*Foreword – As this service is currently in beta, I don’t feel it is fair to consider this piece a review. Instead think of this as a first look and early impressions. Microsoft also prohibits recording of any footage in terms of service for project xCloud whilst in the testing phase.
In 2018 Microsoft announced Project xCloud, its cloud gaming service. xCloud formally entered public testing following extensive demo’s at E3 2019. Anybody can choose to participate in the public beta of xCloud by registering with Microsoft. Until this week, the public beta required an Android phone or tablet. iOS is now supported as part of Microsoft’s public beta albeit in a limited capacity (we’ll discuss this later).
How it works
The architecture that supports xCloud is based around Microsofts Azure cloud computing facilities. These are hosted in 140 countries and the service is designed to work with phones and tablets with touchscreen controls or alternatively (and ideally) an Xbox Bluetooth controller.
Initial trials began in October 2019 and currently over 50 titles are available on Android test devices. Whilst iOS was supported as of February 11th 2020, only one title is currently available to test on iOS, Halo: The Master Chief Collection. My testing was on Android and it was not possible to conduct testing on iOS at the time of writing. Only 10,000 places in the iOS test were made available but I’ll update this article if and when I am able to test on iOS.
After registering for the open beta, you will be required to download a companion app. The app will verify that you have access to either 5Ghz WiFi or a mobile data connection with 10Mbps download speed and a paired Bluetooth Xbox gaming controller.
I tested project xCloud primarily on a middle of the road Android phone to see if device specs significantly impact performance (they didn’t). The device I used was a Sony Xperia 1. The primary factor that affects performance is the quality of internet connection. I consistently found that performance was more stable with less lag on WiFi. My WiFi is 120Mbps. By contrast the typical mobile data speed with my carrier is around 15-20Mbps. The connection speed also influenced the resolution. The images looked equivalent to sub 720p but above 480p on mobile data but actually looked better than the 720p technical limit stated by Microsoft when on WiFi.
My biggest criticism of the service so far is that for faster paced titles such as Devil May Cry 5, input lag started to creep in, particularly on mobile data. The resolution tended to hold up very well with images looking sharp and detailed on a mobile display. I haven’t yet tested Stadia to compare but from third party testing of Stadia I have observed online, the input lag with xCloud is consistent with Stadia. It is important to remind ourselves that at this stage, the service is very much in beta and early testing so it would not be a truly fare comparison to a service like Stadia that already ships.
Microsoft has a few clear advantages compared to Stadia. Perhaps the most important one is the number of titles available. Microsoft already has 50 titles running in xCloud, far exceeding Stadia. Better still is that progress carrier over to the version of the game running on your Xbox console or Windows PC including achievements. This advantage is likely to become even more prominent as additional titles will be rapidly added once the service is signed off as ready for consumers.
I found that the general quality of streaming was very smooth. Yes I had occasional connection dropouts but one notable positive is how fast games launch. In my testing games launched in most cases faster than my actual console! This reduces the inconvenience of the odd connection drop out at least in part. I have every faith that Microsoft will continue to work on the back end servers that make xCloud work. I am concerned at how the servers will cope once the service opens to the wider gaming community. Will it handle dramatically increased demand? That remains to be seen.
From a technical stand point, it is worth noting that Microsoft has built xCloud from the technical stand point of an Xbox One S. That means no 4K support and no mention of HDR. If you happen to have a mobile phone or tablet that supports HDR, then you will see little benefit from that fancy display tech. Microsoft doesn’t see xCloud as replacement for the console however. My view is that this is an attempt to offer mobile gaming in a convenient way on the widest range of hardware without the need for a dedicated hand held console.
I think xCloud has real potential. People like the idea of console quality gaming on the go as has been seen with the success of the Nintendo Switch. Unlike the switch, xCloud is reliant on internet connectivity and so does not have the advantage of gaming true ‘console gaming’ anywhere unless you have said internet connection. The stability seems acceptable, more than acceptable in this early testing phase. Hopefully Microsoft’s back end tech will continue to improve to ensure the final product is polished and handles the inevitable demand.
Microsoft sells a smartphone clip for the Xbox One Bluetooth wireless controller to make gaming on the go easier and more enjoyable. You can find it for $14.99 US in the link below and it is available to order in other currencies.