Is high quality video game streaming with low latency gameplay really a viable alternative to home consoles? Google believes so and, relying on its widespread network of datacenters and its massive presence on the internet, has created Stadia, a video game system with next-gen specifications that allows you to play streaming on smartphones, tablets, TVs and computers. Looking ahead, this could represent a radical revolution in the way we enjoy video games and the speed with which we can access them. Fundamentally, though, Stadia will have to overcome some pretty tough challenges to be able to replace the local experience and today, for the first time, we have been able to see how Google’s dream behaves, in practice, in our homes.
To write this article we analyzed the Stadia bundle which, at a price of around 129 €, offers the innovative controller designed by Google and a Chromecast Ultra to connect to the TV as well as a 3-month subscription to the Stadia Pro service. The latter grants access to a limited selection of free games and, more interestingly, to streaming in 4K HDR. Setting up the living room to enjoy Stadia to the fullest, however, proved to be a slightly complex process as it required the use of two separate apps.
First, Chromecast Ultra needs to be connected to your TV’s HDMI port and to the power supply. The power supply is also equipped with a LAN port which, although not essential for the operation of the system, allows you to use Stadia to its fullest potential. At this point it will be necessary to operate on the Google Home app to set Chromecast and, subsequently, on the Stadia app to adjust the controller settings by connecting it to the WiFi network. Finally, when the Chromecast and the controller are both active, just press the Stadia button to enter the new Google service.
The most interesting thing about this set-up is that the Chromecast and the controller are managed separately from the Stadia network and do not communicate directly with each other. Google claims that, by skipping the intermediate step, it is possible to achieve significantly lower latency times. This is an approach that we will have to test more thoroughly in the coming days but the results recorded during our preliminary tests are already absolutely impressive.
Of course there are some alternatives to the Stadia Premiere Edition setup. The simplest solution is to connect a USB controller to your computer, go to https://stadia.google.com, log in with your Google account and start playing. This type of configuration supports many different controllers (including the official Stadia one which also works via the USB-C cable connection). Another alternative is to connect the controller to a smartphone and play on the small screen but, at least as far as the Android ecosystem is concerned, Google Pixel 3 and Pixel 3a are the only supported phones at the moment.
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We are focusing mainly on the big screen because, at present, it is the only way to access the best video output offered by Stadia: Ultra HD at 60 frames per second with lots of support for HDR. However, to enjoy the highest level of visual fidelity, you will need a very high profile connection. With a 30mbps fiber, it is simply not possible to achieve similar results, although this type of connection is rated as ‘good’ by Google (to avoid any problems, however, an ‘excellent’ or ‘excellent’ rating is recommended).
Once you enter Stadia, the general feeling is that the platform is far from complete. The integrated Google Assistant is not yet active (net of some basic functions), the user interface is quite basic and it relies excessively on the Stadia mobile application to carry out the main actions such as buying games or adjusting the streaming quality. In addition to this, some of the features promised during the announcement such as, for example, that relating to family sharing are not active at the time of launch. Google itself, however, has always talked about Stadia as an ever-evolving platform and has said multiple times that the Premiere Edition is dedicated to the most hardcore users looking for the best possible experience.
The most discriminating factor that could sanction the success or failure of Stadia, however, is certainly the actual efficiencies of Google’s cloud gaming system. When we first took a look at the platform during a visit to the Google Campus, in fact, the image quality was really impressive and the latency also showed encouraging data. It should be noted, however, that the system was running on a Google connection which we assume is of excellent quality. Outside of the aforementioned optimal conditions, how does Stadia perform?
Visual fidelity is important but it is the latency that defines the experience. We conducted a series of tests on different games and, in those where we recorded similar quality to that of Xbox One X, we compared the input latency of the Google platform with the competition locally. To do this, we aimed a 180fps high-speed camera at the display and controller. At this point, therefore, we have counted the individual frames that elapse between pressing the button and the start of the in-game animation to get a precise idea of the actual latency. Our screen lag is set at 39ms but this was subtracted from the final results.An explanatory table provided by Google that shows the amount of bandwidth required by each level of visual fidelity.
