Google Stadia is not a console. Google calls it a “cloud-native” system that uses the intimate integration of gaming components in the data center to – at least in theory – guarantee a system that enables truly different gaming experiences. At the same time, it delivers a generation leap in terms of computing power compared to current consoles. At the same time, implementations of multiplatform titles are to be expected, Google itself has already demonstrated one of them: Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, which US citizens were able to play extensively as part of a project stream beta at the end of last year. Now we could try the game again at GDC, with Google’s own controller hardware and on the latest version of the streamer.

Also, it’s a great opportunity to find some answers to questions the Project Stream Beta couldn’t answer. Was it actually running on Google’s new Linux and Vulkan-based platform, or was it just an infrastructure test based on PC code – or something completely different?

“It’s a complete implementation,” Google’s Phil Harrison told me. “ built the game entirely for Stadia. They’re even giving a keynote at GDC on how they got the game going.”

In our first analysis, we got the impression of a game that was very, very close to the PC version in 1080p resolution, some elements were well above the quality we are used to from the console, which we saw from this game on the Xbox One X. .

“Correct, but they started on console. It’s not that they took the PC version and ported it,” explains Stadia Vice Majd Bakar. “You can tell by the fact that the UI changes depending on which controller you plug in. I wouldn’t call it a console port, I’d rather go to the talk. Google and the team that did the work for Project Stream hold on to.” We’ll talk about how they did it and what workflow they followed. “

we’ll get back to you as soon as we hear more details on how Assassin’s Creed Odyssey got on Stadia. But now we’ve had the chance to try the game again, knowing that it will actually run on Stadia hardware, and apparently on a revised version of the backend streaming technology.

The game is not quite where it wants to be, however. The demo we were playing was still running at the 30 FPS of the Project Stream demo and the image quality was still 1080p. Google promises 4K and HDR for the finished version. Also, the version we saw lacked any YouTube integration. And of course we’re not moving into a controlled test environment for the following tests, but we can discuss some new clues about system performance and get hands on new hardware – this is the only new piece of hardware that Google has will be released at the launch of Stadia.

The controller: Google’s only piece of hardware

We have already clarified that Google does not build a console itself. Instead, the company uses the widespread use of the Chrome browser and its Android operating system to turn computers and phones into streaming clients, while Chromecast turns any HDMI display into a game machine. What is missing is a controller. For computer owners, any USB HID device will work – a DualShock 4 or Xbox joypad – for example. However, those who use Google’s Chromecast do not have an input device, of course. This is where Google’s controller, see picture below, comes into play.

This device sets itself apart from the others in three aspects. First of all, although you can connect it to a computer with a USB-C cable (it worked fine on my Mac), it is primarily WiFi-based. The Google Controller is actually its own client, which means that it creates a direct connection to the cloud server and does not have to go through your screen, phone or computer. This also makes it easier to take your game instance with you from one screen to the next – the server instance remains by default and it doesn’t matter whether you play the game on the living room TV or on the laptop. The controller also has a share button (Stadia automatically picks up a 4K60 stream from your game) and on top of that there is the option to call up the Google Assistant for voice control of traditional UI functions (although there is of course a normal UI as well). So yes: the Google Pad has a built-in microphone.

After my session with the controller, I would say that what it lacks in characterful looks, it makes up for in terms of response time. The feeling of the controller, right down to the plastic, feels a lot like Xbox. And if you are used to the pad, you will feel right at home here.

Not exactly a charismatic design masterpiece, but the functionality and response time is on point.

Google Stadia: Latency Test – new test from Assassin’s Creed Odyssey

But what about the games? Assassin’s Creed Odyssey set a good example in the Project Stream demo, and it’s still Google’s flagship. In our earlier tests on our internet connection at home, we found a button-to-pixel latency of 179ms. The game – which we now know is a full implementation of the console version – runs at 1080p at 30 frames per second, a frame rate that does its part to the general leak. For our measurements we use a LAN connection to the router with a bandwidth of 200mbps.

I had the opportunity to try out the system with a later version of the streamer and played the game on a Google Pixelbook with ChromeOS and a WiFi connection. The chances are not bad that the internet connection here is even better than the 200mbps we used before. But even though we used WiFi (which contributed up to 10ms to the lag in our previous tests) and we don’t know the display lag of the Pixelbook, our most reliable button-to-pixel result was 166ms. Google also offers developers a “worst-case scenario” mode with which tests can be carried out in adverse conditions; this simulates a weak 15mbps DSL line.

Because too many variables come together in these two tests, I wanted to provide an overview of latencies under different conditions. In the second row of the table are the end-to-end results for the local experience. The LG C television that we used for testing has 21 ms lag in game mode.

We played Assassin’s Creed Odyssey on a Pixelbook and measured the latency between key presses and response with a fast 240 FPS camera.

Google Stadia*Google Stadia 15mbps**Project StreamPC 30fpsPC 60fpsXbox One X

Latency 166ms* 188ms* 179ms 112ms 79ms 145ms
Latency (inklusive Display-Lag)*** 166ms 188ms 200ms 133ms 100ms 166ms

* Stadia testing was done on a Google connection, while our Project Stream testing was done “in the wild” at a 200mbps. The Stadia tests also include a screen latency of the Pixelbook that we cannot measure and were carried out on a WiFi network. Both of these factors add their own latency, while our stream demo tests were conducted using a LAN cable connection to the router.

** The ’15mbps’ mode is a simulation open to developers and is intended to simulate an unstable connection. Both resolution (1080p becomes 720p) and quality suffer in this mode.

*** This comparison measures end-to-end latency. The local machines are attached to a LG C8 OLED display in gaming mode, which applies a lag of 21 ms. The latency of the Pixelbook is unknown.

