A fair few months after we first uncovered the feature, Google has added “Phone Link” to Stadia, allowing you to play games using your smartphone as a gamepad on your Chromecast, Android TV devices, and through a web browser.
Because gamepads come in so many shapes and sizes, finding one that suits you and your playstyle is always a minefield. You might even have some legacy controllers that you want to use. Stadia on PC and Mac is great for this, as you can just connect USB or even old school PS/2 peripherals and, in most cases, things will work just fine.
It’s a little harder when you want to move away from your laptop or PC and take your gaming directly to a TV either using the dedicated Stadia Android TV app or via Chromecast Ultra. The brand new Stadia “Phone Link” feature provides an opportunity to “bridge” devices and connect all of your controllers that are unable to connect via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth.
Alternatively, you can use your Android or iOS phone or tablet as a gamepad. For those with an iOS device, it’s worth noting that you’ll need to use the dedicated app from the App Store rather than the PWA that lets you actively play Stadia on your device. This is another nice bonus for a service that lets you just use what you already have rather than needing to go out and buy more hardware to get gaming.
Phone Link: How well does it work?
As we noted, you can just use your smartphone as a gamepad using Stadia Phone Link. However, the real value in this feature addition is the ability to connect otherwise unsupported gamepads to your phone, then, using that bridge feature, to your Android TV/Google TV or Chromecast Ultra hardware. Update: It’s worth noting that in our testing keyboard and mouse support is not available.
Those worried it would be a complicated process need not worry. Connecting is really simple and follows the same method used to connect a dedicated Stadia controller. Hit the “controller” icon in the Stadia app and you’ll notice “Phone touch gamepad” is already connected. Tapping this will launch a new menu confirming that you can use your phone as a “virtual controller” to “play on any screen.” Plug in the pairing/linking code using the on-screen controls, and you’ll be connected to a local session on TV or web — provided you’re on the same Wi-Fi network.
Stadia Phone Link’s piece de resistance is that aforementioned bridge mode as with this, the game streaming platform will recognize any controllers connected directly to your smartphone. You’re able to connect a gamepad via Bluetooth or wired connection. Once the controller is connected, the on-screen controls disappear. In place of these you’ll see a “Playing on TV” warning screen that appears to reiterate that you need to keep the app open for the feature to work correctly.
Now there are some downsides here, as if you connect an external gamepad, despite the fact that you’re not technically using your phone’s on-screen controls, you need to keep the Stadia app open for as long as you are playing. Opening another app or locking your device will abruptly stop or break any pre-configured connection. We’d also like to add that with USB-A to USB-C adapters you can connect all kinds of peripherals, but it’s a bit of a lottery as to what will actually work using this method. On top of that, this creates a bit of a “Frankenrig” that seems as ridiculous as it looks but it’s still a useful capability to have for a cloud gaming platform.
I also noticed a few issues here and there that appeared for a few days during my testing period. The on-screen controls as part of the Phone Link feature are pretty much flawless, but sometimes Stadia would not recognize a bridged controller input. For instance, I played mainly using the Xbox One and Switch Pro controllers connected to my Chromecast Ultra.
Once I launched a game, I could play with no issues and it was basically flawless. Other times I could navigate in-game and Stadia interfaces — including side-menus and friends lists — but only the direction pad or analog stick input would work. Pressing action buttons or trying to launch a game proved impossible.
In those cases, I had to just switch back to using the on-screen controls to continue playing or initiate the launch sequence then reconnect the gamepad. I found this to be the biggest frustration, as when this feature works it’s pretty darn good. Latency seemed to be just fine and I could play with practically zero other issues.
There are the obvious battery constraints here too. Keeping your phone unlocked and with the screen on taxes the battery substantially – even if you’re not using the phone itself to play a game. I would leave my phone near a charger for longer gaming sessions. Being able to use multiple controllers with the Chromecast Ultra was a nice bonus, and a worthwhile new feature despite some shortcomings and issues. Admittedly, most of the time it’s easier to connect directly to the Chromecast or Android TV device.
Google has a very handy support center page for Phone Link that answers tons of questions about controller limitations and just what can and can’t be done using the feature that is well worth a look.
Why “Phone Link” is useful for Google Stadia
Using your phone screen as a controller isn’t going to cut it for most 3D games, simply because without tactile controls, it lacks the precision as a dedicated gamepad. But, if you have a friend over and just want to play a few games and don’t have enough controllers on hand it’s nice to be able to still have access to couch co-op/multi-player.
Then, there’s the ability to use third-party controllers with the Chromecast Ultra or use non-Bluetooth gamepads with Chromecast with Google TV or Android TV. Plugging into your smartphone means you don’t need to worry about long cables sticking out the back of your TV, but you can still use a wired controller bridged via your smartphone. It’s an imperfect scenario, but in practice, it seems to work well and could really hammer home the “use what you have” messaging that Google should really put more front and center.
Phone Link isn’t a killer feature for Stadia, but it’s a great addition that those with the Chromecast Ultra will love.
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