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Lifewire / Zach Sweat
Low cost compared to PC
Works on multiple platforms
Meager library of games
Mobile only supported on Pixel phones
The concept of a gaming streaming service like Stadia is an appealing one, but Google may have jumped the gun with its rollout. It’s off to a rocky start, but still has promise—if Google can sort out the limited content library and reliability issues.
We purchased Google Stadia so our expert reviewer could thoroughly test and assess it. Keep reading for our full product review.
As internet speeds and computing power have steadily increased over the years, streaming games has become a lot more practical for gamers around the world. While Google isn’t the first tech company to enter this realm, they are one of the biggest to throw their weight behind a new platform. Stadia promises a lot on the surface. Being able to play your favorite games from a budget laptop, your TV or even your smartphone is something many have only dreamed of, but now Stadia lets you do just that—with some caveats.
So, what did we think of the Stadia? It’s ambitious but still feels a bit like a beta. While most of the basic underlying tech works well, there are tons of lacking features with Stadia in its current form. Google being Google, only time will tell if the service can hold out long enough to avoid being axed in the long run.
Read on for our full in-depth review of Google’s new game streaming service and see for yourself.
Assessing the overall design of the Stadia is a bit odd because unlike other consoles or even some streaming services, there isn’t a physical component. Sure, there is the Stadia controller that comes with the package, but you actually don’t even have to use it if you prefer a different one.
The Stadia controller is a bit basic, most closely matching the Switch Pro or DualShock controller. Ergonomically, it feels pretty average compared to most designs you see today, tending toward the cheap and light side. The grips have some slight texture on the back, and the face has a smooth matte touch made entirely of plastic.
Your standard buttons and layout are all here. You’ve got the start and select buttons in the middle, a D-pad on the left, four inputs on the right (X, Y, B, A), two bumpers and two shoulder triggers, two analog sticks, and some unique extras.
Right in the middle of the thumbsticks is the Stadia button, which allows users to turn the platform on or off, as well as access the home menu. This menu allows you to do things like view notifications, start parties or check settings. Holding it down for a second will turn on the platform and give some vibration feedback to let you know it’s on. Holding this again for four seconds turns it off.
Despite getting off to a pretty rocky start, the tech giant may be onto something here if they can iron out the kinks.
Directly above this button are two additional inputs unique to Stadia. There’s a quick capture button on the right for snapping screenshots or videos (something that’s becoming the norm on controllers these days). On the left is the Google Assistant button, which does indeed work now despite it not being active during the initial launch of the service. Here, you can access lots of digital assistant functions much like you’d find on your phone or smart TV (if it has Google Assistant). Pressing this button activates the microphone embedded in the controller to allow users to speak to the assistant. While not everyone is thrilled at the idea of having a microphone listening to them inside their controller, we suppose we’ll just have to trust it’s only active during the use of the assistant.
The only other feature of the controller is the USB-C port at the top, which is necessary for linking to PC or to charge the internal battery pack. We’re definitely glad to see another USB-C port versus micro, but this is likely to become the norm with the next generation of consoles looming on the horizon.
If you purchased the Stadia pack (Founders or Premiere), there’s also a Chromecast Ultra included to let you to play on a TV. We won’t go too deep into this device, but it’s pretty basic. There’s a small input for power (micro USB to wall outlet) on one end, and an HDMI cable on the other that plugs into your TV. Additionally, there is an Ethernet port on the wall outlet to provide better internet speeds, which you’ll definitely want to use.
Though this process will likely change over time, the initial launch of Stadia proved to be a bit annoying in the setup department. This opinion was pretty widespread from other reviewers at launch, so it’s not just us.
To get things going here, you’re going to need a smartphone, computer, and TV equipped with the Chromecast Ultra. First, head to the app store and download the Stadia app. You must do this initial part on a phone, which is kind of annoying if you just want to use the service on my computer or TV.
