With the launch of Nvidia GeForce NOW this week, I thought it would be a great time to put the current top services from major gaming brands head-to-head to see which comes out on top, and which may be best for you.
What is game streaming?
Game streaming is basically a way to play full console and PC games from any mobile device, laptop, or PC, even if that device cannot natively run that game itself. Instead of installing the game to your PC, console, or mobile device, you just use an app or web-browser that you access the game from. You access the game from a remote datacenter it’s pre-installed on, and then just hit play to start the game. Once you hit play, your device takes your controller or mouse/keyboard inputs and sends it over the internet cloud to the remote server that’s running the game. In real-time, the server runs the game and sends a high-res video feed back to your device’s screen. This all happens instantaneously, so as long as you have a fast connection, it will feel like you are playing the game right on your device locally.
Done well, it opens up the possibility of playing AAA console/PC games from any device anywhere you have internet. It also provides the benefit of not needing to wait for a game to download, install, or update, allowing instant access to the games you love. This may seem trivial, until you realize it can save you hours of valuable time, as well as money in not needing to buy more or faster storage every time you need more room for games or want to load them faster.
With that in mind, there are now a bevy of streaming services to choose from, some free, some paid, and some freemium (free with paid premium options). Some are also still in a beta testing phase and aren’t yet final. Today, we’ll be comparing three streaming services from some of the biggest companies and will see how they compare.
The game I used to test every service was Destiny 2. Since every service offers this game, it’s only fair to use it as a basis for comparison. To get an idea on how each service compares to a native game experience, I’ve compared each service against the Windows 10/Steam version as a base running on my gaming PC connected via ethernet to a fast fiber optic connection. On that setup, I used a mouse and keyboard and an Xbox One Elite controller connected via USB. Subsequent tests were in the Chrome browser for Stadia, the GeForce NOW desktop app, and the xCloud beta app on my Android phone. For the mobile comparison between each service, I used a Google Pixel 3 XL Android phone connected to a 5GHz WiFi connection on the same network, with an Xbox One S controller connected over Bluetooth as my controller. The Bluetooth connection will add a negligible amount of input lag compared to using a USB connection for the controller, which I did not have access to at the time of this review. Many people will use a Bluetooth controller to play, so this should be a good representation of the common mobile experience.
My comparisons will be based on my subjective experience with each, as I am unable to measure exact latency figures accurately using any tool available at the moment. Being very attentive and experienced with gaming in several formats, though, I feel I have a good perception of the differences, so my anecdotal experiences here should reflect your experience, as well, provided you have a good-quality internet connection and live close enough to the data center for each service.
Without further ado, let’s see how Destiny 2 compares on each service.
Getting the game ready to go on Stadia is a piece of cake. After redeeming the game, it will appear in your library. Press the play button on the game, and the game begins loading instantly. After a few seconds, you are seeing the Bungie logo.
Loading times were almost the same as PC, but a few seconds less. Whereas my PC with the game installed on a HDD loaded into The Observatory at about 1:30, Stadia loaded in at around 1:10. This time is notably improved due to Stadia’s SSD tech vs. my PC’s HDD the game is installed on.
The Google Stadia version runs at 1080p, but is sent through bitrate compression, so comes off noticeably more blurry than the PC version. The graphics settings are not as high as the PC version, so I noticed more aliasing on edges as a result. However, these sacrifices are made to offer a solid 60fps, which results in a smoother and more responsive experience compared to console, where it runs at half the framerate, 30fps. With this in mind, Stadia’s presentation, while a bit soft, is more responsive.
Testing the audio, it is noticeably not as high-fidelity as the PC version, but I could still hear everything clearly. It’s like listening to a decent quality MP3 file instead of a lossless WAV or FLAC file. Thankfully, the quality is good enough that it doesn’t bother me at all.
Performance & Latency
Onto the most crucial part for playability: latency. Testing with a keyboard and mouse, additional input latency here is noticeable compared to PC, but the game is surprisingly still very responsive. While running, jumping, and changing my camera’s direction, I could perceive a slight delay, but after a few seconds, it felt totally fine to me. I was initially afraid of how much the latency would be here, but the mouse and keyboard feels very playable here. Switching over to a controller on the PC version, it feels slightly less responsive, but that’s just the nature of controller actions vs. a mouse and keyboard. Over on Stadia’s side, it feels less responsive with a controller than on PC, but I feel it’s still something I can get used to. In this case, I prefer mouse and keyboard for a faster response, though. Notably, Stadia has no controller rumble with an Xbox One controller on PC, but the other streaming services do.
