Google Stadia has been revealed as the internet giant’s long-awaited, oft-rumoured game streaming service. The concept is relatively simple: through the power of Google’s tremendous and far-reaching server might, you will be able to stream a library of the latest and greatest games direct to any of your Google devices. Even a diddy Chromecast will be able to beam the very latest AAA games direct to your fingertips. Sound good?
Google isn’t the first company to pursue game streaming, and it won’t be the last either. But it’s definitely the only one to launch with such pomp and circumstance that it’s caught the public eye like nothing before it. Nvidia has been offering a similar service for years in its GeForce Now platform, but despite its 300,000 monthly users, and 1 million more apparently queuing up to join, it’s never made the splash that Google Stadia suddenly has.
But when Nvidia believes that game streaming could be “a billion-gamer opportunity,” you can see why Google, Microsoft, Sony, and hundreds of startups are all fighting for a piece of the pie. With an addressable market of at least two billion users (~62% of all web surfers use Chrome), Google is in a mighty advantageous position to hoover up that market share for itself. And that’s going to put pressure on console manufacturers Microsoft and Sony most of all.
And that’s because Stadia takes hardware out of gamers’ hands and puts the onus on Google’s datacentre to keep up with the latest tech advances. Packed into Google’s server racks is custom AMD GPU and Intel x86 CPU tech, with the launch tech scaling up to 4K, 60fps . Google has even promised 8K, 120fps in the future… my poor internet connection.
And that’s the kicker. Before we get too carried away, Google hasn’t confirmed the exact network requirements necessary for a smooth, latency-free gaming experience. Stadia’s precursor, Project Stream, demanded a 25Mbps downstream minimum, while early testing in Stadia suggests that Google steps resolution down to 720p on less capable connections.
Read more: Our interview with Google VP Phil Harrison on Stadia
But the Stadia platform is in a constant state of flux, and, according to VP and GM Phil Harrison, Google is “not declaring victory – we’re just starting.” With flexibility afforded to it by the cloud, we can expect Stadia’s requirements, specs, and the gaming experience it offers to change and adapt over time. Watch this space.
Google Stadia release date
We don’t have an exact launch date for Stadia as of yet. However, Google has promised it will launch in the US, UK, Canada, and “most of” Europe later this year and will be giving more details in the summer.
Google Stadia specs
Stadia will scale up as and when more performance is required. But we do know that each instance will utilise a custom x86 Intel CPU running at 2.7GHz. This will be paired with custom AMD graphics silicon capable of 10.7 teraflops of raw compute, fitted with 56 compute units and HBM2 memory.
Google Stadia pricing
Google is yet to confirm whether the service will work on a subscription model or whether gamers will be required to purchase each game individually. Therefore, pricing remains a mystery. As for the controller, we expect it to fall in line with Microsoft’s Xbox controller or Sony’s Dualshock 4 around the $50 – $80 mark.
Google Stadia performance
Google has made progress since Project Stream was first tested, and now Stadia is capable of 4K at 60fps. Down the line, Google has promised 8K and >120fps gaming. But streaming poses new challenges, and a stable internet connection will be required to make the most out of the tech on offer.
Not one to generally offer much in the way of specifics, Google plans on launching Stadia in the US, UK, Canada, and “most of” Europe sometime in 2019. With such a massive release window, the web is rife with speculation – so why not speculate ourselves, huh?
With E3 only a couple of months away, it feels like the colossal gaming show would be the perfect opportunity for Google to shed some light on which developers are signed up for Stadia. It has already stated that it will be unveiling more details about the business model and cost in the summer. However, a full public launch at that time might be a little optimistic.
We already know that Doom Eternal will be available to play on the service come launch, as a native Vulkan title that makes complete sense. Ubisoft will also be wholeheartedly embracing Stadia considering Yves Guillemot’s guest appearance at the GDC announcement and Assassin’s Creed Odyssey’s role as streaming guinea pig. Developer Tequila Works – from Rime, Deadlight, and The Sexy Brutale fame – will also be backing the service.
Google has also setup Stadia Games and Entertainment: a first-party studio, headed by Jade Raymond, that aims to “reimagine the new generation of games.” And conveniently netting itself some exclusives without twisting anyone’s arm, too. We may even see demos make a triumphant return on the platform.
Further game announcements will be made later in the year. Harrison has confirmed Google will “be connecting with you again in the summer to share more details on the games you’ll get to play at launch and beyond.”
While a hardware journalist like myself is dreadfully afraid of game streaming ruining my prospects, livelihood, and forcing me into a life of reviewing mobile phones, there’s still plenty to be said about the silicon occupying Google’s server racks. You hear that Google?! It’ll take more than that to be rid of me.
Google has licensed the brilliant minds behind Radeon to create the physical graphics hardware necessary for its streaming platform. The company, headed by Dr. Lisa Su, has an unflappable reputation for delivering the best console tech, and its burgeoning semi-custom division is responsible for the graphics and processing power within both the Xbox One X and PS4 Pro.
|AMD GPU||Intel CPU||Memory|
|10.7 teraflops||Custom x86 processor||16GB RAM|
|56 compute units||2.7GHz||Up to 484GB/s transfer|
|HBM2 memory||Hyperthreaded||L2 + L3 cache of 9.5MB|
The GPU at the heart of Stadia is effectively just a modified version of the Vega 56 that’s now doing the round for around $300 in most good stores. And in some dodgy ones too. That’s not a huge surprise given the note in the Google presentation about the 56 compute units making up the graphics silicon, and the use of HBM2 as well.
