It’s 2021 and playing video games no longer requires you to pop in a disc. Instead, we now have digital downloads and, more recently, game-streaming services that let you instantly begin playing the latest titles without having to install anything.
Two of the biggest game-streaming services are Google Stadia and Microsoft’s Xbox Cloud Gaming, formerly called Project xCloud or just xCloud. Both promise unprecedented freedom and ease of use for players, but they also have their drawbacks.
That said, when it comes to the Google Stadia versus xCloud comparison, which has the best to offer? We take a look.
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Despite the branding, you don’t need an Xbox console to play the Xbox Cloud Gaming (xCloud) service. It’s also not to be confused with Remote Play, which does require an Xbox and games installed on it to play them remotely from the cloud. Microsoft extended Remote Play beyond the limits of the local network in 2020 as it slowly rolled out xCloud, hence the confusion in mixing the two services.
Technically Google Stadia does not require a dedicated “receiver” console or box, but Google does provide an option to stream games to a TV using its Chromecast Ultra stick paired with the Stadia Controller. Both are not required to enjoy the full benefits of this service.
Of the two, Google Stadia has more device availability. In addition to the Chromecast, games can stream to any Chromium-based desktop browser like Google Chrome and Microsoft Edge, meaning you can play them on a MacBook or Chromebook. On mobile, Google provides a dedicated Android app (see Google compatibility list) and a progressive web app in Safari for iPhones and iPads.
Xbox Cloud Gaming is a bit more limited.
Currently, Microsoft’s cloud gaming service only works on the Xbox consoles and devices with Android 6.0 or greater and Bluetooth 4.0 and greater. However, it will not run on devices running “modified, alternate, or emulated” versions of Android.
Microsoft plans to bring this service to Windows 10 via the Xbox app and to Apple’s iOS using a progressive web app for Safari (just like Stadia does) in Spring 2021.
Winner: Google Stadia. It will still be more widely available on devices long into 2021.
Google Stadia’s freedom-of-choice approach continues for the controllers the platform will use. You are free to use several different popular game controllers you already own, including the PlayStation 4’s DualShock 4 and Microsoft’s own Xbox One controller and Xbox Adaptive Controller. However, for more platform-specific interactivity, you can use the $69 Google Stadia controller.
In terms of form factor, Google’s controller is somewhere between the Xbox and PlayStation controller, with a similar face button and stick layout, and comes with a share button. It also includes a Google Assistant button which allows you to speak into a microphone and get tips for your games on the fly. The Stadia Controller connects to the platform via Wi-Fi (instead of Bluetooth) or through a USB connection.
On mobile, you can opt to use on-screen controls if you don’t have a physical controller handy. Mouse and keyboard setups are also supported on compatible devices.
Xbox Cloud Gaming works a little bit differently.
Ideally, you want to use a wired or wireless Bluetooth Xbox controller to play this service natively, but most any modern controller, even Google’s gamepad, should work.
If you’re not sure your Xbox controller supports Bluetooth connectivity, check the plastic surrounding the Xbox button on the top of the controller. If the plastic is connected to the bumper buttons, it’s an older controller and does not have Bluetooth. If there is no additional plastic piece around the Xbox button, it means it’s newer and has built-in Bluetooth compatibility.
Unlike Stadia, on-screen Xbox Touch Controls for mobile devices are currently limited to a handful of games including Minecraft Dungeons, Killer Instinct, and Streets of Rage 4. Mouse and keyboard input is not supported on any device at this time.
Winner: Google Stadia. Both streaming services do offer some flexibility with which controllers you can use, and most popular controllers will work with each service. Stadia, however, provides better on-screen touch controller support along with traditional mouse and keyboard setups.
Google and Microsoft do not promise the same streaming quality on their services, at least when it comes to resolution.
With Stadia, Google’s free tier supports 1080p at 60 frames per second (fps). The Pro monthly subscription ($10) ups the resolution to 4K at 60 fps while also supporting HDR. Google plans to support 8K at 120 fps in the future.
With both tiers, the stream will dip down to 720p at 60 fps as needed. Stadia also locks streaming to 720p when playing on a cellular connection to reduce the load on mobile networks.
On the cloud side, the GPU in Google’s servers allows for up to 10.7 TFLOPS of power, which is nearly double that of the previous-gen Xbox One X (not the Series X). To run games at 4K, players will need 35 Mbps or higher in internet speed.
Using the “Stream Capabilities API” included in what Google has dubbed the “Playability ToolKit,” developers have live access to a player’s stream capabilities, including HDR, surround sound, and resolution. This allows them to adjust game settings on the fly, providing the best possible settings for players.
Additionally, Product Manager Khaled Abdel Rahman addressed latency concerns with Stadia at Google I/O in 2019, saying the team has weekly research sessions in addition to wider scale testing. The team is focused on trying to find a balance that works with the many inconsistent factors in each player’s situation.
Meanwhile, Microsoft leverages its own 54 Azure data center regions to power Xbox Cloud Gaming. Information about streaming resolution is rather dodgy, but by default, it offers 1080 at 60 fps. The resolution on Android devices appears to be locked at 720p for now.
Microsoft supposedly plans to support 4K in the future, but probably not until the company updates its Blade servers with components similar to those in the Xbox Series X. According to 3D Realms VP Frederik Schreiber, the Xbox Series X is now far more powerful than Stadia, featuring ray tracing, 120 fps framerates, and 8K resolutions.
Winner: Google Stadia. You can get 4K streaming right now.
This is where the division truly shines.
Google Stadia is free to use with a registered Google Account. At its basic level, you must purchase games to play them, meaning you’re re-building a game library. The only exceptions are demos, free-to-play weekends, and two free games anyone can play: Destiny 2 and Super Bomberman R Online, the latter of which is a Stadia exclusive. These games stream in 1080p.