Latency Test Xbox One XStadia Difference
|Destiny 2||100ms (30fps)||144ms (60fps)||+44ms|
|Mortal Kombat 11||78ms||122ms||+44ms|
|Shadow of the Tomb Raider 60fps||83ms||139ms||+56ms|
|Shadow of the Tomb Raider 30fps||167ms||217ms||+50ms|
|Wild||N / A (Stadia exclusive)||139ms||–|
Before continuing, we need to make some clarifications. First of all it must be emphasized that the use of a high-speed camera for latency tests obviously involves a certain percentage of error (you have to evaluate the exact moment in which the button returns to the initial position and you have to conduct a series of tests to average the measurements). Secondly, it must be taken into account that different actions within the same game can result in different levels of latency. Destiny 2 and Shadow of the Tomb Raider were tested based on jumping action, MK11 on fast shots, and Gylt on crouching animation. Basically, by comparing the same actions on different systems, we were able to get an idea of the difference between the local experience and the one in the cloud,
Shadow of the Tomb Raider was the most fruitful confrontation, probably. The Square Enix title, in fact, includes a high-resolution mode at 30fps and one that prefers performance that runs at 60fps, both on Stadia and on Xbox One X. The results, on this title, indicate a delta of about 50 / 56ms between the local and cloud experience but the real surprise is the presence of 30 and 60fps modes on both systems. Destiny 2, for its part, is perfectly playable on Stadia and offers 60fps gameplay that not even Xbox One X can boast. Despite this, however, the game appears considerably more responsive on consoles thanks to the lower latency. The best data recorded during our Stadia tests, however,
Ultimately, the question we must ask ourselves is: how do pad games look in the hand? None of the titles we tested can be considered ‘unplayable’ or too jerky except, probably, Shadow of the Tomb Raider in quality mode but, even in this case, nothing that completely compromises the enjoyment of the title: you get used to it quickly. Remember, however, that different actions within the same games can translate into different latencies and, consequently, the table above is far from the definitive data. Further evidence on different titles could help us put Stadia into perspective but, at present, we can say that Google’s cloud system shows lag of around 45 / 55ms on all titles:
Let’s now analyze another crucial element: image quality. Google has repeatedly stated that the Stadia Premiere Edition can offer a 4K HDR experience thanks to the Chromecast Ultra included in the box. In fact, the device is capable of outputting that kind of output, and HDR works well even at lower resolutions (it can be adjusted, we repeat, only via the Stadia smartphone app). To show the full potential of Stadia, we captured images via the Chromecast Ultra’s HDMI 2.0 output playing on a 200mbps connection to ensure the best possible stability. Below you will find a series of comparative galleries, starting with the most impressive conversion among those tested on the new Google platform:
Shadow of the Tomb Raider: Stadia vs Xbox One X.Shadow of the Tomb Raider: Stadia vs Xbox One X.Shadow of the Tomb Raider: Stadia vs Xbox One X.Shadow of the Tomb Raider: Stadia vs Xbox One X.Shadow of the Tomb Raider: Stadia vs Xbox One X.Shadow of the Tomb Raider: Stadia vs Xbox One X.Shadow of the Tomb Raider: Stadia vs Xbox One X.Shadow of the Tomb Raider: Stadia vs Xbox One X.Shadow of the Tomb Raider: Stadia vs Xbox One X.
Stadia uses a 2.7GHz Intel CPU (unconfirmed but we suspect 8 cores and 16 threads) in combination with an AMD 10.7 teraflop GPU that closely resembles the configuration of an RX Vega 56 with typical HBM2 memory bandwidth of the RX Vega 64. All of this, coupled with server-grade solid-state storage, can be an Xbox One X pass across the board. In the next few days we will be able to offer you a more detailed analysis of some of the main titles on Stadia but Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a great place to start.
Google promised us a 4K experience and Shadow of the Tomb Raider in quality mode manages to deliver it. Obviously, you have to contend with the compressed feed needed to stream data but this is exactly the kind of visual quality we will find in the Square Enix game. The performance mode, however, is confirmed as the best way to enjoy the title thanks to the 60fps frame-rate quite stable in all situations.
The Tomb Raider images captured for our test are important to validate the promises made by Google regarding 4K: the rather dark environments of the game help the encoder to maintain excellent quality levels. In general, it is clear that the game loses its definition slightly compared to the local experience but the image is still quite clean and sharp even in motion. This is the 4K output of a game rendered in 4K but some small details are inevitably lost. We will deal with analyzing the differences in terms of visual impact in another location but we can tell you right now that the major compromise concerns the reduction of the quality of the anisotropic filter.
Our friends at Nixxes seem to be responsible for this conversion for Stadia which appears well done from every point of view: we can’t wait to also examine the other chapters of Tomb Raider included in the lineup of the new cloud service from Google. Anyway, let’s now move on to another port, that of Bungie’s Destiny 2 which shows a completely different strategy from the developer.
Destiny 2: Stadia vs Xbox One X.Destiny 2: Stadia vs Xbox One X.Destiny 2: Stadia vs Xbox One X.Destiny 2: Stadia vs Xbox One X.Destiny 2: Stadia vs Xbox One X.Destiny 2: Stadia vs Xbox One X.
From the first moment you start Destiny 2 on Stadia, you will realize that you are facing a very different experience. For starters, the grueling load times seen on current-generation consoles have been greatly reduced but there’s also a shift in rendering priorities. The title of Bungie, on consoles, is limited to 30 frames per second while on Stadia it runs at 60fps. It may not be as fast as Xbox One X in terms of controller responsiveness due to the streaming-based nature of the experience but it certainly feels more enjoyable to watch on the go. The higher frame-rate, in fact, remains stable even in the most excited combat scenes and can guarantee a not indifferent plus for the use of an FPS like Destiny 2.
The cost of such a level of performance can be deduced from the comparative images above: the reduction in resolution. Our time in the company of Bungie’s game on Stadia (played in the same conditions and environment as Shadow of the Tomb Raider) resulted in 1080p gameplay upscaled up to 4K to match Chromecast Ultra’s output. HDR is supported, the higher frame-rate is a welcome addition, and the overall experience is exceptionally enjoyable but not what we expected from a system with such graphics power.
