company on its stand and demoed various games being sent to WiMax-enabled phones. There are a few more hurdles in video virtualisation to overcome before your ISP will be hosting the next Elder Scrolls, but the ambition is already clear.
If this happens, then it really will be the end for expensive PCs in the home and there'll be nothing a simple netbook can't do. Bring it on.