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Google Stadia – review

November 21st, 2019 by

Google-Stadia-Price-Specs-Launch-Date (1)Call it what you will; curiosity, lunacy, whatever, but I’ve always been happy to take a punt on new the new hotness in tech. Sometimes it pays off and you’re ahead of the curve, other times you’re left with an expensive pile of borderline useless, unsupported gadgets. Related; I maintain MiniDisc was a great format, do not @ me.

The possibilities of streaming has been something that’s fascinated me over the last few years. Remote Play between the PlayStation 4 and the Vita was my first taste, and I was entirely sold on the concept when, stuck in a pub in Manchester Piccadilly train station, a chap called Xûr appeared in Destiny selling an item that would go on to reach mythical status; the Gjallarhorn. I took out my recently bought Vita, logged on to my PS4 at home, and picked up one of the most OP weapons in the franchise.

Since that day I’ve tried out every option for streaming that I can get my hands on; OnLive, GeForce Now, Shadow, Steam Remote Play, xCloud, and various others have been put through their paces, with varying degrees of success. I’m aware of the inherent limitations, most of which are caused by internet infrastructure, but I believe it’s a field that has huge possibilities.

When Google announced Stadia, it was a no brainier for me. I’m already pretty solidly tied into Google’s ecosystem thanks to Android, and the inclusion of Destiny 2 with the launch package made it a day one order. Even with my general enthusiasm for the concept, I’ve spent the last few months close to cancelling on several occasions. There’s been negative feedback almost constantly, an (arguably) weak game line up, plus Google’s propensity to get bored and ditch something when it’s not working out for them.

Jitters aside, I took delivery of my Stadia hardware today and Founder’s code yesterday, giving me ample time to try out Google’s gaming platform. Here’s a rundown of my thoughts so far.

Packaging

For someone used to getting new hardware in large cardboard boxes, the Stadia box was a pleasant surprise; smaller than a shoebox. Opening it you’re immediately greeted by the Stadia Controller, with the Founders version a deep shade of blue. Underneath the pad are the only other things you need; a Chromecast Ultra, a charger that also houses an Ethernet socket, and a charger and cable for the controller itself. The controller charges over USB C so the included plug isn’t needed at all times, however there is some oddities here. The plug and cable are USB A and there isn’t a USB C to USB C included in the box, meaning that if you wanted to connect the Stadia Controller your phone (which you have to right now), you’ll need to pick up a different cable. It’s a strange choice, especially considering Google’s Pixel range of handsets come with USB C plugs and cables, plus the general move to that format across laptop manufacturers.

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Stadia Controller

The controller itself is a good size and weight, although – and I can’t quite put my finger on it – feels slightly less ergonomic that Sony, Microsoft, or Nintendo’s offerings. I feel the most similar is the Switch Pro Controller, but with the PlayStation style stick layout. That said, anyone who has picked up a controller over the last decade or so will feel right at home.

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Set up

Getting Stadia working was a mostly painless experience. Plug the Chromecast Ultra into your TV or A/V Receiver, connect it to the power, then set up the Chromecast using the on-screen prompts and the Google Home app. You have the option of running the Ultra off WiFi but it’s recommended to do it via Ethernet, so I did as instructed. I ran into one small issue where the device wouldn’t see my router, but a reboot of the Home Hub fixed that so I’m laying the blame at BT’s door rather than Google’s.

You’re then prompted to connect a Stadia Controller, which you do via the Stadia app. Again, I had no issues here. The controller had a firmware update pushed to it and you connect via a four button combination of the XYAB buttons.

All in all, getting Stadia ready to go took less than 10 minutes, including updates being pushed to both the controller and the Chromecast.

Interface

I’ll break this down into two sections; the TV experience and the app experience.

The TV side of Stadia is barebones. Pressing the guide key brings up a slide out menu that allows you to see how your connection is holding, to pair a controller, change some audio settings, and start a party. That’s your whole lot. Right now there’s no front end dashboard to Stadia’s TV experience, meaning nearly everything you want to do needs to be done via the app. It’s not even possible to add a friend via the TV at this stage.

The app is, thankfully, more full featured. All the social side is there, as is the store interface. Launching games can be done via the app, where it gives you the choice to launch on the mobile device or on the TV screen. Similarly, handing off between devices is controlled on the app too.

One feature that I particularly like is captures are automatically stored on your mobile device, yet Google have somehow conspired to cock this up. This would be a great way to share the pictures and video clips but, in some absolutely baffling oversight, there’s no way to share the captures. Currently, anything you take is for your eyes only.

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In use

I know, I know. Most of you have skipped to this section, understandably. As a quick answer; yes, it works, but with caveats.

Where necessary, I’ll again talk about the differences between the TV and mobile experiences. I’ll also be talking mostly about Destiny 2, as it’s a title that I’ve put many hours into across PC and console, and I feel it’s the best point of comparison I have.

