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Stadia finally launches on LG TVs, shows off the greatness that could’ve been

Enlarge / The official Stadia Controller in “clearly white.”

In arguably the first good news for Stadia in 2021, Google’s beleaguered game-streaming service has finally landed on a single company’s TVs—and only those manufactured in 2020 and beyond.

That’s not necessarily a reason to strike up the band and throw a “Stadia is back” party (especially without any exclusive Stadia games on the horizon.) But the gaming service’s arrival on modern LG televisions late Tuesday is still fascinating, mostly because of how neatly and seamlessly it works. The results make me wonder how much better the Stadia story might have turned out if app support like this had been in place from the start.

Got any extra-long USB cables lying around?

Since its limited November 2019 launch, Google’s Stadia service has been added to many platforms, including laptops and desktops, Android and iOS devices, and Google TV-branded streaming devices. But smart TV support has been scattershot, with popular device families like Amazon Fire, Roku, and Apple TV missing out on Stadia. There has also been a lack of built-in smart TV support from major manufacturers like Samsung and LG. (It’s worth noting that Amazon Luna and Apple Arcade compete as subscription-based gaming services.)

Tuesday’s Stadia release on LG TVs brings Google’s gaming app to any set that supports “webOS 5.0 and above,” and it follows an announcement from LG earlier this year at CES that pledged some form of Stadia on LG sets in the “second half of 2021.” The first week of December technically hits that deadline.

My own LG CX, manufactured in 2020, meets LG’s OS requirements, so I took the simple steps of accessing LG’s app store, downloading Stadia to my TV, and booting the service up. The app’s introductory screen directs users to either create a new account on a web browser or enter existing Stadia credentials via remote control. It then displays instructions for connecting a gamepad to an LG TV—which may not be elegant, depending on your set.

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LG’s 2021 sets include Bluetooth support, but the 2020 ones don’t. That left me with the option of either dusting off my existing Stadia Controller or grabbing a long USB cable, plugging it into my TV’s open USB port on its backside, and physically connecting my spare Xbox or PlayStation gamepads. (Stadia’s instructions said that I could toggle the Stadia app on my phone and then wirelessly connect my gamepad to the phone while also playing on the TV, since they’re all connected to the same cloud server. While that’s a welcome stopgap solution, it sure isn’t elegant.)

Enlarge / This dated screen of Stadia’s interface continues to resemble what you can expect from the new smart TV implementation on LG TVs. And yes, that means navigating through menus to find the all-important “link code” for official Stadia Controllers.

Any wired gamepad will be recognized when you exit and reenter the app. Unfortunately, Stadia Controller users will always need to use the TV’s remote to start the app and pick their account, then enter a special four-button code on the gamepad to link it to your session. Unlike on Chromecast and Google TV, the current version of LG’s Stadia app doesn’t put that gamepad code on the main screen. Every time you start Stadia on LG TVs, you must either use your remote to find the “controllers” option tab or write your previous shortcut code down and hope it doesn’t change. Assuming anyone on the Stadia engineering team is still employed and listening, can you fix this?

Surprisingly responsive and twitchy, with caveats

That’s truly my only quibble thus far with Stadia on LG TVs, beyond its generally long startup time. Using a hardwired Ethernet connection to Comcast in Seattle (280 Mbps down, 12 Mbps up), I found that Stadia’s in-game performance was nearly everything I’d hoped for. In fact, I’d argue this new implementation delivers snappier button taps and sharper in-game visuals than I was able to get out of the Chromecast Ultra hardware that came with my Stadia Controller.

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This is partly due to my $10/month Stadia Pro account, which unlocks a maximum 4K resolution, HDR tone-mapping metadata, and 5.1 surround sound compatibility on LG’s app. (The subscription also offers a healthy selection of unlocked games, which are available while the subscription is active, much like PlayStation Plus.) Stadia’s maximum power is lower than what’s seen on both Xbox Game Pass Ultimate (whose servers provide, at best, Xbox Series X-level performance) and Nvidia GeForce Now’s “3080” tier. But playing a modern 3D game like Control or Dirt 5 on Stadia still provides visuals that mimic a powerful gaming PC from, say, 2018—and the app neatly translates Stadia’s “medium” specs to provide comfortable cloud gaming.

For input latency tests, I bounced through the twitchy, responsive platformer Celeste, then aimed precise shots in the Windjammers-like throwback sports game Gunsport. Both held up impressively, in spite of so much inherent server-based lag, usually with what felt like near-instantaneous response. The system arguably gets a boost from running as an app on an LG set, complete with automatic “game mode” toggles apparently applied to limit any issues with image processing. The previously mentioned 3D games struggled a bit more, mostly by dropping a few frames here and there. But they also had the kind of button-tap responsiveness that almost made it feel like I was playing on home hardware. Destiny 2, in particular, felt quite good as I fired my favorite guns and activated superpowers with accurate, responsive aim.

Sadly, none of the 3D games I tested offered pure “4K” signals; most looked to be somewhere closer to 1440p—which, to be fair, is comparable to what you get with the Xbox One X and PlayStation 4 Pro. And like those consoles, Stadia on LG TVs puts out color and luminance that matches the HDR-10 standard and is compatible with 5.1 surround sound. That goes a long way to making Stadia’s 3D games look and feel modern. Once you enter the high-speed twitchiness of fare like Doom Eternal, Stadia’s server-based structure can still provide a very good connection, but even on the otherwise solid LG TV implementation, Doom Eternal can’t deliver the same “wow” factor that Halo Infinite currently does on Xbox Game Streaming.

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Google’s product-killing nature notwithstanding

But Stadia is currently the best game-streaming option on LG TVs… until GeForce Now exits its beta phase on select LG TVs, at least. What’s more, this new app fulfills the connectivity dream that Stadia promised from the start: Turn on your TV, connect your preferred gamepad, start the app, and your entire gaming library just works.

With that in mind, paying $10 per month to reliably access a selection of games—and then eventually warming up to the service enough to pay full retail prices for additional games—doesn’t seem so crazy. If the Stadia team had nailed such support for other manufacturers’ devices at the outside, Stadia might be in a very different place at this point in 2021, Google’s product-killing nature notwithstanding. That missed-opportunity feeling grows when I consider that the service finally offers a mix of free-to-play games and limited-time trials, thus giving brand-new users more ways to decide whether Stadia makes sense as a streaming alternative to buying a PC or console outright.

But while Stadia continues receiving new game launches from third-party supporters, such launches have dwindled significantly in the past year, thanks largely to underwhelming revenue for participating game makers. And even for those players showing up late to the Stadia party, it’s unclear whether something like a native LG TV app will successfully run any repackaged Stadia configurations in the future or whether Google may soon strand Stadia users on whatever app or device they currently use.