Google Stadia makes iPad gaming competitive with top consoles [Review]

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Google Stadia on iPad review
With Google Stadia, your iPad can run console-quality games.
Photo: Cult of Mac

Google Stadia could be the answer for anyone who wants to play console-quality games on an iPad. There are many big-name titles to choose from, and players can use off-the-shelf game controllers. This is cloud gaming — everything is played online so the service doesn’t take up space on your iPad.

I spent quite a bit of time playing Stadia games on an Apple tablet. Here’s why I recommend it.

But before diving into the details, let me hit you with the tl;dr. I played Google Stadia games on an iPad Pro with a PS4 controller. It works. And works well, even with a slow internet connection and off-the-self equipment.

See, your computer isn’t actually running the games. Stadia lets beefy Google servers handle the heavy lifting, then it streams only the video to you. It’s somewhat analogous to watching a very, very interactive TV show.

The service works on iPhone too, but I’m focusing on iPad because I don’t recommend playing games designed for a TV on a screen the size of your palm. Everything is simply too hard to see. But YMMV.

Google Stadia on iPad review

Apple tried to put all kinds of restrictions on Google before it would let this cloud-gaming service in the App Store. Google said $%^& that and made Stadia into a web app so games could be played in the Safari web browser. As noted above, this works fine. But it does mean installation is different from what you’re accustomed to. It has nothing to do with the Stadia application in the App Store. It doesn’t let you play any games — ignore it.

Instead, head to stadia.google.com to start playing. Once there, go through the process of adding the Stadia web app to your iPad home screen. Thereafter, it’ll open you straight into the web app… which acts like any other app, not like a web page.

Performance

‘Lara Croft and The Temple Of Osiris’ looks just like it out to in Google Stadia on iPad.
Here’s how Lara Croft and The Temple Of Osiris looks in Google Stadia on an iPad. (Click/tap for full-res version.)
Screenshot: Ed Hardy/Cult of Mac

To test the performance of Google Stadia, I played Lara Croft and The Temple Of Osiris because I already played through the game on Xbox. I found the online version just as enjoyable. I also went through a few levels of Submerged: Hidden Depths during testing.

Just in case it’s not clear, this is a web app so Stadia requires an Internet connection at all times. And performance depends on the speed of your internet connection, not the speed of your processor. Good news: my experience shows that you don’t need a blazing fast connection.

My home internet is between 25 Mbps and 30 Mbps. (That’s pretty slow, BTW.) And Stadia runs fine. Not perfectly — sometimes it’s choppy because the rate of screen refreshes slows down if my connection does. But that’s because of my connection, not Stadia.

It’s actually a good sign because it means Google’s service still runs even under poor conditions. In all my testing, I never lost my connection to Stadia servers. I didn’t even get Lara Croft killed because of occasional slow screen refreshes. But I don’t suggest trying it with any slower connection.

And there are things you can do to improve your connection. Get closer to your Wi-Fi router. Stop streaming music over Wi-Fi. Or even connect your iPad to Ethernet.

Stadia vs. Xbox, etc.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t compare Stadia to Xbox. (Playstation too, but I’m more familiar with Xbox.) One is a software solution and the other is hardware. Both options let you play console-quality games, just in very different ways.

Using a console begins with putting down about $500 for hardware. And then finding a place to put it, which is not a negligible problem for people in small apartments or dorm rooms.

There’s minimal upfront cost for iPad owners to play Stadia. You already have a tablet — otherwise you wouldn’t be an “iPad owner.” You want to invest in a game controller if you haven’t already.

As for pure playability, I going to say what you’ve already guessed. In some situations, the Xbox is better. A game playing in a computer sitting at your feet has advantages over that same game playing on a remote server. You don’t need to worry about network slowdowns when playing an Xbox game.

But the difference isn’t enormous.  I played Lara Croft and The Temple Of Osiris on Stadia and I enjoyed as much as I did on Xbox. That said, if you’re nitpicky about perfect graphics, then Google’s option might not be for you.

