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Google Stadia on iOS won’t change minds, but is necessary step for cloud gaming

Over a year after Google’s cloud streaming service launched, Stadia finally has iOS support. Players can now use the service on iPhone and iPad, allowing them to play games like Destiny 2 and Cyberpunk 2077 on Apple’s mobile devices.

Digital Trends went hands-on with the new update before its launch, testing the service with a phone and tablet. The experience is largely the same as what Android users have gotten to try over the past year. That means that the iOS version doesn’t fix any of the platform’s long-standing issues, but it does finally make it a more widely accessible service, which is crucial for cloud gaming’s continued growth.

Getting set up

Setting up Stadia almost feels like bootlegging it. To do so, players need to navigate to the Stadia website in Safari and pin it to their device’s home screen. That workaround is likely due to Apple’s restrictive rules around all-in-one gaming apps, which have created challenges for the industry’s tentative jump to cloud gaming.

The progressive web app solution has been a go-to for services looking to get around Apple’s strict rules. It’s a clever bit of problem-solving, but admittedly imperfect when compared to a proper app. In one instance, I somehow managed to highlight my Destiny 2 screen blue, with Copy and Select All prompts appearing on screen. I had to fiddle around in menus trying to find a way to deselect the gameplay.

Little quirks like that are something of a necessary evil at the moment, so chalk it up to a “beggars can’t be choosers” scenario for players at the mercy of Apple for now.

After a bit of fiddling around to sync a DualShock 4 to my iPhone, I was able to quickly boot up games and start playing. For those who have yet to try a cloud gaming service, the initial shock of seeing a game like Hitman 2 on a phone screen is genuinely memorable. While the Nintendo Switch has normalized bringing console-quality games to a handheld device, it’s still impressive to see an iPhone 8 run Destiny 2 in a fairly stable fashion.

Throughout my testing, I completed a few full missions in Hitman, played some online matches in Dead By Daylight, dropped in for quick Super Bomberman R Online rounds between work, and even managed to land a positive K/D in a round of Crucible in Destiny 2. All the while, I was bouncing between devices, controllers, attachments, and wireless headphones. The configuration I eventually landed on had my iPhone in a Razer Kishi and connected to the Hammerhead Wireless Pro earbuds, which convincingly turned my phone into a full handheld.

Many of the more basic frustrations I experienced, like device pairing pains or browser crashes, felt like they were coming from Apple’s side, not Stadia’s. That underscores an important point to consider with any cloud streaming platform; to a certain degree, they’re only as good as the device they work on. With a dedicated console like the PlayStation 5, Sony has full control over its hardware and can update it accordingly to better optimize the gaming experience. Services like Stadia don’t have the same advantage, so any of Apple’s problems become Google’s.

Despite those complications, it was still exciting to see my outdated and functionally useless iPad become a legitimate gaming device. It won’t replace anything in my home, but it’s easy to see how someone without a powerful PC or laptop can benefit from the service. The name of the game with cloud gaming at the moment is access and it’s crucial that now Apple users even have the chance to see what’s possible with Stadia.

Stability vs. convenience

The big pain point when it comes to cloud gaming is still stability, and that holds true here. For the most part, games ran smoothly for me with few noticeable graphics dips and quick freezes. Impressively, that was even the case during online games like Dead By Daylight. Granted, I’m in New York City and have access to the kind of internet needed to run Stadia effectively. The experience is sure to vary elsewhere.

Even with relatively smooth visuals, I still experienced plenty of less-than-ideal hiccups. Input lag wasn’t as noticeable in slower-paced games like Hitman, but it became more of a problem while trying to play a competitive round in Destiny 2. It wasn’t enough to throw off my game, but it’s hard to see Stadia becoming my go-to platform for games that require precision.

More troubling were some of the audio issues, which saw sound desyncing from gameplay frequently. In Destiny 2, the sound delay was a full pulse rifle shot apart making it difficult to tell when I was hitting enemies. Sometimes, I’d find myself killed before I even heard the gunshot that did it.

This certainly isn’t new information for those who have used the platform previously, but it’s a refresher on what Stadia gives players and what it lacks. Cloud gaming offers convenience at the expense of stability and that’s not an unfair equation. Even the Nintendo Switch lives by that balance, letting people take games like The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt on the go if they’re willing to deal with a choppier experience.

As an added complication, it doesn’t help that most of the games available on the platform weren’t actually designed with a mobile experience in mind. It’s nearly impossible to read Hitman’s already tiny text boxes on an iPhone without some sort of external magnifier. The only game I tested that felt right was Super Bomberman R Online, which makes sense considering it’s a Stadia exclusive that appears to have a mobile focus. The more enticing, big-budget titles feel notably squeezed down and it’s unlikely that changes until cloud gaming becomes more commonplace.

Even with its kinks, Google Stadia on iOS is perfectly functional for what it’s trying to accomplish: Accessible gaming on the devices players already own. But those who are planning to sign up for Stadia on iOS have to understand what they’re getting into. An iPhone won’t suddenly become a replacement for a PC; it just means players don’t have to lug one around just to play a game on vacation.

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