After a rocky start, Google Stadia has started to fulfill its promise. When it launched in November, Google’s game streaming service was a mix of impressive tech and big ideas, but haphazard execution undermined it all. The service that launched felt like an expensive beta, and it had nearly as many half-baked features as missing ones.
While many of the platform’s game-changing features are still MIA – Crowd Play, State Share, and Streaming to YouTube come to mind – Stadia has slowly started adding features. There have been dozens of small, quality-of-life upgrades since launch. There are notifications for achievements now. Your captures are no longer locked to your phone. There are large changes, too. Most importantly, there’s a Base version now that doesn’t require a monthly subscription. If you have a Gmail address and a fast enough internet connection, you can play Stadia.
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With new features – and an increasingly competitive streaming landscape thanks to Microsoft XCloud and Nvidia GeForce Now – we figured it was time to give Stadia another shake.
Google Stadia – Performance
From a technical standpoint, Stadia is still plenty impressive. There is something undeniably cool about playing a game like Doom Eternal on a MacBook that can barely handle Chrome on a good day.
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With the right internet connection, games looks phenomenal. The games we’ve tested look about as good as Xbox One X or PS4 Pro. From these comparison images, you can see there’s more detail in the tree bark and deeper shadow mapping.
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The second image above highlights Stadia’s ability to show longer draw distances. You can actually make out the rock face in the background compared to the crushed mass of pixels seen in the Xbox One X’s rendering.
If your internet is dodgy, the first thing to go is your resolution, then your gameplay. When I was near my router, the games I played performed flawlessly. I listened to Spotify, streamed YouTube TV, and played the game, but my connection remained stable. In fact, in a dozen or so hours of testing, I only experienced a handful of quality drops and brief input stutter, and each recovered in a matter of seconds. When I moved to the furthest corner of my house, it was a different story. Stadia was nearly unplayable. In an hour of gaming, Stadia slowed down or got so blurry I spent much of the hour dying over-and-over again in the same room in Doom Eternal. And get this, I wasn’t even playing on Nightmare.
Even so, I’m still pretty impressed with Stadia’s performance. When tested alongside GeForce Now, it was far less prone to latency or GeForce Now’s disruptive rubber-banding effects.
Stadia also does a great job of rendering HDR colors – such as on the Moon in Destiny 2, the psychedelic corridors of Thumper, or the vibrant hellscapes of Doom Eternal. It’s worth noting that in the games we tested, Google’s streaming service isn’t actually pushing a true 4K image. Destiny 2 renders at a native 1080p that’s upscaled to 4K and Doom Eternal offers 1800p up-sampled to 2160p on 4K displays. There’s no list of games that are actually pushing a true 4K image, but even Shadow of the Tomb Raider – one of the only games running at native 4K – can only do so at 30fps.
But even then, the criteria isn’t black and white. For some reason, Macs are locked at 1080p, the Base version of Stadia is locked to 1080p, and of course, you’ll need a fast and stable internet connection, or your resolution will drop. Unlike GeForce Now, you can’t change your graphical fidelity within games, so what you get is what you get.
To be honest, it’s all a bit confusing. Google currently defaults all users to 1080p to combat the increased strain caused by COVID-19, but it’s difficult to find a straight answer about which games, if any, actually have 4K support before purchasing them. If it’s a marketing tactic, it seems to have backfired. Even if 4K is a selling point for you, I still wouldn’t recommend paying for Pro.
And besides, I didn’t notice any difference playing Doom Eternal when I was playing on Base or Pro – which, theoretically should have been a 1080p experience vs a 1800p upscaled to 2160p. Both looked great, and the visual quality hinged far more on my internet speeds than my subscription. Suffice it to say, if pure visual fidelity is your goal, PC is still king. Still, we’re impressed with how Stadia is capable of hitting 60 frames per second in games (like the aforementioned Doom Eternal). This has a tangible effect on not just the look of the game, but the flow of the gameplay as well.
And, of course, the caveat: you need a very stable network with at least moderately fast internet speeds. However, when testing the service in the bowels of the NYC subway system, Kevin had no problems playing Destiny 2 for a few minutes every day, and I had good luck in San Francisco. Your luck in Montana, however, might be another story.