Stadia Pro is a subscription service costing $10 per month. It upgrades the streaming quality to 4K with HDR. It’s similar to Xbox Game Pass in that Stadia Pro also includes a library of games subscribers can play for free so long as they keep the subscription active.
Overall, Stadia offers more than 200 games at the time of this publication, with more coming throughout 2021. Again, some of these are locked behind the Pro paywall. Developers can sign up to apply for Stadia development on the official developer website. Stadia supports multiple game engines, including popular choices like Unreal and Unity.
Stadia games you can purchase right now include Baldur’s Gate 3, Cyberpunk 2077, Doom Eternal, Far Cry New Dawn, Final Fantasy XV, Rage 2, Watch Dogs: Legion, and many more. Games offered in the Pro package include Enter the Gungeon, Hotline Miami, SteamWorld Dig 2, and more.
While Xbox Cloud Gaming is a component of Xbox Game Pass Ultimate, not every game in this library can be streamed from the cloud. Microsoft provides a list of cloud-enabled games that are rotated in and out of the Xbox Games Pass library. However, the overall catalog includes more than 300 games made playable each month including first-party titles and those developed for the Xbox Series X/S, Xbox One, Xbox 360, and the original Xbox.
Moreover, Microsoft is bolstering its first-party game development studios, with recent acquisitions of Obsidian Entertainment, Ninja Theory, Compulsion Games, and Playground Games, as well as the establishment of The Initiative.
Winner: Xbox Cloud Gaming. Microsoft provides a vast catalog of games you can play that spans five generations of Xbox consoles. You also have access to first-party content streamed from the cloud including Gears 5, the Halo series, and Minecraft Dungeons.
Google Stadia is designed to create a more organic and symbiotic relationship between game developers, content creators, and players, with a series of tools to enhance games — both during their creation and afterward. Developers have access to the A.I.-powered Style Transfer ML feature for environmental design, which could cut down on the time it takes to add skins or textures to play areas.
Players can make use of Stadia’s State Share feature, which serves as an invite link to whichever game supports it. By clicking the link, you’ll be brought into the game at a specific point — wherever it’s saved and can be accessed from any device that Stadia supports. It’s like an enhanced version of a save state, but with added benefits.
Game developers and publishers have an easier time getting their games into the hands of players, as well. When watching a YouTube advertisement for a game from a company’s official channel, there is a button you can click to instantly start playing the game. Because there is no download necessary, you can get from watching the video to playing the game in less than five seconds.
If a streamer is playing your favorite game on YouTube, you can join them in their game, even during a multiplayer session, using Crowd Play. Most excitingly, you can also jump into a version of the game with their save data and start exactly where they were.
You won’t find features like that on Xbox Cloud Gaming. Instead, you only take advantage of Microsoft’s popular Xbox Game Pass service to access a huge library of games from the cloud. The only real social features are what you already get with Xbox Live along with cross-play capabilities in supporting games.
Winner: Google Stadia. Microsoft’s solution only targets streaming a library of games and doesn’t offer any additional social components outside of the Xbox Live toolset.
Pricing and availability
With Google Stadia, there are two options to choose from, depending on what you want. Xbox Cloud Gaming only provides one option. Here’s a closer look:
Stadia (Free): Any game you purchase streams in 1080p at 60 fps. You also have access to demos, free-to-play weekends, and two free games anyone can play.
Stadia Pro ($10/month): Any game you purchase streams up to 4K at 60 fps. You also have access to a select library of games you can play for free and discount pricing so long as the subscription is active. Demos, free-to-play weekends, and two free games are also made available.
Stadia is available in more than 20 countries including the United States, France, Germany, Denmark, and more. Google provides a complete list.
Xbox Cloud Gaming
Xbox Game Pass Ultimate ($15/month): This subscription combines Xbox Game Pass for Xbox, Xbox Game Pass for Windows 10, and Xbox Live into one monthly subscription. This plan is required to play the cloud-enabled Game Pass games and includes all the benefits of Xbox Game Pass, Xbox Live access, and Games With Gold.
This service is available in 22 countries across North America and Europe along with South Korea. Microsoft provides a complete list.
Who’s the real winner?
This is a tough one. Both Stadia and Xbox Cloud Gaming deliver a console experience from the cloud. What divides these two services is how they approach gamers.
Stadia, at its most basic level, wants you to build a new library. Unlike GeForce Now which relies on your Steam and other third-party accounts, you’ll need to buy Cyberpunk 2077 through Stadia if you want to stream it from that platform. In this instance, it’s more akin to Xbox Remote Play.
But when you look at Stadia Pro, it’s still based on the buy-and-play foundation but adds a library of games you can play free while the subscription remains active. This brings the platform more in line with Xbox Cloud Gaming.
With Stadia Pro, the resolution bumps up to 4K at 60 fps whereas Xbox Cloud Gaming does not. On the flip side, Stadia Pro has a smaller library than Xbox Game Pass and doesn’t have access to popular first-party titles like the Gears of War and Halo series.
That all said, if we compare library to library, Microsoft outshines Google, and to be fair, the latter company is a newcomer when compared to Microsoft’s overall console history. But when you compare device availability, streaming quality, and social features, Google Stadia comes out ahead.
Choosing one over the other can be difficult. If you own an Xbox, chances are you’re already an Ultimate subscriber anyway. Even more, you probably already own many of the games served up on the Stadia roster. All you need, then, is to use Remote Play versus purchasing the game again on Stadia.
Stadia, it seems, targets gamers who aren’t worried about rebuilding yet another gaming library. The Pro subscription sweetens the deal with added games and a visual upgrade.