After years of build up, testing, and gradually wider and wider releases, it feels like Microsoft are putting the final pieces of the puzzle in place for Xbox Cloud Gaming (formerly Project xCloud) for its full launch. As of a few weeks ago, you can now drop into Xbox games through a web browser on iPhone, iPad and Windows 10, alongside the previously released Android app, and it means that Microsoft could soon reach the vast majority of prospective gamers around the world. We’ve gone hands on with the Xbox Cloud Gaming iOS beta to see how it holds up.
The good news is that getting up and running on Windows and iOS is almost as simple as installing an app. I mean, it’s not quite as obvious and straight forward, but it’s still relatively painless. Once you, as an Xbox Game Pass Ultimate subscriber, receive a beta invite, all you have to do is go to xbox.com/play and log in.
On Windows 10 with Microsoft Edge, that’s all it takes, and you can browse and dive into games from the library, but on iOS, you’ll then be prompted to create a bookmark on your home screen, a siloed web app that (in a slightly annoying fashion) requires you to log in a second time. From there, you can just browse the sizeable library of around 250 titles, pick a game, and play.
Browsing the page feels a little bit more detached and simplified compared to the Xbox Game Pass app on Android or iOS (where you can browse and download games to your console, but cannot play), but it gets the job done and generally feels quite responsive. If you connect a Bluetooth gamepad, which is the recommended way to play these games anyway, you can navigate using the controller, which is much sharper and more intuitive.
You don’t need a Bluetooth controller though. There’s 50 games on Xbox Game Pass that have been enabled for touch controls, each of which has been lightly customised to give you a set of easy to understand icons with with to play the game. For many gamers, it’s muscle memory to press A to jump on a controller, but you don’t have that when prodding at a slab of glass, so the A icon on the screen is accompanied by a little jumping icon to let you know what it does. It’s a neat touch (heh).
Each game has different control needs, though. Basic movement and camera “sticks” and a few touch buttons does fine for Super Lucky’s Tale, but switch to Sea of Thieves, and you then also have separate little “sticks” for emotes and your inventory wheel. The level of customisation here is what makes it possible to have something like Gears 5 part of this service, when it was never designed with smartphone play in mind.
Perhaps one of the best things about Xbox Cloud Gaming as part of the overall Xbox ecosystem, is just how easy it is to take your progress from one system and platform to another. You have a moment’s wait as your save file is loaded from the cloud to whatever you’re playing on, but then that save file from Dirt 5 is carried from your home console and you can pick up where you left off in the career. The only snag here is that, if you’re playing a game on Xbox that’s suspended in Instant On mode or saved in the Series X|S’ Quick Resume, you’ll have to reboot the game to resync your progress.
Xbox Cloud Gaming will all hinge on how well the games feel to play, though. When it works, it works rather well. Sure, the image quality is a bit soft and is clearly an encoded video stream, but there’s a decent level of clarity and the performance is where you’d expect it to be the customised Xbox One S server blades. Just be prepared to squint at miniscule text if you’re on a phone.
The problem is when it doesn’t work, and it’s here that game streaming will fall down for those that aren’t technically minded. The first few days using the service were rocky, to say the least, considering that I have a solid 70Mbps down and 20Mbps up from my fibre connection. The poor connection symbol was my least favourite thing to see, and even playing on Windows 10 with an ethernet connection was basically unplayable.
Thankfully things have since improved (and I’ve rebooted my router a few times, which might have helped). Playing on Windows 10 is smooth and responsive, with only a hint of added input latency. However, in my experience, you have to be connected to 5Ghz if you want to play on iPhone or iPad, and that’s much trickier for average users to get their head around. My standard BT Smart Hub supports dual-band WiFi, and in theory all of my devices can connect to 5Ghz, with a clear line of sight to the router across my living room, but they often revert to 2.4Ghz for some unknowable reason. The only way to guarantee 5Ghz is to separate the WiFi bands into two networks. That’s fine at home, but I doubt your favourite local cafe is going to mess with router settings for you.
There’s also the rather exacting hardware requirements for Apple’s phones and tablets, likely down to the limitations of running the game streaming through iOS’ WebKit browser. You need to have an A12 chipset of better, so that’s 2018’s iPhone XS, XR, iPad Air 3, iPad Mini 5 and equivalent, or newer. My iPhone 8 can only manage a minute or two with smooth gameplay before performance degrades into a stuttering mess. I suspect this might be the A11 chip throttling with high temperatures, or perhaps the now tiny 2GB RAM of the iPhone 8. It might not make logical sense when the phone is “just” playing back video and relaying some Bluetooth controller commands, but there it is.
The caveat to all of this is that Xbox Cloud Gaming is still labelled as a beta. A Microsoft spokesperson told us:
“The Xbox Cloud Gaming limited beta is our time to test and learn, so that we can evaluate feedback and continue to improve the experience. The limited beta today is not representative of the final experience and there may be bugs as we test and learn.”
For now, you should heed the beta tag, but the signs are encouraging. Just beware that your mileage will vary, that you really cannot stray below the hardware requirements on iOS, and that you might have to fiddle with your WiFi router to get a good enough connection.