While PC and console gamers may roll their eyes at the thought, cloud gaming is now a viable alternative. Leading the pack is Google Stadia, which doesn’t need anything but a browser and a controller — no expensive hardware purchases are required on your end.
But Stadia isn’t alone in the cloud gaming space. Shadow aims to grab your hard-earned cash by taking a different route. From afar, however, both look similar at first glance, but there are huge differences between them, and those differences give one of these competitors a clear edge.
Unlike a traditional gaming console, a cloud gaming service isn’t tied to a single physical device. Multiple devices can support cloud gaming, even a 10-year-old laptop (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 via Google Play and on the Chromecast Ultra, though, the latter requires a $69 Stadia Controller. It’s also available on computers that can run a modern web browser, as well as Apple devices via a Safari web app.
Shadow plays through the Blade’s dedicated app on Windows, Ubuntu, and most Android devices running 7.0 “Nougat” or newer (Android TV devices require Android 5.0 or newer). It’s also supported on MacOS 10.10 and newer, iOS 11 and newer, and tvOS 11 and newer.
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 via Netflix or YouTube. 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. It’s not currently in stock, however, and Shadow hasn’t said when more will be available.
Winner: Google Stadia. You can play this service on a Chromebook without having to tool around with Linux commands just to install an app. Any device with a modern browser should do just fine.
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, depending on the device.
In my experience, Stadia and Shadow are great about detecting controllers. I’ve rarely had an issue with any device I’ve used. Shadow, however, 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.
However, Stadia has one extra but optional component: The Stadia Controller.
Here’s the deal. If you want to play Stadia through a Chromecast Ultra, you must use Google’s controller. Google is currently experimenting with a workaround called Tandem Mode, however, which essentially allows a third-party controller to piggyback off a paired Stadia controller. It’s certainly not ideal, especially when you can forgo the Chromecast Ultra and connect a PC directly to your TV.
Beyond the Chromecast Ultra, you can use the Stadia Controller via a wired USB connection to a PC or mobile device. For a wireless connection, the device uses Wi-Fi and a link code to pair it with a Stadia account.
On PC, for example, users power the gamepad on and click the controller icon at stadia.google.com. Afterward, they enter an on-screen link code using the associated button pattern. Mobile devices feature a dedicated app, one that renders wireless pairing far easier.
Winner: Stadia takes the win here. Not only does it support your favorite gamepads, but Google’s dedicated controller works wired and wirelessly on both PC and mobile devices.
Google Stadia supports resolutions up to 4K. It also supports HDR and gameplay up to 60 frames per second. Google’s servers, for now, rely on a custom Intel CPU and a custom AMD “Vega” GPU, although this information isn’t in plain sight.
Meanwhile, Shadow supports resolution up to 4K at 60 fps. It can also support 1080p at up to 144 fps for high refresh rate displays. Shadow does not support HDR, but the upcoming Ultra and Infinite subscriptions will include ray tracing and DLSS via the RTX 2080 and Titan RTX, respectively. Shadow lists the specifications for all three plans.
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 frame rate target easy. You can even choose a cap on bandwidth use, which can lead to more stable performance on low-bandwidth connections.
In our experience, Shadow delivers slightly better image quality under a wider range of circumstances. We can see little difference between the two on a phone or TV, however, where both perform well so long as your internet connection can reliability deliver 15Mbps of bandwidth.
Stadia can be disappointing on a computer, though, 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 our experience. It also offers more fine-grain control — which lets you tailor the experience to the device you’re using — and support for ray-traced graphics on the higher tiers.
This is where the difference between Google Stadia and Shadow becomes crystal clear, namely 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 played 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, for example. Stadia is the same.
Shadow can play any game that is compatible with a Windows PC.
The list of games on Stadia grows as the months roll by; currently, it offers more than 200 titles. The thing to keep in mind is that you don’t need a subscription to access and play your purchased games. Like watching a digital movie you bought from Vudu or iTunes, these games stream in 1080p at no extra cost.