Of course, this is not a controlled test environment and Google’s connection here may make a mess of the 200mbps line on which we tested Project Stream. But the tests still give the impression that something has changed since the last time. A complete frame of latency is eliminated, with a probability bordering on certainty even more than that, because we cannot quantify the lag of the Pixelbook WiFi and display. Assassin’s Creed may not be the best example of testing as it’s a pretty lagging game natively. It will therefore be interesting to take a closer look at faster 60 FPS titles.

As far as the response times of the controller are concerned, AC Odyssey on Stadia is close to the local gaming experience – time-critical movements such as evasive maneuvers can be carried out without any problems – and that leads us to another point of latency. We tested it with the Pixelbook keyboard, while Google says that direct WiFi connection to the server gives you further latency benefits.

One thing that surprised me, given the Stadia specs, is the decision to limit it to 30 frames per second. With a 10.7 TF graphics core and a fast server CPU, we would expect the Stadia port of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey to run at 60 FPS. Based on the results that we experienced here with the PC version at 60 FPS, the latency should be 33 ms higher. The Xbox One X version already scores confusingly high in terms of latency – to the point where Stadia does. Based on the PC results, the streaming version would trump the Xbox version at full frame rate.

Google Stadia: tests of image quality

If you have a very good internet connection, Stadia supports 4K videos at 60 frames per second and HDR support. Based on the discussions with Google, however, we expect 1080p streaming to be the norm for connections with around 25 Mbps bandwidth. Stadia can go below that, down to 720p60 for connections in the 15Mbps range. With an artificial limitation, however, fast action ensures visible artifacts on large televisions. Google itself regards this as a “worst-case scenario”. It would look much better on a smaller screen.

In this image quality comparison, you can see how the latest version of Google’s Streamer is keeping up with the same scenes that were tested as before in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. Overall, the quality on offer appears to be the same – with perhaps a few tweaks in more demanding scenes. All in all, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey looks good and sacrificing quality doesn’t unduly affect the gaming experience.

Stadia is perfectly playable and presentable. But there are also clear visual effects when the encoder – a Google creation and not part of the AMD GPU – is dealing with more detailed, faster scenes. This gives rise to two concerns. For one, the demo only runs at 30 FPS, even though Stadia has more than enough power to play the game at 60 frames per second (taking into account the requirements of the PC version). Every other frame is identical, which makes life easier for the encoder – but this also means that artifacts can be seen on the screen for twice as long, which makes them easier to notice.

Stadia’s Mac output has a different gamma curve than the PC we used in our last stream test, but as you can see, the versions look very similar overall.
In Motion, Stadia seems to have made small improvements over the stream demo, but fast-paced action and detailed scenes definitely put the encoder to the test when compared to local hardware.
Fast movements can lead to some macroblocking and color banding, as seen here in the sky. The effect looks almost identical in both versions of Google’s Streamer.In slower scenes, Google’s streamer can keep up really well.

The dynamic shadow quality of the two characters is superior to the Xbox One X on the PC and on both Google streamers. Interestingly, you can see more details in the shadow area on the PC. Xbox and Google behave very similarly here.The foliage rendering is different for all versions – it has the lowest density on the Xbox One X.

On the other hand, there are games out there that are visually far more complex and would pose an even greater challenge for the encoder. Developers could add effects like motion blur to their post-effects pipeline, which can be visually pleasing and less of a problem for the streamer. In general, Assassin’s Creed could certainly benefit from an optional motion blur effect!

Google Stadia: first impressions

There are a few things we take away from our Stadia hands-on, both positive and negative. First of all, we must emphasize that the tests we carried out were not conducted under controlled conditions. And even with that in mind, the controller’s responsiveness was the best I’ve seen in a cloud system. I spent some time with Assassin’s Creed Odyssey on Xbox and what Ubisoft and Google are delivering with their port actually feels very similar. The latency is higher than on the PC, especially at 60 FPS. But I wonder if, in the end, the latency is the decisive factor or the consistency, considering the wide delta in the display delay.

Also think about the input lag values ​​that we reported back then for important FPS titles. Both Doom 2016 and CoD: Infinite Warfare are 60 Hz shooters, but we noticed a 47 ms latency difference between them in favor of CoD (39.3 ms vs. 86.8 ms). To the best of our knowledge, few people have a problem controlling Doom. I believe there is a personal limit to lag sensitivity and that is especially evident when playing 30 FPS games that drop below their target frame rate. My guess? If Stadia does this consistently and maintains the lag difference seen in the tests, most players will be happy with it.

Image quality is a slightly different matter. I believe Stadia’s fate depends on two factors here: the encoder quality and the screen size. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey shows a few problems in quick action scenes on a big screen. The deciding factor is that it’s a slower game, so by and large it looks good and runs reasonably well. The screen size definitely has an impact, and in several ways. On a PixelBook, the image quality is much more effective on the smaller screen. This is even more evident on a smartphone screen, which I tested with the Razer Raiju Mobile. But it quickly becomes clear that console and PC games are simply not designed for small screens, which leads to problems with the legibility of HUD elements. I think this is a point that the major streaming services haven’t really considered until now, but hopefully it is with newer games. Gaming on a laptop? No problem, AC Odyssey looked great on my 13-inch MacBook Pro.

While my testing with Stadia has been limited in some ways (the encoder in particular needs more stress testing with a lot more content), there are many reasons to be optimistic about Google’s offering. Immediate access to your game library on a variety of devices, reasonable image quality and response time, as well as improved loading times. There seems to have been significant improvements since we tested Project Stream a few months ago. What’s more, the system scales in terms of hardware specifications and performance over the years as infrastructure and Google’s internal technology improve. Stadia launches in North America, Canada, Western Europe and the UK later this year – and I’m really looking forward to putting it to the test.