- Google’s ambitious new Stadia video game platform is getting a lot of attention this week, following its troubled launch.
- There’s a lot to like about the idea behind Stadia: It allows you to play major video games like “Destiny 2” and “Mortal Kombat 11” across any phone, TV, or tablet.
- But if you own one of the 100 million-plus PlayStation 4 consoles out there, you may or may not already know about Remote Play – a feature that lets you stream any PlayStation 4 game to PC, Mac, iPhone, iPad, Android, or even the PlayStation Vita handheld console.
- Remote Play isn’t quite as elegant or future-looking as Google Stadia. But it’s also a completely free feature built into every single PlayStation 4.
- Microsoft is working on its own Project xCloud service, which will go head-to-head with Stadia, as well as Console Streaming, which will let you stream Xbox One games to a phone or tablet just like Sony’s Remote Play. In other words, stay tuned, because the space is heating up.
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If you’re reading this, there’s a pretty solid chance that you own a PlayStation 4. Earlier this year, Sony disclosed that it has sold 100 million units of the console, far outstripping the Microsoft Xbox One and Nintendo Switch.
The latest challenger to Sony’s dominance of the market is Google Stadia, an ambitious cloud gaming service that requires no console at all – just an internet connection. While Stadia is missing several key features as of its launch this week, the promise is that you’ll be able to play the same game on your TV, your computer, and even your phone.
It sounds great, especially for people like myself who don’t get a ton of time in front of the TV, but still want to play the latest and greatest big-ticket video games. At launch, the Stadia lineup includes recent hits like “Mortal Kombat 11” and “Red Dead Redemption 2,” with the promise of more to come.
On paper, that sounds great. But before you commit, I urge you to consider that every single one of those PlayStation 4 consoles on the market has Remote Play, a feature built right in that might actually deliver on most of what you want out of a service like Stadia – especially given that Stadia isn’t quite ready for prime-time.
There are definitely reasons to believe in the vision that Google (and Microsoft, which is previewing its own similar service, xCloud) is pitching, where all games – including multiplayer twitch-fests like Stadia launch title “Destiny 2” – will be playable from anywhere, in glorious 4K resolution.
If all you really want is to get a little bit further in “Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order” while you visit your family for the holidays, though, I urge you to take a look at Remote Play, which works with the PlayStation 4 you very possibly might already have. And if you don’t have one, it will cost $US199 on Black Friday, bundled with three top-tier games.
And, just to reiterate, Remote Play is totally free.
Meet Remote Play
Remote Play lets you stream gameplay from your PS4 console to a PC, Mac, iPhone, Android device, or even Sony’s portable PlayStation Vita console, for the relative few who have one. I’ve been using it to split my free time between “God of War” and “Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order,” and it’s worked great.
Remote Play is decidedly not new – the PlayStation 3 had an early version of the feature, and the PS4 got it in 2014 before adding PC and Mac support in 2016 – but 2019 is the year it had a huge breakthrough and became way more useful.
This year, Sony launched Remote Play apps for the iPhone and iPad, and expanded the Android app to work on all phones (originally, it only worked on a handful of Sony-made models).
It turned out to be really good timing: The newest version of Apple’s iPhone and iPad operating systems includes support for PlayStation 4 controllers to connect via Bluetooth. Before that update, you could use touch controls to simulate a PlayStation 4 controller on the screen, but, uh, I wouldn’t recommend playing “Destiny 2” that way.
Activating the Remote Play app literally turns on your PlayStation 4 and streams the video to your phone, rather than the TV. With decent WiFi at home and wherever you play, and a $US10 clip to attach a controller to your phone – readily purchasable on Amazon and elsewhere – you basically have a portable PlayStation 4, wherever you go.
I won’t pretend that you’ll get the same experience on a tiny iPhone screen as you will on your gigantic 4K TV at home, but I will say that speaking personally, it’s been really nice to play a little “Jedi: Fallen Order” or “God of War” on my iPad while we watch Netflix on the TV.
And, oh yeah, did I mention yet that it’s free?