Firstly, simply loading a game. For a direct comparison I loaded Destiny 2 on a PS4 Pro, an Xbox One X, my main gaming PC (7700k, 32gb RAM, 1080ti, with the game installed to an NVMe drive), and Stadia. The time is taken from the moment I open the game from the respective launcher or dashboard to the character select screen, and all systems are wired via Ethernet to try to keep a level playing field.

Platform Time (minutes:seconds)
PS4 Pro 2:29
Xbox One X 1:54
PC 0:49
Stadia 0:47

 

As you can see, it’s incredibly quick, and that includes the time for the Chromecast to link to the Controller. If you’ve already done that, for example if you’re jumping on from another game, it’s even quicker; a mere 28 seconds to boot. The difference between console and Stadia here is so dramatic I repeated the tests to make sure there wasn’t a server issue, but with similar results.

Destiny 2 runs at 4K/30fps on the two consoles, and is a well optimised game on PC with a good amount of options to scale for your system specs. It’s an undoubtedly attractive game too, full of visual flourish. The Stadia version drops the resolution to 1080p, but bumps the frame rate to 60fps, with the settings roughly equal to Medium presets on PC. While the frame rate increase is welcome (as someone who moved from console to PC, Destiny 2 on console feels like wallowing through glue), the image is noticeably softer on Stadia when running through the Chromecast to a 4K TV set, with less visual effects. There’s also no settings to play with to try to squeeze a little extra out of it, plus no increased FOV either, a major bonus of the PC version.

Despite this, being able to play a FPS like Destiny on a mobile phone feels like witchcraft. The 1080p resolution doesn’t matter on a smaller screen and, despite how powerful mobile devices have got nothing can match what’s on offer here.

My home broadband is around 60mb down and 20mb up, above Google’s recommended 35mb for 4K, and I’m pleased to say I’ve not seen any lag spikes or hitching when I’ve been playing Destiny, neither wired on the Chromecast or over WiFi on my phone.

A word on warning for those thinking of playing on connections with a data limit; Stadia chomps through it. A quick run around the starting area in Destiny, which took sub 3 minutes, rinsed through over 500mb of data.

Latency is another matter, and it’s a curious one that might depend on where you’ve played before. During testing I played for a few minutes on the Xbox One X before shifting to Stadia and latter felt absolutely fine, no doubt aided by the doubled frame rate. Switching from PC to Stadia was another matter though. The delay in controller to screen responsiveness threw me slightly, and I kept overcompensating when aiming at targets. I did adjust to it over time, and felt confident enough to swing by Destiny’s PvP mode and put in a 36 kill game, however it certainly wasn’t as good an experience as I’m used to normally. Compared to other streaming platforms I will say, entirely subjectively, that Stadia’s latency feels considerably better.

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Unlike some disappointing experiences that other reviewers have suffered through, I’ve had a pretty positive first day with Stadia. At a base level, it works as described; with any Bluetooth controller I can pull my phone out and jump into a variety of games, from AAA blockbusters to indie titles, with extremely small load times. That said, I do feel like Google have an uphill battle on their hands. The barebones interface does Stadia no favours, plus there’s a whole raft of negative connotations regarding streaming that they’ll be hard pressed to counter. As Sony and Microsoft become more active players in the streaming game it may lead to a softening of opinions, but then that opens a whole new raft of problems for them. Gamers are often deeply entrenched in their chosen ecosystem, and no matter of missteps by the platform holder will shift their allegiance.

The current pricing model will hold them back too. The £8.99 a month fee doesn’t seem like great value when you need to buy the games on top, and a freebie a month isn’t going to cut it in a post-Game Pass market. If anything, I can’t help but feel that Google should have entirely copied the Game Pass model, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them pivot to that in the not too distant future, especially if Stadia’s uptake isn’t in line with expectations.

Finally, Google’s own history is a black mark against them. As a long time Google user I’ve lost count of the number of services, many of them extremely useful, polished, and generally good, that Google have shuttered when they no longer were part of the strategy. A year or two from now, if Stadia doesn’t hit the numbers they want, will they persevere?

It’s undoubtedly a bold step by Google, moving into a space that’s absolutely dominated by a few longstanding leaders, who shift incredible volumes of hardware each year and control the mindset. The idea of being in a platform that you never have to upgrade is attractive, but with underlying performance questions that they can’t really overcome until the technology that underpins the internet fundamentally changes, I wonder if Google may have stepped into this fight a little too early.

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One Response to “Google Stadia – review”
  1. avatar Adamski UK says:

    Controller looks like it’s straight out of No Man’s Sky with those colours.
    Nice experimentation Matt – glad you did it a number of times and didn’t just rely on the first result.
    …and I didn’t need to look up any long words in this review either, so thanks for that.

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