Upon opening the app, you will need to link your Google account to your new Stadia account. You’ll also have to dig up the code that was emailed to you when you bought the Stadia, so have that ready. Once that’s done, it’ll run you through some initial setups where you’ll choose a profile name, avatar pic and also decide whether you want to use their Stadia Pro service. Our Founders Edition came with three free months of the service, but if yours did not, you’ll either have to skip that or pay $10 a month to gain access.
The controller itself will also need to connect to your home Wi-Fi network. This is also done in the app, so tap on the controller icon, connect it to your network and then let it run an update. The on-screen instructions are straightforward, so follow along until you establish a successful connection.
After initial setup, you now need to add games to your library, which you can only do in the app (seriously, why Google). Adding games from the app will then allow you to boot them up on any platform, but there’s one huge catch here. If you want to play on mobile, you can only do so on a Pixel phone. It seems pretty obvious here that Google is simply trying to push sales of their phones, but the fact remains that my more-than-capable Samsung Note 10+ cannot access Stadia to play games. This is really frustrating and one of the biggest downfalls of the service.
Frustrations aside, the next step is to connect the controller to either your computer or TV. Let’s go over the TV first and then use with a PC.
The setup process for Stadia is quite a pain, requiring you to download a total of two different Google apps and their internet browser.
To get your Stadia set up on the TV you must use the Chromecast Ultra that came with your Stadia package. For some strange reason, the Chromecast Ultra I already had hooked up wasn’t supported, despite being exactly the same as the one in the box. After first trying to use my original one, I received a message saying that this device wasn’t yet supported, but an update was “on the way.”
So with the new Chromecast connected, you’ll need to open the Google Home app (download it if you don’t already have it) and then add the Stadia code to your Chromecast’s screen. This toggle will show a Stadia Controller connect code via four unique inputs you’ll hit on the controller to sync it. Once you sync it, you can then launch your game of choice from the library, even on your phone.
To play Stadia on our PC, we connected the controller via USB, went to the Stadia website, linked our account, and then opened a game from our library in Chrome. You must use Chrome, meaning you’ll also need to download that if you don’t already use the browser.
As you can tell, the setup process for Stadia is quite a pain, requiring you to download a total of two different Google apps and their internet browser. In addition, they also don’t currently support Chromecasts that you already own, which further adds to the annoying list of setup problems.
Once you get it all sorted out initially, there aren’t too many headaches down the line, but the fact that Stadia requires all these Google apps and software means you’re locked into their services if you want to play. It feels a bit like you’re being forced into the Google ecosystem whether you like it or not, and that is far from the norm for traditional PC gaming where you have near-unlimited freedom on how you choose to play.
Setup headaches aside, once you get everything going with Stadia, the service does indeed work. In fact, it works quite well overall, depending on some key factors that can easily make or break your experience.
The single biggest factor that will impact your performance isn’t hardware like you’d usually experience with PC gaming (since your hardware isn’t actually doing the work), instead, it all boils down to internet speeds. If you live in a more remote area outside metropolitan zones and don’t have a speedy internet connection, you’re gonna have a bad time with Stadia. Since many people do fall into that category, Stadia has limited viability for who can successfully use the service.
We tested Stadia on two different internet connections, both over 100Mbps in a major metropolitan area of the U.S. Each of these provided solid experiences, but not everyone has access to speeds like this, which severely limits Google’s streaming platform. According to Google, you need at least 10Mbps to use Stadia with 720p or 1080p. For 4K, they recommend at least 35Mbps. Now, each of those numbers are the bare minimum, so we highly doubt those minimums would provide a stable, enjoyable experience, especially for competitive online games.
Personally, I tested the service primarily on TV or in Chrome via the browser (because mobile is only supported on Pixel phones), and both of these experiences were impressive for single-player experiences like Tomb Raider and Destiny 2.
