Google Stadia vs. Shadow: Can the underdog beat a tech giant?

Cloud gaming is here. Multiple services are available, the most famous being Google Stadia. It’s not alone, however. You have several alternative options, one of which is Shadow, a company that’s been in the cloud gaming business for years. While Google Stadia and Shadow look similar from afar, there are huge differences between them, and those differences give one of these competitors a clear edge.

Device support

Unlike a game console, a cloud gaming service isn’t tied to a single physical device. Multiple devices can support cloud gaming. In fact, even a 10-year old laptop could handle these services (in theory). Yet differences in app support, and negotiations with partners, do lead to restrictions.

Google’s Stadia is, predictably, focused on Google’s ecosystem. It’s available on select Android phones, Google’s Chromecast Ultra, and on computers that can run Google’s Chrome browser.

Shadow plays through the company’s app on Windows, Mac, Ubuntu, and most Android devices (Android devices require Android 7.0 or newer, while Android TV devices require Android 5.0 or newer).

Google Stadia vs Shadow
Stadia and Shadow both have Android apps Rich Shibley/Digital Trends

You might notice the lack of Apple iOS support. Apple has restrictive policies about apps that connect to cloud services, including a clause in its App Store Review Guidelines which states “Thin clients for cloud-based apps are not appropriate for the App Store.” This seems to rule out all cloud gaming services on iOS devices.

Most devices compatible with Google Stadia and Shadow can handle either with ease, as the hardware demand of streaming is not much higher than streaming YouTube or Netflix. Older mobile devices lacking an Ethernet port will find Wi-Fi bandwidth the most likely roadblock. Devices that lack support for at least Wi-Fi 802.11n will struggle, and the latest Wi-Fi 6 standard is preferable.

Shadow has its own dedicated hardware device, the Shadow Ghost, that can be used to bring Shadow to any display. However, it’s not currently in stock, and Shadow hasn’t said when more will be available.

Winner: Shadow by a hair. Device support is similar, but Shadow supports more Android devices (for now). That gives it an edge.

Controller support

Both Google Stadia and Shadow can handle Bluetooth controllers, which opens compatibility to a very wide range of options, including the Xbox One controller and PlayStation’s DualShock 4. Aside from that, both services can handle controllers connected directly over USB.

In my experience, Stadia and Shadow are great about detecting controllers. I’ve rarely had an issue on any device I’ve used. However, Shadow is slightly better because it offers a clear control panel that provides more fine-grain details in case you need to troubleshoot. Stadia is more opaque.

Stadia controller
Stadia’s $69 controller is unremarkable Rich Shibley/Digital Trends

Stadia also suffers a weird caveat. You can only use the official Stadia Controller if you play the service on Google’s Chromecast Ultra. That’s a bummer, because Google’s Stadia Controller is $69 and slightly inferior to its Xbox One and PlayStation rivals.

Even more bizarre, Stadia doesn’t work wirelessly with the Stadia Controller on computers or phones. Yet third-party Bluetooth controllers will work with these devices. Yep. It’s strange.

Winner: Shadow picks up an easy victory here. It has broad support without the strange exceptions that make Stadia confusing.

Visual quality

Google’s Stadia supports resolutions up to 4K. It also supports HDR and gameplay up to 60 frames per second.

Shadow supports resolution up to 4K at 60 FPS. It can also support 1080p at up to 144 FPS, for high refresh-rate displays. However, Shadow does not support HDR.

While both services offer expanded resolution support, Shadow offers a bit more control, particularly for PC players. Its expanded control menu makes selecting a specific resolution and framerate targets easy. You can even choose a cap on bandwidth use, which can lead to more stable performance on low-bandwidth connections.

Assassin's Creed Odyssey review
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey looks great on both services

In my experience, Shadow delivers slightly better image quality in a wider range of circumstances. I can see little difference between the two on phone or television, where both perform very well so long as your internet connection can reliability deliver 15Mbps of bandwidth.