Having just launched out of a lengthy beta period, GeForce NOW is the newest of the bunch. And it performs very well… when it works. To get started with a Steam game on GeForce NOW, once you find the game on the service, you press play. Unlike on Stadia, you need to authenticate through Steam first. My game needed to be updated there, but once I pressed update, it happened instantaneously. Once there, I pressed play within the streaming version of Steam, and the game started to load. On first load, it ran within 30 seconds. However, on subsequent sessions, it took upwards of two minutes to get going. Stadia and xCloud both beat it there for convenience.
As for the loading times once in the game itself, I was very impressed here. Whereas my PC and Stadia both clocked in over a minute, GeForce NOW took less than 30 seconds. It’s truly amazing how fast Nvidia’s storage implementation is here. Whatever Nvidia is using for their servers is a much faster SSD implementation than Stadia, though Stadia still beats any current PC or console HDD.
Note: on a subsequent Stadia session, that service loaded The Observatory in just over 10 seconds, which is amazing. Whether that’s because the game was still loaded into the server’s memory from my previous play session, though, I’m not sure. So I will not be counting those results in the comparison for now.
Onto visuals, the graphics looked notably sharper than Stadia’s, even though both games run at 1080p. Once into the game, the visuals looked higher-quality too. Since you’re running the Steam version of the game here, you can adjust many of the video settings and see that Nvidia’s remote PC can run every setting at max or near-max settings and get very high framerates. Aliasing looked slightly more noticeable compared to my gaming PC, but this may be due to the compressed feed. Compared to my PC, the game looked a bit softer, but most of the same high-quality settings were on.
Audio-wise, the audio sounded a bit better than Stadia’s, but still noticeably compressed over the PC version. I’m very impressed with the audio quality here, given it’s coming from a compressed feed.
Latency & Performance
Onto performance. My network test from within the GeForce NOW app showed that I had just a 3ms latency between my location and the US Southwest server! Therefore, my experience should be very responsive. Stadia is known to add 40ms of latency at least to games from one reviewer’s tests, but with 3ms here, it should have a huge advantage in responsiveness.
And finally, onto input lag. I must say, the input lag here is the most impressive I’ve ever experienced on any streaming service. Input lag was noticeably better than Stadia due to my 3ms connection to Nvidia’s Southwest server. It felt nearly identical to the PC experience, which was great. Unfortunately, though the response was fast, the video had many more microstutters throughout vs. Stadia, though, making for a slightly less pleasing experience. This didn’t detract from the gameplay, but made it look a bit worse than Stadia or PC visually due to microstutters. I’d compare it to looking similar to screen-tearing, but it’s a different effect.
Here’s where we jump from testing the game on my PC between the services to testing strictly on my mobile device.
Project xCloud (beta)
As Microsoft’s Project xCloud service is still in beta, it only runs on Android devices for now via the xCloud app. As this is a beta, performance may improve in the consumer release, but for now, here are the results.
The setup on Project xCloud was quite simple. It offers a clean interface where you simply scroll down the list and choose your game, then hit play. I’d say it’s in between Stadia and GeForce NOW in ease of getting a game running.
Loading times on xCloud were about the same as my PC, clocking in at just over a minute to The Observatory. It’s within the general range of PC and Stadia.
Image quality is decent at 720p since it’s on a small mobile screen. It’s better than I expected given it’s running on a mobile device. However, you can see some macroblocking from compression occasionally. Some aliasing is noticeable, but not nearly as much as on PC, due to the smaller screen. Visual settings look to be very similar to an Xbox One S, but don’t approach the quality of the Xbox One X, mostly due to resolution. Crucially, since the version here is based on the Xbox One version and runs on similar hardware, the game only runs at 30fps, which impacts smoothness and responsiveness noticeably.
The sound quality here was good, but as seen with the other two services, noticeably compressed. However, I did not notice any negative effects due to too low of a bitrate and the sound was pleasing overall. I’d categorize it similar to Stadia’s performance here.
Latency & Performance
Here’s the most crucial part. Unfortunately, xCloud has, hands-down, the most noticeable input lag here. Whereas on PC and GeForce NOW I could forget I wasn’t streaming the game due to its responsiveness, with Stadia and xCloud, the response time is always slightly noticeable. Whereas Stadia is easier to get used to, after several minutes of playing through the game’s opening moments, I was constantly aware of a more sluggish response here. Crucially, I didn’t have too much issue hitting the game’s enemies, but when I missed, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I would have been a bit more accurate playing on another platform.