Google Stadia – Latency
Google Stadia does a great job of minimizing the usual latency that comes with game streaming services. That said, latency isn’t completely eliminated as there’s still a bit of a perceptible delay, but it’s far shorter than the half-second or more of lag I’m used to experiencing with Nvidia GeForce Now and Microsoft Project xCloud.
I ran a few tests with Shadow of the Tomb Raider and Mortal Kombat 11 to see how much more latency we got on Stadia versus playing the game locally on an Xbox One X and I came away somewhat impressed.
Latency with the Stadia controller and service sat around 150-175ms while playing Shadow of the Tomb Raider. Comparatively, the Xbox One X’s latency sat at 100ms. In Mortal Kombat 11, Google’s game streaming added about 50ms more latency compared to playing on console.
Though we have these numbers, be aware that latency on Stadia can vary a lot. In my testing with Shadow of the Tomb Raider, I saw it decrease from 175ms to 150ms and then 75ms just from jumping three times on my mostly stable 200Mbps network. These variances could have been a result of another device on the network, a hiccup in my Spectrum service, radio interference, Google’s “negative latency” (more on this soon), or any number of other factors.
The effects of latency and how you perceive it can also largely change depending on which game you’re playing at the time. Any amount of input lag is far more noticeable and a problem for twitchy shooters like Destiny than games with floaty animations like Tomb Raider or Assassin’s Creed.
With the official Stadia controller, latency is kept to the lowest amount I experienced. A large part of this comes thanks to the way Google has set up Stadia for “negative latency” by having the games run at more than 60 fps on their end. The system is also designed to predict almost anything you might do next and prepare game animations even before you hit a button.
If that sounds like the game is trying to wrest control from you, don’t worry. Google’s Minority Report-esque “pre-gaming’ system was also never apparent to me. At no point did I feel like the game had my character winding up a grenade toss before I hit the right bumper in Destiny 2.
Other controllers that don’t have a built-in Wi-Fi radio to communicate directly with Stadia’s servers see a tiny bit more lag, but we’re only talking a few more milliseconds here. Having said that, playing with a gaming mouse and keyboard makes the latency much more apparent if you’re used to instantly snapping your aim between targets.
The worst thing that exacerbates latency is trying to game on a TV with poor input lag or without a dedicated gaming mode. During my testing with a 75-inch Samsung Q90R, playing with Game Mode was just about as good as playing on a gaming monitor and having a screen brightness of 1,500 nits really makes the HDR experience from Stadia pop.
Trying to play with Game Mode turned off on the Samsung Q90R led to much more disastrous results, like not being able to properly track enemies in my crosshairs and some hilariously poorly timed jumps in Shadow of the Tomb Raider.
Google Stadia – Bandwidth Usage
If you’re cursed with data caps from your Internet provider, you might want to avoid Stadia. In just five minutes I saw Destiny 2 use anywhere between 833MB to 1.2GB of bandwidth. In 30 minutes my bandwidth usage ballooned to 6.2GB and then 9.5GB after a full hour.
That’s a lot of data. In a single hour, you’ll have streamed enough data to fully download most indie games. After 17 one hour gameplay sessions you could have downloaded Red Dead Redemption 2 in its entirety.
A smaller, less graphically intensive game like Kine used 373MB after five minutes, which is much less than the amount of data Destiny 2 chomped through, but it still adds up. After 30 minutes Kine used a total of 1.7GB while streaming the game to my phone.
Compared to streaming a 4K HDR movie, Stadia’s bandwidth demand is about the same if not lighter than watching John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum at 4K HDR. But the key difference here is that when streaming a movie, it will eventually load completely into your cache – likely after 10 to 30 minutes.
With game streaming, your bandwidth usage doesn’t stop at any point, varying constantly depending on the level of detail in your environment, lighting, the number of enemies on the screen. You’re constantly consuming your data cap (if you have one) and it only takes a bigger chomp as you play more graphically demanding games.
