When Google finally took the wraps off Stadia — the search giant’s massive leap into the games industry — it showcased its next-gen streaming technology on a number of devices.
Former Sony Computer Entertainment president and now Google vice president for Stadia, Phil Harrison, showed the Game Developers Conference 2019 audience and thousands watching on livestream to how easy it would be to switch between playing on a Chromebook, Android smartphone, desktop PC, and a tablet.
This impressive demo was the first moment where Google’s vision for the future of gaming, where almost any hardware can run AAA console games via cloud technology, went beyond just words and vague teasers.
There was just one problem. Of those four devices — a Pixelbook, a Pixel 3 XL, a desktop PC with Stadia running inside Chrome browser, and a Pixel Slate — three represented product categories that continue to thrive. The fourth represents a product family that has been in freefall for years: the tablet.
The tablet market is on life support, with the most recent figures showing continued year-on-year declines. Tablets need a purpose to remain relevant, and Stadia is the opportunity of a lifetime.
A fresh slate
Unlike in the smartphone arena where Android reigns supreme, Apple’s iPad series leads the ailing tablet sector with no genuine competition. This was no more evident than just a few weeks ago when the Cupertino firm rolled out new iPads with no fanfare at all, knowing it’ll still be guaranteed the top spot despite its own falling sales.
Samsung and Huawei have snatched second and third, respectively. While the two tech behemoths do make premium tablets on occasion, the pair are more known for affordable mid-range tablets and even cheaper tablets designed for kids. However, their combined tablet market share is still less than Apple, which holds an iron grip on over a third of the entire sector.
The disparity between the success of Android on phones and its abject failure as a tablet platform is bewildering. Those who’ve already bought an Android tablet are seemingly unwilling to consider buying another, while those who’ve never bought an Android tablet are less interested than ever in taking the plunge — a worryingly dire picture painted by Android Authority readers in a comprehensive poll last year.
Read more: Best Android tablets
Foldable phones like the Galaxy Fold and Mate X could be the final nudge that sees Android tablets falling to their final, inevitable death. Of course we’ve still got a long way to go before the technology becomes mainstream.
Android tablets have failed, but there’s still hope for a new iPad rival from the nascent Chrome OS tablet line.
Chrome OS tablets got off to an inauspicious start early in 2018 with the reveal of the Chromebook Tab 10 — a stylus-toting from Acer designed for the education market. Things improved dramatically with HP’s Chromebook x2 detachable laptop, but it was largely ignored by consumers.
That all changed with the big reveal of the Google Pixel Slate, but for all the wrong reasons.
The Pixel Slate was and still is an overpriced, underwhelming addition to Google’s otherwise stellar Made by Google entourage.
To make matters worse, the Celeron version, which may have been quietly retired, suffered from unacceptable performance issues and further tainted the Pixel Slate as yet another poor attempt at an iPad competitor (in this case the iPad Pro).
Reports have since surfaced that Google is putting the brakes on its tablet and laptop divisions, but there’s still hope for Chrome OS tablets even if Google backs out on making hardware. Silicon giants Qualcomm and MediaTek are allegedly both preparing for an upcoming wave of Chrome OS tablets and laptops.
Yet, if future Chrome OS tablets are to make any headway they’ll need something special to convince people to buy in over the ubiquitous iPad. Enter Stadia.
Standing out from the crowd
While there are plenty of burning questions still to be answered, Stadia is a phenomenal concept that could be the game streaming service many players have been hoping for.
Google says Stadia will be capable of delivering a gaming experience more powerful than any current console, anytime, anywhere. Internet restrictions will apply of course, but the idea is that you’ll be able to stream in up to 4K at 60fps across multiple platforms with all the necessary processing grunt provided by super-powered remote PCs.
Based on Google’s GDC briefing, Stadia could come to any device that supports Chrome browser, but it’s been coy on compatibility so far. Whatever the case, Google’s demo at GDC suggests that Stadia will find a home on Chrome OS tablets like the Pixel Slate.
With the need for high-end hardware effectively removed through cloud technology, Chrome OS tablets from all price brackets could feasibly run top-end console games via Stadia. In theory, a $99 tablet bought for your kids could run Assassin’s Creed Odyssey just as well as a PS4.
This would make gaming a key selling point for Chrome OS tablets across all price brackets, giving them an edge over Apple’s premium-or-nothing iPad range. Likewise, while Apple Arcade may have come as something of a curveball, nothing we saw of Apple’s game subscription service suggested the exclusive games on offer would be on par with AAA console games. Plus, if you want to play mobile games on a Chrome OS tablet you can thanks to the Google Play Store and Android app support.
Related: The best Android apps for Chromebooks you can install right now
Looking beyond Apple, Chrome OS tablets with Stadia could well take on the current king of portable gaming — the Nintendo Switch.
Nintendo’s home-handheld-hybrid console has sold gangbusters and has a stellar game library. Yet in terms of performance and visual fidelity the Switch lags well behind other consoles, not to mention high-end PCs.
Even with rumors heating up that an upgraded Switch model may be on the way, the raw processing power is very unlikely to match what Stadia can offer on a tablet even half its price. That’s without even touching on the Switch’s 720p display and mediocre battery.
Unlike Switch-aping gaming phones that rely on the Google Play Store game library, Stadia also looks set to bring a bunch of AAA publishers on board. We’ve already seen Ubisoft and Bethesda commit to the service, with the latter showing off Doom: Eternal at GDC. The sequel to the 2016 Doom reboot is also on its way to Switch, albeit with expected downgrades like its predecessor. That won’t be the case on Stadia which can apparently run the same game in 4K with HDR at 60fps on any device.
The huge caveat is Stadia’s internet connection requirement, which greatly limits its scope as the go-to portable platform. This will become less of an issue when 5G finally begins rolling out, but even then the price of a 5G data plan on top of Stadia’s currently unknown costs could price some potential buyers out of the market.
Chrome OS tablets with Stadia do have an ace in the hole over gaming devices, though, and that’s Chrome OS itself — an agile, cloud-based, desktop ecosystem for work, play, and pretty much anything in between. Why carry a Switch and a laptop when you could just pack a tablet and do everything on a single device?
Google needs to up its own game.
This all relies on better tablet hardware and Chrome OS is far more suited to the form factor than Android in its current state. The market may become even more muddied when foldable phones inevitably drop in price, but Google’s awful track record when attempting to turn Android into a workable tablet platform doesn’t fill me with much confidence.
If Android does become a viable phone-tablet-hybrid OS — and there are at least some positive signs starting to show with desktop mode in early Android Q builds — it could still be several years before foldable phones become mainstream. In addition, foldable phones will always be restricted when it comes to display size with the need to be both a reasonably-sized phone and a large enough tablet. Meanwhile the Pixel Slate, despite all its flaws, has a gorgeous 12.3-inch Molecular Display that’s prime for playing top-end games.
What Chrome OS tablets need is a hook and Stadia is the perfect bait. But, if Google wants tablets to be the fourth pillar for its gaming aspirations, it’ll first need to up its own game and help make the dream of a legitimate iPad rival a reality.
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