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Google Stadia Review: Good, But Unfinished

By Christopher Coke on November 18, 2019 | Hardware Reviews | Comments

Google Stadia Review: Good, But Unfinished

What would gaming be if we removed the need for expensive hardware? That’s the question Google set out to answer with Google Stadia. It did so with a bold promise: cloud-based gaming that would completely remove the need to buy into expensive upgrade cycles. No more pricey GPUs or mid-life console updates. Just as importantly, Stadia would integrate advanced features to make games more interactive than ever. We’ve seen similar promises before but never from a company as large and well-integrated as Google. Did they succeed?

We’ve spent the last few days putting the Stadia through its paces to find out exactly that. Let’s find out.

[Editor's Note] After we completed our review of Stadia, Google's Phil Harrison announced via Twitter a near-doubling of their launch line-up, bringing the total game count to 22. We still feel solid in our findings as the line-up, while better for early adopters, is sparse compared to competitors with both PlayStation Now and traditional PC/Console set-ups.

Specifications

Current Price: $129

Stadia Controller

  • Dimensions: 163 mm (6.42 in) x 105 mm (4.13 in) x 65 mm (2.56 in)
  • Weight: 268g (9.45 oz)
  • Wi-Fi: Dual-band (2.4GHz / 5GHz) IEEE 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac connectivity
  • Bluetooth: Bluetooth Low Energy 4.2 (BLE)
  • Headset jack: 3.5mm headset jack for headsets with or without microphone
  • USB: USB-C port for charging, wired gameplay, and accessories such as USB-C headsets. HID-compliant
  • Google Assistant button to trigger microphone
  • Capture button: Quick access to image and video capture
  • Battery: Internal rechargeable Li-Ion battery

Google Chromecast Ultra

  • Dimensions: 58.20 mm (2.29 in) x 13.70 mm (0.53 in) x 58.20 mm (2.29 in)
  • Weight: Device: 1.6 oz (47 g), Adapter: 3.5 oz (101 g)
  • Resolution: Supports all resolutions up to 4K Ultra HD and high dynamic range (HDR) for stunning picture quality.
  • Wireless: 802.11ac (2.4GHz/5Ghz) 1x2 MISO Wi-Fi for high-performance streaming
  • Power: Power supply required and included
  • Ports & Connectors:
    • HDMI plugs directly into the TV
    • Micro-USB for power and data
    • Ethernet port on the power adapter for hard-to-reach Wi-Fi spots in your home
  • Supported Operating Systems
    • Android 4.2 and higher
    • iOS 9.1 and higher
    • macOS® X 10.9 and higher
    • Windows 7 and higher
  • Color: Black

Unboxing, Setup, and First Impressions

My experience getting up and running with the pre-release model may be a bit different from yours, but I think most people will be fairly surprised at just how simple it is. In essence, what you’re really buying with the Premiere Edition is the controller and a Chromecast Ultra. It’s well-presented and elegant with the “silver and white” colorway of the packaging, but it’s a good indicator of just how little you actually need to have to get up and running. You don’t even need the controller if you plan to play on PC and have an Xbox or PS4 gamepad already.

Getting set up is incredibly simple. After plugging the Chromecast Ultra into a spare HDMI port, you’ll go through a few short steps to get it set-up through the Google Home app on your smartphone. Google Stadia is a separate app which does a quick scan to connect to your Chromecast, identify your Stadia controller, and guide your through a prompt to get it linked up. I had to redeem my game codes through the account website, but Google was quick to point out that this entire process will be refined and streamlined for what consumers will actually experience.

The controller feels surprisingly good. It’s a very intentional middle-ground between the Xbox One’s controller and Sony’s DualShock 4. The buttons and triggers feel good, right up there with their console counterparts. The D-Pad is also quite good, which is especially important as Stadia is launching with a fighting game, Mortal Kombat 11 (brave, I know).

After I walked through the process, I have to admit to being genuinely surprised at how simple it was. I even had the extra steps of connecting the Chromecast over WiFi to my living room’s 5GHz connection (ethernet is recommended wherever possible), and it was still very straightforward and guided. Once Google simplifies it further, it will likely turn out to be the simplest setup of any gaming platform available for your TV today. 

Cloud Gaming with Google Stadia

Once you’re set up and have games, you can launch them through your TV or right from the Stadia app on your phone. If you’re running a Pixel, you can link up a controller and play directly on the device, which is great for swapping your screen if you need to hand over the TV at any point. There’s a good 20 second or more delay to launching a game, especially if it decides to run a connection test, so it’s not as instantaneous as the pre-release demos made it seem. But it is rather neat to be up and playing inside of a minute of making the purchase.

Playing games over Stadia could be inconsistent but was largely quite good. At times the experience was great and in a blind test I would be challenged to pick out a Stadia game from one playing on my PS4. In those moments, you can really see the promise that Stadia offers. Even when it stumbled, I only ever saw a single compression artifact when playing through the Chromecast. That isn’t to say I didn’t see them anywhere or that there aren’t areas where the Stadia challenged me.