Google Stadia – Interface
Google Stadia’s interface remains pretty simple. Provided you’ve logged in before, all you have to do is navigate to Stadia.com in Chrome, and a resume screen appears for the last game you played. It’s hard to overstate how futuristic this feels – hopping into a fully realized version of Red Dead Redemption 2 through your browser. There’s a Home and Store button on the left, and a friends and profile button on the right. There’s also a weird “Controllers” button, which tells you Wireless support is coming soon. But wireless support is actually very much here now, so it’s awfully confusing.
Scrolling from top to bottom shows you a list of the games you’ve purchased, with the ability to quickly start them in just two clicks. (And yes, loading games is phenomenally fast.) At the bottom of the Home page is where your captures are stored. On the Base plan, you’re allowed 100 video clips and unlimited screenshots. Pro users get 500 clips and unlimited screenshots.
The Store page is still equally barebones. You’re presented with a grid of games available for purchase (which you can now do from the browser), displayed under a few grouping categories. The first category is “Stadia Pro Games,” which is awfully confusing for Base users, who may be confused whether those games will work with the base package. They will. The collection is meant to signify which games Pro subscribers can get for free – though there’s no intuitive way to know this.
These pages are surprisingly spartan and pleasing to navigate – especially when compared to something like PlayStation’s busy ad-filled store – but they don’t always make sense. For instance, if you’re gaming on one of the supported Android phones, your Stadia Controller’s capture button is disabled. Even worse, for some, you can’t do anything with your images or videos from your phone or Chromecast Ultra.
So, kill that gang of Marauders in a spectacularly cool way? You’ll need to log onto Google Chrome (which you may or may not even have), download the capture to your computer, then share them from there. Pretty dumb!
Thankfully, Stadia’s interface has preserved one of its coolest features: you can start playing on one device and instantly pick up from where you were on another platform. So say you’re playing a game on your phone when you get the dreaded 20% battery notification. You can open your laptop, log in to Stadia, and boom. As long as the game was still open on your phone, it’s then instantly transferred to your laptop. This doesn’t just feel magical, it feels like the future of gaming.
Google Stadia – Controller
The Stadia controller has a similar shape and almost the same heft as a Nintendo Switch Pro controller mixed with the layout of a DualShock 4 controller and the buttons of an Xbox One controller. Unfortunately, the flat face buttons don’t offer a lot of travel or click much, meanwhile, the triggers offer almost no resistance when pulled. I wish Google had made the whole controller as clicky and tactile as its D-Pad and bumpers.
The good news is if you don’t want to use the Stadia controller, Google’s game streaming service works just fine with an Xbox, PS4, or other third-party controllers. Even without the built-in Wi-Fi radio of the official controller, you don’t get a lot of extra perceptible lag.
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You can also use mouse and keyboard, though latency is a bit more noticeable when going that route. PC peripherals are known for precision – 1:1 mouse movements and eliminating latency have been core tenets of that market and ecosystem for years – and that precision makes Stadia’s bit of latency extremely apparent. Comparatively, a controller masks some of that latency better than a keyboard and mouse setup.
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Google Stadia – Games Library
The Stadia’s game library is, sadly, the platform’s Achilles’ heel. After nearly half a year, the library remains woefully empty – still showcasing games like Destiny 2. There are a few newcomers here – Doom Eternal, Borderlands 3, and Wolfenstein: Youngblood being perhaps the hottest of the bunch.
If you subtract different “Editions” of games, Stadia still has less than 40 games. Reading Stadia’s confirmed upcoming games doesn’t do much to assuage concerns. While there are a few confirmed big hitters like Cyberpunk 2077 and Baldur’s Gate III, the list is disappointingly short. Worst of all, there are no confirmed first-party games announced, and there’s nothing you couldn’t play elsewhere.
Subscribing to Stadia Pro at $9.99 a month nets you some free games (9 at the time of writing) like Destiny 2 and Thumper. These aren’t blockbuster titles, like we’ve come to expect from Playstation Plus or Xbox Live, but there’s still plenty of quality here. Pro subscribers receive discounts, like a $99.99 Borderlands 3 Super Deluxe Edition available for $50, or a $10 copy of Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition. Still, there are currently only 11 deals on the store.
Ironically the best deal of all is to not pay for Stadia Pro.