Compared to my Xbox One X, the Stadia was surprisingly more detailed in games. Destiny 2 looked brilliant while exploring the Moon or milling about the Tower. Textures and particle effects were noticeably improved over consoles. That said, it wasn’t nearly as good as my full-fledged gaming PC (although the cost to achieve that is quite a stark contrast). Another thing to note is that current consoles are now quite old, and with the next-gen promising a big bump in performance, that noticeable difference might not last for long (though PC will undoubtedly still be king).
Compared to my Xbox One X, the Stadia was surprisingly more detailed in games.
While we’re on the topic of graphics, we need to burst the 4K Stadia bubble a bit here too. Though they claim titles are 4K and 60fps, the streaming service isn’t truly pushing a 4K image. For example, Destiny 2 is rendered natively at 1080p and then upscaled to 4K with Stadia. This information comes directly from Bungie themselves, and Destiny 2 isn’t the only title upscaling to 4K. If you want the best in terms of graphical prowess, you’re going to have to build a beefy PC rig. Stable and consistent frames is one area we found to be wholly accurate for the Stadia, and we were able to hit a pretty solid 60fps on TV and Chrome.
Aside from graphics, another major factor that needs to be covered here is latency. For most game streaming services currently available, latency can be a big problem, often making or breaking a service. Competitors like PlayStation Now and Nvidia GeForce Now have both struggled in this realm, but we found Stadia to be quite solid.
Since we had access to the same titles on Stadia that we had on Xbox, this was an easy element to test and compare. Despite the long list of potential factors that can impact latency, the difference felt minimal between the two platforms on our 200Mbps connection. The console might’ve had a very minor edge, but most gamers won’t really see a drastic disparity.
The impact of latency is also something that certain titles will be more or less affected by. With competitive modes like PVP in Destiny 2 or fighting games like Mortal Kombat 11, any problems with lag will be a much bigger issue. While single-player experiences aren’t as frustrating, competitive games on Stadia for those with slower speeds or more unstable connections could prove to be a deal-breaker.
All in all, the performance of Stadia is promising. Being able to boot up 4K (upscaled) titles with a consistent 60 FPS on your TV, browser or phone is a really cool experience, and a positive one at that.
Stadia’s interface and UI are about what you’d expect from any other Google product. It’s easy to navigate and understand, with a clean, minimal aesthetic. The main issue is that it feels quite barebones in this current “early access” form.
If you want to strictly use Stadia on your TV or browser, you’re often forced to keep your phone nearby to have the app readily available for many functions.
The segmentation of the platform is another annoying element. On mobile, the app feels like the most fleshed out form of Stadia. The app is where you do pretty much everything, like adding titles to your library, chatting with friends, configuring the controller, and more. If you want to strictly use Stadia on your TV or browser, you’re often forced to keep your phone nearby to have the app readily available for many functions.
One example is that if you want to play a game with your friend, but you don’t have it added to your library, you can’t even access it within Stadia from your TV or in Chrome. You’re forced to first open the app, add the title to your library and then you can play it on the other platforms.
Speaking of the library, there isn’t much of one right now either. At launch, there are currently only 22 titles available for Stadia owners. This is easily the most dismal catalog of games on any platform anywhere, but Google is promising to bolster this number in the days ahead. Even still, there are only another 20 or so titles to be added over the next several months.
Future promises seem to be the motto of Google for Stadia in its current form. In the future, Google has plans to add tons of stuff to the service, such as the ability to live-stream to YouTube in 4K while you’re playing in 4K, sharing in-game experiences for friends or followers to try themselves, mobile support for all Android and iOS phones, cross-platform multiplayer, and even games created specifically for Stadia by Google themselves (as well as tons of other things suggested by Google).
The service in its current form leaves a lot to be desired—often feeling more like a beta than a final product.
No one is really sure when or how many of these promises Google will actually deliver on, so it remains to be seen just how feature-rich Stadia will become later in the service’s lifetime. For now, at least, the basic concept works pretty well, but it’s certainly a limited experience compared to traditional console or PC gaming, as well as other streaming services from competitors.
