Google’s Stadia has been around for a while now, but the game streaming service was recently made available on a number of Android TV and Google TV streaming devices. The platform lets you stream popular video games on computers, phones, tablets, and streaming devices and the idea is to get you access to high-quality, high-end games without needing to invest in an expensive gaming PC or a dedicated game console like the Xbox Series X or PlayStation 5.
That’s the idea anyway. And with its expansion onto more streaming devices, we wanted to spend some time trying the service out on a variety of options at different price points to see if they could cut it as gaming machines. So we fired up three streamers ranging in price from less than $25 to $200, and got to work — err, play.
(Editor’s Note: This artcile is based on our video hands-on, which you can check out at the embedded link below.)
What is Stadia, Anyway?
If you’re not familiar with game streaming services like Stadia, here’s a very baseline explanation of how they work.
Game streaming services like Google’s Stadia, or Microsoft’s xCloud, or Sony’s PlayStation Now operate on a similar principle. They all let you play games that are being run on powerful machines miles away from your home. The appeal is that you don’t need to have a high-end gaming device on hand to enjoy these high-end games.
With traditional video gaming, you have a machine in your home, like a gaming PC or a dedicated console. And you load up a game on your machine and it outputs the audio and visual data to your TV. During the game, you’ll react to that audio and visual data, generally, by inputting commands through a gamepad or some other input device. Those inputs are sent to the machine running the game and it sends out new audio and visual data back to your TV.
Game streaming services are different. Instead of having a console on your living room floor or in your entertainment center, services like Stadia usually feature racks and racks of powerful machines located in some warehouse far away.
Those machines run the game you want and send out the audio and visual data over the internet to your home, where a compatible device, like a Chromecast with Google TV, receives that data and sends it to your display. You react as you normally would via gamepad commands, and those inputs are sent from your controller to your streaming device, which then uses the internet to relay your commands back to that remote machine. The machine adjusts the game based on your inputs and sends updated info back to your home, and on and on and on.
Of course, given the increased distance and extra steps involved, speed and overall latency are often a concern with these types of services, but generally speaking, that’s how game streaming services work.
Many of these game streaming platforms have been labeled as the “Netflix of gaming,” and while we’re still in the early stages of this trend, it’s easy to see the appeal.
Instead of shelling out hundreds of dollars or more on dedicated gaming hardware, these services are pitching better value via streaming because you can theoretically play these games on a wider range of devices that couldn’t normally run such demanding software.
But even without a PS5 or Xbox in your home, you still need some sort of go-between device, whether that’s a laptop, smartphone, or streaming device.
As for Stadia itself, there’s a free plan and a paid Pro plan. The free plan maxes out at 1080p resolution and you have to buy the individual titles you plan to play via the service. And then there’s the Stadia Pro plan. That tier goes for $9.99 per month in the US and includes perks like up to 4K game streaming (if your connection and handle it) and a selection of free games each month.
And with that established, let’s see how Stadia performs on our devices.
Our Stadia Test Lineup
On the budget end, we have the onn. FHD Streaming Stick. This is a Walmart-exclusive Android TV device that maxes out at 1080p resolution, and one of its main draws is the price point: an impressive $24.88.
Moving slightly higher up the price ladder is Google’s own Chromecast with Google TV. This device has been on the market since the latter half of last year and many were wondering if Google would ever add Stadia support to its latest streamer. And as of June 2021, that support has arrived.
And at the high end, we have Nvidia’s popular Shield TV Pro. At $199.99, this Android TV-powered machine can pull off a number of game-focused feats, including Nvidia’s own GeForce Now cloud gaming service.
Beyond the streaming device itself, you’ll want to consider a controller of some sort. Google sells its own option, known as the Stadia Controller for $69. But you can also use other popular controllers, including Xbox controllers, the Switch Pro Controller and the PlayStation 4’s DualShock 4.
And while Sony’s newer DualSense controller for the PlayStation 5 isn’t officially supported just yet, we were able to pair it via Bluetooth to our three test devices. However, the button mapping isn’t quite there and on the onn. FHD Streaming Stick and Chromecast, we had to spend time figuring out which button did what. Nvidia’s Shield TV Pro fared better, but there were still a few mismatching issues. Hopefully Google and Sony can work out official support soon.
