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Holiday 2018 Gift Guide: Services

By Ed Orr on November 15, 2018 | Hardware Reviews | Comments

Holiday 2018 Gift Guide: Services

Here at MMORPG.com, we’re big on services. After all, most of the games we cover here are delivered as a service, tempting us to log in with regular updates, and trying to open our wallets with subscriptions or item stores. As a tribe, we’re heavily online and (mostly) social creatures.

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But what about the flip side? As part of our holiday gift guide series, we decided to also include those services that aren’t directly related to gaming, but still keep us protected while we game. It includes a look at VPN services, anti-virus, cloud backup, and cloud gaming, all of which can keep your rig locked down while giving you freedom to play anywhere.

We’ve even included a quick guide on each one to explain why you should consider it, as well as our picks for this year.

Cloud Gaming

While nothing beats having a high-spec gaming rig humming gently next to you, it’s not exactly portable. Gaming laptops are gorgeous and lightweight these days, but they’re also cripplingly expensive. If you’re looking to play your MMOs away from home, getting them to work on a cheap laptop can be next to impossible.

This is where cloud gaming steps in. For a monthly fee, the newest providers give you a remote machine that’s powerful enough to run the latest games at a high resolution. It’s usually on a Windows desktop too, so you can install your own Steam library or download your own game clients. It means complete flexibility to play whatever you want to play, as long as your internet connection is beefy enough to handle the stream.

Our Pick: Shadow

We took a close look at Shadow earlier this year, putting the service through its paces in a number of gaming tests. We found that it worked great on both Mac and Windows laptops, enabling us to play Destiny 2 on these bare-bones machines with barely any noticeable lag. It also worked on Android phones, creating the hilarious situation of running Destiny 2 Strikes on a OnePlus 6 over 4G with an Xbox gamepad.

Since then, we’ve also managed to take a peek at the iOS beta and had our minds blown. It turns the iPhone into a gaming device that’s capable of playing top-tier games, especially when paired with the Steelseries Nimbus controller. We also managed to play Final Fantasy XIV on an iPad, owing to the MMO’s controller support. The team at Shadow have also added a 1TB storage option, freeing up space for more of that gaming library

Virtual Private Network (VPN)

Staying Secure during the holidays isn’t all about protecting everything within your own four walls. Whether browsing the web or connecting to the local Starbucks wifi, it’s also about protecting your data. After all, thing’s aren’t going to be so merry if you find that the local Java Joe’s free wifi costs you your credit card details. 

Virtual Private Networks are a surprisingly simple idea. It creates a secure encrypted connection from your computer to a server out on the internet. This secure connection shuttles all traffic out into the wide world. While traffic still goes out to an ISP, the VPN makes prying into your data much more difficult for interested eyes and big brothers.

Why use a VPN? For security and privacy.  In the wrong set of circumstances, you could be exposing yourself to crooks, criminals, and intelligence agencies. Check out the details on the UK’s Investigatory Powers Act if you think this is all a little tin foil hat.

On top of this, many of us here at MMORPG find that connecting to play with our friends across the pond or delving into a little research on the new eastern craze causes more than a little lag. If you tried out the Lost Ark open beta you might know exactly what I am talking about. VPNs are a great way to streamline the time it takes to communicate with a remote server, by connecting directly to a regional server and making your computer look like it is in another location.

We've highlighted a couple of VPN solutions that we think are worth your time. While there are a number of influences, we’ve looked at security, price, speed, and ease of use. There are lots of factors involved here but here are our picks for keeping the crims at your local hotspot from unpicking your traffic.

Our tests used the same baseline internet connection running out of our Shadow Online desktop to give a stable connection to start from. We ran these through a series of online speed test to ensure consistency as well as running a range of routing tests. Due to the nature of this guide, we’re not going to dive deep on this but instead, give you a summary of the results.

Our Top Pick: Express VPN

Speed, Speed, and SPEED! Express VPN has a reputation for blistering performance in any situation. It regularly ranks up at the head of VPN speed tests across the globe. Latency is significantly better than in many other VPN solutions. As an ad hoc challenge we've placed it against a competing VPN below.

Without a VPN we ran a quick speedtest to a US server and got a result of 39Mbps download, 14 Mbps upload, and a ping response of 119ms

In addition to this, the service provides a number of other nice benefits. Each subscription allows you to connect three devices at any one time, and a plethora of devices, OS platforms and browsers are supported by the VPN service. Express VPN provides a streaming DNS server so you can still cast while connected, a huge number of local endpoints, and it supports a raft of security protocols. This is is my own personal pick for a VPN solution. It is fast, secure, unlimited, and has yet to be defeated by any internet blocking software I’ve come across. It also is one of the few VPN services to have its no logging policy hold up in court.

Express VPN is expensive, however. A monthly subscription comes in at around $12 meaning you really do get what you pay for with this solution.

Our Budget Pick: Windscribe

If you are short a bob or two after the holiday season but still want to stay secure then you could do worse than trying Windscribe’s free VPN service to stay secure. Free does not always mean second class, but it does mean making some compromises. In the case of a free commercial VPN, this tends to mean an anemic level of data usage, around several hundred MB. This is not the case with Windscribe.

Windscribe provides a free VPN service with a generous 10GB of data transfer for desktop users. While this might feel pretty small for really heavy gamers, we don’t expect free users to be downloading games over a VPN. 10GB is also substantially more than you can expect from other free VPN  services. While this will keep on running when other free solutions pack up and go home, Windscribe’s free service is no patch on our performance pick, and there is at least one note to security.