The $10/month Pro subscription, however, offers a portion of Stadia’s library that you can play for “free” each month, similar to Xbox Game Pass. Members get a discount, too, just like Microsoft’s service. The subscription beefs up the playback of all Stadia games to 4K.
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 do that.
Winner: Shadow. If it plays on PC, you can play it on Shadow. Stadia’s library is by far better than it was in 2020, but it’s still limited when compared to the 300+ games you probably already own on Steam.
Google Stadia is a platform, and it comes with some features that you’d expect. That includes a friend’s list, support for voice chat, and a nifty feature called “Crowd Play,” which lets you jump directly into games you view on YouTube.
Other Stadia features include Stream Connect, which allows others to interact with your gameplay in real-time, and State Share, a tool that saves a “game state” to a screenshot or clip so you or others can relive the moment. Crowd Choice, another noteworthy feature, allows viewers to vote on what you should do next in-game.
Since it’s not a platform, Shadow doesn’t offer its own friends list, voice chat, or other community features. It’s a virtual PC, after all, so you’re in charge of installing Steam, Discord, or other third-party apps you prefer for communication.
Since Shadow is letting you rent a PC over the cloud, however, 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. This means Shadow can support mods, too, something Stadia probably will not.
But the drawback of using a service based on a virtual PC is that you can’t simply click and play. Subscribers must first download and install the software, and then apply any patches before launching the game. That’s not the case with Stadia — loading up an updated game is near instantaneous.
Winner: Shadow. While we love Stadia and its built-in social features, Shadow’s full PC functionality opens interesting possibilities.
Pricing and availability
Google Stadia doesn’t require a subscription. All that’s required is the purchase of a game. If you want 4K streaming and a library of free games, paying $10 per month isn’t bad at all. The Chromecast Ultra and Stadia Controller are optional, too — you really don’t even need them if you have a decent PC tethered to your TV.
Meanwhile, the Shadow Boost configuration costs $12 a month for a four-core CPU and Nvidia’s GTX 1080. The upcoming Ultra configuration will have a four-core CPU and the RTX 2080 for $30 a month, while the Infinite configuration will have a six-core CPU and the Titan RTX for $50 a month.
Google’s closest competitor, Nvidia’s GeForce Now, relies on your Steam library, similar to Shadow, but you’re not renting a virtual PC. Instead, you can stream your library for free if you’re willing to tolerate the insane queue and the one-hour playtime. Nvidia’s subscription, which runs $25 for six months, throws you closer to the beginning, extends the session, and adds RTX support.
All cloud gaming services have a variety of restrictions based on region, though. Shadow is widely available in Europe and the U.S., but not elsewhere. Stadia is available in 22 countries. Neither is available in Asia, Africa, or South America.
Winner: Stadia. Google’s cloud gaming platform is available in more territories and doesn’t require a subscription. The drawback is that, like any platform, the game you buy can’t be played anywhere else. On the flip side, you can share these games with family members just like you do with Android-based purchases.
It’s clear as mud who wins the Google Stadia versus Shadow showdown. In a strange way, it’s like comparing a remote console with a remote Windows 10 PC.
Shadow takes the lead in controller support, visual quality, game selection, and extra features. It’s hard to compete with the capabilities of a PC, even a remote one. You can install any game, any chat client — anything you want that doesn’t land you in jail. But all this coolness comes at a price that, even at the bottom tier, costs more than Stadia.
Look at it this way. If you wanted to buy Cyberpunk 2077, would you rather make the one $60 purchase and stream it in 1080p for free, or buy it on Steam and then pay another $12 a month to rent a PC just to play it?
Renting a gaming PC, especially at $50 a month, seems a little weird given you’ll never own it. Sure, the graphics will melt your brain, but at the cost, making payments on a PC you actually own and playing on it locally just makes more sense. Shadow seemingly targets gamers who already have a Steam library but want to play those games on mom’s slug of a laptop.
The bottom line here is that cloud gaming, at its roots, targets gamers who don’t want an expensive PC or console. These gamers seemingly want to play on budget laptops and their phones. Both of these services have their advantages and disadvantages, just like the consoles and PCs, only the battle is in the cloud, not in your living room.