Thankfully, the game had very little in the way of stuttering. Even though the game felt a little laggy to control, it was very stable and consistent, which in the end is the most important. Too much stuttering or dropouts and you could get killed or miss your shot. That didn’t happen here.
Google Stadia (Mobile)
Google Stadia’s setup on mobile is very similar to on PC. Just download the Google Stadia app, choose the game from the list, then choose your device (in this case your phone), and then hit play. The game begins loading in, just like on the Chrome browser.
Loading time was, in this instance, better than my first run on PC. I loaded into The Observatory in seconds this time, potentially because my previous session may have been in the server’s memory already. This is speculation, though,
Stadia was slightly better than xCloud in visual quality. Aliasing was, again, less noticeable here due to the smaller screen. Visual settings looked similar to xCloud, and identical to the PC browser version of Stadia.
Over my Bluetooth headphones, the game sounded slightly different than xCloud, however it also did not sound bad to me. They were similar enough that I can’t pick one over the other. Both are clear and get a thumbs up from me.
Latency & Performance
Stadia was noticeably better than xCloud in terms of response. I felt slightly more latency compared to my controller on PC, but it was very negligible. The WiFi and Bluetooth don’t add too much latency over my desktop ethernet and USB connections, fortunately.
Interestingly, Stadia stuttered far more on my WiFi, though, compared to the desktop experience and Project xCloud. I played for a few minutes and the microstutters persisted throughout. Though still playable and not too distracting, this did affect my enjoyment of the game more than the microstutters I experienced using GeForce NOW through PC. xCloud beats it here.
GeForce NOW (Mobile)
GeForce NOW on mobile has a similar interface to the desktop version, but I’d say it’s slightly more simple. Like on PC, you choose your game from your game library and load in.
xCloud and Stadia have a more quick and simple interface vs. the other two, as you still need to go through the extra Steam authentication layers to launch the game. One cool feature on GeForce NOW mobile vs. PC, though, is you can use your touchscreen on the Steam interface within the app.
Unfortunately, once I hit play on the game, even though I was on mobile this time, the game still took over 2 minutes to start.
Once in the game, I experienced the same 30-second load time as on PC. Not as fast as Stadia on my subsequent sessions using it, but still very speedy.
Compared to Stadia and xCloud, image quality was easily the best out of the three, due to the higher PC settings. Aliasing was less noticeable than PC too, due to the smaller screen. This is the way to go for the best visual quality.
Unfortunately, this was the first out of any of the ways to play that disappointed me. On mobile specifically, GeForce NOW had a noticeably lower audio bitrate than on PC, and lower than any of the other platforms I tested. I can tell the sound was lower quality, as cymbals and high strings in the music had a low-quality whooshing sound that took place of the details in the music, giving it a low-quality MP3 effect, something that for me as an audiophile, cannot contend with. I’m not asking for lossless quality here, but Nvidia may have gotten a bit too lenient with the sound quality on this version.
Latency & Performance
Finally, onto latency. Thankfully, the excellent PC performance I received carries over to the mobile version over WiFi and Bluetooth. GeForce NOW was the fastest out of all three services on mobile and felt almost like playing on my PC natively. Though there was some additional stuttering over WiFi, it fell in between what I experienced on the mobile versions of Stadia and xCloud.
Picking a Winner?
In terms of absolute convenience, Stadia takes the cake for the most easy way to get to your games anywhere. With a simple interface and no hoops to jump through, it operates more like a game console in that it is very simple to get to your games and play with minimal issues and less troubleshooting to get things working. Stadia feels the most polished out of all three experiences in that regard.
For me in my location, input lag is more prominent on Stadia vs. GeForce NOW, though your results will vary. For example, if you live closer to a Google datacenter and further away from an Nvidia datacenter, you will most likely have the opposite experience. Stadia is the most stable over an ethernet connection, with less microstuttering. But on mobile WiFi, I experienced more hiccups vs. the other services. Visual quality will be the lowest of the three at the current moment, but still looks at least as good as an Xbox One S. On other games, native 4K matches Xbox One X or higher.
