Earlier this week, Google announced it rolled out a new Stadia Experiment for mobile phones: the ability to play games over Stadia via your mobile network in 4G or 5G, and anyone with an account and the app on their phone can opt-in to try it. It’s another step toward what the real vision of cloud gaming has been all along: playing videogames anytime, anywhere. But there are a few caveats to using Stadia on a 4G or 5G network right now, mainly dealing with speed and accessibility—and some annoying limitations to control.
If you want to try it for yourself navigate to the Experiments section and enable the feature. Once you connect to Stadia through a mobile carrier, you’ll find yourself dealing with the biggest annoyance of Stadia on mobile broadband: the required wired controller. Yup, it’s back to physically plugging in the controller to your phone with a USB-C cable. That’s because the Stadia controller cannot connect via Bluetooth and requires a wireless broadband connection when used with your phone. Stadia uses Bluetooth to communicate with Stadia controllers during setup only, but it’s clearly equipped with Bluetooth. Google claims the controller will only work over wifi, and not Bluetooth or mobile broadband, to help the controller “deliver precise controls.”
The downside of having to rely on plugging the controller in isn’t just the unsightly USB-C cord. The cable will use your phone’s battery to keep the controller charged, so your phone battery will drain faster—but you can’t plug it in to charge because the USB-C port is taken up by the controller. And you’ll want to every mAH of battery power you can get because the battery in my phone drained 10% in five minutes of Stadia on 4G use.
Things look better when it comes to connecting to a mobile network, in the sense that, well, it works as it should. While AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile have expanded their 5G networks a little bit, 5G is by no means accessible to the majority of people in the U.S. Most people are still running on 4G, which can average download speeds well over 30 Mbps depending on network conditions. Google recommends a minimum of 10 Mbps to play games on Stadia, so a 4G connection is enough if network conditions are good.
But here’s what happens when they’re not...
My 4G speed was between 13 and 16 Mbps from my living room in the middle of the afternoon. Running Stadia on my Android phone at 1080p, unless I was playing something like Doom 64, the pixelation and lag was so bad it made every almost game unplayable. I’d jump, and a full second or two later my character would react on the screen. I’d move at all and the graphics would blur into an indistinguishable mess.
Dropping the resolution to 720p noticeably reduced the pixelation and lag a lot, but the performance wasn’t perfect. Every minute or so the games would still lag, pixelating the graphics a bit, and sometimes the audio would speed up as it tried to re-sync with the graphics. But at least they were playable for the most part—even more performance-driven games like Shadow of the Tomb Raider. Superhot was an exception and totally unplayable. Likely because of how the mechanics work; everything moves only when you move, so by the time the 4G network catches up with your inputs, you’re already dead.
A lot of Stadia’s performance on 4G depends on your proximity to the nearest cell tower and how busy the network is at the time you are trying to game—much like a wireless broadband connection. When I tried Stadia later in the evening from my living room again, I was getting between 35 and 40 Mbps from my cell provider. The games that were once unplayable were now playable. No stutter. No lag. No pixelation.
Unfortunately, because 5G is not yet available where I live, I can’t tell you how gaming on 5G compared to 4G. However, looking at the 5G speeds reported in Opensignal’s June 2020 5G User Experience Report can definitely give us a good idea.
Opensignal’s findings show that Verizon 5G has the highest real-world speed, averaging 494.7 Mbps. The other major mobile carriers averaged between 50 and 60 Mbps, which is still more than enough for 1080p cloud gaming. However, T-Mobile 5G is only available to 22.5% of the US right now—which is the most out of any other carriers. Verizon has the lowest roll out at 0.4%.
Obviously, regardless if you have a 4G or 5G connection, you will be able to play Stadia games just fine on your phone—assuming you have a stable connection and the network around you isn’t clogged from a bunch of people trying to use it at the same time.
Google’s cloud gaming vision of being able to conveniently play anywhere at any time is, as of now, hamstrung by inconsistent and unreliable 4G and 5G coverage, and a mess of cables users will need to carry around with them if they want to experience the gaming ‘freedom’ Stadia offers: USB-C cord to connect the controller to the phone; a portable battery to keep the phone charged; and a USB splitter so both can be connected to the phone at the same time. If that’s what I need to carry around with me, plus the controller itself, I’d rather play Candy Crush.