It’s no secret that getting into PC gaming can be quite an expensive endeavor. Though the costs have come down a lot in certain areas, it’s still one of the more expensive platforms for gamers to dive into. One of the early concepts/goals of Stadia was to lower this entry cost for users by providing them the ability to play PC games with top-tier graphics without needing a costly system. So how well does the service achieve this goal?
In truth, the answer is a bit more complicated than a simple yes or no. For those with access to high-speed, stable internet connections, you could argue that Stadia certainly achieves this by allowing subscribers to get into 4K PC gaming for far, far less than a comparable gaming rig would cost. However, it doesn’t make sense for everyone, especially those in more remote areas with inferior internet access.
The Founders Edition retailed for $129, including a Stadia controller, a Chromecast Ultra and three months of the Pro service that gives access to four games at launch. This initial price is less than just about any new console, and way less than a basic gaming PC. This affordability is pretty enticing, but it comes with a few caveats.
One of the biggest drawbacks is that your potential library of games is miniscule compared to other platforms, and what you’ll gain access to in the future is up to Google to decide. In addition, you don’t own any of the games in your Pro subscription, so you’ll ultimately need to purchase these if you don’t want to pay the monthly fee.
One of the biggest drawbacks is that your potential library of games is minuscule compared to other platforms, and what you’ll gain access to in the future is up to Google to decide.
Streaming also means you need internet access to play anything. While just about every traditional platform allows you to play tons of games offline, you’re not going to have that option with Stadia.
On the upside, if you don’t want to pay $129 for the package, Stadia allows you to purchase the controller for $69, but you also don’t even need that to gain access to the service. Stadia lets users play games with any controller or input method (though some are unsupported at launch) so long as you pay for games within the service or subscribe. At $10 a month for access to Stadia, it’s definitely one of the most affordable options around for gamers, so it’s hard to argue against the price.
As we mentioned earlier in this review, Google isn’t the first player in the streaming game. There are many potential competitors on the market today, each with various upsides and downsides.
One of the most promising competitors in the space is Shadow’s streaming service. Compared to Stadia, Shadow has a lot of enticing differences, but it really depends on your personal preference and how you want to use either service for. Let’s take a quick look at what each has to offer.
While Stadia promises users a unique type of instant gaming access across any platform that has access to Chrome, Shadow provides a more personal, independent experience. Shadow allows subscribers to have access to their own remote PC, equipped with whatever array of hardware they’d like to pay for. With three different plans, Shadow users can use a remote PC with hardware ranging from Nvidia GTX 1080 GPU with 3.4GHZ four-core CPU, 12GB RAM and 256GB of storage, to a monstrous Nvidia Titan RTX GPU with 4GHZ six-core CPU, 32GB RAM and 1TB of storage.
Whichever PC Shadow subscribers choose to pay access for, they can then stream games to their computers, tablets, phones or even TVs equipped with a Shadow Ghost box. The biggest difference here is that unlike Stadia, Shadow allows you to choose any game you want to buy on any digital storefront, doesn’t force you to use a specific device (like a Pixel phone), and even lets you stream simultaneously on multiple devices.
As far as price goes to gain access to either service, Stadia is cheaper overall. For the Pro service, you only pay $10 a month, while the base simply requires you to purchase games within Stadia’s storefront. Shadow is more, at $35 per month, or $25 if you select an annual subscription, but it also provides superior graphics for those with slower internet speeds compared to Stadia. In addition, all the games you buy to use with Shadow are yours to keep forever and can then be accessed from whatever digital storefront you use (like Steam) on any PC.
Not terrible, but not the best game streaming service available now.
In the end, Stadia does indeed deliver on its basic concept, providing stable fps and beautiful graphics for those who have the bandwidth to support it. However, the service in its current form leaves a lot to be desired—often feeling more like a beta than a final product compared to other streaming services already in existence.
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