In terms of value proposition, though, Stadia offers the toughest sell if you already own a PC or Xbox game library, with only 2 free monthly games as part of the $10/month subscription. Stadia is aiming to be a primary gaming platform competing directly with Xbox and PlayStation, and therefore the store will resemble those, with full prices and occasional game sales. Given that Xbox Game Pass is coming to xCloud, unless Google introduces a Stadia game subscription with a catalogue of included games, xCloud will offer many more games included in its subscription when it launches.
Stadia currently offers a library of 42 games, though Google has stated it will have 120+ by the end of 2020.
If you want the most convenient and polished experience that “just works” everywhere you go, though, Stadia wins in this regard. Whereas GeForce NOW can feel a little janky getting a game up and running sometimes, Stadia always works as soon as you hit play. The experience just feels more magical and similar to what console gamers have come to expect.
Nvidia GeForce NOW
GeForce NOW is the best option for you if you don’t want to compromise on PC quality, but need to play where you don’t have a gaming PC setup. For existing PC gamers, this service is a win, as you get instant access to over 1000+ Steam games, playable for no additional charge as long as they’re in your Steam library.
Visuals are top notch, boasting a high-end Nvidia GPU with 16GB of VRAM and RTX graphics if you take advantage of their paid Founders tier. The service overall offers the lowest latency on desktop PCs and mobile, and the experience is great on both, though mobile sound quality isn’t great.
With access to over 1000+ games from Steam and the Epic Games Store (provided you own them), GeForce NOW gets you a lot of value for its free tier or its premium tier, just $5/month, provided you already have a library of PC games. However, if you are just trying out cloud gaming for the first time and don’t own any PC games, both Stadia and xCloud are already outpacing Nvidia’s selection of just 30+ included games.
Microsoft Project xCloud
Project xCloud is a bit of a different animal from Stadia and GeForce NOW at the moment, due to it still being in beta testing, only being available on Android, and not having a final payment model at the moment.
In its current state, xCloud has the most noticeable input lag out of the three services. However, it is the only service you can play Xbox exclusives on, and crucially, it will likely end up having the most value for an Xbox gamer.
With support for Xbox consoles and PC in the future, coupled with the prospect of Xbox Game Pass coming and many developers only needing to simply “flip a switch” to allow for their games to come over to xCloud, xCloud could become a serious contender for the cloud streaming battle over the next several years.
As of this writing, xCloud has over 90 titles in the beta, and will continue to grow after the beta hits its final release.
It Really Depends on You
While all of these services has their pros and cons, I would be very happy playing Destiny on any of them. Besides their technical performance, which service you choose will more likely be based on which ecosystem you are already a part of.
With Microsoft’s xCloud, someone who already owns an Xbox will get the most value out of the service, as Microsoft has stated that Xbox console gaming will continue to be the focus for the premiere experience, with xCloud serving as a complimentary experience when you cannot be at your console. With the service coming to Windows and Xbox later this year, though, Microsoft’s ambitions could be growing. Eventually seeing 4K and HDR support isn’t out of the realm of possibility.
With GeForce NOW, Nvidia is targeting the audience who already has a gaming PC with a Steam library, but wants to play those games away from their PC with little compromise. Similar to Microsoft’s focus with xCloud, Nvidia sees the service as mostly a companion to when you are not at your gaming rig, not necessarily the primary place to play, given its short native game library and lack of 4K support.
Google Stadia is the first and only major streaming service that aims to make streaming the primary way you play games, rather than a companion. As a streaming-first platform, then, Google tries harder to deliver a full console or PC-like experience with features like 4K, HDR, and 60FPS.
The downside of being a new platform is it requires you to build your library from scratch VS. playing games you already owned from Xbox or PC, but offers the promise of features you can only experience in the cloud, such as 40-person car races, thousand player battle royales, splitscreen over the internet, more destructible environments, and Google Assistant support. While not all of these features are available quite yet, they show that Google is trying to build the future of gaming by putting the baseline of power in the cloud, where less limits exist than even the most powerful PC hardware.
Pure value for money isn’t quite there yet over the other services, but if Google’s promises come true, they could come out far ahead in game experiences once they start making good on their promises.
At the moment, whatever service you choose depends on which ecosystem you’re in (or not in) at the moment, what quality you desire, and where you want to play your games. One would be wise to look at the future trajectory of these services and ecosystems too before committing too much into any of them.
Regardless, we do know one thing for sure: with cloud gaming services allowing people the option to play true high-end games anywhere, the market for game streaming will only continue to grow.
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