Ironically, connecting over the Chromecast and playing on my 4K TV - the big push for launch - gave me the most trouble. I was surprised to see Mortal Kombat 11 was a launch game since the fighting genre depends so highly on low input lag. As a first test of how Stadia would perform, it failed. Loading into a match against the CPU, there was a small but noticeable delay between my button presses and what Kung Lao did on the screen. Across several matches, the lag went noticeably up and down, but I would never enter a competitive match or even anything beyond easy difficulty with that experience.

After that, loading into Destiny, I noticed the same input lag. As a result, my character felt especially sluggish and I would often over-aim and miss enemies.

Playing both of these games and several others on my PC and an ethernet connection, these issues were completely solved. In fact, every game I played through Stadia on my PC performed wonderfully. Input lag wasn’t an issue once, even with Mortal Kombat, and I can confidently say that I’d have no concerns stepping up to my normal difficulty with the responsiveness it provided.

While it would be easy to chalk it up to the difference between wired and wireless connections, which may indeed be the case, it’s worth noting that my 5GHz connection was being broadcast by a mesh extender three feet from the Chromecast and download/upload tests were consistent with my wired connection (100Mbs download/10Mbps upload). On a whim, I connected the Chromecast to the extender with an ethernet cable but, again, no change.

On PC, I was reminded of nothing more than Netflix. Launching a game was often clearly at a lower resolution than 1080p and would scale up after a few seconds. Compression artifacts also appeared at the launch of every game, every time. You can see an example of this in the picture below; Red Dead Redemption 2 left, Mortal Kombat 11 right (these photos of the screen since I was unable to screenshot). In actual gameplay, this would disappear in all but solid black colors and even then weren’t always visible.

Put succinctly, there were issues, but on PC and when the Chromecast was at its best, the streams were actually very good. Playing Gylt before writing this, I was struck by just how good it really was. If you can’t afford a gaming PC or console but do have a fast internet connection, Stadia could absolutely be a viable option to have access to the latest games. Since it’s only likely to get better in time, Stadia still maintains that initial promise it was announced with.

An Unfinished Product

All of that said, Stadia just isn’t finished. So much of what it was announced with is absent and set to come some time after launch. Sharing game states, Crowd Play, Stream Connect, even the ability to use existing Chromecast Ultras and non-Pixel phones are all absent at launch. Without these, what could be an especially interesting platform falls right alongside PlayStation Now as a plain jane streaming service. Except, unlike PlayStation Now, you have to buy the games.

The game line-up is also quite sparse at launch and composed near-entirely of older games. They’re good, but three of the twelve are Tomb Raider titles. Thumper came out in 2016, Red Dead Redemption 2 and Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey are a year old… you get the point. Gylt and Kine are both new, and Gylt especially has won my heart, but small indies and old hits I already own on other systems are hardly platform sellers.

The killer feature and real differentiator is the versatility Stadia brings. Once existing Chromecast Ultras are updated and new TVs roll out with Stadia built in, it will be as simple as buying a controller and joining in the lastest, most exciting games to hit the platform. When someone needs the TV, you can send it to your laptop or Pixel and keep playing right from where you left off. When you’re on a break from work or school,

you can log-in and start playing right there. That’s genuinely cool and exciting.

Final Thoughts

So is Google Stadia worth running out and buying? I’m not so sure. My issues with input lag on the Chromecast may be unique to me, but given the strength of the connection and my network’s configuration around gaming, I question that. Even if I focused explicitly on the excellent PC experience Stadia offers, it’s hard to shake the feeling that this is a beta roll-out. So many missing features and a sparse game library leave me feeling that waiting, even just a little while, will lead to a better experience overall.

There’s a pearl of something excellent here. I love swapping screens. I love that I can play anywhere within seconds of logging into the website. If Google keeps developing it, Stadia could become the premiere game streaming service money can buy. It just needs more time in the oven to finish those missing features, build up the game library, and tighten up loose ends in the streaming experience.

Pros

  • Great controller - very well done
  • Easy to set up and get playing fast
  • PC experience is outstanding, no noticeable input lag
  • Switching screens is an excellent feature to keep playing in a busy house
  • Affordable way to play games and escape the hardware cycle

Cons

  • Input lag through Chromecast Ultra (could be unique to me)
  • Compression artifacts and resolution jumping when loading games
  • Sparse game library
  • Many missing features at launch

The product described in this article was provided by the manufacturer for the purpose of review.

Christopher Coke / Chris cut his teeth on MMOs in the late 90s with text-based MUDs. He’s written about video games for many different sites but has made MMORPG his home since 2013. Today, he acts as Hardware and Technology Editor, lead tech reviewer, and continues to love and write about games every chance he gets. Follow him on Twitter: @GameByNight