Stadia Performance Results
For the purposes of our testing, we fired up a number of options, including Hitman: World of Assassination, MotoGP20, Orcs Must Die 3, and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (aka, PUBG).
And we also tested in different scenarios, including a 4K display within a few feet of our WiFi router and a 1080p display on the other side of our house.
As for our actual experiences using Stadia, it can all be encompassed in three words:
Impressive, but uneven.
Stadia was at its best when our network connection was at its most stable. At those points, it was truly impressive to play Hitman or MotoGP20 through the sub-$25 onn. FHD Streaming Stick. That streaming device’s onboard hardware couldn’t possibly serve up games like this on its own, but it could capably stream the game for us to play. Controls were responsive enough that I didn’t feel like they were getting in the way of my enjoyment of the games, though faster-paced games, like online shooters, might be less forgiving. And while the resolution seemed to fluctuate at times based on bandwidth, it seemed a fair price to pay for the convenience of high-end gaming on a budget streaming device.
At least, that’s how it felt when everything worked. At other times, however, network connection hitches marred the experience. Onscreen text would sometimes degrade as the video stream quality momentarily dropped. Areas of dense trees and grass in PUBG sometimes devolved into blurry green patches when connection speeds dipped.
Sometimes, those issues resulted in dropped frames that caused choppy, stuttered gameplay. And we also ran into a few drops that ended our gaming session and sent us back to the home menu.
Even the Nvidia Shield, with its Ethernet connection, was not immune. We ran into several instances where Stadia’s Connection Quality menu warned us of unstable gameplay because of a shaky internet connection.
You can adjust settings to compensate for these issues, to some degree at least. One option would be to lower the video quality from the max of 4K on the Chromecast and Nvidia Shield, down to 1080p or 720p. That would mean less demanding bandwidth needs and could offer smoother, more consistent gameplay.
As for the devices themselves, each was more than capable of offering up an impressive gaming experience, but you’ll want to make sure your overall network setup can shoulder the load as well.
Wrapping It All Up…
Overall, we were generally impressed by what the devices themselves were able to do in our Stadia testing.
Even the budget-priced onn. FHD Streaming Stick, which tops out at 1080p resolution, was able to serve up some solid gaming in the best conditions. That said, you might want to consider something like a Chromecast with Google TV if you’ve got a 4K display in a bedroom or office. Plus, if Google issues updates or fixes for Stadia, odds are good that its Chromecast will be among the first in line.
The Nvidia Shield TV Pro’s Ethernet connection seemed to give us the best odds for success, but again you’ll want to make sure your network connection is up to snuff.
Overall, we were able to run Stadia on all three devices and outside of maximum resolution output, it was hard to tell them apart from a performance standpoint. And that’s kind of the point of these services. They’re meant to enable high-quality gaming on a wide range of devices, even something as affordable as an onn. FHD Streaming Stick.
In our home, however, the more pressing issue was the uneven internet bandwidth.
Our connection averaged out at around 100 to 130 Mbps while we were testing these devices, but it seemed to struggle while using Stadia, especially over WiFi across our house.
Google recommends connections of at least 10 megabits per second, but you might want to consider a much more robust internet plan if you want to really leverage Stadia, xCloud, or other game streaming services.
And there’s also the data usage to consider. Google estimates 4K gaming could require around 20 gigabytes of data per hour. Meanwhile, 720p gaming takes up roughly 4.5 gigabytes per hour. If you’re dealing with a data cap, that’s another thing to take into account.
In the end, we’re still in the very early days of game streaming services. Microsoft is continuing to roll out xCloud to more and more platforms, for example. And hopefully faster internet speeds and more robust WiFi connections will spread further and further.
In the present day, however, if you’re curious about gaming on a streaming device like an onn. FHD Streaming Stick, a Chromecast with Google TV or an Nvidia Shield TV Pro, it might be worth giving Stadia a shot. Google is currently offering a one-month free trial of Stadia Pro, which gives you access to free games to test on our network first before dedicating actual money.
Game streaming services like Stadia could indeed be the wave of the future. You’ll just need to make sure your home’s internet connection isn’t stuck in the past.