The comparison between the images also indicates some compromises in the visual effects of the game as well but, fundamentally, the idea that Bungie has decided to impose a limitation to 1080p for a high-profile title like this raises a number of questions. We are in the preliminary stages of Stadia development, of course, and we have no idea of the challenges that software houses have to face to implement these ports. However, this is not what we expected to find on such a hardware configuration.
Finally, the last game we analyzed is also the greatest of all: Red Dead Redemption 2. Stadia is based on a Linux operating system with Vulkan graphics libraries and, from what we saw when testing the PC version of the game, Rockstar supports both these APIs and DirectX 12 APIs in the latest iteration of the Rage Engine. We also know that reaching the quality levels seen on PC would involve costs in some aspect of the game and, therefore, we were really curious to see the final result on Stadia.
Red Dead Redemption 2: Stadia vs Xbox One X.Red Dead Redemption 2: Stadia vs Xbox One X.Red Dead Redemption 2: Stadia vs Xbox One X.Red Dead Redemption 2: Stadia vs Xbox One X.Red Dead Redemption 2: Stadia vs Xbox One X.Red Dead Redemption 2: Stadia vs Xbox One X.Red Dead Redemption 2: Stadia vs Xbox One X.Red Dead Redemption 2: Stadia vs Xbox One X.Red Dead Redemption 2: Stadia vs Xbox One X.
The most glaring trade-off is that, despite the Chromecast Ultra’s output being actually 4K, the game itself renders at a lower resolution. It took a while to understand the developer’s strategy but clues indicate that Red Dead Redemption 2 runs at 1440p on Google’s new platform. First impressions, however, suggest a good level of resemblance to the Xbox One X version of the game and even the fixed 30fps frame-rate is similar to that seen on the Microsoft console. This is the original experience of Red Dead Redemption 2 in its entirety: you play great and, despite the fact that there is a really marked latency in the title, you can easily progress through the entire adventure on the streaming platform.
In the three ports we tested, we noticed some common elements. Firstly, at the highest quality level, the visual impact is truly impressive. Stadia’s compressed streaming appears to add a slight blur effect that can be compounded by anti-aliasing and resolution upscaling but, bearing in mind how complicated game streaming can be, it’s still a remarkable achievement.
The question is whether Stadia’s marketing as a 4K gaming system (with subscription required) is the right choice for Google’s platform as it’s pretty clear that the ultra HD experience isn’t comparable to that. views on local systems already on the market. What’s even more troubling, though, is that for a platform designed for head-to-head next-generation consoles, the three conversions we tested didn’t show a performance boost comparable to what we’d expect from Project Scarlett or PS5. The more powerful CPU delivers 60fps gameplay for Destiny 2, something we would have liked to see on consoles as well, but Xbox One X’s native 4K resolution is on a whole other level. I 10. 7 teraflops of the Stadia GPU speaks of a more powerful and modern graphics card than the one supplied with the Xbox One X and, as a result, we would have expected to find a higher quality on the Google system. Strangely, however, it is an experience quite similar to that seen on consoles currently on the market.
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On the other hand, it must be considered that we are in the early days of Stadia and there is already a lot of good in this new system. The controller, for example, is excellent and innovative to the point of connecting to the cloud as a separate device. The image quality, for its part, cannot compete with the local experience on the living room screen but manages to achieve equally impressive results, especially on smaller screens. Yes, the lag is present and it is perceptible but remember that the vast majority of users play on panels with game mode disabled: you can easily get used to it.
What’s lost in terms of detail and latency also gains in convenience. The loading times of Red Dead Redemption 2 or Destiny 2, when compared directly to the console counterparts, show an incredible reduction. In addition to this, Stadia grants instant access to games, without having to download files of several hundred gigs to start playing. To put it simply, being able to immediately play all the games in the library can represent a considerable value for the new Google platform.
Google Stadia is an impressive step forward for gaming technology thanks to the best visual quality and lowest latency we’ve ever seen in a gaming streaming platform. There is still a long way to go to improve some aspects such as general stability and we still need to understand what problems could arise when someone else starts using the same internet line that Stadia operates on. From our tests we found slight audio stuttering and fluctuating resolution, even with our connection at 200mbps.
In fact, games, unlike films and TV series, cannot overcome these problems with buffering. The general feeling is that many of the obstacles that have decreed the failure of OnLive have been overcome brilliantly but the bandwidth is still of vital importance. Finally, we point out that to play with mobile data it will take about 20GB for an hour of play at the highest quality level.
Probably, however, the business model is the real weak point of Stadia. Netflix works great because its proposal is simple to understand: you pay an additional fee for Ultra HD and to use it on additional screens. Stadia, on the other hand, in addition to requesting an extra subscription for the UHD (although many of the titles do not even render in 4K), also asks to buy individually all the games that are sold at the same price seen on consoles. If we add this to the feeling that the ecosystem is still in an embryonic phase, we can say that Stadia still has a long way to go to establish itself in the videogame market, especially given the limited title park and the exclusives that can be counted on the fingers of one hand.