Google Stadia at First Blush

My wife’s friend got a free Stadia Premium with her YouTube Premium membership. She graciously asked if I’d want it. I can’t refuse adding another controller to my collection. It also gave me a chance to try out Google’s foray into the world of dedicated gaming hardware.

The “Console”

It’s just a Chromecast Ultra. Or my laptop. Or my iPhone.

The iPhone support was just rolled out and is clunky given the fact Apple has a stance against game streaming services in the App Store. The workaround is a web app. To get proper full screen play, you have to save the URL as a shortcut on the home screen. Far from ideal.

The Controller

The actual bulk of the box. I am happy the analog sticks are adjacent. All hail! The buttons are surprisingly clicky. They remind me of cell phone buttons, which actually makes a ton of sense. The D-Pad is good, much better than I expected for a first go from Google.

There are five buttons in the center of the controller; start, select, capture, Google Assistant, and the Stadia Home button. The first three make sense in this post PS4 share button world. The Google Assistant feels unnecessary, but extremely Google. I asked my controller what the weather was and it answered. Then I asked how much Cyberpunk 2077 cost and it started reading a GamesRadar+ article about how sweet and costly the $250 collector’s edition was for the game. Not quite what I expected or would have wanted. Unsurprisingly, the Google Assistant feature is not available on Chrome for macOS or the iPhone web app.

The trigger are easily the worst part. They are mushy. They remind me of the PS3 triggers and that is not a ringing endorsement.

You could also use on-screen controls, but I would stay away from those. It is pretty hard to tap four or five buttons at once.

Speed

When it comes to speed, the promise of Stadia isn’t the same as PS5 and Xbox Series consoles. It’s not so much load times as it is never having to install a patch or download a game again. It’s a different measurement of time, but still noticeable.

I was able to play the games I redeemed through Stadia Pro on my TV and my laptop without having to install squat. It’s impressive.

All of this game streaming comes at a cost of data though. I have played roughly 30-45 min of various games (mostly Celeste). According to my router, I have downloaded roughly 1.5GB during at playtime. Both my connections were wired and I was streaming in a max of 1080p resolution (the Chromecast is plugged into my monitor, not my 4K TV). Google claims that 4K gaming is roughly 20GB an hour.

While you may never have to download a game or patch with Stadia, eventually you will download more data than the game itself.

I did try Stadia on my iPhone over Wi-Fi and there was a noticeable difference in latency than through the wired connection. Not egregious, but noticeable nonetheless.

Set-Up

This should have been easy. Stadia should be plug and play, and it eventually is, but the initial set up did not go smoothly for me.

The controller and the Chromecast needed updates, which is par for the course. You have to use the Google Home app to start and manage these updates. Once the software is up to date, you have to connect the controller to the Chromecast through the Google Home app. This process failed for me and my controller was not connecting to any device. The help page that appeared after failed attempts was unclear. I had to Google around to figure out how to factory reset the controller. After that, I was able to successfully connect the devices.

This was a far more technical process than I had hoped for, making the initial barrier to playing higher.

After establishing a link between the controller, my account, and devices, the sync process has been solid. You enter a button combination on the screen you want to play on.

Games

I took advantage of a one month trial of Stadia Pro and redeemed a couple games I was familiar with to test; Celeste, Into the Breach, and Hitman 1 and 2. I did the guide for Celeste over at IGN as well as the first three episodes of Hitman 1. I felt pretty confident that I could get a grasp on if Stadia was performing up to the standard of local hardware.

On a wired connection, they all felt rock solid. It’s no secret that I have been skeptical of game streaming’s ability to perform soundly. Color me impressed.

In a precision platformer like Celeste I didn’t notice any perceptible latency when using a wired connection. Over Wi-Fi on my iPhone, Celeste just off enough that I’d have to adapt to its off kilter timing. I would never want to play a platformer like that. I imagine that having the controller connect to the servers directly over Wi-Fi helps alleviate lag, more so when the picture/game is hardlined to the Internet.

Stadia is better than I thought. Game streaming impresses me just as much as it did when I played Just Cause 3 on my Vita for guide work while at my girlfriend’s (now wife) house. The technology is cool, convenient, and additive. It’s nowhere near replacing dedicated hardware for myself, but I am curious to see where it goes from here.