A little clunky
Remote Play is a little clunky in my experience: You’re literally controlling your physical console, and it wasn’t necessarily designed for this new era of streaming.
If you’re on vacation, and you want to play “Spider-Man” when “Horizon Zero Dawn” is what you left in the PS4 disc drive, well, you’re out of luck. Another limitation: You need to have WiFi; it won’t work over a cellular connection.
And there’s one particular oddity: When you connect a PlayStation 4 controller to an iPhone or iPad, the centre touchpad doesn’t work. The Remote Play app lets you use a virtual touchpad on the screen, which is fine for games like “Jedi” that only use the button to bring up the map, but I wouldn’t recommend it for the very few PS4 games that make heavy use of the button
Anyway, this is where Stadia starts to look a little better, or at least a little more elegant, by comparison: Because there is no physical console, you can play whatever games you have in your library always, at all times. There are no discs, and nothing to install – that’s the whole point, after all.
You can stop playing on the TV, and pick it right back up where you left off on your phone. The Stadia controller that comes with the $US129 launch kit is designed for its games. Google also promises Stadia gameplay in ultra-HD 4K resolution when streaming to devices that support it. And, in a huge boon for road warriors, it works over a cellular connection, provided that connection is 10 mbps or faster.
At launch, it only supports the Chromecast Ultra streaming dongle, Mac, PC, and most of Google’s own Pixel smartphones, but it promises to expand further and support the same platforms as Remote Play in the future.
Stadia has drawbacks
I’d say that Remote Play with the PlayStation 4 you may already own is a smarter bet than Stadia, at least right at this moment in time.
First and foremost, the PlayStation 4 has way more games, period. There’s no word on if “Jedi: Fallen Order” will come to Stadia at all, and Sony will presumably continue to keep console-exclusive franchises like “God of War” and “The Last Of Us” all to itself. Meanwhile, every single Stadia game, with the exception of the platform-exclusive “Gylt,” is also available on the PS4.
Second off, while the Stadia supports playing games on a TV by way of a Chromecast Ultra streaming dongle, the PlayStation 4 was literally built for this purpose. While you may have the odd spat of latency playing PS4 games via Remote Play from your phone or PC, the experience of playing on that nice big TV is as pleasant as it ever was.
And, finally, there’s the question of Google’s commitment to Stadia. The PlayStation 4 hit the market in 2013, and the PlayStation 5 is already confirmed to drop in 2020. Stadia, meanwhile, is Google’s first real foray into the video game business, and, well, the company isn’t exactly known for its long-term commitment to new products.
Ultimately, I’d feel better dropping $US60 for a PlayStation 4 game than I would buying the same game on Stadia for the same price.
Looking to the future
Both Sony’s Remote Play and Google Stadia are hardly the only ones of their kind.
The Nintendo Switch, rather than rely on streaming, is easy to detach from the TV and take with you, which has the unique advantage of working when you’re on an aeroplane or otherwise out of a coverage area.
Steam, the PC video game storefront, offers its own take on the Remote Play concept. Microsoft, too, lets you similarly stream Xbox One gameplay to a Windows 10 PC – with the caveat that both devices have to be on the same local network.
Speaking of Microsoft, its now-in-beta Project xCloud service is one to watch.
Like Stadia, xCloud promises to allow gamers to play Xbox titles on any device, from the console to PCs to phones, thanks to the magic of streaming. Relatedly, Microsoft is slowly rolling out a feature called Console Streaming, which will allow users to play their home Xbox One via their smartphones. It might even have an edge over PS4 Remote Play, given that Microsoft promises that both xCloud and Console Streaming will work over 4G LTE.
This seems to indicate that, depending on pricing and availability and all kinds of other little details, Microsoft has a chance to strike a balance between Sony’s approach and Google’s: It could be as forward-looking as Stadia in design, but still offer that optimised experience for when you’re just sitting on your couch.
Either way, it’s a minor miracle that any of this works at all, let alone that the notion of playing big-ticket Xbox and PlayStation-quality games on your phone is slowly becoming mainstream. My only real note of caution here is to wait for the cloud gaming scene to shake out a little bit before you make any big investment in one platform or another.
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