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The Best Computer You'll Never Build - Shadow

By Ian Boldon

The Best Computer You’ll Never Build: Shadow.Tech

Building your next computer can be daunting. Do you value the sleekness of a Mac, or the customization of a PC? The mobility of a laptop, or power of a desktop? Should you fork out all of your money up front, or build something you can customize later? What if I said you can have all of the above? Meet Shadow, the cloud computing workstation. 
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Shadow started as a cloud-based app for gamers. While console gamers only have to shell out $500 every few years for the next generation, PC gamers are in a constant arms race with developers for better visuals, advanced mechanics, and faster rendering...sound familiar? Shadow could be the best computer for motion designers...that never has to be built.
Over the next few paragraphs, we’re going to learn:
  • What shadow is
  • Under the (Virtual) Hood of Shadow
  • Shadow Use Cases

What is Shadow?

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Shadow is an application designed for gamers to play on a remote, fully-functioning gaming PC. One you have an account, you can log in on all of your devices: PC, Mac, iPhone, and Android all work. You log into the app and you’re transported into a virtual Windows desktop that works just like a regular PC. Install games, programs, download files, watch Netflix, browse the internet...it does it all. And, since Shadow is built for gaming, it’s built for motion design.
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Yeah, but can it run Crysis in 4K?
A powerful gaming rig is similar in many ways to a motion design-focused PC. Multiple cores and plenty of RAM allow for a ton of complex processes to run simultaneously, and a powerful graphics card is a must for handling the real-time rendering engines of the modern video game landscape. All of those features are just as important for jumping in and out of multiple Adobe applications, or for churning through a massive 3D scene.
A good internet connection is all you need to get a workstation. Currently, there is only one plan that’s been released titled ‘Boost,’ and two more launching in 2021. Boost is the lowest tier, but will easily handle all of your MoGraph needs. Photoshop, After Effects, Cinema 4D+Redshift are all a go here. You’ll also store things on your virtual computer: Projects, docs, and the sweet memes you have saved to your cluttered desktop to send to your Slack channel can all live on your Shadow machine. 
All of this with a price plan of just $11.99/month. A price so low, it could have you questioning whether it’s worth it to purchase a large PC at all. 

Shadow: Under the (virtual) hood

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I see the problem. You've got an internal combustion engine where your motherboard should be

Shadow vs PC vs Macbook Specs

If all of this cloud computing stuff sounds too advanced, let’s get down to the basics. How does Shadow perform? What are we looking at under the hood? Here’s a table that compares the technical specs, and the price points of Shadow, and a few competitors. 
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It should be said that a custom PC starts around $2K, but can easily hit five figures.
While Shadow’s basic plan is at the lower end of the table, it’s price point is as well. You trade off a higher-end machine for a drastically lower price. When the two upper tiers release, they will close the gap without breaking the bank.
And don’t let the low score here fool you; there are people out there making amazing work with a lot less. I worked for a few weeks on some 2D projects in After Effects using Shadow instead of my 2019 work-issued Macbook, and I didn’t notice any major performance gaps. Even basic modelling and texturing in Cinema 4D held up to my PC desktop. 

Advantages of using Shadow

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So the price looks nice, and the tech is competitive. What else can it offer? 
The biggest perk about Shadow is obviously the cost. It would take over three and a half years of Shadow to spend more than the second-cheapest option we compared it to, the Asus ROG Laptop. Shadow, however, has more power to offer. And if you jump to the Macbook Pro, it takes six years for those price points to even out.
The biggest advantage is future-proofed hardware. The team at Shadow plans to keep the platform up to date so gamers can play new releases. That means that, in a few years time, your computer automatically jumps up in power without you spending anything extra. Two upgraded plans are launching in 2021 at $24.00/month, and $39.99/month, offering even more power. 
Another perk is faster internet. While you only need 15 MBPS internet to run Shadow on your computer, their servers are connected to gigabit fiber internet. So a download to your Shadow machine will be blazing fast, even if your internet isn’t up to par. 

Disadvantages of using Shadow

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Woah. Bad cloud
Shadow is starting to sound all right, but what’s the catch? 
The biggest downfall of Shadow is the most obvious one: It’s cloud computing, so if you can’t connect to the cloud, you ain’t computing. Realistically, your internet is up most of the time, but you just know the day you have a deadline will be the time Comcast decides to go out. This isn’t really Shadow’s fault as much as an infrastructure one, but is something to keep in mind.
Data usage could also be an issue. If your internet service provider has a monthly data cap, you could use a lot of it working. Something that wouldn’t require a connection before, such running After Effects, is now going to be using more data than streaming Netflix. It’s definitely something to look into when evaluating the true cost of Shadow. 
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Great British Bake Off or finishing a new freelance project?
The biggest disadvantage comes to 3D users. To save their servers, Shadow forces a logout after 30 minutes of user inactivity. If your mouse or keyboard are idle for too long, it will shut down, even if your computer is actively doing something. So overnight renders aren't currently possible.
This could be worked around by using a service for any long renders. And there is good news! Shadow is currently working on a prosumer pricing model that would include an extended hibernation period (among other things). This will likely come with an increased cost.

Who can benefit from Shadow?

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Here are a couple of examples where Shadow could be beneficial.
  • If you’re looking for your first PC, or your next PC, it’s definitely worth giving shadow a spin, and crunching the numbers. 
  • Shadow is an amazing resource for someone looking to learn motion design, but without a computer to handle it. For $75, you can go take the Cinema 4d Basecamp at School of Motion  you’ve been eyeing, but your macbook air won’t handle.
  • It’s also a great remote alternative to your desktop. Take your Samsung Tablet on the road with you, and remote into a workstation to make on the fly changes. 

Without a Shadow of a Doubt

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Shadow’s a great option for those freelancers out there who are still figuring out if or how to build out their rigs. Even better, freelancers who test out Shadow might find that they don’t even need a robust PC or Mac anymore. As long as you have the bandwidth, you’re good to go!

Time to Level Up

Are you looking to take control of your career, but you're not sure which direction to go? That's why we put together a new, free course just for you. It's time to Level Up!
In Level Up, you’ll explore the ever-expanding field of Motion Design, discovering where you fit in and where you’re going next. By the end of this course, you’ll have a roadmap to help you get to the next level of your Motion Design career.