Still, there are things Stadia can do that an Xbox/Playstation cannot. On your lunch break, you can pull out your iPad and a game controller and play for a few minutes. Don’t try that with a console. And Stadia travels on vacation a lot better.

Paying for games

A Google Stadia Pro subscription includes a library of games.
These are just some of the games that come with a Google Stadia Pro subscription. Others are available for purchase.
Screenshot: Ed Hardy/Cult of Mac

You start off Stadia with a free one-month trial. After that, there are two pricing tiers. A standard account is free and requires users to buy the games they want to play.

Stadia Pro costs $9.99 per month and adds 4K HDR and 5.1 surround sound. It comes with some games, but most cost extra.

There are a lot of games to choose from. Google has serious pull and managed to convince big names to come on board. There’s Rockstar, Bungie, Square Enix, Ubisoft and many more. There’s Cyberpunk 2077 ($59.99) or Baldur’s Gate 3 ($59.99), Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order ($39.99), Madden NFL 21 ($59.99), Assassin’s Creed Odyssey ($14.99) and Red Dead Redemption 2 ($59.99). Just to throw some titles out there.

These are full console-quality games so you pay console-quality prices… as you probably just noticed. No $1 iPad games here. You can find options under $20, but many titles are closer to $50. You won’t have to look hard to find some that are $80.

True, the selection isn’t as extensive as you’ll find on Steam. Or are available for Xbox or Playstation. But if the Stadia Store has the game you’re looking for, that’s all you need.

Just to be clear, you don’t also have to pay a monthly fee to access the expensive game you just purchased. These are accessible with the free tier. You do need to pay extra if you want better video and sound quality, though.

How to use a game controller with Google Stadia on iPad

There are onscreen touch controls built into the web app. I do not recommend them. Google doesn’t either. Keeping your fingers from slipping off the virtual buttons is nigh impossible. Reserve the touchscreen controls if you’re ever desperate. Otherwise get a game controller.

Google offers a Stadia Controller ($69). This uses Wi-Fi to communicate directly with the server that’s handling your game. It does not go through your iPad, which should speed up response times.

I haven’t tried it. In my tests, I used an off-the-self Sony Playstation 4 DualShock 4 controller, which does need to go through my iPad. Nevertheless, I didn’t ever experience lag enough to affect gameplay in all my testing. I’m not a pro gamer, though.

Just in case you didn’t know already, iPadOS (and iOS) support several standard wireless Playstation and Xbox controllers. And the list of options is growing with iPadOS 14.5. And if your iPad supports a controller, Stadia does too.

Just set a compatible controller in Bluetooth pairing mode, then connect to it with your iPad. The same as you would any other Bluetooth accessory. Run the Stadia web app and you’ll be connected. The app has a tutorial to help, but I never needed it.

The Google Stadia on iPad home screen.
The Google Stadia home screen works more like an app than a web page. Tap on a game and you’re playing it.
Screenshot: Ed Hardy/Cult of Mac

Google Stadia on iPad final thoughts

I was genuinely surprised how well Stadia works. My skepticism about web apps dates back more than a decade, but this gaming service plays better than I expected. I enjoyed myself. And the selection of games is outstanding, considering Stadia is still fairly new.

If you have an iPad and a compatible game controller, you should try Stadia out. It’s free for a month. Do this before you buy a $500 game console — you might like the cloud-gaming option better. If you don’t, you haven’t lost anything.

As a side note, Google shut down SG&E, its internal game development studio, in early 2021. Some people took this as a sign that Stadia was failing. I see it as the opposite: there are enough third-party developers making games for Stadia that it wasn’t necessary for Google to also do so. And this way, Google isn’t completing against the companies that support its gaming service.

Comparable products

The most obvious rival is Amazon Luna. This is another cloud gaming service that supports iPad. It’s $5.99 a month, and offers some big-name games too

Or there’s Apple Arcade. This is something of an apples-to-oranges comparison because this isn’t a cloud gaming service. Pay $4.99 a month and you’ll have access to over 180 games that are installed on your iPad. No streaming necessary.