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Google Stadia Review Roundup: Impressive tech that you should probably wait for

Google Stadia goes live for the first users tomorrow but, today, embargoes have lifted on reviews of the new service from dozens of outlets. So far, critics are saying that Google Stadia’s tech is solid, but it’s lacking on games and features, meaning that most people should probably just wait.

The most important part of early Stadia reviews lies in just how well the actual streaming component of the service actually works and, the good news is that it does. Our friends at Android Police explain their experience with the stream:

…Stadia runs all its launch titles immaculately. On my pedestrian connection of about 100 megabits down and 10 up with something like 20 milliseconds of latency — which Stadia’s built-in connection checker rates as “excellent” — I haven’t experienced a single connection hiccup. Red Dead Redemption 2 runs smoothly at 4K/60. I can successfully get through Mortal Kombat 11’s arcade mode on medium difficulty, which is about as well as I’d expect to perform on any platform. I regularly nailed alien baddies in the dome in Destiny 2, even during Google’s prescribed reviewer multiplayer times. It’s crazy good.

However, the service isn’t without its issues. Destiny 2 was a popular choice for testing out the service and, unfortunately, it revealed some lag issues. Engadget, for example, noticed lag immediately but saw things start to smooth out shortly after starting.

The first Stadia game I booted up was Destiny 2 on the Chromecast Ultra. The title screen loaded quickly and I created a new character; the process felt so smooth and familiar that I forgot I was playing a AAA, online game on a streaming puck the size of a Thin Mint. But then, I started shooting. The lag was immediate.

It took a few shots for the game to catch up with the action, but it eventually smoothed out and I carried on killing aliens. Destiny 2 continued to stutter and suffer from input lag every now and then… but it wasn’t pervasive enough to destroy the fun of Destiny 2. The same goes for Mortal Kombat 11 on the phone and Gylt on the laptop. …resolution dipped every now and then, and some button presses would trail behind the on-screen action, but overall, they performed like console-quality video games.

Stadia Games destiny 2

WIRED also picked up on an interesting issue with the quality of the stream itself. They explain that while the game is being rendered in high quality, it doesn’t look just like it’s coming from a local console. Instead, all of the games have a lack of depth or sharpness.

Even under ideal conditions, there is a noticeable difference between playing a game on Stadia and running the game on local hardware, like a PC or PS4. There’s a certain clarity, depth, and sharpness you get when a game is rendered in real-time, and that’s absent with a stream, no matter how high-quality it is.

With Stadia, games sometimes look like you’re watching an ultra-high-resolution gameplay video rather than actually playing the game yourself. They look drab. If you want to understand, go watch this video, make it fullscreen, set the quality to the highest your display can support. This is what it looks like to play games on Stadia. Stadia excels in that middle ground just shy of ultra-high-def.

The Verge further expressed this point by comparing pictures of gameplay from a PC and Stadia on the latest Tomb Raider game as seen below. Interestingly, despite Google saying otherwise, the outlet also pointed out in its Stadia review that the version of Destiny 2 available is actually an upscaled 1080p version.

Stadia (left) vs PC (right)

Data use is going to be a big concern for many users too. Android Authority found that the service used over 7GB of data per hour on 720p. That’s a ton of data, but it probably won’t be a deal-breaker for most people who want to use the service at home.

When playing Stadia on my Windows PC through the Chrome browser at 720p, Stadia used between 12 and 20Mbps. In contrast, a Netflix stream used about the same amount, but Netflix can buffer content to stop streaming constantly. Because Stadia is always pulling data and can’t buffer, it will use a lot more data… Playing Stadia at 720p used about 7GB per hour.

Looking past how the service actually performs, though, its lack of features and games becomes a source of lost points for Stadia. The service is launching with 22 games and they’re all solid options, but many Google Stadia reviews mention that there’s no one killer title that should have potential buyers interested. Because Stadia is currently limited only to its Founder’s and Premiere bundles, there’s no way to take advantage of its eventual free tier or many of its features. Polygon explains:

As a video game console with an entry price of $129, Stada is immensely disappointing.

Many of its high-end features (4K, HDR) don’t work across the entire service, not to mention the many core components of the service that aren’t available at launch. I’m not sure why most folks wouldn’t just wait. After all, most features will be available in your browser for free next year — no subscription or bundle purchase required.

The folks over at Review Geek also heavily criticized the platform for its lack of features at launch. Wireless connectivity not working on smartphones and computers with the Stadia Controller, Google Assistant integration, sharing live streams, and many other features Google previously announced simply don’t work yet. They also pointed out an interesting issue with game scaling on smartphones.

Stadia is also missing a lot of features you’d come to expect from a modern game platform. There’s minimal support for friend lists and invitations. You can only buy games and access your recordings via the phone app (no buying on your TV or computer). There’s no way to gift games, no mechanism for returning them.

I was also disappointed to see a lack of adjustment in terms of the user interface for Stadia’s different screens. Playing a game meant for huge TVs or gaming monitors is possible on a laptop screen, but it’s downright painful on a tiny phone screen. Trying to read the text prompts and cramped interface in Destiny 2 on a phone screen was almost impossible.

So what about the Stadia Controller? The only new piece of hardware for Google Stadia is the Stadia Controller and it’s a core part of the service for early adopters. Luckily, it’s also a very good controller. Almost every review of Google Stadia mentions that the controller is comfortable to hold and is quite responsive.

google stadia controller

However, disabled buttons, the aforementioned wired requirement, and other bugs take away from the experience a bit as The Verge details.

Physically, it’s a pleasingly familiar, comfortable blend of Sony’s DualShock 4 and Microsoft’s Xbox One gamepads. It borrows Sony’s stippled texture and oblong grips, but its analog sticks look and feel far more like Microsoft’s superior ones. Plus, there are Switch Pro-like face buttons for good measure. It has smoother triggers than Sony, too.

When I noticed that latency seems worse on a Chromecast with a wireless gamepad than on a phone with the pad plugged in over USB-C, I wondered if that small part of the Stadia idea might be flawed. When I plugged in wired headphones into its 3.5mm jack, the volume was far too low, and there’s static that shouldn’t be there. When I came back to my Pixel hours later, which was still plugged into the gamepad, I realized it drained a huge chunk of the phone’s battery. Apparently, it never shut itself off. When I hit the Stadia button, I was impressed by how it reaches over the network to fire up the Chromecast and my TV simultaneously — until I realized that Google doesn’t have any way to turn my TV off.

So what does all this mean for Stadia? Based on these early reviews of Google Stadia, it means you should probably wait. A lack of games and features along with the not-so-small $130 required investment won’t make the service worthwhile to the vast majority of consumers.

Hopefully, as Stadia continues to mature over the next several months, that recommendation will change. Many reviews of the service end on this point as well. Stadia has huge potential but, right now, it’s not ready for everyone. Factors such as Google’s coming features, cross-play, and especially the free tier are going to be huge points to figure out and influence whether or not Stadia will be a success.

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