Google Stadia: How does it work and what are the hidden costs?

Google’s cloud gaming service promises a future free from pricey consoles, allowing you to stream games on a laptop, phone or TV through Chrome. But is Google Stadia really free to play? Well, yes and no.

So far Google has detailed two price tiers: Stadia Pro for £8.99 a month and Stadia Base, which is free from subscription fees. Also on offer is a £119.99 Founder’s Edition, which includes three months of Pro (plus three to gift to a buddy), a Chromecast Ultra (required to play on a TV), and a controller.

For those undecided, or without high-speed internet, it might be worth waiting for Stadia’s free version when it launches next year. Even if you’re dead-set on streaming games right now, it’s worth considering your options before investing in one platform.

What do I need to play Google Stadia? 

Most importantly, a snappy internet connection.

To stream games in 4K HDR you’ll need to be clocking 35Mbits/sec. The bare minimum speed we’d recommend is 10Mbits/sec, though slower speeds equal shoddier quality, bottoming out at 720p stereo.

For reference, Netflix recommends 5Mbits/sec for HD streaming. 

Is your internet fast enough for cloud gaming?

Unfortunately, not all devices that run Chrome will work with Stadia. Android and iPhone users are out of luck, with mobile support exclusive to the Pixel 3 and 3a for the time being. Tablets will be compatible but Google has remained tight-lipped on specific models.

Finally, if you opt to play on the big screen you’ll need a Chromecast Ultra TV dongle and a controller. Fortunately the Playstation 4 DualShock and Xbox One controller are both compatible.

Bandwidth and hardware compatibility aside, launching Stadia should be as simple as opening up a new tab in Chrome and hitting play.

So can I play Google Stadia for free?

Let’s look at Google’s two pricing tiers: Stadia Pro versus Stadia Base.

Stadia ProStadia Base
Release dateNovember 20192020
Price£8.99 a monthFree
ResolutionUp to 4KUp to 1080p
Sound5.1 surroundStereo
Free gamesYesNo

If you’re willing to sacrifice 4K image quality and surround sound, Stadia’s free-to-play package looks serviceable.

There’s no doubt that early adopters will find value in the Founder’s Edition. Buying a Chromecast Ultra (£69), Controller (£59) and 6 months of Stadia Pro (£53.94) adds up to £181.94 versus the £119 bundle price. Of course, you also get to start streaming on day one. But hear me out.

Let’s suppose you have a little patience and a half-decent laptop. Most don’t come with 4K displays anyway and even fewer, I’d wager, are hooked up to a surround sound system. Perhaps you also have a spare PS4 or Xbox controller lying around that you can connect via Bluetooth or USB.

With this pre-existing setup you can stream through Stadia without spending a penny. You’ll still have to purchase the games, but it’s not unheard of for new platforms to offer free titles to attract new users. The Epic Game Store, for one, does exactly that.

By waiting for the Base version you’ll also get to see if the technology has legs, or if it turns out to be the next Google Plus.

Stadia’s rivals are worth a look

Stadia isn’t the only streaming service around. Microsoft’s Project xCloud arrives in October and is likely to be the preferred choice for Xbox owners.

The Xbox One’s library of 3,500+ games, all of which will be Project xCloud compatible at launch, dwarfs Google’s limited line-up of 31 confirmed titles.

There’s also the added benefit of being able to stream directly from your Xbox console instead of Microsoft’s servers, much in the same way Sony’s Remote Play feature allows you to control your PlayStation 4 from a portable device.

It has to be said that my experience with Remote Play has been less than stellar. Often I found it outputting at grainy resolutions and suffering from persistent lag. I’d expect Microsoft’s cloud technology, considering its history with Azure, to be a safer bet.

Watch out for hidden costs

With the right setup, it’s possible to start streaming games for less than the cost of a Netflix subscription. However, unless your internet provider has done away with data caps, you could find yourself coughing up a small fortune in excess fees.

According to PC Gamer, streaming at Stadia’s maximum settings will eat up 15.75GB per hour. Over 65 hours of game time, barely enough to hit the ground in a time-gobbling loot shooter such as Destiny 2, you’d use up 1TB of data. This would be enough to hit the limits of most broadband packages.

Some contend ISPs will have to adapt to the demands of new data-hungry streaming services by loosening their restrictions.

When it comes to the future of cloud-based gaming, there’s still all to play for. I’d wait for the dust to settle after Stadia’s launch.

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Robert Harris

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