While Windscribe hits all the marks for traffic encryption but understand that this is, unlike Express VPN, a company that sits in Canada. So, while Windscribe might be generous, easy to use, and refrains from logging your activity, they can still be required to hand over any data on you that they hold on users while in many western courts of law.

Anti Virus

If you haven’t guessed it by now, going out into the internet to bargain hunt is a dangerous job. There may be no other shoppers to clash elbows with, no dash for an available parking space, and it’s a bit less obvious who is shaping out on an egregious new TV system. However, one inadvertent click and you could find your hard drive encrypted, your credit card in the hands of somebody else and the bargain of a lifetime whisking its merry way off to an African prince desperate to get his money out of the country.

I’m going to skip the preamble here. Antivirus applications have been a staple of PC gaming for decade snow and we will assume you know that these internet security suites are a range of applications designed to detect and prevent the execution of malicious code on your personal computing device.  Again this holiday guide is far from comprehensive but designed to point you in the right direction if your shiny new rig comes without any protection. To that end, let's get down to a brief recommendation.

In order to assess the impact of these on gaming rigs, we picked from a number of satisfactory results then compared price, performance, and additional features. We ran some basic tests on a number of free and paid for AV products. suite to provide a confirmation of functionality. We used the standardised test file from the EICAR website to complete this and compared those results with the opinion of industry-leading sites and experts. The intention of these tests is to ensure a basic level of protection.

Our Pick: Bitdefender

BitDefender is going to be our first notable antivirus here. While it is not the cheapest solution by far, currently starting at £19.99 for a year’s protection, the Bitdefender suite provides an industry leading software suite with AV, anti-phishing, web filtering, and ransomware protection as a bare minimum. More advanced versions include all the normal bells and whistles, from a light use VPN, file encryption, secure browsers, online tech support, and mobile protection. The full list of features can be found over at the Bitdefender website

It also has one particular feature that makes it stand out among its rivals, its overall performance. While all of the major players from Kaspersky to Macafee, AVG, and Avast all perform well. The balance of features, protection and resource requirements of Bitdefender make it a definite plus for anybody squeezing out the last few morsels of power. As an example we dropped on testing the idle performance of Bitdefender against Kaspersky and Avast’s free editions offering, there is a definite dip in resource usage. Avast, in particular, chewed up double the amount of resources that Bitdefender did in idle during our tests.

Backup and Storage

Moving onto a brand new phone or PC can be a traumatic experience, especially when you find that the last 5 years of photos you took just made it through an industrial shredder. While not all of us take quite such extreme action to destroy our data, it’s safe to say that we all have detailed documents and precious photos we would not want to lose. Today a vast array of online storage solutions are available. Here are our two picks to keep your important files safe.

Our Cloud Pick: Google One

There are two obvious types of backup solution on the internet today. Google One is a file backup solution, that works best to keep your photos, files, and folders synced and easily available. Announced this year, Google One is the Chocolate Factory’s own rival to other popular file storage and sharing solutions such as iCloud, Dropbox, and Microsoft’s Onedrive.

Google One is still rolling out for many of us, and you can sign up for updates here, but it is such a clear winner that we needed to put it top of our list. Google One takes the existing online Drive solution that Google sells and makes some major upgrades.

With six of storage tiers, Google One already looks competitive without even looking at the fringe benefits of this product. In addition to these gradients, Google’s One platform includes the ability to family share, a top-tier web interface, the ability to work and collaborate on documents, and superb integration into their existing product line. The final thing that pushes google to the top of this list is the new backup app. Unlike Google’s old drive app, this recent release now allows Google One plan owners to backup and synch folders ad hoc. Want to save your game screenshots folders easily? Now you can.

All in, Goole One is cheap, reliable, flexible, and provides a great set of tools that every other solution invariably ends up lacking.

Our Drive Backup Pick: iDrive

While Goole One is great for backing up files and folders, sending on photos, or working on that last minute presentation with Google Docs, it is not meant to safeguard your entire drive.  This requires an entirely different solution and this is our nod to something that too few of us do. Catastrophic failure of a hard drive is a horrendous thing and while a system like Google One will keep those precious items from the digital void, they won’t get your copy of windows back, or the save game files that didn’t synch to Steam. Getting back up and running generally requires a fresh install or a recovery backup. Now that online storage is nearly ubiquitous, several companies are allowing consumers to take these recovery images and put them in the cloud. This is our nod to one of the best online options for disaster recovery.

iDrive, much like Google One manages to strike a fantastic balance between cost and function. Coming in at just over $50 for the first year of the paid option, iDrive is a fully-fledged solution to total disaster. It allows storage of your entire hard drive in the cloud, and not just one hard drive. If you can fit it in the 5GB, 2TB, or 5TB of online storage, an unlimited number of computers can be backed up. Idrive seems to perform a decent job at backing up devices, although this is never fast or convenient to do the first time, allowing users to take snapshots, and incremental backups of changes to save data. They can even ship a copy of your hard drive to you if you wish.

The number of features, from mobile backup to network drive recovery that is available through iDrive is impressive but iDrive primarily succeeds in providing one of the largest free and paid storage volumes of any backup provider. It keeps data forever, allows an unlimited number of devices to be stored, and even gives users the option to keep a local copy. It is one of the fullest feature disaster solutions available. Yes, it’s pricey but what price is that level of safety worth.