Microsoft has started publicly testing its new Project xCloud game streaming service, allowing Xbox players the US, UK, and Korea to get an early look at Microsoft’s vision for the future of gaming. I’ve spent the past few hours trying out xCloud on my home Wi-Fi network in London over a 1Gbps connection with an average latency of around 10ms to Microsoft’s Azure servers in London. I’m impressed with the early results, but there needs to be a much bigger game selection to really test the limits of xCloud and see what it’s actually capable of.
Microsoft has limited the xCloud preview to just four games initially, and they’re all Microsoft Studios titles. Gears 5, Halo 5: Guardians, Killer Instinct, and Sea of Thieves are all available, and I spent the most time in Sea of Thieves. The preview requires an Android phone or tablet, a Bluetooth Xbox One controller, and Microsoft’s new game streaming app. This particular application will be used both for xCloud streaming from Microsoft’s servers, and to stream your own content and games from your Xbox One console to anywhere.
The xCloud interface is extremely basic right now, with tiles to launch the games available. It takes around a minute or so to fully load each game, which feels like a long time on a mobile phone where you’re used to apps loading instantly. Once a game is loaded, you can navigate away to other apps and quickly resume. There’s an option to quit the game, but when you do it’ll still keep the instance running on Microsoft’s servers for a few minutes just in case you want to jump back in.
As you’re running games on Microsoft’s cloud servers, it’s basically like having a remote Xbox One console. Microsoft has a stripped down version of its Xbox One dashboard running on these xCloud servers, and you can use it to access a friends list, join Xbox Live party chat, or even view achievements for the game you’re playing. You can’t jump into other apps, or play around with settings here, it’s really basic and locked down for now.
I tested out Xbox Live party chat and it worked well, although microphones are muted by default so you have to toggle that setting if you want to use a mic in games like Sea of Thieves or party chat. That’s pretty much it when it comes to customizability or settings, though.
I had a mixed experience streaming games via xCloud. I loaded Sea of Thieves and the intro video stuttered, broke up, and the audio dipped in and out. xCloud doesn’t appear to play well with my 2.4GHz Wi-Fi network, and my router automatically handles either 2.4GHz or a 5GHz connection over the same SSID. I forced it over to the 5GHz option as a separate SSID, and this greatly improved things, but I’ve never experienced similar issues streaming content from Netflix in 4K or via other services.
Sea of Thieves ran really well after the initial connection issues. I was able to complete a mission, voice chat with fellow players, and roam around freely just like I would on a regular Xbox One console. Sea of Thieves isn’t a twitchy action game that requires a lot of movement and control, though. For a multiplayer gaming experiment, I decided to try Halo 5’s player-vs-player (PvP) mode. It’s not as fast paced as games like Overwatch or Fortnite, but it was a chance to test a first-person shooter.
I played a few rounds of quick play, and I definitely noticed input lag from time to time. It wasn’t extreme, but you could certainly tell there was a slight delay in movement speed or responses. I would be interested to test xCloud with something like Overwatch, but the testing is rather limited right now.
The biggest drawback to the xCloud experience right now is simply load times for games. Microsoft is using Xbox One S hardware on its servers, so it’s only as fast as a Xbox One would load the game via its regular hard drive. This is great for game compatibility, but I’d expect Microsoft will upgrade its xCloud servers to the new Xbox Project Scarlett specs once that console launches next year. Scarlett will dramatically improve load speeds thanks to SSD storage and a more capable CPU.
Another drawback is that this is limited to Android during this initial preview period. Microsoft has not mentioned or even demonstrated iOS compatibility yet, despite Apple providing PS4 and Xbox One controller support in iOS 13 recently. This support has already turned the iPad into a portable game console for titles like Fortnite, and with the addition of xCloud it would really open up the amount of games you could play on the go.
You also can’t use xCloud if you’re signed into an Xbox One console and it’s in use. So if your family is watching Netflix using your Microsoft Account on a physical console then xCloud will require you to log out of the console or turn it off to be able to stream games from Microsoft’s cloud. It’s a bizarre requirement, and hopefully it’s just a limitation of this early preview.
If you’re interested in trying xCloud for yourself, I’d highly recommend some type of mount for the phone and Xbox One controller combo. Trying to prop up a slippery phone isn’t ideal, and a clip or mount system removes that headache. You’ll definitely need an Xbox One controller, too, as Microsoft hasn’t implemented any touch controls for games just yet.
Project xCloud invites are rolling out in waves, and you can sign up to test Microsoft’s cloud gaming service right here.