But a dig into the Khronos Group’s conformant products page for Vulkan by Tom’s Hardware shows that the Google Games Platform Gen 1 (Stadia to you and I) is using AMD’s GCN 1.5. That means it’s running on the fifth gen version of the Graphics Core Next architecture, which is the same tech as powered the Vega 56.
But don’t panic, despite getting on for being a mainstream GPU now its pricing has been slashed in the face of the imminent AMD Navi generation, the individual GPUs themselves aren’t going to matter a huge amount. And that’s because Google is using some serious multi-GPU gymnastics to get to the good streaming stuff.
While AMD Crossfire is holding onto relevance in the consumer GPU world by just its pinky finger, Google has touted the ability to dynamically shift GPUs to and fro within its datacentre to match a user’s requirements. With no single GPU today capable of 8K at 60fps, it’s crucial that Google can scale beyond today’s hardware limitations if it’s to make good on its promises – and it seems confident that its multi-GPU approach is up for the task.
Read more: This is the technology behind Google Stadia
AMD has confirmed the custom CPUs within Stadia aren’t manufactured by the red team, however, and that realistically leaves just one x86 manufacturer in the running: Intel (sorry VIA fans.) The only trace of the company during Google’s announcement was the mention of Hyperthreading, Intel’s proprietary simultaneous multithreading feature. Aside from that tacit mention, Intel’s name is notably missing from Google’s partners.
Yet these specs will adapt to the ebbs and flows of the gaming industry and the hardware available.
“We fully expect further iteration in our platform,” Phil Harrison says. “We’re just talking about Gen 1 at the moment, but there will be iterations on that technology over time.”
Over at Google I/O, the company detailed a little of the technology behind Stadia’s streamer – the underlying tech that ensures all the necessary bits are transported to and fro across the web and displayed lag-free on your device.
While the company is still playing its card close, two Google engineers, Rob McCool and Guru Somadder, along with product manager Khaled Rahman, have offered insight into how the tech giant is working towards its goal of “imperceptible” latency and, what it calls, a high playability factor.
Google will be employing something awfully similar to the Bottleneck Bandwidth and Round-trip propagation time (BBR) congestion control algorithm (say that three times over) with Stadia. This attempts to reduce congestion from sender to receiver across the web, reducing blufferbloat, and ensuring that its gaming client does not lose any precious packages.
“Google is experienced designing algorithms modelling extremely complex situations and code,” McCool says, “and working at scale with millisecond latency puts us in an ideal position to enable this experience for players.
“We tune at the millisecond, and sometimes microsecond, level and make timely informed choices to keep latency imperceptible while maximising quality. We blend many different signals models, feedback, active learning, sensors, and a tight feedback loop to produce a precisely tuned experience.”
Google is also holding out for increased adoption of the very latest codecs, including VP9 and AV1, which it believes will increase quality and reduce latency of all game streaming services across the board.
We're not declaring victory - we're just starting
The Stadia controller we know a little more about, as it was exposed in a patent application earlier this month. For the most part the design is a simple one. All the usual bells and whistles are present, but it’s worth noting that it follows Sony’s lead with thumbsticks parallel to one another, which may come as a bit of a shock to y’all that prefer Microsoft’s offset ergonomics.
But, again borrowing some design notes from Sony, the Stadia controller features a capture button – similar to the Dualshock 4’s ‘Share’ button. This button allows you to share your best gaming moments to YouTube, bypassing upload times or bitrates as Google’s servers will offload all that direct from their top-notch network. Next to that, a button for Google Assistant so you can chat to the hivemind.
The main draw of the Stadia controller, however, is that it will utilise a direct WiFi connection to Google’s cloud servers. It’s essentially a streaming client like any other Google device, the benefit being the direct connection will minimise latency and make for hassle-free hot-swapping between devices.
Pricing is purely speculative right now. Google has given no word on how much the service will set you back, leaving that tidbit until “the summer.”
Stadia has plenty of flexibility with pricing, however. It could offer a subscription like PS Plus and manage a storefront to acquiesce to picky publishers, keep devs happy, and, most importantly, keep people playing.
The controller isn’t totally necessary for the basic experience. Google has stated that all existing control methods – yes, even keyboard and mouse – will be supported. However, if you do want to seamlessly glide between devices without changing cables or resyncing, the general consensus is you’ll be looking at a $50 – $80 price tag. That’s roughly analogous to the cost of a Microsoft Xbox One Wireless pad or Sony’s Dualshock 4.
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Stadia needs to offer convincing performance to persuade gamers to give up physical hardware in favour of a cloud streaming service. Project Stream was well-received back when it blazed the trail for Stadia, and we have reached a point, as proven by streaming services we’ve tested personally (such as Blade’s Shadow), that streaming is a viable experience – if not a temperamental one.
But streaming is still yet to match local hardware in fidelity or latency, and Google’s encoder reportedly still has some ways to go before it will match the very best graphics silicon on a local machine.
Latency is relatively on-par with that of an Xbox One X, if not a little greater, while a PC is far and away the lowest latency machine around at 1080p30 (via Digital Foundry). It’s expected that the move to 60fps will lower latency, as will the controller’s WiFi functionality.
A 25Mbps connection will be required for 1080p streaming and up, with a particularly swift connection required for 4K. Minimum requirements are expected to be around 15Mbps, although that will necessitate a drop to 720p and noticeable quality degradation.