18th Jul 2012 | 19:00
The cloud brings Windows 7 to iPad, but does it stay aloft?
OnLive helped pioneer the idea of cloud-streaming video games, letting you play slick, modern titles without a PC or one of the major consoles. They've since expanded this technology letting you play next-gen titles on smartphones and tablets via a steady Internet connection, and they have since put that idea to new use with the innovative OnLive Desktop.
What OnLive Desktop does is provide a remote version of Windows 7 for use on an iPad (an Android tablet version is also available), offering up free access to Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, as well as 2GB of cloud storage for moving files between devices.
Moreover, the company has since introduced OnLive Desktop Plus, an optional paid service with additional features.
Utilizing the standard, free version of OnLive Desktop is as easy as downloading the app from the App Store and signing up for an OnLive account within; your OnLive gaming account will also work, if you have one.
Within moments, your iPad screen will take the form of a Windows 7 desktop, with access to the noted Microsoft Office apps, Windows Media Player, Adobe Reader, Paint, Calculator, Notepad, Wordpad, and a touch-based photo collage app. Internet Explorer is listed, but only the OnLive website is accessible through the free service.
Upgrading to Plus
Curiously, the OnLive Desktop app makes no mention of the Plus service, which is priced at $4.99 a month. Loading up the OnLive Desktop webpage from within Internet Explorer on the app similarly offers no details, nor is it noted on the App Store listing. To sign up for OnLive Desktop Plus, you'll need to log into your account on the OnLive website and opt-in from there.
What OnLive Desktop Plus does is provide priority access to servers, which is more than a token promise. Before switching to Plus, we were unable to access OnLive Desktop on multiple occasions due to overstuffed servers. We did not encounter the same issue once the Plus service was enabled.
Plus also opens up Internet Explorer to access the wider web, and does so with Flash enabled – something that isn't available natively on the iPad. As such, you'll be able to watch Flash videos and play games, both of which work well through the browser.
The core feature set is otherwise identical to the free service, though Plus essentially guarantees access to servers and brings Flash-based browsing into the equation, which may be enough to warrant the upgrade for consistent users.
Features and usability
Windows 7 is solidly navigated with touch commands, with just a single tap needed to open applications and files. Some of the icons within the Office apps prove a bit small, so multiple taps may be needed at times (notably with the red X used to close programs in Windows) to execute tasks. Gestures can be used to zoom in and out, plus you can tap and hold to access right-click menus.
As the Windows 7 install does not run natively on the iPad, OnLive Desktop is unable to utilize Apple's built-in keyboard. Instead, the app provides its own version, which looks very similar but must be called up manually from the command bar as needed.
The virtual keyboard is functional, though hardly as responsive as the built-in option we're used to, which can prove a pain while trying to type up extensive documents in Word or Notepad. Moreover, the layout is different in some ways, including access to numbers and symbols, which can irritate.
Luckily, Bluetooth keyboards are supported, but one of the early standout features – the ability to input writing with your finger or a stylus and have it converted to proper text – seems to have been dropped since OnLive Desktop debuted earlier this year.
Files saved to your OnLive Desktop can be accessed from the OnLive website on other devices, with 2GB of cloud storage available through both the free and Plus versions of the service. Dropbox access is also available for Plus users, allowing additional cloud storage as needed.
Annoyingly, the app closes out your connection when switching to another app or the iPad home screen, meaning you'll have to sign in again each time, even when only swapping away for a moment.
And with OnLive Desktop, you get exactly what you see and little more. Additional apps cannot be installed – the promised OnLive Desktop Pro service, still on the horizon, aims to add that feature – and any changes made to the Windows install aren't maintained upon next login.
Performance and verdict
While an ever-so-slight delay in input recognition is part and parcel with the cloud-based streaming approach, Windows 7 runs admirably on the iPad via OnLive Desktop. The lack of Retina support is unfortunate, and occasional visual artifacts will appear; during scrolling, in particular, parts of the screen may become blurry and distorted for a moment.
Still, the ability to access a Windows 7 install – albeit a very simple, feature-limited one – at a moment's notice can be incredibly helpful for business travelers who need quick access to Office or a Flash-enabled browser on the iPad.
Problem is, the OnLive service itself isn't reliable enough to support much more than brief usage, as we frequently encountered Network Errors and unexpected service drops that disrupted the flow of use.
It wasn't often clear why the service would struggle to maintain a connection using a high-speed Wi-Fi network that otherwise performed admirably on the iPad and other devices. The little hitches are more prevalent than full-on service drops, but still manage to put a crimp in the action.
OnLive Desktop makes Windows 7 usage on iPad an unexpected reality, and at its best, the service proves capable of serving up relatively speedy access to Office and a Flash-based browser.
For professionals on the go, or those who simply need occasional use of Windows programs on an iPad, OnLive Desktop can fill that void, but not without frustration and notable limitations. Brief connection drops are the primary concern, though the service does occasionally sputter out entirely, forcing you to restart the app.
Most users will likely find the free service enough to get the job done, though the fact that server access isn't guaranteed is disappointing. Paying $4.99 a month adds access to the Flash-enabled Internet Explorer and priority access to servers, but with the limited overall feature set and performance issues, that's bound to be a tough sell for many users.
OnLive Desktop's core conceit is brilliant, no doubt, and unmatched on the App Store. That alone makes it a worthwhile download for those occasional moments when Windows access is needed in a pinch.
But the service has lingering issues, and the Plus service isn't a significant upgrade over the free option, despite the added expense, aside from guaranteeing server access for regular users. Perhaps the still-to-come Pro service can sort out some of hitches while adding functionality, though that remains to be seen.