However, Stadia can be disappointing on a computer, particularly at resolutions above 1080p. Stadia seems to resort to lower resolutions more aggressively than Shadow, reducing image sharpness. I’ve also noticed more banding and macro-blocking artifacts while playing on Stadia.

Winner: Shadow. While Stadia performs well, Shadow is more consistent in my experience. It also offers more fine-grain control, which lets me tailor the experience to the device I’m using.

Game library

This is where the difference in the Google Stadia vs. Shadow comparison becomes crystal clear, because the two services take a completely different approach to game libraries.

Stadia is a platform with a digital storefront. Games that you buy on Stadia are only available on Stadia, and games you own on other platforms can’t be enjoyed on Stadia. In this sense, it works just like any game console. A PlayStation 4 copy of a game won’t work on an Xbox console. Stadia is the same.

Shadow can play any game that is compatible with a Windows PC.

The list of games on Stadia is very slim. Strangely, Google doesn’t seem to have an official game list, and even the list I can view through the Stadia app doesn’t show every game available. However, at time of this writing, it seems there’s less than 40 games on the service.

Shadow is a different beast. When you subscribe to Shadow, you’re subscribing to a virtual PC service. Pay close attention, and you’ll notice Shadow gives you “the gaming rig you deserve” and turns any device “into a gaming PC.”

Because of that, Shadow can play any game that is compatible with a Windows PC. There are no caveats. Shadow delivers a Windows-based gaming PC in the cloud that can do anything a normal PC can. Want to run Excel? Ok, sure. You can run Excel.

Winner: Shadow, and this isn’t remotely close. If it plays on PC, you can play it on Shadow. Stadia, by contrast, has an extremely slim game library that’s expanding at a glacial pace.

Extra features

Google Stadia is a platform, and it comes with some platform features that you’d expect. That includes a friend’s list and support for voice chat.

Prior to its release, Google made a big deal of “Crowd Play,” a feature that would let players jump directly into games they were viewing on YouTube. It’d also let streamers and other community members share a game’s save state, giving everyone a chance to overcome a challenge. This feature didn’t make launch, however, and there’s no timeline for when it will debut.

Since it’s not a platform, Shadow doesn’t offer its own friends list, voice chat, or other community features. You’ll have to use Discord or another third-party app.

However, since Shadow is letting you rent a PC over the cloud, you can use that PC for more than just gaming. In a way, that’s an advantage, since you can use applications or platforms you’re already used to. Using Steam, for example, is identical to using it on a local PC.

Importantly, this means Shadow can support mods, something Stadia generally won’t support.

Winner: Shadow. Its full PC functionality opens interesting possibilities.

Pricing and availability

Google Stadia is only available to players who buy the Stadia Premiere Edition. This bundle includes a Chromecast Ultra, one Stadia Controller, and three months of Stadia Pro. Stadia Pro is $9.99 for each additional month.

Shadow is available for $12.99 per month if you make a yearly commitment. If you don’t, the price rises to $34.95 per month.

Neither option is inexpensive. If you’re looking for the best value, consider Nvidia’s GeForce Now. You can use GeForce Now for free (with a session limit of one hour) or pay $4.99 per month for unlimited access. GeForce Now isn’t perfect, but it’s affordable.

All cloud gaming services have a variety of restrictions based on region. Shadow is widely available in Europe and the United States, but not elsewhere. Stadia is available in a handful of European countries and all of the United States (except Hawaii). Neither is available in Asia, Africa, or South America.

Winner: Shadow. A year of Shadow is less expensive than a year of Stadia in the first year of service, and only slightly more expensive after. Its broad game library makes it a clear value leader.

Conclusion

It’s clear who wins the Google Stadia vs. Shadow showdown. Shadow is superior to Stadia across the board. Shadow users can play more games and will have a better experience. And, at least during your first year, Shadow will be less expensive.

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