Google Stadia launched nearly two years ago as a way to play big-name video games on any device via the cloud, and the reception was mixed, to say the least. While Google’s game-streaming technology has worked well since day one, its limited library and functionality left a lot to be desired.
Fast forward to 2021, and a whole lot has changed — and not just for Stadia. The powerful new PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X consoles are in the wild, but they’re still extremely difficult to find, and will cost you upward of $500 if you’re lucky enough to get one. That helps reframe Stadia as a much more accessible means of trying out hot titles like Cyberpunk 2077 and Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, since you can buy and play them using the phone, computer or TV you already have.
When you combine that accessibility with some improvements to game selection and hardware pricing over the years, is Google Stadia finally worth it? The short answer is yes — for a very specific gamer, at least.
Accessible cloud gaming
Google Stadia isn’t for everyone, but this cloud-based gaming service can be a strong alternative to console and PC gaming for casual or budget-concious fans.
Who it’s for: Google Stadia is ideal for folks who want to play blockbuster games like Marvel’s Avengers and Red Dead Redemption 2 but don’t want to shell out the cash for a console (or simply can’t find one).
What you need to know: Google Stadia allows you to stream games to pretty much any phone, computer or TV, and retain your progress no matter where you play. It’s free to start, but most big games will cost you $40 to $60 each, and there’s a $10-per-month subscription plan that gets you additional games and extra perks (like 4K and surround sound while streaming). You’ll also need solid internet speeds for the best experience.
How it compares: Google Stadia stands out from other cloud services with some of its bigger titles, as it’s one of the few places you can buy and play the likes of Resident Evil Village or Borderlands 3 without owning a console or PC. But Microsoft’s $15-per-month Xbox Game Pass Ultimate service (which includes cloud streaming) offers far more games for the money, and is better for folks who also play on Xbox or PC. Amazon’s Luna is also a compelling alternative for those who would rather pay a subscription, as you get a solid library of nearly 100 games for $7 per month.
If there’s one area where Google Stadia succeeds with very few caveats, it’s performance — at least on my home internet. Google’s gaming service consistently streamed titles at a high fidelity with minimal latency in my tests, to the point where I often forgot that I was playing these games from the cloud and not directly from a console or PC.
I tried out Stadia on a number of phones and computers, but it really shone when I used it on my TV via a Google Chromecast Ultra. I very quickly got lost in the sci-fi world of Cyberpunk 2077, as everything from the neon-soaked streets of Night City to the grizzled, patterned faces of my shady compatriots rendered in gorgeous detail at 4K. And once I found myself in the middle of a shootout, there was no significant lag to keep me from landing headshots and sneaking up on bad guys with precision.
I had a similar experience with other games and genres — the pastel-colored fantasy worlds of Trine 4 looked especially gorgeous when streaming via Chromecast Ultra, while high-intensity action games like Far Cry 5 and Grime felt fluid and responsive as I shot and sliced enemies. I did notice a bit of pixelation when streaming on other platforms, including a MacBook Pro, a Surface Laptop 4, a Galaxy Note 10 and my Windows PC, but the gameplay experience felt similarly solid across every device I played on. In fact, the frenetic demon-slaying action of Doom felt much smoother and more playable on Stadia than it did on Xbox Cloud Streaming when I played it on both platforms side by side on the same PC.
Whether I was on a phone, a computer or my TV, I could fire up the same library of Stadia games with a few clicks, and my progress synced across platforms. There are a few quirks here, though; folks on an iPhone or iPad will have to stream their games via a web browser and not the Stadia app, due to Apple’s rules around game streaming. This works in Safari (the preinstalled browser) or in third-party options like Chrome.
It’s not a massive inconvenience (and Xbox Game Streaming and Amazon Luna have the same restriction), and Stadia games still performed well on iPhone. Still, it’d be nice to be able to launch games right from the iOS app like you can on Android, rather than use it exclusively for browsing and buying titles. The Stadia experience on Chromecast or TV (many modern sets with Android TV software are supported) has the opposite problem, with a pretty bare-bones interface that lets you launch games and do little else.
Firing up Stadia on a TV simply reveals a long, horizontal list of your games sorted by how recently you played them, with no option to organize or sort your library, view your friends’ screenshots and videos or buy new games (you’ll need to do that on the app or on the web). This doesn’t take away from how easy it is to play games on Stadia on any device, but it’d be nice to take advantage of everything the service has to offer in a single place.
On top of giving you plenty of options for where to play, Stadia is also pretty flexible in terms of how you play. You can connect pretty much any modern controller via Bluetooth or USB, use a mouse and keyboard on PC or even utilize touch controls on mobile on both the Android app and the browser-based iOS experience.
But let’s start with using Google’s own Stadia Controller with a Chromecast, which you’ll get with the $79 Stadia Premiere Edition set. Opting for this bundle will let you replicate the same plug-and-play TV experience you’d get from a console.
The Stadia Controller (which is also sold on its own for $69) is a solid piece of hardware, with an ergonomic and hefty design that feels like a mix between the latest Xbox and PlayStation controllers. It was comfortable to use for hours at a time, but like Sony’s DualSense controller, it feels just a tiny bit wide for my hands. If you’ve used a gaming controller from the last 15 years or so, you’ll feel pretty at home here — the familiar A,B,X,Y and shoulder buttons are all present, in addition to dual thumbsticks and a directional pad for those more precise platformers.
Unique to the Stadia controller is a capture button for snagging screenshots and gameplay clips, as well as a Google Assistant button for asking Google’s AI for help with all sorts of things. Both of these buttons worked reliably, and I was particularly impressed by the Google Assistant functionality. In addition to being able to perform typical Assistant commands, such as asking for the time or weather, I was also able to use it to get tips on the games I was playing.
For example, when I pressed the Assistant button and asked, “What’s the best gun in Cyberpunk 2077?” it read aloud an excerpt from an article outlining some of the game’s top weapons. This isn’t a feature that I expect to use a ton, but it is a pretty neat extra to have.
But what really makes the Stadia Controller shine is that it connects over Wi-Fi rather than Bluetooth, which allows you to use it with a bunch of different devices without having to re-pair it every time you change platforms. Since the controller is connected to the cloud, you can simply enter the four-button code that shows up when you launch Stadia on a browser, app or on your TV in order to get connected. And save for a few slightly annoying moments where I had to enter our code several times to get it registered, this system largely worked pretty smoothly.
But even if you decide to forgo Google’s own hardware, Stadia is a pretty plug-and-play experience that you can use with whatever input devices you happen to have lying around. I really appreciate how flexible Google’s streaming service is here — I was able to use my DualShock 4 and Xbox Wireless Controller on both mobile and PC, as well as my mouse and keyboard anytime I was on a computer. Even dodging obstacles and enemies in Moonlighter using touch controls on my iPhone worked well.
This actually gives Stadia a slight edge over Xbox Cloud Gaming, which currently doesn’t support mouse and keyboard controls on PC and only offers touch-based mobile controls on
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